Educating Society about Fat Acceptance

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Reader’s Question

I am aware that society imposes numerous norms and gender roles as a kind of ‘cruel mistress,’ but hatred for overweight people often goes too far. I am not speaking here about the obese, necessarily, but about slightly heavier than ideal (5-20 kilos).

Many average people I’ve met hate them more than billionaire criminals who have destroyed the economy and doomed thousands of people to poverty; more than rapists, child- and animal-abusers, liars, bad people…more than anything. Also, I am a bit disturbed at the very brutal things they enthusiastically say they would do to fat people if they could.

A few of my friends are ‘fatties’ and they are honest and good people — far better than those who throw stones at them.

Is it because the overweight can enjoy food without a guilty conscience? Because they aren’t conformists?

Is this a society of deranged values, or something else?

Psychologist’s Reply

You are correct in that disliking overweight people is one of the last ‘acceptable’ prejudices. We’ve now educated our society to the extent that people understand that expressing intolerance and cruelty toward groups like women, people of different races and ethnicities, the disabled, and homosexuals is generally frowned upon. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still prejudiced toward people in these groups, but it tends to be more subtle than it has been in the past. However, fat people are still fair game.

One reason why this may be true is that there is a perception that being overweight is a choice that people make. People cannot control their sex, race or range of abilities, but we can control how much we eat and whether we exercise. However, as I pointed out in my blog last week (Stop Blaming the Lettuce: When Systemic Problems Outweigh Individual Responsibility), this doesn’t take into account many of the systemic factors involved in obesity. Thus, many believe that fat people can become thinner if they just make more of an effort.

Another reason for the vitriol leveled at overweight people may relate to the intersection between being a larger size and other demographic variables. Overweight women tend to get more flak for their size than overweight men, overweight people of color are discriminated against more than overweight Caucasians, and overweight people of lower income are frowned upon more than overweight people in a higher income bracket. In other words, proper society knows we shouldn’t be prejudiced against certain groups but if you throw in their weight, suddenly it’s okay.

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Yet another reason could be one that you mentioned, and that is conformity. And I would add consumerism as well. Weight is one method by which we control people. If we are all overly concerned about our size and the way we look, then we can spend a lot more time worrying about that than, say, the environment or other political issues that require activism. If you keep people constantly anxious about looking like society’s definition of attractive, then they will spend a lot of money making sure that they do. The weight loss industry makes billions in profits, as do the cosmetics companies, gyms, fashion industry, healthcare companies, pharmaceutical companies, and even physicians. It is to their advantage that people continually believe that our appearance doesn’t measure up, and that doesn’t work if we as a society are accepting of different sizes and types of looks. In other words, being prejudiced towards overweight people is a wonderful way of social control.

So, to answer your question succinctly, yes, we are a society with deranged values. It’s just probably a bit more diabolical than you thought.

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