The skinny on fatphobia

As children, we are taught to fear many things – the evils of drugs, alcohol, and violence, for example. But another concern in particular has begun to stand out: the fear of being fat.

This notion is clearly shown in a recently-published children’s book titled Maggie Goes on a Diet, which tells the story of Maggie, a young girl whose life is “transformed” after she goes on a diet and loses weight. She becomes more confident, gains more friends, and attracts more attention from boys. Nowhere in the story is there mention of being happy, secure, and healthy while overweight. According to this account, being thin, or “average sized,” by society’s standards, is what we need to strive for.

This past September, American Apparel held a campaign looking for the “next BIG thing.” The company, which has a history of objectifying women in its ad campaigns, was now attempting to address a plus-sized audience through a competition looking to find a “curvaceous” model. But the contest backfired. The winner was Nancy Upton, a young woman who parodied the contest by posing sexually with stereotypically fatty foods (one image shows her in a bra covered in ranch dressing). Although she won by a large margin through an online vote, the company decided to award the prize to another woman who, in their words, was more able to “exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out.” This woman fit their ideal of a plus-sized woman who was willing to work within the company’s standards. By poking fun at American Apparel’s approach towards plus-sized women, Upton did not fit this ideal.

As shown by the two examples above, being overweight is often demonized and shamed by the media. One of the main ways this portrayal is justified is the idea that being overweight implies poor health. However, this is often not the case. Health involves remaining active and eating nutritious foods, and being overweight does not preclude these habits. For example, a 2008 study done at Beth Israel Medical Center in Harvard looked at the effects of physical activity as well as BMI (body mass index) on coronary heart disease. They found that women who were overweight, but were walking more than four hours a week, had a lower risk of heart disease than those who didn’t exercise, regardless of their weight. Thus, the amount of exercise was shown to be more important than weight. It is also important to note that being thin does not necessarily imply good health.

The Fat Acceptance movement strives to change these ideas by showing that weight is not the problem. One of the main tenets of this movement is the idea of “Health at Every Size.” This paradigm places emphasis on exercising and eating nutritious food, acknowledging that overweight people can be just as healthy (or healthier) than those who are “average” sized. Further importance is given to the idea that promoting weight loss – in particular, constant dieting – can have negative effects in the long run.

In addition, much of the science used to claim that obesity is linked to morbidity does not have a strong cause and effect basis. New research from the University of Alberta used a tool called the Edmonton Obesity Staging System to rank overweight people in four stages according to their underlying health, not weight. The team, led by Dr. Arya Sharma, found that up to 80 per cent of the patients classified as overweight or obese had a score of one or two – meaning that they had no apparent “obesity-related” health risks, such as blood pressure or cholesterol problems.

Due to the weight bias that exists in a culture where fat shaming is prevalent, negative repercussions can occur from doctors having preconceived negative notions about overweight patients, which leads to misdiagnoses and maltreatment. According to a study published in 2010 by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, overweight women were at a higher risk of being misdiagnosed, less likely to have cancer detected early on, and were less able to find fertility doctors willing to treat them. It’s clear that doctors are not exempt from the attitudes towards weight that exist in our society. This existing stigma can also further deter overweight people from even seeking medical care.

Perhaps, if people are looking to science to support their fat-phobic ideas, they should instead be directed to the previously-mentioned research, and the multitude of other studies which have shown similar results. Or perhaps, we should remember that a person’s appearance does not provide a full nor accurate picture of his or her overall health.