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Things Fat People Are Told

Posted by tinako on May 26, 2011

I follow the Yale Rudd Center podcasts, and today I heard an interview with Dr. Samantha Thomas,which was about her research into fat stigma’s effects on overweight people, and how negative anti-obesity public health messages are often counterproductive.

She said from talking to obese individuals she found there were three main types of fat stigmas:

  1. Direct Stigma: Someone yelling at a fat pedestrian from a car.  Ridiculing a fat person in a pool.
  2. Environmental Stigma: Chairs too small, having to pay for two seats on an airplane, being weighed in the doctor’s waiting room.
  3. Insidious Stigma (I think that is the word she said): Self-consciousness of overweight person, assuming others are judging, for instance, contents of grocery cart when shopping.

She said the last stigma has the most impact on people, their health and well-being, but it was the combination of the three that was preventing people from engaging in activities such as social relationships or employment opportunities.  I was very moved in listening to her examples, and in considering what it must be like to be subject to this every day.

As I listened to this podcast and followed up by looking around Dr. Thomas’ blog, I was struck that many people would probably argue (and indeed do in the comments sections) that fat people should feel bad, that it will motivate them to fix their problem, and that obesity is a costly, unacceptable problem that we should not be tolerating.  Let’s restate that: we’re doing fat people a favor by ridiculing them.  Oooh, that doesn’t sound as noble, and as Kelly Brownell has said many times, how is that working for us?  How has shaming and blaming the obese, playing the personal responsibility card, worked to reduce obesity?  Turns out it hasn’t.

Let’s relegate the pillory and the stocks to the past and instead support people.  Fat bias is on the increase, and if we can agree that it is not helpful either for the victims or for the bullies, maybe we should think before we speak and also stand up against it, the same way we would speak out if we heard racial slurs shouted on our streets.

Curious about what you hear when you’re overweight?  Here’s an eye-opening sampling of Things Fat People Are Told.  For more on what it’s like to be obese, read Living Large.  For more on obesity in general see my Nutrition category.

4 Responses to “Things Fat People Are Told”

  1. Slim Em said

    This is so true. Sometimes when I go to the grocery store I feel like everyone is watching me.

  2. Well said Tina. Our entire population has to adjust its attitude, and more importantly increase its knowledge. Making dietary choices based on cost and convenience rather than quality and nutrition is leading us all down a disastrous path. We can’t wait for climate change or the transition out of a fossil fuel economy to force changes in our food system; if we are not prepared for these changes in advance we will not successfully evolve with them. A wonderful place to start would be to end government subsidies for corn, but health and nutrition have many fewer lobbyists and insiders than all the industries linked to corn. There are many paths forward; thanks for highlighting this excellent one!

  3. Thanks so much for listening to my chat with Kelly.

    If you would like to read more about the work I do you can go to my blog You will see there is a link to the studies we have published on fat stigma! Happy to send any across if anyone would like to read them!
    You can also follow me on Twitter @doc_samantha , or our specific Twitter feed on Fat Stigma @fatstigma.

    Thanks again for keeping the discussion going.


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