Taking Sizeism and Fatphobia Seriously

Sizeism (oppression based on body size) is rarely taken seriously in the United States. Sizeism devalues people whose body type does not meet some socially defined standard based on height, weight or shape — oppression based on weight is a significant area of concern.

Sizeism targets fat people as especially deserving of oppression. Under sizeism, fatphobia (hatred, harassment, exclusion and violence targeting people because of their body weight) is too often viewed as justifiable. That is, fatphobic derision is actually believed by many as a valid motivator for coercing people into losing weight. However, the sizeist claim that fatphobia is in the interest of the target's health is a lie. Sizeism and fatphobia are one thing and one thing only: tools of oppression.

The effects of sizeism and fatphobia include institutional discrimination involving health care, education or workplace situations, such as cases in which people are fired, denied a job or a promotion because of their weight. Interpersonal discrimination includes insults, abuse and harassment from others.

Promoting Anti-Fat Hate

A case study in sizeism and fatphobia is this billboard campaign launched in Jacksonville, Florida, by the nonprofit corporation PETA:

The fatphobic billboard reads: Save the Whales. Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian. PETA

Announcing the campaign was a press release claiming the billboard "reminds people who are struggling to lose weight ... that going vegetarian can be an effective way to shed those extra pounds that keep them from looking good in a bikini." The release cites claims that vegetarians on average weigh less than non-vegetarians before going on to note public health, environmentalism and the treatment of nonhuman animals as other reasons to "go vegetarian." The release then finishes by quoting Tracy Reiman, an executive vice president at PETA, as saying, "Trying to hide your thunder thighs and balloon belly is no day at the beach."

While there are valid personal/public health, environmental and nonhuman animal advocacy arguments for adopting a plant-based dietary system, none of these arguments are being made by this campaign. The fatphobia and sizeism used to refer to people who are fat and/or self-conscious about their weight as "whales" and refer to their bodies with terms like "blubber," "thunder thighs," and "balloon belly" needs to be recognized as perpetuating oppression, which has no place in a genuine campaign for the benefits of vegetarianism.

Furthermore, insults and harassment are not valid motivators to get someone to change their behavior, nor should body weight be viewed as simply the result of individual behavior — if weight is even to be viewed as a problem per se. There is no reason to take seriously PETA's claim that the billboard is a reminder to people struggling with their body weight or that the organization is at all sincere about public health, environmental justice, or ending the oppression of other animals. This campaign is apparently little more than a opportunistic excuse to exploit sizeism and engage in fatphobic insults for the organization's own narrow agenda and self-aggrandizement.

Healthy At Any Weight

The fatphobic insults of the PETA billboard campaign frame a vegetarian diet in a very punitive manner that encourages shame and self-hatred. Promoting vegetarianism as a form of dieting in order to look good in a bikini is contrary to cultivating positive, long-lasting changes in the way we meet our bodies' needs. Framing vegetarianism in sizeism and fatphobia is both harmful and counterproductive. Instead, I believe we need to encourage vegetarianism in a way that is anti-sizeist and body positive.

In short, an anti-sizeist, body-positive approach refuses to devalue people because of their weight, size or shape. It recognizes that everybody is deserving of respect.

Promoting speciesism, not challenging it

Indeed. Thanks for laying that out clearly. This campaign also manages to promote speciesism in three ways:

1) It promotes hatred of bodies. This plays into the mind/body split in which human superiority is based in our minds and our ability to overcome our "primitive" bodies. Anytime we devalue our bodies, we contribute to the devaluation of animals, who are associated with bodies rather than minds. If we felt more positively about our bodies, we wouldn't have such a need to separate ourselves from other animals.

2) It implies having blubber is a bad thing. Blubber is the natural way mammals such as whales and seals stay toasty in freezing water; it is healthy and essential. PETA applies their fatphobic ideas not just to humans, but to other animals as well. This is like another popular fatphobic insult, calling people cows, as though there's something wrong with being a cow.

3) It trivializes threats to the lives and well-being of actual whales. The phrase "save the whales" is typically associated with concern over the endangered nature of whales due to destruction of their oceans or to the hunting and murder of them. Yet PETA uses the systematic exploitation of whales not to draw attention to them, but as nothing more than a sizeist play on words.

Re: Taking Sizeism and Fatphobia Seriously

Ida and Noah have said it all.

One point I might add is the idea that changing a behavior out of fear of something bad (such as not fitting into societal expectations of body size) never lasts. Changing out of love of good, on the other hand, is permanent. That's why those who become vegan out of unselfed love of/respect for animals don't revert to their former flesh-eating ways. The PETA ad doesn't promote such pure motives or high ideals.

Well, ok, here's another comment: For many years, I was bulimic (there wasn't even a word for this "disease" back then). I loved food, or so I thought, and was afraid of "fatness," or so I thought. Only when I began to love myself as the reflection of our loving Creator did I find true satisfaction and serenity. I lost all abnormal interest in food and was able to fearlessly fill my fridge and cupboards with all manner of food -- and eat normal portions. I think that de-emphasis on the physical pleasure known as gluttony prepared me to stop being enslaved to eating flesh when, a decade later, I learned more about the wonders of animals and the horrors of how humans treat them.

In all honesty, I think there lurked in me a lingering disdain for "oversized" bodies (whatever THAT means), so I'm grateful for this discussion, because it has helped me be self-examining, reflecting -- and correcting in this area of my thinking. Thank you so much!

Re: Taking Sizeism and Fatphobia Seriously

Thanks for writing this because it has bothered me as well for quite sometime.

I am a slim person and I know I have never viscerally felt the pain of being hated because I am larger bodied.

Last chapter of Sistah Vegan talks about sizeism in veg/ar mainstream rhetoric.

I am also interested in how historically, the "fat black poor female" body has been socially constructed in a negative way to maintain the paradigm that the white middle class slim able body SHOULD be the benchmark of health that all should aspire to.