Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Tuesday, March 4, 2014
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
“There was a lot of giggling, and then, ‘Look how fat that little boy is,’” wrote Waldorf, Md. resident Pamela Cukor, 30, in a private Facebook message. “And then more giggling followed by, ‘He’s not as fat as his sister. Oh my God, look at her.’”
In the message, Cukor was describing a scene she recently witnessed while sitting with her own children in the mall food court: three women in their 30s making fun of overweight children.
Cukor looked at the women in a way that silenced them, she said, but public criticism of the overweight, often called “fat shaming,” is so prevalent it isn’t usually given much thought — even by the overweight.
Of the subjects questioned as part of a 2010 Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll, 61 percent of overweight to obese respondents thought it was offensive to make racial slurs, but only 39 percent thought weight-related comments were equally offensive.
According to an article published in a 2010 issue of American Journal of Public health, weight discrimination increased by 66 percent over the previous decade, making it comparable to the prevalence of the country’s racial discrimination.
Judgment of the overweight isn’t limited to one-on-one interactions. It regularly appears in magazines and on screen. Social activist and media literacy proponent Jean Kilbourne said heaviness is also related to class and ethnicity, and that “working-class women and women of color are more likely to be shown by the media as heavy.”
Overweight men also receive their share of ridicule, much of it on the big screen. Fargo, ND resident Scott Thorstad, 43, who identifies as overweight, said he feels Hollywood often uses fat men as a punch line, as the buffoon, slob, or idiot, and pointed to actors like Chris Farley, John Candy, and Kevin James as examples of men who commodified their weight.
Thorstad said weight loss TV programs also paint negative pictures of the obese and called the extreme weight loss show The Biggest Loser “the ultimate fat shaming.”
“The participants are treated like sideshow attractions,” he said. “It is, to me, no different from the ‘Fat Lady’ they had in the freak tent at the circus.”
“We went through the dark ages with alcoholism, with addiction, and now we’re in the dark ages with not understanding obesity,” said obesity specialist Beth Rocchio, medical director at Integrated Medical Weight Loss in East Greenwich, RI. “One hundred, or even 75 years ago, people were looking down on the drunk in the same way they look down on the overweight today.”
It can be tempting to categorize all who judge the overweight as cruel or petty, but society’s judgment when it comes to weight is a more complex sociological and psychological issue, said Matthew Bohonowicz, therapist at CT Mediation and Therapy in Manchester, Conn.
“It’s not just about the issue of someone doing the shaming,” he said. “It’s about the society in which the person exists.”
Several theories attempt to explain society’s judgment of the overweight.
One chalks it up to our primitive desire to survive. “Pathogen-avoidance mechanisms and the stigmatization of obese people,” a 2007 study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, found that people tend to “associate the risk of infection with a broad range of superficial cues,” and that deviations from the norm might be seen as evidence of infection. Obesity, a deviation from the weight norm, therefore triggers an aversive response — and most powerfully in those who feel more vulnerable to disease, findings showed.
Sarah Steinmeyer, Ph.D., director of the eating disorder program at the San Clemente, Ca., facilities of Sovereign Health Group, had another explanation.
“We define ourselves in part by the groups to whom we ‘belong,’” she said. “But it is not enough to be a member of a group; we have to be a member of a ‘good’ group.”
As a society, she said, we value achievement and striving for excellence, both of which have self-control as a component. We often assume the obese became obese as a result of personal negligence when in fact obesity can be a result of emotional or psychological issues, illness, poverty, genetics, medication, disability, or other factors.
“It scares us to think we might lapse in self-restraint and become like them,” she said. “Being openly hostile toward the obese is an effort, clumsy at best, to say, ‘I share the values of the “good” guys.’”
Steinmeyer added that the obesity stigma is, at its core, a social prejudice, and Rocchio agreed, adding that obesity’s visibility as a possible “flaw” makes it an easy target.
“If I don’t know you’re a shopaholic, how much you’re gambling, how much you’re texting, how addicted you are to the internet, how can I make fun of that?” she said.
Bohonowicz explained that as humans we innately want to be homogenous, and so we tend as pre-empathic children to make fun of “outliers” of all kinds — the one with big ears, the one with buck teeth, the one with the lazy eye. But, he added, most of us eventually learn empathy as we mature.
Specialists agree that adults openly shaming the obese and anyone else they view as “different” are doing so in response to their own feelings of inadequacy, fear, or as a result of having never developed empathy, but those components added to the variety of social factors that lead to reflexive judgments of the obese make for such a layered combination of causes and solutions that there is no easy fix.
“Two hundred years ago, the guy who was shamed was the guy whose muscles were ripped because he was outside swinging a hoe or a shovel, and the ones doing the shaming were the fat cats sitting up in their castles,” Bohonowicz said. “It’s a fascinating shift in how our society sees that particular issue, and it has so many connections and connotations.”
It could be argued that one way to reduce the popularity and acceptance of fat shaming would be to modify how the overweight are represented in the media, but even experts don’t necessarily agree on whether the media fuel our judgment or merely mirror it. Steinmeyer said the media, which perceives itself as “the voice of the people,” expresses values that are congruent with the ideals of society; Kilbourne, on the other hand, said seeing heavier people and different body types in advertising and popular culture would “certainly change our society’s perceptions.”
At the far end of the acceptance spectrum, social networking campaigns that proclaim “real women have curves” and “big is beautiful” can do a disservice to the dangerously overweight by glorifying weight levels medically determined to be unhealthy. This can lead some to believe there is merit in the argument that fat shaming or an obesity stigma inspires weight loss, but that position is not valid in most cases.
“It inspires me to want to punch people in the face,” said Cukor, who was once morbidly obese. “I think most people don’t take care of themselves because of either ignorance or lack of self-esteem. Shaming solves neither of those problems. Actually, it makes the latter worse.”
Steinmeyer said those lacking social support will often resort to sources of readily available comfort, which often includes food, and Rocchio argued that stigma and bias prevent people from seeking help for “whatever problem they have.”
Rocchio added that what is most important is the person’s reaction to the judgment. She recommended responding to those who judge with pity or compassion.
“It ties into bullying,” she said. “The one who is bullying is not in a happy place, I wouldn’t think. And they probably have something that could be a target of similar judgment. It’s just that we don’t happen to see it.”