Melissa Taylor, a 34-year-old Toronto resident who describes herself as plus-sized, says she’ll receive about 20 judgments about her body in a week. “Somewhere in between the ‘fat cow’ callouts, glances of pity, looks of disgust — especially if my arms are exposed, like now in the summer — and the smirks I often receive at restaurants and on the TTC if I’m about to sit next to someone.” At a certain point, Taylor says, she loses count and becomes numb to these transgressions. “It’s the only way not to burst into tears or scream in anger,” she says.
Taylor’s account of fat phobia, a societal bias against fatness that studies show has been increasing over time, is not unique. I know these types of experiences firsthand. For example, as a teenager, I was verbally assaulted by a man on public transit who sat next to me with a menacing dog. He took up a lot of space, and his dog stared at me as though I was its favourite food. It made me nervous, and as the man observed me fidgeting in my seat, he looked at me and yelled, “If you weren’t such a f*ing fat, black, b*tch, you wouldn’t be afraid of my dog.”
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No one came to my rescue. In fact, other passengers, both adults and youth, either laughed or simply looked away. Years later, I did a TED talk at York University recounting this experience.
Anti-fat discrimination is something many large people endure at the hands of loved ones, colleagues, employers, health professionals and strangers, and ranges from the well-meaning — like unsolicited advice from salespeople on “slimming” clothing — to the simply vile. Fat discrimination also presents itself when children are fat-shamed by parents, teachers and their peers.
Our bodies are our primary way of connecting with the world. We perceive and therefore interact with each other based on how we “read” each other. In a thin-centric world, fat bodies are erroneously perceived as failed citizens, and as unhealthy due to size and other fat myths. This feeds into a culture of hate, in which losing weight is wrongly sold to us as the answer to all of life’s woes.
Many see fat-shaming as a way to encourage fat people to lose weight. Instead, this type of body-based harassment endorses a social climate of violence against fat people. Somewhere in between these acts of “civic duty,” people often forget fat people are human, and deserve to live free of harassment and ridicule.
For instance in the workplace, fat people (particularly women and especially fat women of colour) are less likely to be hired and promoted than non-fat employees. Fat people are paid less on average than their thinner colleagues. We are more likely to be perceived as lazy, unable to complete physical tasks on the job, and less likely to be labelled as leaders.
According to Air Canada’s Fitness for Air Travel guidelines, fat people requiring extra seating for the reason of “obesity” must endure the humiliation of having their buttocks measured and recorded by an attending physician. Airplane seats were once larger, but in the name of securing more ticket sales, passenger comfort has arguably been abandoned by many airlines.
Fat is a description, like one’s height or shoe size. It is not a punishable crime or an invitation for hate. We deserve the human right to live without fear of our person being judged negatively in any given encounter merely because of our body’s appearance based on size, weight or shape.
The state of Michigan and six U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Washington, have laws protecting against weight discrimination. The U.K. government has also made considerable strides with its Body Confidence Campaign, politician demands for compulsory body image and media literacy education in schools, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s recent ban on body-shaming advertisements on public transit.
I would like to see similar steps toward change in Canada. In addition to co-founding the annual Body Confidence Canada Awards, which celebrates champions of body diversity across the spectrum, I am advocating to have size recognized and included in the Ontario Human Rights Code as a protected ground against discrimination, similar to race, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. With this change we can begin to close the wage gap between fat and non-fat people. An employee or student requiring accommodations such as armless chairs will no longer fear backlash. We will be able to hold individuals, companies and health care providers accountable for weight-based discrimination, exclusionary practices and subpar customer service.
I am not alone in my efforts to say goodbye to weight-based discrimination in this country. As a movement, fat activists have been working for over six decades to humanize fat people’s lives, place a face on our many stories and raise awareness about the effects of size discrimination, such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD and suicide and suicidal thoughts due to harassment and bullying, especially among children.
For example, body positivity project It Gets Fatter demonstrates fat phobia’s multi-layered impact on those of us already experiencing and struggling against other oppressions, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and ableism. Toronto-based initiatives such as M.Bodiment, Refashioning Masculinity and Deliciously Disabled work to challenge stereotypes about body image, masculinity and disability with public talks, educational campaigns, podcasts, consulting services and more.
Advocating for fat liberation has also meant shattering myths about weight loss and health, and endorsing the Health at Every Size (HAES) model as an alternative to unhealthy weight bias in health care and fitness. Body positivity advocates have been busy celebrating our lives and our bodies too, by creating spaces for acceptance, body confidence, and self-determination through community events, fashion blogging and presence in academia.
Living in a society where women and girls are consistently judged for their physical assets, it is no surprise that anti-fat weight- and body-based harassment is more often than not reported as affecting women and girls. Whether “too fat” or “too skinny,” our bodies are perpetually up for debate. However, we are not alone. Men and boys’ body issues and experiences of weight discrimination have often gone unnoticed because of the ironic trap that sexism also creates for men: a society where men and boys aren’t allowed to show emotions or openly discuss their equally complex relationships with their bodies.
Fat phobia affects us all, regardless of our size, whether you are the fat person discriminated against or the person living in fear of becoming the fat person discriminated against. It prevents us from living freer lives. When we move beyond the individual and begin to understand fat phobia as a social issue — systemically sanctioned behaviour that robs many fat people of dignified, safe and equitable treatment — we are able to see it as it rightfully is: as a human rights issue in need of protection.