The Perils Of OBESITY DISCRIMINATION

The U.S. population is now at least two thirds overweight, with those designated as obese by BMI and other measures being the fastest growing group within this category.  It has been predicted that nearly one in two children will be overweight by the end of this year.   Obese children are the targets of ridicule, bullying, social exclusion and the like.  They are victimized by their peers, teachers, and other adults; even by members of their own family.  They are more negatively stigmatized as a group than kids with any other characteristic for which they might be targeted, be it race, ethnicity or some other defining characteristic.  The weight bias suffered by children is staggering, tragic and entirely avoidable.

Unfortunately, the prejudice-if not abuse-suffered by overweight children is not limited to them exclusively.  Many who are obese, whether overweight as children or not, often wrestle with body hatred, embarrassment–if not humiliation and shame, self-loathing and self-contempt, depression, damaged self-esteem and a range of missed or lost opportunities.  They suffer job discrimination, denial of job advancement opportunities and relationship frustration.  They are excluded from a host of social and economic opportunities simply because of their weight, size and appearance, regardless their intellect or substance, character or charm.  Most, if not all, of this prejudice and the obvious accompanying painful emotional fallout would never be an issue in a more sensitive, caring, understanding and embracing society.  Sadly, we have light years to go in accomplishing this in the one that we call home to Americans of all shapes, colors and ethnic origin.

Just listen to Linda who recently responded to an OH request for examples of weight discrimination that they suffered. Linda blogged in frustration, “I had been debating on surgery for a few years. In September 2009, I went to Tokyo, Japan. Because I am a large person, I got dirty looks from people on the airplane, comments were made on the subway and I was generally ignored if I had a question or wanted to buy something. I felt invisible. At 300 pounds, it was humiliating.  The day after I landed in the US, I called and scheduled my seminar and had RNY December 15th.  I plan to go back to Japan in May. I don’t think I’ll get ignored or receive the scathing looks I did in September.?  How ironic that the larger one’s size, the more invisible the obese individual so frequently becomes to others.  How sad to think that Linda must rush to a physician to alter her body in order to feel accepted by others, whether in this society or abroad.

How about thisbe777 who reflected about  being denied a job opportunity despite her obvious qualifications?  She commented, “Back around 1981 I was in the process of moving to another state and with the help of a friend who lived there, lined up a job in a lounge as a bartender/cocktail waitress.  I had been to bartender’s school, had experience doing both jobs, and was pretty darn good at it from what I’d been told.  The manager told me over the phone that they had a job available and really needed someone who could wait tables and work the bar.

When I arrived, I went down to meet her and to get things started.  When I got there I noticed that all the employees wore tight, low cut little striped shirts and white jeans.  The manager looked at me (I was about a size 18), then tersely informed me that they had no job openings.  I guess she didn’t think I’d look too great in their little outfits.  All I could say was that it was her loss, because I could have worked circles around anyone else there.?
There is plenty of data now available clearly showing that those with weight difficulties are often discriminated against in a host of settings.  We know that this kind of bias can significantly harm the physical and psychological well being of individuals while decreasing their willingness to get help and stick to whatever aids and loss/maintenance strategies are available.

Another unnamed OH respondent painfully captured this with their comments. “I was fired from a job. My boss’s boss made him fire me. When I asked my boss (and mentor) why his boss seemed to hate me his reply was ‘Well some people relate fat to lazy’...it was chilling....and while at the time a crushing blow that made me hit rock bottom, now I see it as a pivotal turning point and I’m so much better off not working there.?

Those deemed obese by a variety of conventional standards are routinely insulted and ridiculed both subtly and in more obvious and blatantly disrespectful and damaging ways.  They are often identified as “lazy, stupid, incompetent, and unqualified? and given many other hurtful and inaccurate labels.  In fact, consider for a moment the highly popular and successful network television show The Biggest Loser.  This prime time program does a terrific job of pulling at our heartstrings while championing the successful and often dramatic non surgical weight loss of the contestants.  Yet, some have rightfully criticized it for promoting “unhealthy, unrealistic and unaffordable weight loss regimes.? Furthermore, it “reinforced that being obese is an individual’s fault and that individuals should take personal responsibility for weight loss.?  The show was chastised in that it “promoted a simplistic notion that obesity is caused by binge eating and a lack of exercise?.  Finally, The Biggest Loser “perpetuated damaging, negative social stereotypes of people living with obesity.?

Consider for a moment the title of this show.  An interesting double entendre, don’t you think?  What associations do you typically conjure in your head when you think of a person as being a “loser??  Nothing flattering I would venture.  The show’s title communicates a message, whether intended or not, that influences our perceptions and attitudes about those struggling with obesity.  It risks fostering a mindset that furthers our negative associations with this population of folks that is accounting for a larger percentage of the U.S. population as we enter this new decade. 

As recently as this morning, I was driving to the office listening to the radio, channel surfing for a brief moment when I happened upon a nationally syndicated radio host hawking the merits of a well known weight loss system.  The host suggested, and not too subtly mind you, something to the effect that if one wanted that next promotion, shedding about twenty to thirty pounds with the help of this weight loss program would certainly grease the job advancement wheels.  And therein lies the rub, a massive and corrosive societal problem that harms countless obese individuals.  We as a culture have learned to all too frequently value style over substance, outward appearance over competence, and the shapely over the supposed unsightly.  We brand those overweight with discriminatory labels that do nothing to promote wellness, only shame and wasted talent.   So many of us are guilty of sleepwalking our way through life; mindlessly loyal to the toxic assumptions that drive how we interact with our fellow man and woman.  There really are no phrases that aptly characterize the cruelty and wounding that the obese individual suffers at the hands of others.  Even the descriptor “obese? itself, has negative connotations.  All one has to do is reread the blogs of those brave folks referenced earlier to realize just how malignant a process obesity discrimination can be.

So how should obesity discrimination be addressed?  The answer on an individual basis may lie within the comments of those who were quoted above.  Those who are comfortable within their skin, regardless their size or appearance are more likely to value themselves with immunity from the hurtful prejudice of others.  Tackling this issue on a societal level is of a magnitude and challenge that space here does not permit.  There is no doubt that so many of you who have read this article may have an opinion one way or another; something that might foster another article at a later date, a forum to include your ideas and suggestions.  What do you think?

Stephen Ritz, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing in Decatur, Georgia feels privileged to have worked with WLS patients for nearly twelve years now. Dr. Ritz may be reached at 770-270-5488 or [email protected]

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