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History Reclaimed: Part of The [Missing] HAES Files Series

Fat Stigma – Not Fat – is the Real Enemy

By Lindo Bacon, PhD

Real harm is being done due to the focus on fat/weight loss/size as the prerequisite for health. Fat stigma is the real problem causing ill health.

Formerly published on “The HAES files” blog, the Association for Size Diversity and Health. May be slightly edited since original publication.

From bar stools to TV studios, Americans are far more reticent than we used to be about race-bashing and other slurs. In even the most politically correct circles, however, it’s still okay to put down “the obese.” So long as you don’t use the f-word (“F-A-T”), you can call “overweight” people couch potatoes and hold them accountable for everything from government spending to cramped airplane seats and even global warming. You can call them unattractive, saying you “just don’t find it attractive.” And, yeah, you can joke about them huffing their way up a staircase.

It’s all about health, this argument goes, not bias. Because obesity’s supposedly linked to disease and early mortality, it’s okay to vilify it. And vilify it we do, from labs and board rooms to dorm rooms and editorial desks. How better to symbolize morbid decrepitude, after all, than with rolls of flesh in those prosaic “headless fatty” photos and video every editor reaches for to accompany yet another story about the “Obesity Epidemic?”

More than dignity is at stake, though: Punishing fat people is increasingly entrenched in our health care system. In Michigan, fat Blue Cross subscribers must lose weight to keep the “enhanced” benefit. Their options are joining Weight Watchers or logging 5,000 steps a day on a pedometer, until their BMIs fall below 30. The alternative? A larger deductible and higher co-pays. Arizona, meanwhile, is considering a $50 “fat tax” for obese people on Medicaid, which kicks in if they don’t follow a slimming plan.

Yes, many Americans eat unhealthy stuff and move too little, but that’s a problem for people of all body types. A recent Mayo clinic study on heart disease outcomes reinforced findings that, for fat and thin alike, fitness matters more than weight. And body mass tells you very little about individual lifestyle habits.

This demonization of fat flies in the face of not just psychology (calling people names never made anyone thin), but economics and medical science, too. Persuasive, peer-reviewed evidence abounds that – hold onto your stethoscope – fat is blown out of proportion as a health risk and may actually confer some protection against early death. Mortality analyses from the Centers for Disease Control and elsewhere show that “overweight” people actually outlive those in the government-defined “normal” range. Other research makes it evident that diet and activity habits wield far more impact than weight on individuals’ health status. And, since diets don’t work, our government is spending millions of health “care” dollars on programs doomed to failure.

Even the well-meaning talk about obesity isn’t doing any good. It hasn’t made people thinner – and is downright damaging. Eating disorders, poor body image, stress and discrimination are collateral damage in our war against fat. Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or afraid of getting that way. That very stress can initiate or aggravate some so-called “obesity-related” conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, helping to explain why they’re often associated with weight.

For those who try to reduce, whether freelance or under doctor’s orders, only a tiny minority keep it off more than a couple years. Most regain the weight regardless of whether they maintain their diets or exercise programs. It is well-established that biological safeguards – some we understand and others we don’t – cause our bodies to resist long-term weight loss.

As for “try, try again,” that’s even worse: Weight-cycling has been found to cause some of the very conditions, like cardiovascular disease, weight losers seek to avoid. (Fat but stable-weight people log better outcomes.)

Evidence is scarce, in any case, that losing weight prolongs life – the vast majority of studies show that weight losers have decreased longevity, even when the loss is intentional.

Yet, anti-obesity “health” talk persists and there’s growing evidence that it leads to hateful bias towards’ fat people. Our national discourse fixates not so much on tackling disease as on getting rid of “the obese.” While government and medical authorities claim they’re focused on health, the real-world takeaway message is about people: that fat people are bad, gross and ugly. And now it’s not just “made in America:” Researchers from Arizona State University recently revealed that stigmatization has spread even in societies, like Samoa’s, that traditionally honored rotund shapes. When they internalize this shame, we learn in study after study, fat people are less likely to be active and take other steps to improve their health, in an endlessly negative spiral.

The real enemy, then, is not weight, but weight stigma. Fear of fat is much more harmful than actual adiposity, distracting us from true threats to our health and well-being. Let’s stop the demonization and switch our emphasis to Health At Every Size®, encouraging health-promoting behaviors for all.

[Scientific support for much of the above can be found in Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. Weight Science:
Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift, Nutrition Journal, 2011, 10(9) and Bacon, L., Health at Every
Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight
, BenBella Books, 2010.]


Dr. Lindo Bacon is an internationally recognized authority on health, weight and social justice, uniquely prepared by three graduate degrees to speak with authority across disciplines. Bacon’s work identifies the political, sociological, psychological and physical damages caused by body-based rejection and oppression. They provide strategies to build our resilience, to survive and thrive even as the world doesn’t treat us well – and to undermine the unjust system. Bacon goes beyond that too, helping individuals and groups arrive at that place of belonging and feeling welcome and valued in community. Bacon is author of Radical Belonging: How to Survive and Thrive in an Unjust World (While Transforming it for the Better), the bestseller Health at Every Size, and co-author of Body Respect. A compelling speaker, writer and storyteller, Bacon delivers a unique blend of academic expertise, clinical experience, and social justice advocacy, all couched in a raw honesty and compassion that touch and inspire.