I recently read The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates, and even though she didn’t talk about weight discrimination as a form of oppression, I couldn’t help thinking about it.
If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s about Melinda Gates’s experiences of gender equality – or usually inequality – in her personal life but mostly in her work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The book focuses on the importance of education for girls, knowledge of family planning, and access to contraception, all with the goal of finding ways to lift women up.
Why girls and women?
Why the focus on women?
“Understanding [the link] between women’s empowerment and the wealth and health of societies is crucial…. If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It’s the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.” (p. 27)
The problem is, women are often marginalized. They’re not taught to speak up for themselves or believe they have the same rights as men.
This changes when girls and women develop a new self-image.
“This is the secret of an empowering education: A girl learns she’s not who she’s been told she is. She is the equal of anyone…. This is how the great movements of social change get traction: when outsiders reject the low self-image society has imposed on them and begin to author a self-image of their own.” (p. 108)
This sounds wonderful, and Gates shares examples of where this is happening in other cultures.
What about weight bias?
But I couldn’t help thinking, what about girls in U.S. schools who don’t have an empowering education because of their weight? Whose experience in school reinforces for them that their body size and shape is the defining aspect of their life?
This is a very real issue. It’s not specific to girls and women, but it affects women disproportionately.
Consider that one study found weight discrimination to be as common as racial discrimination – especially for women.
What makes this even worse is that women experience this discrimination with a lower percentage of weight gain compared to men. This means that a woman who weighed 130 pounds will face more discrimination if she gains 20 pounds than a man who weighed 180 and gained 30 pounds, even though the percentage of gain is about the same.
Where does weight discrimination show up?
Unfortunately, this hits hard in all areas of life:
Education: Students who are overweight are bullied and may also face bias from teachers and other adults in school.
Employment: People who are overweight are more likely to be overlooked for hiring and promotion, have lower wages, and are at a higher risk of losing their jobs.
Healthcare: I’ve written about this before, but doctors are often prejudiced against people who are overweight, leading to misdiagnosis and the tendency to ignore symptoms. This also means heavy people may avoid doctors and risk complications from untreated conditions.
Relationships: The impact of weight in romantic relationships is almost always negative, which most of us know, but the problem goes far beyond romance. Weight can be a huge issue in family relationships, as I know too well, and even with friends.
Of course, any of us who’ve been on the receiving end `know all this anyway. But the people on the other side may need the studies to understand the problems.
How do we lift out of weight bias?
In terms of changing things, though, studies don’t always help. They don’t give people any real experience of what this means.
It got me thinking of some of the techniques Gates described to change attitudes about gender discrimination, especially role-playing. One of the most effective ways of changing gender dynamics was to have women and men exchange roles, so the women got to boss the men around.
Maybe we need more people to experience the world in a larger body. I don’t mean everyone should gain weight, but maybe more people should try wearing a padded suit like some actors do for their roles. Even a day would give them a taste of what this is like, but longer would be better.
It also helps to have women support each other. In a discussion about sex workers in India, Gates talked about how starved the women were for human touch, to be treated with dignity. Things didn’t start getting better until they connected and supported each other.
As Gates wrote: “When women are trapped in abuse and isolated from each other, we can’t be a force against violence because we have no voice. But when women gather with one another, include one another… we find our voices with one another. We create a new culture – not one that was imposed on us, but one we build with our own voices and values.” (p. 257)
This may not seem to relate to weight, but it does.
Make no mistake that heavy women are isolated in our culture. You’re not supposed to spend time with other people who are fat, unless you’re all trying to lose weight.
And in general, almost any gathering of women will include discussion of diets and exercise and trying to change their bodies – and potentially shaming women who don’t join in but don’t fit the ideal.
It makes me think we should have places where women of all sizes can gather and simply share their experience, give and receive hugs, and be supportive. Not a place focused on changing their bodies or how they eat, just somewhere to be accepted as they are.
Widening the circle of inclusion
We face so many challenges to inclusion these days that talking about the problems of women with larger bodies could feel like a first-world problem.
But it’s all part of the same issue.
“Every society says its outsiders are the problem. But the outsiders are not the problem; the urge to create outsiders is the problem.” (p. 259)
This is as true for weight discrimination as it is for sexism, racism, and xenophobia – particularly when you consider how entwined these are, with women bearing the brunt of the weight bias.
Excluding and isolating women because of weight, or even fear of gaining weight, robs them of their power and voice. Like the girls Gates talked about, we need to help all women find a new self-image.
Imagine if all heavy women learned that they’re not who they’ve been told they are. That they’re equal to anyone, heavy or thin, with the same rights as anyone else.
Can you imagine?
We’re certainly not there yet, but working to lift these women is important. Not only for the individuals, but because of how this ripples out.
Once women of all sizes find their own power, they can help to lift even more people.
Have you seen this happen, or have any ideas how to do it? I’d love to hear it!
As for me, I’ll continue to share my thoughts about this with anyone willing to listen, and maybe even those not willing to listen, in the hopes of at least starting the conversation.