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Weight Stigma History

This past week was Weight Stigma Awareness Week, an important reminder for all of us to be mindful of how we treat people of all shapes and sizes.

Yet why is this stigma so pervasive? It is not simply about health concerns. It has a very moral focus, including beliefs that those overweight:

- are lazy

- lack willpower and self-discipline

- are not intelligent

And to be clear, these characteristics are applied to people not only in relation to weight control, but in all areas of life. For example, some people might hesitate to hire a fat person because of the assumed laziness and lack of intelligence. But why would anyone have this assumption?

Author Peter Stearns addresses the “why” question in his book Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, a fascinating delve into when, where, and how the opposition to fat came into play in America and France.

He talks some about the medical aspect, and how public opinion started to turn against fat when certain tests showed that excess weight contributed to some health conditions. But he also focused heavily on the moral aspect of weight stigma, something that I found more interesting.

Stearns argues that the stigma against obesity took on religious overtones – connotations of sin, guilt, punishment, judgments of food and eating as good and bad – once people started having greater freedom in other areas. Fat became a “secular sin,” with success resulting in “painful but rewarding control” even as other areas became more out of control.

Specifically, America became a more consumerist society. People began to heavily indulge their appetite for things, which had not previously been considered acceptable, so they needed some other way of establishing “moral credentials.” Dieting and weight-focus provided the perfect opportunity.

Stearns further commented that equating fat with laziness worked as a way of identifying those with good work ethics during a period when more leisure time and focus on consumerism directly opposed the Victorian middle-class work ethic. “By extension, an appropriately slender figure could denote the kind of firm character, capable of self-control, that one would seek in a good worker in an age of growing indulgence; ready employability and weight management could be conflated….” (p. 59)

Another area of freedom came with changes in women’s sexuality and clothing. Sexuality and dieting almost went hand-in-hand, since more revealing outfits, designed to be sexy, displayed more of the body, making women yearn for slim figures even more. This aspect of it focused more on women, and still does.

And the fact that people, men and women alike, eased up on religious discipline, encouraged them to reference eating and the very obvious result of heaviness or slenderness as examples of good character. This was a benefit “to those who might through diet salve their consciences, made somewhat uneasy by growing consumerist and sexual pleasure.” (p. 64)

Stearns offers many more examples and thoughts in the book, and although it doesn’t make weight stigma go away, I personally found it helpful to gain a greater understanding of the history of it. It provides me a better sense of what might prompt people to badly treat those overweight, and with that understanding, find the best ways to change those attitudes.

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