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Fatphobia and Fat Activism in Social-Impact Spaces

Amy Bergen

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Social-impact organizations are often considered leaders in anti-discrimination advocacy initiatives. But that doesn’t mean these organizations are free from discrimination themselves. Employees and beneficiaries alike have experienced fatphobia—fear or stigmatization of fat* people—in organizations otherwise committed to equity. 

Fatphobia can show up in everyday dialogues (e.g. complaints about weight gain during COVID-related quarantine) and workplace structures (e.g. office furniture that can only accommodate smaller bodies). In each case, the messaging may be unintentional, but it still signals that some bodies are more acceptable than others. And weight bias in medical care or health-related initiatives usually works against, not in favor of, overall health and wellness.

Advocates emphasize that fat activism is essential to social justice movements. But the first step to eradicating fatphobia is to examine how and where it appears, especially as systemic or structural injustice.

*"Fat" is the term preferred by most anti-weight-bias activists.

Where does fatphobia come from?

According to Sabrina Strings, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, fatphobia has been intertwined with anti-Blackness and White Supremacy in Western culture for hundreds of years. As Strings explains in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, the 18th-century field of "race science" suggested Black people were inherently lazy and unable to control their desires; since heavy people were also believed to lack self-control, colonists linked Blackness to fatness. White women, encouraged to fear Black people, were pressured to remain thin as a way of preserving their own racial identity. Strings also notes the body mass index (BMI), a medical tool developed to assess body size and health, used only white men in its initial clinical studies—making the tool far less accurate and helpful for women and patients of color.

Furthermore, Christian Protestantism (a dominant religion in the 18th- and 19th-century US) urged followers to restrict their own pleasures, including food, and higher weights became associated with immorality. These days, people may still assume body size indicates a person’s level of discipline and commitment, not just their health. This assumption usually goes unspoken, but it can have serious consequences; if you’re evaluating someone’s ability to succeed in a job or pay rent on an apartment, your bias can deny them opportunities.

And fat people are often blamed for their own marginalization in subtle ways. Discussions about health and weight-related issues, for instance, tend to focus on the importance of changing individual behavior—a workplace wellness initiative might reward exercise and weight loss, implying those who don’t hit the milestones haven’t worked hard enough. These initiatives ignore what activists argue is much more important: identifying and erasing systemic injustices.

The history of fat activism

Fat activism and fat liberation, like many other social justice movements, hone in on the structural barriers that threaten certain groups. Author Sarai Walker defines fat activism as "a political movement that advocates for the rights and dignity of fat people.”

The movement began as an outgrowth of feminist and LGBTQ+ organizing during the activist heyday of the 1960s, with radical organizations like the Fat Underground and the more mainstream National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). Its goals were justice-oriented—activists gathered evidence of fatphobia in medical care and pursued cases of weight-based employment discrimination.

Today, organizations such as Health at Every Size carry on this legacy by working to dismantle stereotypes about fat and health. "Health outcomes are primarily driven by social, economic, and environmental factors, requiring a social and political response," writes Dr. Lindo Bacon, the organization’s founder. 

Making changes in the workplace

One area of advocacy focuses on making workplaces comfortable and accessible for all employees, regardless of size—just as workplaces should accommodate people with disabilities.

Some changes are so basic they may seem easy to overlook, like altering the physical environment. A typical office, classroom, or conference room may not have desks or chairs that can fit larger bodies, or enough space between chairs for people to walk easily around the room. If air travel is a job requirement, the closely packed economy seats on airplanes can present obstacles for certain passengers. And people with mobility constraints (weight-related or not) might need easier physical access to workspaces as part of reasonable accommodation.

Activists like Bacon suggest approaching something like seating as a systemic problem, with the mindset of "These seats are too small to accommodate this person" rather than "This person is too big for the seats." This puts the onus of change on the organization, not the individual.

Regular "micro-activist" actions, like avoiding casual chat about weight loss methods or resisting the urge to pigeonhole certain foods as "good" or "bad," can also make a major difference over time in the way your workplace discusses weight and health.

And like most structural inequality, fatphobia affects wages and professional advancement. Fat people are less likely to be hired and promoted, and they receive lower starting salaries than their thinner counterparts. For people with other marginalized identities across race, gender, and class, the disparity is even greater.

For the most part, this kind of discrimination goes unregulated in the U.S.; Michigan is the only state with a law specifically prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of weight, and only a handful of cities across the country have weight discrimination laws. But until more progressive legislation is passed, employees elsewhere don’t have much legal recourse if they’re underpaid, passed over for raises, or terminated because of their size.

This means it’s up to individual workplaces, especially those focused on social justice, to challenge their own biases and create an environment where everyone is treated with respect.

Working for healthcare equity

Another area crucial to fat activism is equity in medical care. Nonprofit healthcare professionals may be familiar with the ongoing dialogue around weight bias in the field, and studies confirm that healthcare providers often give substandard care to heavier patients. Stigma and bias (including the distressingly common stereotype that people with higher body weights don’t care about their own health and well-being) have proven to be threats to public health—fat people are more likely to be misdiagnosed, denied essential treatments, or instructed to focus on weight loss rather than vital health concerns. .

What’s the solution? Strings believes a shift towards improving community health—making sure everyone has access to healthy, affordable food and clean water—would lead to better outcomes than focusing on individual weight loss. A person’s social environment, such as their living and working conditions, can have a major impact on their health outcomes.

Bacon encourages fat patients to adopt "self-care behaviors rooted in respect and nurture, not shame." And some people in medical communities are pushing back against using measures like the BMI to determine a person’s health, adopting a more holistic approach.

Fatphobia won’t be eradicated overnight, but it should be on organizations’ anti-bias agendas, and on their radar as they consider how to create a more equitable workplace.

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Has fatphobia or weight bias shown up in your professional life? If you’re comfortable, feel free to share your own stories with us on Facebook.

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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