Fat is shamefully good for society

Discrimination against fat people is so widespread that most of them don't even notice

When people talk about prejudice and discrimination, most of us think of attacks on the street, harassment in the subway or slogans at the regulars' table. Such blatant examples of belittling exist, and often depressingly. But these are not the experiences that shape the everyday life of discriminated people: Those who belong to a stigmatized group are reminded every day by small, subtle or seemingly unimportant things that they are less worthy. The experts speak of microaggressions - these are short, everyday statements that send derogatory messages to members of a certain group.

As a psychologist, I research the stigmatization of people because of their weight. I myself speak of "fat" people, but use "fat" - like some activists - as a description and not as an insult.

Incidentally, all people who are viewed as wrongly by society are familiar with microaggressions. They are there at all times, they can come from all possible directions. For fat people it could go like this:

  • You get on the bus and the person next to a vacant seat stares provocatively at you or demonstratively puts your bag on the next seat
  • People watch them while they eat in the restaurant or check the contents of their shopping cart in the supermarket
  • A joke at the expense of fats on TV
  • A slimmer friend tries on an outfit and asks: "Do I look fat in it?"
  • Children who make fun of them

And it is particularly uncomfortable if you have sprained your ankle and go to the doctor. And the doctor then tells them to lose weight first.

Doctors are prejudiced and do not treat all patients equally, reports the Southgerman newspaper. Take obesity, for example: the catchphrase “fat shaming” includes an impressive arsenal of properties that are unjustifiably ascribed to fat people. For the sick, this is stress and can mean that they seek medical help too late or not at all.

Unless you are a member of a stigmatized group, you may think that these examples sound insignificant and are easy to ignore. But while every single incident may be insignificant, it is the totality of stigma that defines our lives.

Anja Hilbert, professor of psychology at the Leipzig University Hospital, said the world: "A recent study shows that people who are overweight about three to four times a day experience critical comments, unwanted glances, well-intentioned advice with which they cannot do much, or are disadvantaged."

A hostile environment makes you sick

Excluded people live permanently in a hostile environment. And that creates stress for them. The body responds to this by producing stress hormones and altering the cardiovascular, immunological and neurological systems to avoid the threat.

As a short-term adaptation reaction, this helps with survival. But chronic stress can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even some cancers. This doesn't just happen to fat people. Doctors have also found these diagnoses in ethnic minority or lesbian or gay people.

The decisive factor is that this damage occurs even if there are no discriminatory incidents at all - stigmatized people go through their everyday lives fearful, expecting, anticipating and preparing for these events. This uses up a lot of energy and is itself a form of chronic stress. Hostile environments also contribute indirectly to long-term problems because they affect educational and professional success.

Even fat people don't always recognize when they are marginalized

Microaggression against fat people is so common that people, even fat people themselves, sometimes don't even recognize it as stigmatizing. These attacks are sometimes ambiguous. It is sometimes difficult for those affected to see the intent or underlying meaning. They wonder whether or not that person actually discriminated against them. That makes it difficult to react. In addition, discrimination against fat people is so well established that they contribute to their own stigma and believe that they deserve it, or that the culprit is just describing a fact ("Fat people are just ugly and disgusting").

It's shameful what fat people have to listen to. This is shown by this video of the Society against Weight Discrimination e.V. (on the occasion of a survey by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency in 2015).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7ZVSFLg0gQ

When fat people take action against their discrimination, the best they can hear is to ignore the attacks. In the worst case, you just don't believe them. Victims of microaggression are told that they are just imagining the offense. They're overly sensitive, paranoid, or just need to develop a sense of humor.

Fat people even get to hear they need to lose weight, even if they don't want to hear it. Most people would never tell a member of another stigmatized group that they had to change in order not to be discriminated against.

Most of us like to think of ourselves as impartial. We would never harass, beat up, or badly serve a fat person in the street in a shop.

But even children as young as three show reservations about fats. They were not born with this conviction - they adopted it from those around them, for example from their parents and carers. Or from children's books and comics.

If we really want to be part of a decent society, if we want our children to grow up in a friendly world, it is up to us not to simply accept the hostility towards fat people. Oppression comes in many forms and we all need to stop it.

Natalie Rosenke, chairwoman of the “Society against Weight Discrimination” association, said on Deutschlandfunk that something must be done socially and politically in order to change something: “At the moment there is no legal way for fat people to defend themselves. “The General Equal Treatment Act states that people may not be disadvantaged because of their religion, gender or disability. The body weight is not mentioned there. Dicken lack the opportunity to take action against discrimination, for example in the world of work, but also in their personal environment.
You can listen to the full audio here (8:22).


Angela Meadows holds a PhD in psychology and does research on weight stigma, health, and wellbeing. In 2013 she founded the annual international Weight Stigma Conference to bring together researchers and practitioners from the fields of health, social sciences and politics.

This article was published in English by The Conversation. You can read the original article here. Translation and production: Vera Fröhlich; Editor: Philipp Daum; Photo editor: Martin Gommel.