Fat people need more acceptance, less judgement


Photos By YAP CHEE HONG

The discrimination fat people face manifests in many ways, like how many spaces, such as restaurants and education institutions, do not have seating for fat bodies. Photo: Allgo/Unsplash

Discrimination and lack of access to medical facilities and treatment are among the main issues faced by fat people, says My Fat Squad co-founder Dorian Wilde, 36.

“There is a deep social stigma that equals ‘fat’ to unhealthiness and laziness. Fat people are thought of as being unproductive, and as fat advocates, our goal is to change that wrong mindset,” says Dorian.

“When employers see a fat person, they immediately think that person won’t be effective or efficient in their work, which is why a lot of fat people tend to ‘do more’ to compensate so that they don’t get mis-categorised as lazy or unproductive,” he says.

Often, the moment a fat person steps into a medical facility, they’re judged for being fat and the interaction is focused on their weight, says Dorian.Often, the moment a fat person steps into a medical facility, they’re judged for being fat and the interaction is focused on their weight, says Dorian.Because there are no laws that prohibit discrimination against fat people, the stigmatisation persists, he adds.

“There are studies to show that people who are fat tend not to get hired as much as people who aren’t fat, and those who do get hired, aren’t paid as much.”

My Fat Squad is a community for fat people that Dorian and five other friends co-founded about four years ago. It is a safe space to talk about issues they face and also get information on fat-friendly spaces, doctors, services and so on.

Barriers to healthcare, he says, are a big issue faced by fat people.

According to Dorian, the “medicalisation of fat bodies” keeps fat people from being able to access healthcare.

“The moment a fat person steps into a medical facility, they’re judged for being fat and the interaction is focused on their weight.

“They (doctors) will tell you that your medical issue is caused by your weight, even if it isn’t,” he says.

“Health isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. Everyone deserves access to healthcare. Most people think that fat people are fat because it’s ‘their own fault’, that our weight is something we’ve lost control of and we need to take control of it through diet or exercise. And not taking control of it is a failure on our part,” says My Fat Squad co-founder Jaskirath Sohanpal, 36.

But, actually, there are many factors in place: A person’s fatness could be due to hormonal or metabolism issues which can’t be easily controlled, she highlights.

“Health isn’t caused by one thing alone. It's affected by many determinants such as whether you had access to good nutrition as a child, access to a playground (safe spaces to play) and whether your parents had time to bring you to the playground or maybe they were busy working ... we can’t judge another person’s background,” she says.

A gendered issue

Jaskirath points out that women who are fat face worse discrimination than men.Jaskirath points out that women who are fat face worse discrimination than men.Jaskirath points out that women who are fat face worse discrimination than men.

“Fat women (more than men) face a higher degree of scrutiny because the expectation from society is that women need to be desirable. In a patriarchal society, people often have the perception that the only thing women have to offer is their appearance, that our value is based on being dateable and marriageable,” she says.

And though it’s common for fat people to be “advised” to lose weight – go on diets, work out more, go for medical interventions, data shows that forced weight loss programmes don’t work in the long run, she adds.

“80-90% of the people who lose weight, put the weight back on, and some put back even more. It’s an endless vicious cycle,” says Jaskirath.

“Repeated dieting is even worse for your health because it messes with your metabolism and digestion, and it's bad for your mental health to hinge everything about your life on the size of your body,” she says.

Psychologist Traci Mann, who has spent 20 years running an eating lab at the University of Minnesota in the United States, says that the science of obesity has shown that long-term weight loss happens to a very small minority of people.

In a report by Canadian news outlet CBC news, Mann said: “only about five percent of people who try to lose weight ultimately succeed, according to research. Those people are the outliers, but we cling on to their stories as proof that losing weight is possible."

Read more: Tired of being ignored and judged, My Fat Squad was formed as a community to advocate for fat people

What is fat?

'Fat' is a descriptive term - similar to thin, tall or short - and shouldn’t carry any negative connotations, says Vilashini. Photo: Dr Vilashini Somiah 'Fat' is a descriptive term - similar to thin, tall or short - and shouldn’t carry any negative connotations, says Vilashini. Photo: Dr Vilashini SomiahUniversiti Malaya senior lecturer and anthropologist Dr Vilashini Somiah says that there are both medical and social definitions of what fatness is.

“Medically, doctors use BMI as a fat calculator and anything above 25 is considered fat. But, there’s also a social definition which depends on how a community functions. For example, in agricultural communities, being larger means strength and productivity. The opposite might be true in an urban setting where a uniform thinness is desired,” she says.

Vilashini shares her own personal experience as a person who has “lived a majority of (her) life as a fat person”.

“Today, I’m still considered by doctors to be overweight as I fall in the category of light obesity to overweight. But I’ve been morbidly obese (where the numbers can no longer capture the weight),” she shares.

“I’ve had this problem since I was a child. And, before the blame fell on me as an adult, the blame fell on my mother who wasn’t a fat person. She was slim, healthy, and had great mobility, so people questioned how a thin and healthy person could give birth to a fat child,” she reveals.

Vilashini, however, discovered in her early 20s that what caused her to be fat was polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

“I had spent a lot of time trying to lose weight because we’re often inundated with the thought that we’re not going to be worthy of anyone’s attention or get what we want in life because of our excess weight," she says. “But no matter how much I worked out and no matter how many diets I tried, I couldn’t lose any weight because of my medical condition."

Yet, throughout her life, she has had people telling her to lose weight, constantly.

“If you’re fat, chances are, you’ve been hearing people tell you that since you were a child, and you’re probably tired of hearing it."

“When we say this to a visibly fat person, we inadvertedly create an image of social failure for the fat person."

“They may do well at work or academically. They may lead very good lives, be leaders in their communities and within their own circles, but that one sentence negates all their efforts and success, because the focus is only on the fact that they weren’t in control of their body,” says Vilashini.

Fat phobia and fat advocacy

Sometimes, fat phobia isn’t just directed at others but also one’s own self, says Farizah..Sometimes, fat phobia isn’t just directed at others but also one’s own self, says Farizah..Fat phobia is so deeply entrenched in society, says Dorian, and this affects the way people react and respond to fat people.

“A fat baby is cute, a fat toddler is still acceptable, but a fat child isn’t. There are parents who force their fat children to go on diets. And in school, they’re bullied for being fat by other children,” he says.

And sometimes, fat phobia isn’t just directed at others but also one’s own self, says My Fat Squad co-founder Farizah Ahmad.

“Fat phobia is any idea or concept that you attach to fatness that is negative, even if it’s to yourself, such as telling yourself, ‘I don’t want to be fat’."

“Some people justify their fat phobia saying they’re not forcing others but just themselves to adhere to a certain weight. But these values will translate into how you treat other people whether you like it or not."

“There’s fat phobia on an individual level, and also on a systemic level like how schools are designed or medical curriculum is taught in universities,” says Farizah.

Trying to counter these negative narratives are social movements such as the fat advocacy movement – similar to the fat acceptance movement – which promotes the elimination of any social stigma associated with fatness.

One method of advocacy is pointing out the obstacles fat people face daily.

“This includes people’s negative attitudes towards fat people. It also highlights challenges faced by fat people and the areas include medical, legal and aesthetics,” says Vilashini, who teaches a class about gender, sexuality and fatness at UM.

She says that “fat” is a descriptive term and shouldn’t carry any negative biases.

“It should be used in the same way as other terms to describe people such as thin, short or tall. We mustn’t put any ill intent on the word fat because that causes stigma and discrimination towards fat people,” she says.

“Fat acceptance means that we need to realise that fat people exist, they have lives that are equal to people who are not fat," she adds.

“They face challenges because of the stigmas that have been created by society and we need to eliminate those stigmas because fat shouldn’t be a bad word," she concludes.


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