Fatness and the fat stigma as a social issue

Fatness has been a subject of highly spirited discussion and commentary in the 2000s, both in Finland and globally. The topic has made its way seemingly everywhere – into health communication, various weight loss campaigns for everyone or scare-mongering headlines about fatness-related risks, discuss Hannele Harjunen, Associate Professor in Sociology of Sport.

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Fatness has been a subject of highly spirited discussion and commentary in the 2000s, both in Finland and globally. The topic has made its way seemingly everywhere – into health communication and education, various weight loss campaigns for everyone, scare-mongering headlines about fatness-related risks, exploitation of fat people in entertainment such as various competitive weight loss and body transformation shows on television, and the body positivity movement and fat activism that have become mainstream in recent years. Fatness certainly gives us no end of discussion topics.

From a health standpoint, obesity, as fatness is named in the medical sphere, has long been a talking point, but fatness has only become an omnipresent phenomenon in recent decades. The increased intensity of the discourse has been driven in part two significant changes, or paradigm shifts, happening in both research and the public discourse at the turn of the millennium.

One major factor was WHO publishing reports highlighting obesity as one of the major global health issues and risks that required action on a global scale. This caused a wave of heated obesity-related discourse, research, and actions.

Obesity was talked about like an epidemic disease spreading through the world. This so-called obesity epidemic discourse quickly began to dominate the conversation. Fatness was said to threaten e.g., countries’ national economies, public health, and national defence capacity, and fat people were blamed for issues including climate change, the oil crisis, and world hunger.

National plans of action and campaigns were launched to prevent and reduce fatness. Some methods were clearly punitive. For example, people in the United Kingdom have been threatened with losing their social benefits or custody of their children. This phase of the fatness discourse, which exhibited moral panic characteristics, has been called “fat panic”.

The second major change relates to fatness research itself. Midway through the first decade of the 2000s, fatness research information began to make its way outside the medical field, which up until then had practically dominated it.

The biomedical outlook on fatness, or obesity, has been narrow and approached fatness through obesity as a disease, its treatment, and its health risks. In this context, fat people are portrayed as targets of action, suffering from an illness and requiring medical treatment.

As is finally understood nowadays, fatness is not and has never been simply a health or medical science issue. It is always a social issue with its own social, political, and economic connotations.

Fatness has a strong stigma attached to it, which negatively affects people’s experiences and treatment in society. Fatness is also always an intersectional issue. For example, gender, skin colour, and disability are traits whose effects combine with each other.

Therefore, fatness is connected to other issues pertaining to social justice such as sexism, racism, and ableism. However, the aforementioned social dimensions of fatness remained under-researched and unappreciated for long.

Until the second half of the 1990s, a considerable amount of information about fatness, such as fat people’s personal experiences of living as a fat person or the social consequences, extent and significance of the fat stigma remained out of the scientific eye.

More all-encompassing research of fatness took until the 2000s to become common. Today, fatness is studied in social, sports, and legal sciences and humanities, to name a few disciplines.

In addition to research within different fields of science, the last decade has seen the development of a field specifically focused on multidisciplinary research on fatness, known as “fat studies” or occasionally “critical fat studies”. It has gained a foothold especially in Anglo-American academia. It should be noted that more critical voices are also emerging within the biomedical research tradition, recognising the multifaceted nature of fatness.

The fat stigma

In recent years, both research and public discourse have particularly emphasised the fat stigma and its effects. A stigma refers to an attribute with a highly negative social effect on a person or group of people. Fatness has been identified as a considerably stigmatising attribute, which may lead to extremely severe consequences for an individual.

The stigma associated with fatness is multilayered. On the one hand, fatness is stigmatising because of one’s appearance differing from normative body sizes, but also because fatness – i.e., fat people – are stereotypically associated with characteristics considered socially and morally dubious or condemnable, such as laziness, passivity, and lack of self-control.

It is at least implicitly assumed there is a causal link between fatness and the aforementioned traits, practically meaning these traits make people fat. This individualistic and stigmatising mentality has perpetuated the idea of fatness as a personal problem the individual must address on their own. Thus, the underlying social, financial, and political factors contributing to fatness are ignored.

It can be said fat stigmatises a person multiple times, and all these levels are interconnected. Attitudes towards fatness and fat people, whether at an individual or institutional level, are often driven and defined by normalised and “naturalised” prejudice and even outright fatphobia.

It appears the neoliberal efficiency, performance, and metric-focused mentality that extends to intimate parts of life such as the body and people’s relationship with their bodies has become the predominant social and cultural trend in the 2000s, making fatness an even more objectionable trait.

For example, public discourse has been calling fat people inefficient, unproductive, and expensive for the national economy. Indeed, the obesity epidemic discourse could be considered medically-morally-economic. The desire to control body size, whether at an individual or societal level, is not simply about better health or wellbeing but also what is seen as a socially acceptable appearance or a virtuous and proper way of life and actions.

The consequences of the fat stigma

The consequences of the fat sigma are far-reaching, permeating our entire culture. The obesity epidemic discourse has stigmatised fatness even further. It has had a considerable influence on notions about fatness as an issue and attitudes towards fat people.

To name a few examples, the fat stigma is apparent in prejudice, negative stereotypes, inappropriate treatment, discrimination, bullying, and a weight loss culture permeating one’s entire life, all targeted at fat people. Fat people experience the effects of the stigma in all major aspects of their lives, such as working life, healthcare, education, hobbies, and social relationships in general.

Fat women in particular experience discrimination in working life, in terms of salary, career advancement, and recruitment. Fat people frequently feel they encounter inappropriate and prejudiced treatment in healthcare services. Fat people experience harassment when exercising in public.

In the media, fatness and especially eliminating fatness is considered core content. Weight loss programming, marketed as family entertainment in the name of wellbeing, offer an effective way to always guide a new generation towards fear of fatness and weight loss culture.

People living in fatphobic cultures and societies adopt the criticism of fatness early on. It is crucial to recognise that antagonistic and negative attitudes towards fatness do not just affect fat people, but also everyone within the influence of such attitudes. These days, even nursery-aged children are critical of their body size, which continues on to their teens and adulthood.

Studies have also indicated that the fat stigma affects both physical and mental wellbeing. The fat stigma is often associated with feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety, and a link to eating disorder behaviour, avoiding exercise, and other health-related consequences has also been found.

It has also been observed that many of the health issues often linked to fatness can also be linked to the fat stigma. The fat stigma can be seen in daily life as striving for thin appearance norms, monitoring or restricting eating, continuous weight loss attempts or constantly measuring oneself, or compulsive exercise.

Due to the far-reaching negative effects of the fat stigma, responsible discussion about fatness is important, with special care taken to ensure a non-stigmatising manner of speaking.

Early January 2023 saw the end of the two-year joint project between the Finnish Heart Association, the University of Jyväskylä, and the Eating Disorder Association of Finland, funded by the Finnish Government: Kohti vastuullisempaa ja eettisempää painopuhetta ja -käytäntöjä (Towards More Responsible and Ethical Weight Discourse and Practices).

The project explored the individual and structural factors upholding and generating the stigma, experiences of people targeted by the fat stigma, and the effects of both. Information and practices concerning fat people, treatment of fat people, social factors such as discrimination, moral evaluation, and cultural fatphobia were placed under investigation.

Particular attention was given to healthcare and sports, the media and policymakers, and their understanding of the fat stigma.

When talking about the fat stigma, we must remember fatness cannot be discussed in a stigmatising manner without that stigma also moving to discussion about fat people. Talking about fatness and weight are a way to uphold and generate the fat stigma but can also be an opportunity to alleviate the stigma. Words take shape and become practices.

English translation: Marko Saajanaho

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