Fear of Fat

fat?When I was 16 I filled out a job application at a Jack in the Box. It was thrown away in front of my face, with the explanation that there is no way they could hire me, I would disgust the customers and make them lose their appetite because of my weight. When I was 18 a 7-11 clerk refused to sell me food telling me I was too fat to eat. When I contacted the manager the next day, she defended her employee saying they did have the right to refuse service. I called the Southland Corporation, 7-11's parent company to complain, unsuccessfully trying as hard as I could to hold back tears. I spoke to a sympathetic customer service rep, but never received any official correspondence. So a few months later, I wrote them a letter about the matter, but again, a simple apology was too much to ask for. I could fill a book with experiences like these, but I'm not special. Most fat people, despite the fact they rarely publicly talk about it due to the shame associated with being fat, have suffered horrible discrimination and hate because of their size.

The most common retort I hear from those that defend fat hate is that is a "health" issue. This is a disputed fact, but for argument's sake let's accept being fat truly is a "health" issue for the moment. In addition to being fat, I smoked for seven years. Smoking definitely is a "health" issue. It is known that smoking causes cancer, emphysema, and other really nasty health problems. Not only that, my smoking actually directly affected everyone's health around me when I was smoking, as it is well known that second-hand smoke is a health hazard. On the other hand, my fat does not affect anyone else's health. My point is, that smoking is at least as big of a health risk as being fat, but interestingly, during my entire seven years as a smoker I never once had random people yell rude remarks at me about smoking, not to my face, not from cars, it just didn't happen. This happens to me because I am fat at least once a month. Never once did someone who I did not know come up to me and give me advice on how I should quit smoking. On the other hand, I cannot count the times people have come up to me and told me that I should lose weight and how. These differences lead me to believe that more than people's interest in my health is at work.

Also, what about all of the kids that made fun of me for being fat as a kid? Did they have my health on their mind? I very seriously doubt it. Fat hate and discrimination is real. With the old adage "if you want truth, ask a kid" in mind, these survey results ring especially loudly: "In one study, ten- and eleven-year-olds were shown drawings of children and asked how much they thought they would like them. Children's preferences, from most likeable to least likeable, were: (1) a normal child, (2) a child with leg braces and crutches, (3) a child in a wheelchair, (4) a child with a hand missing, (5) a child with a facial disfigurement, and, finally, (6) a fat child!"[i] I can remember feeling inferior because of my weight as early as pre-school. Family friends were telling my mom that she needed to put me on a diet a few weeks after I was born.

fear of fat?I think being fat is probably a health risk to some extent, but I also think that people's fear of fat is too. There are tons of people who are "dying to be thin." Among those are the women and men who suffer from eating disorders that are no doubt related to people's fear of being fat. Additionally, people are willing to literally die on the operating table and undergo incredibly dangerous surgeries, or take pills that are known to cause other severe health problems to avoid being fat.

Our entire culture encourages this hatred and fear of fat. One need look no further than almost any popular film or TV to find a fat joke, and there is little to no debate that popular magazines promote the idea of thin as beautiful, and by promoting only one body type, those that do not meet that type become the "other" and are not considered beautiful.

Other people don't even bother with the politically correct argument of "health" reasons in their dislike of fat people. A lot of people think treating fat people poorly is justifiable because they have a lack of self-control with eating and/or because they are lazy. Research, however, shows a different story: "In 19 studies that used a variety of methodologies (e.g., observing people in public restaurants, monitoring eating in laboratory settings, and relying on self-report), 18 studies found the obese to eat amounts less than or equal to the non-obese." Another study states: "The belief that obese people 'over-eat' is so widespread that one wonders if this conviction will give way to the actual data on this question."[ii] Furthermore, "about equal numbers of studies found the obese to be less active than the non-obese compared with those that found no differences. "[iii] This, of course, means that half of the studies showed that the obese were just as active as their non-obese counterparts, so at best these results are non-conclusive. But, even if you decide to ignore the evidence and think fat people are habitual over-eaters and/or lazy, losing weight over the long term is almost never accomplished. "As early as the 1950s, researchers have remarked on the relatively poor outcome of weight-loss programs. Stunkard noted that less than 5 percent of dieters lost large amounts of weight and even fewer maintained this weight loss. Brownell stated: 'If "cure" from obesity is defined as reduction to ideal weight and maintenance of that weight for 5 years, a person is more likely to recover from most forms of cancer than from obesity.'"[iv]

So why should the activist community care that fat hate is so prevalent? First of all, everyone should care because it hurts so many people. Almost everyone knows someone who is either fat, or causing themselves serious amounts of pain not to be fat. But activists should be specifically appalled because of the economics of fat hate. The media markets an unattainable body image for people to increase the 50 billion dollars annually spent on diets and other products that "improve one's looks" such as expensive clothes, makeup, etc. Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to the mainstream. Many in the activist community have not embraced fat acceptance. On the morning of September 15, 2002 I woke up to read my local newspaper to find Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's president, saying, "We're not fighting fat people, but we are fighting fat. It used to be you would look around and there might be one fat person, and now you look around and the floor is shaking. I think they're going to have to reinforce more than the cockpit. Men and women look as if they're eight months' pregnant if you're standing at the airport." What does being vegetarian or vegan have to do with not being fat? The two are not mutually exclusive. But more importantly, why is it any of any one else's business if someone is fat?

Of course, I could write PETA off because everyone knows they are extremists, but just yesterday I read the new Mother Jones (January/February 2003) and I was appalled that they gave a favorable review to the book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. According to the review, the book's author claims "How we get out of hell depends not upon prayer but rather upon a new sense of collective will -- and individual willpower." Collective will? Maybe if people just a little meaner to us, we might get off our butts and try to diet -- like we haven't tried that before? I struggle for equality for women, people of the Third World, minorities, homosexuals, etc. alongside many of you, but today I call for you to join me in struggling for fat acceptance, within both popular and activist culture. It doesn't really matter if being fat is a choice or not, or if it is a health issue or not. What does matter is fat people are human beings who should be treated with the respect and dignity we demand for all other minority groups.

Laura Gladney-Lemon, 23, is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. She plans to get her master's degree in Women's Studies.


[i] Elaine Hatfield, and Susan Sprecher, Mirror, Mirror : The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 209.

[ii] Esther D. Rothblum, "Women and Weight: Fad and Fiction," Journal of Psychology 124, no. 1 (1990): 10.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Jeanine C. Cogan, and Esther D. Rothblum, "Outcomes of Weight-Loss Programs," Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 118, no. 4 (1992): 388.

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