'Fat Stigma' is Spreading; What Can We Do?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
By Beth Donovan (~INDYGIRL)

The stigma of being overweight or of “Being a fatty” is growing globally, according to a recent blog post in the New York Times. Whereas once, a heavier weight represented wealth and the ability to have healthy children, it now represents laziness and sloth to many.

Parents were quoted as saying they would rather have their children be anorexic than overweight. To me, an eating disorder is an eating disorder. Why is one where you don't eat more socially acceptable than one where you do?

I do have a theory. It is still socially acceptable to make fun of a heavy person, but make fun of someone’s gender or skin color and there would be fallout. Why? "Fatty" chose to be that way, right? Wrong.

There are so many reasons people are heavy, but generally “I want to be fat” is not one of them. Genetics can play a part, and so can biology, psychology, environment, and just plain old lack of exercise and proper diet. It is never just a simple fix or a choice to just “be thin.”

While many are not “born heavy,” I believe the sentiments in the following song apply to everyone, big or small. To quote Lady Gaga:

““There's nothin wrong with lovin who you are"
She said, "'cause He made you perfect, babe"
"So hold your head up girl and you'll go far,
Listen to me when I say"
I'm beautiful in my way
'Cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track baby
I was born this way
Don't hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you're set
I'm on the right track baby
I was born this way.”

Heavy people are not weak; many diet practically every day of their lives. They may fall off the wagon every day, but they still get back up. They get teased in public by strangers, berated by loved ones in private, have foods pushed on them and then get a talking-to about being on a diet. They get passed up for jobs and promotions, as proven in many research studies. They are not weak. They take a lot and keep going every single day.

Pain is also a side effect of being heavy. This is just another reason most people do not want to be heavy and struggle against it. It’s also a reason the general populous considers heavier people to be lazy. It isn’t that they are lazy, it takes more energy to move a bigger body and when pain is involved, it takes more fortitude than anyone without that extra weight, pain, or lack of energy can imagine. This makes it even harder to lose weight.

I’m not trying to make excuses here, I’m trying to give you a glimpse from the other side. WHY would someone choose to be fat? Some people do choose to be overweight. It is a choice and one with some very dire consequences. Just the same, there should be no stigma attached. I’m not going to attempt to explain the lifestyle of some who choose to become as big as they possibly can and have people who enable them purposefully with the same goal. Just know this lifestyle does exist. It is not a healthy choice, but it is a choice--one with a short life span and many health complications.

Life is hard enough without finding different segments of people to belittle.

Here are 5 tips to combat thoughtlessness:

  1. When you meet a heavy person, treat them the same as anyone else. If they move slowly, consider they may be in extra pain depending on their size. If they need to sit down, don’t assume they are lazy.

  2. If you see someone of size while you’re out, don’t snicker, laugh or take pictures with your camera phone. If they are like me, they will call you on it in public. I believe in politely correcting people’s rudeness so they think twice next time.

  3. Don’t let your child make fun of a heavy person without correcting them, apologizing, and explaining that that person has feelings, too. I generally will explain to a child that they hurt my feelings if the parent does nothing, because I feel there is a chance of changing the child’s attitude.

  4. Don’t treat heavy people like we are invisible. We are more than visible. Look at us and listen to our ideas. I hate being at cosmetic counters… when they wait on everyone EXCEPT me. I know they see me.

  5. Never EVER make fun of your child's or another family member’s weight. The scars you leave are invisible but deeper than you know.

With the global spread of the dislike of the overweight, there is more pressure than ever to lose weight and be healthy. Change can come from pressure, but most often it will come from that place deep inside of you that just gives in. When you hit rock bottom and start to realize you have to take those baby steps and work on the things you can do for the rest of your life.

If you have read this, you realize by now that by being overweight in the first place, you are stronger. You have dealt with diets, exercise programs, teasing, bias, and you are still here. Take that strength and run with it!

How do you fight fat stigma?

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There's Fat stigma right here on SP. I contend that a percentage on SP would rather an anorexic child than a fat child.
On this very site, I have seen "motivational" posters that were taken straight from the anorexic's bible. There is nothing about anorexia that screams 'I want a healthy lifestyle' - so what the heck is that poster doing on SP? Not only here, but it was voted as a popular blog. When I see in the message boards - 'nothing tastes as good as skinny feels'... where the heck is the 'healthy' in that? People don't care about health as much as they do about not being fat.
I think in order to fight fat stigma and be successful - fat people would have to learn to love themselves first (fat and all) before they will demand better treatment. Fat people have always been poorly treated in this country there is no outcry. Ive come across so many people who feel they deserve to be treated poorly, and Ive felt this way myself - and it boils down to not feeling good about ourselves, therefore - why would anyone stand against fat hate, fat shaming and fat discrimination? Fat people are so used to being told who they are - that at times they fight for it. And anyone who stands outside of this idea, is treated as a demon of some sort.
How dare you love yourself when you are fat?
How dare you?
You cant love yourself - you're fat.
You shouldn't love yourself - you're fat.
Ive seen these ideas on SP more often than I'd like.
In this society, it's much more about being skinny than healthy, it's much more about being *anything* but fat.
you have to fight against your weight, and fight against society's idea of you for it.

Thanks for your blog, it think it hits on a spot that no one really talks about, or thinks that they don't need to talk about in a place like SP, and that could not be further from the truth. Report
I was never heavy until I got sick and had to go on medication that makes you gain weight. So it was either be heavy or maybe be dead. I choose to live. I have worked very hard to get down to a decent weight, my health is better and I am off of most of my medications. I took 18 different meds at one time, now I am down to 5. Being heavy was not fun, couldn't buy a decent bra or clothes that fit well. I was so jazzed the day I could walk into a Target, Walmart or Kmart and buy a bra off of the rack for under $10. When I was heavy my bra's cost over $100 a piece. ouch Report
I was never the one who found it was funny to tease a person for their differences. My mother always told me to treat people the way I wanted to be treated. If you find yourself being belittle because of your weight it makes you feel small inside were it grows into something ugly about yourself. I know that it makes me feel ugly about myself. But now I'm not going to let, what someone elses mess, stop me from loving me. Report
Thanks Beth! Report
I was never fat until after I had my fifth child at 41 and then I didn't get the weight off and ate all their left-over food rather than throw it in the trash. I sent a strong message to others that said "I'm fat because I don't take the time to take care of ME." I have certainly learned that I don't have to be 214# like I was when I joined Sparks. I stopped drinking Coke-a-cola every day and drink tea and lemon water, etc. I took responsiblity for myself. I follow Judith Beck PhD's "The BECK Diet Solution" now, so I know I'm having to say "NO" to that voice in my head. Report
Some people dont realize that we do not chose to be overweight. It is a lot of times, due to a physical, psycological, hormonal or other issues that we are dealing with. We dont always have control over these issues. Let anyone walk in your shoes for a while. Report
Indygirl, you inspire so many! If anyone knows how to break it down, it's you! I am so proud to call you my Sparkpeople friend!!!
While I technically I am no longer the "fatty" in the room, I do know firsthand the shame we steep upon ourselves......to have others compound what we already know is a problem is beyond humiliating. Unfortunately, I see more and more people, especially children, gaining sheer pleasure from the degradation of the easiest targets available.
As a teacher and as someone who has been there, the tips you described are invaluable. Report
The wounds caused by closed minded idiots can last for your entire lifetime. It's tragic but it also seems that people, everywhere, need to feel better than someone else. Be it weight, hair color, social or economical status, your car, what ever. It's not okay for any reason. Report
Ironic how as the entire world becomes more overweight, actually being a person of weight is more looked down upon. I haven't faced any rudeness from strangers - I live in a place where about 80% of adults and 50% of children are overweight or obese. I have had to call my own husband on his prejudice against fat people (having the metabolism of a hummingbird he struggles to maintain enough weight).

I agree with politely and publicly confronting rudeness directed toward you in public. Good grief - I'd rather be stigmatized for being fat than for being rude! It may be hard for me to change the condition of being fat, but it's nearly impossible for some people to change their personalities.

I'll be returning to a healthy weight, but it's going to take a while, and I'm not taking any crap from anyone in the meantime. I have the same personality, the same education, the same religious beliefs, the same life priorities, and the same compassion for other people whether I weight 250 or 120. Report
Well, I can't prove it that it is weight related, but I keep getting passed over for jobs. Been searching for 5 months now. I work out and dance and bike ride and lift weights and am in general quite active, but can't seem to shake the weight. It's painful when people comment, there are so many thoughtless people out there. My "favorite" moment was in the local pool and I was getting out of the water and some girl was like "look at the @$$ on her". Well, sorry I'm not sitting home watching TV and eating chocolates......... Report
I don't see people of ANY size being any less of a person. I know there are struggles all around. Sometimes people don't think I struggle- but I still do. It's a matter of CONSCIOUS management of what we eat!

That said- I know many who are trying to lose weight are still living by incorrect guidelines. For too long, we've been told to "go low fat" and it's not working. Fake fats are making us fatter because our bodies aren't made to handle hydrogenated oils. And low fat foods are often full of sugar/sodium because they are lacking in flavor (because the fat was removed/replaced by chemical fat)- and it's that SUGAR that is making us fat as well.

Add to that, the guidelines that keep pushing grains, grains, grains. Too much wheat! Too many grains and products made with grains!! All those grains just turn into more sugar once it's digested!!! So we're all overloaded with sugar. And doctors are surprised at the rise in obesity and diabetes??? It's the pushing of the WRONG diet guidelines for decades!!

If you're still struggling even after years of "dieting"- it is very likely NOT because of your lack of efforts. It's because you are trying the wrong things! The federal guidelines have been wrong for decades and we have just gotten fatter! Learn to accept eating REAL fats, the healthy fats- and avoid the fake fats. "Heart healthy" margarine is the WORST thing for you. Use olive oil, butter, or coconut oil. It's NOT about the saturated fat. It's about the SUGAR and GRAINS. Eliminate the sugar and grains- replace it with more proteins and veggies- and I guarantee the fat will start going away.

As for workouts- stop doing nothing but cardio. Weight training is the way to go! Muscle burns fat, cardio burns sugar. So if you're still eating grains/sugar and doing cardio- you might as well be running in a hamster wheel, getting nowhere. Build muscle and cut out the sugars- and just WATCH that fat melt away. I've tested various things over the years with my own journey... and that has been the ONLY way that has worked. Report
I totally agree that many do not have the choice whether or not they become large. I personally have never understood correct serving sizes. I see comments in the responses to this blog that say they believe that becoming big is in most cases un-avoidable. This is simply not true in so many cases. For example I at my largest was 412 lbs. I over all ate very healthy, and have always been a very active person. Even at over four hundred pounds I was walking many miles every week fishing and would hike regularly to go fishing in out of the way places. I went to my doc for testing and found out that I had hormonal imbalances and over the last 12 years I have broken a number of bones that severely reduced my mobility and my ability to regulate my size using extreme exercise. The broken bones included both feet, my sternum, and my back among others. Each reduced my mobility for a different amount of time and contributed to me becoming big. I have since recovered from all injuries (and am much more careful with my body) started medications that regulate my hormones, and have lost 70+ lbs in six months.

I fight against the fatty stigma by showing being incredibly strong compared to many of the people who cast the stigma. While I am a big guy, I can still lift my weight, and am able to out do most in distance (as well as success) in a typical day of fishing. Report
Yeah, Indy! You GO, woman! Everything you wrote is PRECISELY what we deal with and how we should be treated. Sweet, simple, and to the point: without being rude or hateful to the "non-fatties." I love your logic and your compassion. Thank you! I'll be sharing this article all over the place! Report
I got made fun of for being fat way before I was ever considered Obese. I got it from my father and my peers. I was chronically depressed and the depression lead to secretive eating and the secretive eating lead to weight gain. I took care of the depression and lost almost 60lbs when I was in college. I found a great man and got married. I am happy and have gained all of that 60lbs back! This time it was because I was just being fat and happy (read: Lazy). We love food and enjoy sharing it together. this love of food made us fat. Sure genetics play a part but then so does conscious decisions.
Sure it is horrible to be made fun of and very hurtful but I don't think that you can compare it to being black or gay. I was not born fat, I was not born this way, I made myself this way and I can chose to change myself back.
Choice isn't enough but active choice (eating better, going to the gym) boost your self esteem and makes any comments slide off a little easier no matter what size you are. I will never be thin but I will be healthy and that is all that matters.
All the mean people out there can just go eff themselves! Report
Loved your article- inspirational really :) Report
Another wonderful blog from Beth, I hope you are hired by SparkPeople, if there was a Beth Fans SparkTeam I'd join tomorrow. ***************Stars Report
Thank you. It baffles me that in a day and age where more people are overweight than not... that fat stigma & prejudice happens, is tolerated, and even worse happens at places like SparkPeople, and by fat people against fat people. It won't change until enough people say enough, just as had to be done for other groups; race, gender, disability, religion, etc... Love the ideas for being part of the solution! Report
I dunno. You take ANY person off the street, and they will be able to relate to you a time when they were judged, ostracized, humiliated. Just because WE might look at them and think their life must be perfect, we haven't walked in their shoes. I also DO feel that being overweight more often than not IS avoidable. The problem is that is simply isn't EASY for many, myself included. But people, we all have a choice here. Most of us got here because we did not exercise good common sense in our choices. If Spark has taught me ONE thing, it's that being healthy means eating well & exercising. Well, duh. We ALL know this. But for a variety of reasons, we do not choose to adhere, and therefore become overweight.

Most of us DO have a choice in what our bodies look like, when it comes to weight. Doesn't mean that others have a right to be rude, but when has that EVER stopped anyone???
We need to be more accepting of all types of people.. age, color, size, religion, etc. Love, Tolerance, Acceptance, is what I strive to emulate every day.. when I fail at it I try harder the next time. Love, Love, love ..People..It is the answer!

Sparkle On,
Debbie Report
Thank you for writing this article, I think this is a huge problem in this country (no pun intended). For some reason people think that it is ok to make nasty comments and pass judgment on people who are overweight. I recently had to end a friendship of 13 years over this issue. A friend of mine, who lives in another state, got a new boyfriend (who turned out to be a world-class jerk and incredibly racist) and was really excited to have me meet him when I came to visit. My husband and I spent the most uncomfortable weekend of our lives with them as they made nasty comments in public about just about everyone, people of different races, people who dressed differently because of religious beliefs and especially people who were overweight. My "friend" even began to make nasty comments to my husband about his ethnic background and his weight (he is overweight, but he works hard to eat healthy and exercise regularly). Needless to say, that friendship is OVER. The world would be a much better place if people could just learn to accept one another as they are. Report
Thank for this beautiful blog. Like you, I have struggled and even had an incident in a McDonalds where I was eating a salad while my young daughter enjoyed some french fries. A little boy asked his mom why I was so fat and the mom said probably because I was eating at McDonalds.
Instead of facing them head on, I took a more passive-aggressive approach and took the time to very loudly talk to my daughter about what a good girl she was and that it's nice that she knows people come in all different shapes, sizes, colours, smells and accents. It's important to start young with kids and explain what is not acceptable. Report
I've never had to deal with this issue, yet I never knew the emotional damage was so damning. I empathize with anyone in this position and wish nothing but the best for you. Report
I agree with everyone's comments. We shouldn't make fun of an over weight person. I once had the misfortune to have a chair (a plastic folding chair on a patio) at an outdoor restaurant collapse. The other patrons laughed and the waiter said that I was too heavy to sit on one of these chairs. I was so mortified.
I only weighed around 190lbs at the time. I left there in tears and I never went back. Even today, I feel like everyone watches me where ever I go because I am
over weight. Today, I weigh 182. So it has taken me years of yo-yo dieting before
I realize that I have to stop this destructive behavior. It isn't easy but I want to be healthier and fitter. Report
I love the fact that the blog states that we as overweight people, are STRONGER. YES, YES, YES! We can do this and we put up with a lot of stuff on a daily basis, which some people have no clue about. I have faith that this situation will get better and that we will come out on top. Report
4/29/2011: I feel very sad concerning the expressions of people that are hurting because of weight issues; whatever the cause. No one knows the life journey of each person and how its effected them. How they cope with the negatives in their lives to ease the pain should not be compounded by insensitive comments by other individuals. Everyone who wrote a comment are in a journey to HEALTHY LIVING, now. If you see someone struggling, pray for them, give them a smile, acknowledge them as you go by. Life is hard enough! BE AN ENCOURAGER. You know that is a choice: to be negative or to be an encourager. Try it. You yourself may start feeling better. All those out there, struggling with weight or other issues, hang in there. Each daily good choice will get you closer to your goal of healthy living. God Bless!!! Report
It's particularly awkward when you're NOT obese anymore (or super obese in my case) and people who don't know you start making comments about others.

I usually tell them flat out that I used to be much much bigger (which is almost always the case) and that if they feel that way now perhaps they shouldn't hang around with ME, either, because I'm the same person inside as I was then.

Since losing the weight I've also experienced the reverse stigmatization from folks who are so used to being ignored and mistreated that they go on the defensive around people they perceive to be "skinny minis" who they think don't know where they are coming from.

...and that's just from the folks who are even willing to make eye contact and engage. So many (myself included) are so used to being ignored that they won't even try to interact. There's only so much rejection a person can take, before they start to close up like a clam.

When that happens I look right into their eyes and tell them that I DO know where they're coming from, and that there was a time I would have done almost anything in desperation to be as SMALL as they are now. Often I get disbelief, and then it's time to pull out the iPod that I track my food on, and show them some "before" pictures.

These issues are fraught with perceived moral judgements and insecurity. Report
I agree with "PwincessEmily" up there... People shouldn't need to be reminded to treat others with respect. It should never be socially acceptable to treat anybody with disrespect.
I'm bothered by how societies everywhere in general have become busier and busier to the point where kids are being left to their own devices at young ages and fast food and junk food are cheaper than healthy foods in many cases. And then overweight people are treated like it's completely their fault for being overweight.
Talk about a lack of logical thinking on the parts of those who poke fun at us.
At one point in the past, many many years ago, I just made the decision not to give a rat's patootie what some stranger on the street thinks of me. If they snicker or make comments, I stare at them "Do I know you?". When they realize they're being called out, they tend to slink their coward-selves off into a corner.
We don't have to justify ourselves to anyone.
And for a parting bit of thought... What kind of incompetent parent would say they would rather have a child who starves themselves to DEATH???
Someone should be investigating those ignoramuses before someone gets hurt. Report
I am so glad you wrote this.
Even Spark members need to be reminded to be polite- I have seen too many people on here write about how they saw a fat person eating fries, or a fat person doing the same exercises and not losing weight, and just other general rudeness.
Too many people here forget what it is like to be looked at for their personal appearance (in a negative way) and to feel bad about themselves for being overweight.
Be kind to people, no matter what they look like. You never know who may be watching you making the judgements. Report
Nobody who knows an anorexic would EVER want their kid to be that way instead of overweight. I have anorexic twin daughters and it has been a horrible nightmare for three years. They are tall, and got down to 83 pounds and it has taken two years for them to just get up to 92 pounds. Every morning, my first thought is that I hope they have not died in their sleep. Every moment, I worry that their hearts will just stop. And people do not treat anorexics kindly in the general public. My daughters have been stared at and laughed at as often as I have for being obese. People are cruel no matter what the physical problem is. Thanks for your blog. It's eye opening. Report
I agree that it's terrible for people to be treated negatively for being overweight, and parents who say they'd rather have their kid be anorexic than heavy are just sick in the head. Some people are just cruel.

I think that being heavy is more of a sign of the times rather than because of being lazy or anything. I think people are too busy to take care of themselves. We eat fast food because it's quick when we're too exhausted to cook after a busy day. Plus it's a comfort and pleasure in a world where people have little leisure time to relax and enjoy life. And exercise??? It's so hard sometimes for me to find time between kids, single motherhood, working, cleaning, homework, etc. I think it's hard for most everyone to find time. But I've learned that I HAVE to take the time to do it even if the house is a mess and my kids are running wild! lol

But I disagree that predjudice towards heavy people is becoming more common. How can it be when 70% of people in the US are overweight and something like 30% are obese or morbidly obese? Where I live the problem is completely out of control, and so I think it's becoming more of a norm and people are less likely to feel like they don't fit in because of being heavy. I had a 22 year old morbidly obese coworker who told me that she got heavier and heavier in high school but didn't feel out of place because all of her friends gained a lot of weight too. She felt normal and accepted.

I don't think heavy people should be stigmatized or treated cruelly (because I'm certainly overweight and used to be morbidly obese), but in many ways I think that feeling like you fit in because everyone else is heavy too is a bad thing. I think it gives you less motivation to get fit and lose weight.

1.Never EVER make fun of your child's or another family member’s weight. The scars you leave are invisible but deeper than you know.

Yes, yes, yes...these scars can last a lifetime...and affect every part of a person's life. Love one another, don't be mean! Report
Great blog. People do treat those of us who are heavy differently. I walked into a popular lingerie store and the sales girl looked at me like "what the ---- are you doing in here?" I was there to shop for my daughter but left and will never, even when I make my goal, shop there.
Like my mother always said outward beauty is only skin deep and I know some skinny 'beautiful' people who are ugly as sin on the inside and some overweight 'so called ugly' people' who have the most beautiful souls.
Thank you for a great blog Report
Just so you know, the term "Fatty" is what the blog quoted people as using. I personally hate the term. Report
I actually have tears in my eyes right now. I am so sad that society (in America, but here in the UK also) has come to the point where we need those five tips. They should just be inbuilt, ingrained things that we all do: having respect for human beings.

What on earth are people doing to each other? Report
I second these comments and suggestions. Thank you for putting so eloquently into words what so many of us "fatties" would like to say!

For several years I've been working to improve my health, and I'm still considered medically obese. It's a long road for me, and when the results of the stigma hit, it's very hurtful. In addition, it's discouraging that I'm working towards being healthy, have lost in excess of 120 pounds, and I'm still considered a slovenly outcast by people who don't know me. It always comes to mind, "If only they knew what I've accomplished".

Love ya,

Tina Report