by Linda Bacon, PhD
I entered the conference with trepidation, acutely aware of the different spaces I inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them. The conference focused on centralizing racial and ethnic justice in higher education, and was – at least in theory – committed to applying an intersectional lens. But as a long-time participant in the social justice movement, I wasn’t naïve: I knew that at best I could expect erasure of the social justice concern I focused on – weight stigma – and at worst… well, I didn’t want to ruminate on the painful ignorance and fat-phobia that typically surfaces in the more mainstream social justice movement. I dread bringing up these conversations because they inevitably turn into a string of microaggressions and erasures and I rarely feel heard.
True to expectation, the conference failed miserably at addressing the full spectrum of bodies and experience at the core of racial and other injustice. Weightism was completely absent from all written session descriptions and went unacknowledged in every session I attended, except for when I brought it to the table. And each time I was met with resistance.
Consider the first workshop I attended, which focused on how to confront microaggressions. The presenters listed examples of systemic forms of oppression: racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism. Absent from this was weightism, the lived arena where many other marginalized identities intersect. (Just ask women, for example, how sexism plays out through weight bias, adding stress and limiting opportunity.)
My comment that this erasure was itself a microaggression, making a strong statement about what they don’t think is important, was dismissed with the patronizing, “Oh yes, there are many other forms of injustice that we don’t have time to name.”
I suppose this was a little better than the usual resistance I encounter where I’m faced with people who don’t think weight stigma is worthy of inclusion in a movement for social justice. But for me, this response fell flat. Presumably they chose to list the other forms of oppression because they’re more prevalent or damaging. Not that I want to play the oppression Olympics game, but you can’t make that argument for ignoring weight bias: Research has clearly established that discrimination based on weight is at least as prevalent as that based on race or gender; that weight-based bullying is more prevalent than any other form of stigmatized bullying; that experiences of weight discrimination increase mortality and morbidity, and on and on.
My first small group experience was also painful. As an icebreaker we were asked to name one topic we could teach, perhaps a hobby or skill outside our career domain. A slender woman started the conversation by volunteering her passion: she could guide people in weight loss and health, sharing the lessons learned from her recent 30 pound loss. I wondered how this was received by the third member of our small group, a large man; his facial expression suggested that it triggered feelings of inadequacy and shame, which it seemed our weight loss evangelist was oblivious to. How ironic in a workshop focused on microaggressions that this woman failed to realize that criticizing her previously large body was a microaggression itself.
Weight bias kept surfacing, typically in tired tropes about an “obesity epidemic” as a sign of a society gone wrong or the need for “obesity” prevention. I realize these are so culturally sanctioned and normalized that many readers not already sensitized to critical perspective on these issues may wonder why I complain. But do you really think imposing stigma and focusing on elimination of that stigmatized group is socially just – or effective health promotion?
Scratch the surface of the research and you’ll find that while it is true we’re fatter than we were decades ago, we’re also living longer than ever before – with no sign of that abating – and getting disease later in life. And despite decades of trying, there is no evidence that efforts to prevent or reverse “obesity” are successful. In fact, there’s much evidence to suggest that the prescription for weight loss is more likely to result in harm and weight gain. The data also refute other longstanding, widespread – and incorrect – notions about health and weight. Like the “fact” that thin people live longer than fatter ones. Or that fat is a primary driver in metabolic disease. Or that weight loss prolongs life. Or that “obesity” is costing billions in health expenditures. None is true.
It was also clear that the conference hadn’t considered the needs of larger bodies in the venue itself. The seats were narrower than the average girth of participants, and the distance between rows was similarly unaccommodating. Participants silently negotiated the constant discomfort, yet it wasn’t difficult for me to read the unspoken: the shame it triggered for the larger people and the judgment it triggered for people of all sizes about who fit and who was encroaching on others’ space.
That nobody complained, particularly at an event that focuses on acceptance and inclusion, speaks volumes about how early we are in this historical moment. It’s especially egregious because the people living with the most intense outcomes of weight stigmatization are people with intersecting marginalized identities, including race and ethnicity. There’s a huge chasm between the worldview of “That individual is too big for the seats” [shaming, situating the problem in the individual] versus “The seat is too small to accommodate that individual” [acknowledging the systemic problem].
I couldn’t help but picture the conference attendees in their teaching environments: teachers who enter the classroom not just with briefcases and books, but toting heartfelt ideals to share with their students about progressive causes, like racial justice, feminism, queer and disability rights, and fair labor. I imagine these teachers committed to establishing inclusive classrooms, where students from all social locations can feel welcome and valued. So it saddens me to know that failures of this conference mirrored the indignities these well-intentioned teachers unwittingly perpetuate in their classrooms. It’s particularly sad to know they will seldom, if ever, get called out (or in) on these issues, given the shame and misinformation that many people have absorbed about weight. Fat-phobic microaggressions don’t get seen for what they are, but instead trigger feelings of shame and inadequacy; victims view themselves as flawed and don’t seek solidarity or speak truth to power.
This is why it’s so important that we raise our voices loud and often. The fight to end weight stigma is intrinsically connected to other social justice struggles. We can no longer pretend that being less likely to be hired or get promotions, being paid less, receiving less adequate medical treatment, being socially excluded, bullied and targeted in derogatory comments, aren’t the consequences of living in a culture which wages war against its people because of their size.
There is no social justice when some bodies are reviled, ignored or excluded. Weight bias is not just worthy of inclusion in social justice movements, but integral. We need to proactively challenge the myths, and recognize that many assumptions don’t hold up to the evidence, whether it’s the idea that fat poses substantial risk to health and longevity, that dieting is a helpful strategy for improving health or weight loss, or that anyone can achieve sustained weight loss if only they try hard enough. We can also recognize that regardless of our buy-in to those myths, every body is deserving of respectful and fair treatment. We can create inclusive safe zones where body bashing isn’t tolerated and our furniture and architecture accommodate a fuller spectrum of bodies.
There is a growing community of people centralizing our lived bodies in the movement for social justice, and who view body size not as a category for disdain but for respect and inclusion, alongside race, national origin, sexuality, gender and other types of diversity we celebrate. Join us. The road to inclusion needs to be widened to accommodate all.
For more information, check out Bacon and Aphramor’s Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Leave Out, Get Wrong, or Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight and the Health at Every Size® movement. Consider joining the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), a professional organization committed to developing and disseminating these ideas.
Health at Every Size is a registered trademark of the Association for Size Diversity and Health and used with permission.
Dr. Linda Bacon is an internationally recognized authority on health, weight and social justice. She provides education and inspiration to support the personal, professional, organizational, and institutional transformation that leads to a more just world, where all bodies are respected and celebrated. A professor and researcher, she holds graduate degrees in physiology, psychology, and exercise metabolism, with a specialty in nutrition, and has conducted federally funded studies on weight and health. Well known for her provocative political and social commentary, Dr. Bacon has generated a large following on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, health and nutrition listservs, and specialty blogs. A compelling and dynamic speaker, Bacon conducts seminars, trainings, keynotes, conference presentations, workshops and special events. She also provides consulting and advocacy services to support organizations in health promotion and fostering an inclusive environment where all people feel seen, respected and can thrive. She has published her work in top scientific journals as well as the highly acclaimed bestseller, Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight, and her more recently released, groundbreaking, book, Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, or Just Fail to Understand about Weight, co-authored with Dr. Lucy Aphramor. More information can be found at http://www.lindabacon.org.