Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Gretel's weekly rant - have we become a fattist society?

Gretel Hallet is a Chocolate Fairy and writes a lot on this blog. Her next workshop is in Norwich on 9th April  If you live in the area and want to find out more about Beyond Chocolate, Gretel would love to hear from you!  Meet Gretel.

Have you heard of Marsha Coupe?  She’s a 53 year old American who lives in Kent and works in London.  Oh, and she happens to weigh in at 22 stone.  I hadn’t heard of her before I spotted an article on my internet homepage with the intriguing title, ‘The Tyranny of Thin People’ by Ian Dunt.  Anything to do with weight, shape or size interests me as a Beyond Chocolater and a Chocolate Fairy, so I looked the article up.
To my horror, I discovered that in 2009 Marsha Coupe was attacked on a train by another woman because of her weight.  She was hit so hard in the face that she thought she might lose her eye.  Since then, Marsha has joined other women to lobby for London to be less ‘fattist’; just as there have been public campaigns to make people more aware of racism, homophobia and other hate crimes.
The woman who attacked Marsha Coupe wasn’t caught, but is her attitude typical of how we think about people who have fat?  I would hope not, but would suspect it is. 
The title of the article by Ian Dunt, by the way, was a little misleading, but it did mention our society’s obsession with thinness and how, as a society in general, we stigmatise fat.  I think I may have said this before, but fat has become the new whipping boy for the NHS.  Not that long ago we were all told that if we wanted to be healthier, or if we wanted treatment, we would have to give up smoking.  Now we are being told to lose weight.
Fat is being blamed for all manner of ills in the country.  Lost working days, increased pressure on the NHS, even the reduction in the allowed weight of luggage on planes to compensate for the increased weight of passengers. 
People with fat are dismissed as too lazy and too stupid to make corrections to their diet that would allow them to maintain a more ‘normal’ weight.  The diet industry is blossoming in this culture of fattism, and yet, as a nation we are bombarded with statistics that tell us that 30% of adults are ‘obese’. 
I often wonder where these statistics are gathered from.  I have been in places in England where I am the largest person weight-wise as far as I can see.  In other places I feel positively under-nourished.  But isn’t what part of what diversity means?  That not everyone is the same?  There always have been some people who have more fat than others.  Everyone knows someone who eats for England and doesn’t gain a pound and someone else who eats moderately and has fat.  People are individuals, for goodness’ sake!
Apparently in San Francisco it’s actually illegal to discriminate against someone because of their size – in England an attack like the one Marsha suffered should be regarded as a Hate Crime, the same as if she had been attacked for being black, or gay for example.
Another article prompted by Marsha’s story in the BBC magazine cites Susie Orbach as saying in response to this story, ‘the assumption is that overweight people have lost their self-control. That frightens society because there is so much emphasis on being slim’, and I think she has a point.  We are a society obsessed with celebrity, youth, beauty, slimness and many people aspire to these ideals.  Anyone who doesn’t fit the ideal is therefore a target. 
Finger wagging messages from Government about ‘tackling obesity levels’ aren’t helping either, turning those with fat into society’s new pariahs. 

I don’t have a solution I’m afraid; I’m just putting this out there and would be interested to hear your views …


  1. I agree that we have become a fattist society. I was very saddened to see that 'The Biggest Loser' has made it over to the UK and is starting soon. That show is just an excuse for people who are thinner to watch the program and feel superior, while the contestants go through ritual humiliation. And this is of course OK -- because these people are fat and it's THEIR fault. What a horrible message to send out. I don't think the show is encouraging anyone to be healthy in their attitude and approach towards food and weight. The emphasis is squarely on losing weight at all costs (which I think is very dangerous health-wise), not on fixing their relationship with food. I hope people are starting to wake up to this sort of discrimination -- at some point we will look back and regard being fattist with the same horror as people today regard racism or homophobia.

  2. Yes I think 'fat' has become a dirty word and we are definitely living in a fattist society. There are the obvious examples of the revolving stories in women's magazines 'stars too thin', 'stars put on weight' 'size 16 and sexy!' (shock horror! size 16 and sexy who would have thought that was possible) and all the latest nutrition advice - carbs, no carbs, the evil sugar etc etc
    I'm a larger lass but I'm strong and fit, I walked two half marathons last year and a friend and I plan to do another in April yet I am an 'unacceptable' body shape and will probably die of a heart attack or get type two diabetes because I'm fat.
    So the short of it is I think western societies have reached an almost hysterical point about fat.

  3. Karen, Sheffield2 February 2011 at 14:03

    I agree with every word you write Gretel, and of those who commented on your 'rant'. But, being overweight DOES have consequences for ourselves and for others. I recently hurt my back moving a 23 stone patient on the ward where I work. The next day, in agony, we had to send for an ambulance for me. The female crew then had to lift all of my 16 stones over our front door step and up a steep slope to the ambulance. The excess weight of the 23 stone patient had contributed to my back pain and now my weight was putting this ambulance crew in the same position. So even if I'd been as fit as a fiddle and super healthy I would still have been very heavy for other people to manouvere me.....

  4. Thank you for your comments. I agree that being heavy does make life difficult for the person and for others - but there has to be a way of managing this without stigmatising or disapproving of the person involved. If it was easy to be thin, we'd all be thin ... but for some of us, it isn't that easy, and we deserve to live and work in a society that accepts that everyone is different and works with it, rather than making those with heavier bodies outcasts and pariahs ...
    I hope your back is recovering, Karen and wonder if you could seek some training or flag up to your managers about safe ways to move heavier people?

  5. We are trained to moved people, we have hoists, slide sheets etc but you have to get the hoist sling under the patient before you can hoist them! There's no way of moving large people effortlessly. Of course it's not that patient's fault that he's heavy, I, of all people, have every sympathy for him and felt his discomfort as we tried to move him. I will look for another job as my back won't take repeated moving and handling like we have to do. We are all individuals and should no more be identical in size than we should all have, say, blue eyes. But heavy patients are, inadvertantly, contributing to causing problems for others. I am one of those heavy people so I'm obviously not pointing the finger in an accusatory manner. Maybe moving and handling equipment needs updating? Reading recently about the bariatric ambulances the NHS are acquiring in some areas, maybe other devices may be invented so that these problems can be avoided.

  6. I would never - even verbally - attack someone for being fat (or black, or gay, or anything of the kind for that matter), but I can't help thinking privately that the vast majority of seriously overweight people can be held responsible for their weight. Nobody just wakes up one morning suddenly weighing 20 stone. Obesity rates in children are (thankfully) still way lower than in adults. That means that a substantial proportion of overweight people have not always been fat but gained weight as adults. And if you are an adult and start gaining excessive weight, this should be a signal that something is off with your eating and / or lifestyle - maybe you even have a health problem. Either way, in the vast majority of cases, you can do something about it. If, of course, you accept that it is primarily your responsibility to make changes and stop complaining about the "fattist" society we live in (which we do, of course, don't get me wrong here. But I still think that there is a difference between promoting stick-thin models and being critical of someone spilling into your seat on a plane...)

  7. Iv been a target of abuse by members of the public. The other weekend I encountered a horrible specimen of a man in car who tried to run me over when I had right of way as a pedestrian. On pointing this out I was subjected to a barrage of disgusting and vile swear words about my weight. To make matters worse he was hardly slim himself! People like this who abuse others must have low self esteem or confidence problems to act in such a way towards another human being.

  8. This is not the first time its happened to me either!

  9. I do agree with Karen that being really overweight can cause serious problems for other people, particularly in a hospital situation. Also being overweight really is responsible for ill health, lost working hours, pressure on the NHS etc I don't think you can really deny that.

    I completely agree that we live in a fattest society, and that we judge people's character based on their size. We make assumptions about people from looking at their body. I believe this is really horrid and wrong. However, I do think you have to acknowledge that being obese is not healthy and it causes problems. Dismissing obesity-related health problems simply as part of our "fattist society" seems to me to be a bit naive.

  10. As an overweight person I would like to thank Anonymous above for telling me it is all my fault. I really did not know this, and, of course, I am so happy to be this way that I have never tried to do anything about it.

  11. if it was easy to loose weight or to never put it on we would see nothing but thin people, as one who has lost and put on weight so many times I can tell you first hand it is more about whats in your head and the emotions that make us eat, diets dont work, they might do for a short amount of time but most people know that 98% of dieters put the weight back on and then some! people eat for a miriad of reasons, because they are sad, happy lonely, afraid or bored, people know they are over weight, they dont need to be told, what they need is understanding and love, the more you tell someone they are to fat, the more they will feel bad about them self and the more they will eat, yes, I know its not nice to be on the plane with someone taking up some of your seat etc, but do you think its nice for that person who is doing it, they are well aware of how you feel, as a person who has been yelled at from a passing car and various other times abused by complete strangers, I know what people think of me, but I also know Im a good person, with much to contibute to society, with children and a husband who loves me and I intend to feel wothwhile even if others feel the need to tell me otherwise,

  12. Kezza, you are 100% right.

    I'm so sorry Anon that you have to suffer sitting next to a bigger person. That must be really hard for you. I'll just stay indoors so I don't risk impeding on your space.

  13. I don't think that getting defensive is a helpful way of discussing things. I believe that we DO live in a fattist society, fat is one the last taboos, society feels free to be able to poke fun at and bully those who are heavier than the 'norm'. Whatever that may be. I am fat, overweight, even obese by society's definition of the word but that doesn't stop me from being realistic. Being heavy DOES cause problems for us and for others. End of. That doesn't mean we larger people don't deserve to be treated with respect, it doesn't mean we are lesser human beings than 'slim' people, it doesn't mean we should be discriminated against etc. But I know from first hand experience that my weight has caused ill health. I know obesity is blamed for practically everything these days and a lot of that blame is misplaced but obestiy DOES have an impact on ourselves and the people around us, mostly in the healthcare aspect.Sure, it affects me when someone thinks I'm a lesser being because I'm fat but not enough to start the self destructive behaviour of dieting because diets make me fat. But I care desperately that my weight is affecting my health, my work and those who have to care for me when I'm temporarily unable to move myself because of injury. I hope to reduce my weight by eating intuitively and my motivation isn't to gain acceptance in our fattist society, my motivation is my health, my physical and emotional well being and the knowledge that I'm not breaking the back of anyone who has to care for me in the future.

  14. Sharon, Bristol.5 February 2011 at 21:14

    Have you noticed that all this fattism is directed at the women in the population? I've yet to hear anyone make any fattist comments about men. If there's a piece in a newspaper about an overweight famous man, he's more likely to be decribed as being a 'roly poly' person, or 'cuddly'. Don't you think this is sexist too?

  15. I've been reading the post and comments - Gretel, you've certainly sparked up an interesting debate!

    I agree - we do live in a society that seems to equate thinness with success, beauty etc., and being an overweight person, I find I have to steel myself against such pressure. Why, only today, I helped myself to another portion of food, as I was HUNGRY, but I got some odd looks from the people around me, as if I was doing something wrong.

    Rather than saying 'it is your responsibility to make the changes', it would be more helpful to say that we all have the resources within ourselves to build a healthy relationship with food. I think that rather than berating people for apparently not trying to lose weight, it is important to help people to learn how to get back in touch with their own internal signals, as intuitive eating does.

    The other thing to remember that with all the mixed messages about body image, nutrition, exercise etc. that we're bombarded with every day, it's not as simple as just 'going on a diet' - people who are overweight and who want to lose weight may have to do a lot of work on themselves emotionally, in order to regain a healthy relationship with food. In fact, even though I'm overweight, I'd say that my attitude to food is much healthier than my 'slimmer' friends.

  16. Good point Sarada .... you do have a healthier attitude to food than many smaller people.

    I think the fattism takes the wrong approach. We need to remember that eating a lot of processed food and getting very little exercise is bad for us ALL. As Joy Nash says, fat acceptence is NOT about "sitting stuffing ourselves with junk food with our sweat pants stapled to the sofa". We all need to be eating well and getting regular exercise. There are plenty of people out there who are regarded as slim but who are incredibly unhealthy but they often get overlooked because "at least they're not fat". Never mind they may be smoking, binge drinking, engagins in eating disorder behaviours, and who knows what else.

    Eat well. Play well. Rest well. You won't go far wrong with those three mantras.

  17. Jenjam is so right.
    The focus needs to be taken OFF people with fat and applied to everyone.
    EVERYONE needs to eat healthily and exercise more and if we all did that there would still be some fat people and some thin people.
    But we'd all be much healthier and that's what we should be aiming for.

  18. Thanks JenJam!

    Yes, only recently, I was staying with Friend A, and we were talking about mutual Friend B, who we thought had a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the gym. I concluded that in the end, Friend B would have to make her own decisions, but many of us were a little bit concerned. To which Friend A said "Does she look like she's too thin?" And when I said, "I don't think so, but that's not really the point, is it?", Friend A just said "Well, I guess it's not really a problem then."

    Yes, regardless of our size, it's important to find the right balance of eating well and exercising.

  19. Thank you all for engaging so thoughtfully with my blog - it's great to read all your comments and see the ways you are working this out for yourselves.


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