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Fat is a Social Justice Issue, Too

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Note: This blogpost is based on a larger work I wrote for Humanity & Society.

Studies continue to show that like other marginalized groups, fat people experience discrimination in employment, education, the media, politics, interpersonal relationships, and especially healthcare. Yet, despite the fact that fatphobia in the US has always been intimately connected to other systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, those of us engaged in social justice work so often fail to acknowledge that fat is a social justice issue, too.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is because unlike other marginalized identities, we think of fat as a “choice,” and, more to the point, we think of fat as a bad choice. This is due in large part to the pervasiveness of several health myths that so often go unquestioned in our culture. Some examples include: (1) we are in the midst of an “obesity” epidemic in the U.S.; (2) people who are “overweight” have higher rates of mortality than people who are “normal weight" or thin; (3) “obesity” causes a host of other diseases and illnesses, many of which are life-threatening; (4) to lose weight, all people need to do is eat less and exercise more; and (5) anyone can lose weight and keep it off if they just try hard enough. To understand how these myths originated and why they remain such deeply held beliefs in our culture requires an understanding of the ways fat has been pathologized and medicalized in the US. There are several excellent books that speak to this history, many of which you will find listed here.

By the 1970s, many feminist scholars, activists, and psychotherapists had declared fat a feminist issue. To be clear, fat is a feminist issue, but it is also fundamentally a social justice issue that continues to intersect with other systems of oppression in very problematic ways. For example, consider the targeting of women and children in the war on “obesity” that April Herndon illustrates in the book Fat Blame. As Herndon and other scholars like Natalie Boero have pointed out, when a child is fat, overwhelming it is the mother who is blamed, especially if that mother is poor, working class, Black, and/or Latinx. In fact, some pregnant women are now even counseled about the potential ‘dangers’ of fetal overnutrition in the womb. But perhaps the most salient danger a mother faces is the threat of having her child taken from her because of the child’s weight. In fact, there are a number of cases where a child has been removed from the custody of their parents because the child was deemed too fat. I personally know of no cases where the families impacted were not poor or working class and/or families of color, highlighting once again the intersections of fatphobia, sexism, racism, and classism.

Yet, while those of us engaged in social justice work focus much of our efforts on addressing these other systems of oppression-and we should-when it comes to fatphobia, too many of us have been relatively silent by comparison. Worse, too many of us are actively engaged in perpetuating fatphobia ourselves. We must do better.

In the book Fat Activism, Charlotte Cooper outlines five types of activism. I will briefly discuss two: political process activism and micro fat activism. One way we can engage in political process activism is by working to enact laws that protect fat people from discrimination. Currently, in the U.S. it is legal for employers to discriminate against employees based on their weight in forty-nine states. Michigan is the only state in the U.S. where it is illegal to discriminate based on weight. There are a few cities that have passed legislation to prevent weight discrimination, but there is no national law. Clearly, there is still much work to be done in terms of legally protecting fat people from discrimination.

While working to create structural level change at the national level is imperative, we must also take a closer look at institutions we navigate everyday. For example, does our built environment accommodate fat people? I often teach in classrooms with individual desks I can barely fit in myself, so I am acutely aware these desks are not accommodating for all students, especially fat students. Similarly, on my campus faculty with fat bodies have pointed out that almost every chair in our offices and classrooms meant for instructor use have arms, which, again, is not accommodating for people with bodies that do not easily fit into these chairs. In addition, we need to interrogate workplace policies that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination against fat people, such as employer wellness programs which typically focus on weight loss and weight management.

Finally, micro fat activism, according to Charlotte Cooper, takes place in everyday spaces and happens in small understated moments. Examples of micro fat activism might include refusing to weigh yourself or refusing to be weighed. It might also include refusing to engage in negative fat talk, diet talk, or body shaming. If you are unsure what these discursive practices look like in everyday life, let me take you through some typical scenarios: it’s one of your friend's or coworker's birthdays, someone has bought a cake, and everyone is invited to have a slice. One person pipes up, “Oh, I really don’t think I should. I’m trying to be good.” Another says, “Well, maybe just a little slice. But I’m going to have to work that off later at the gym.” Or how about having your partner or a friend ask, “Does this make me look fat?” or your fitness instructor or personal trainer yell, “Tighten it up! We don’t want anything jiggling!” While disrupting or failing to entertain these kinds of conversations may seem like a small act, given that research has shown 75% of women in the U.S. engage in some form of disordering eating, refusing to contribute to a climate that promotes these behaviors is an act of resistance. I invite all of you to join me in resisting.

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