Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Anya Miksovsky
As we enter the spring of 2019, the world faces a widespread epidemic. Yet unlike most global health predicaments, which are met with the appropriate concern, the current crisis has raised little alarm. In fact, the issue has been stigmatized to the point at which those diagnosed with this condition — in America, upwards of 4 out of every 10 adults over 20, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention — are often personally blamed for their status.
Across the world, the percentage of obese people continues to increase from year to year. The problem is especially accentuated in countries like America, where a fast food and sugar dominated food industry generating billions of dollars a year makes it easy to gain weight quickly. Along with growing obesity, however, studies report that discrimination against fat people has also grown more prevalent in past years — 50%, as reported by the National Association for the Advancement of Fat People (NAAFA).
Examples of this discrimination are found everywhere, from employment to healthcare to education. One study has found that for white females in the U.S., a gain in weight of 65 pounds is associated with a 9% decrease in wages — equivalent, roughly, to three years of employment experience. Another trial, conducted on over 400 participants, discovered that 33% of American physicians associate being overweight with traits such as hostility and dishonesty, making them less likely to take the patient’s needs seriously. A third study reported that two-thirds of fat children have experienced some harassment due to their weight from peers — and one-third from a teacher. This has the power to plague students later on: not only are they less likely to be accepted to colleges in comparison to similarly-performing peers, but bullying has been linked to many mental health issues, such as depression.
Overall, societal biases contribute to a litany of problems. As Rachel Wacks, graduate of Boston University School of Public Health, writes, “The biggest assumption [people] make is that I’m not very bright, because smart people would not choose to be fat.” As a result, she often finds her ideas questioned and opinions undermined. Many overweight people may even avoid certain public spaces for fear of being judged; Wacks herself “hesitates to attend events focused on health issues.”
But the public experiences Wacks describes are pervasively widespread, extending to far more common situations. Fat people may find themselves booking a plane or using public transport with great reluctance.
Restaurants, for one, must be chosen carefully. One is liable to enter the door, only to discover “a death maze where you are going to knock every vase off of every table,” explains opera singer Tracy Cox. While hostesses and restaurant staff are usually understanding, the conversation is usually incredibly embarrassing nonetheless. On the whole, it’s rare for public spaces to be designed with overweight people in mind.
Flying is seldom better. Obese customers must spring for First Class or purchase an extra seat, or else risk offsetting the ire of many neighboring passengers (although many complain regardless). Sometimes seat-belt extenders are confiscated by the TSA. Unable to pay additional fees or unwilling to subject themselves to harrowing emotional vulnerability, many fat people look for ways to skip flying altogether.
And though being “overweight” is not classified by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a true “disability,” thus qualifying many for legal discrimination protection, it can certainly curtail one’s physical capabilities. “Because of my handicap,” journalist Helen Leahey describes, “co-workers had to take over tasks that I couldn’t manage — mainly those that involved climbing any number of stairs or walking more than 20 feet.” These limitations, Leahey argues, could be the basis for establishing legal recognition of disability.
As obesity becomes a greater issue in America — and worldwide — its harmful stigma must be addressed, especially as most myths (such as the paternalistic notion that fat-shaming helps by “encouraging” one to lose weight, or that losing weight long-term is even possible) have been scientifically proven false. Instead, why not design physical public spaces with more foresight regarding the people likely to use them? Discrimination against fat people will have to be taken seriously in order to remove barriers of success, but working to tackle these issues is the only way in which true health equality will be achieved.