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Discrimination against fat people is real. Here’s how I’m dealing with it.
Aubrey was standing in the produce section of her local grocery store when a stranger reached into her cart, pulled out a melon, and said “Ah, you don’t need the sugar”. The Aubrey in this story is Aubrey Gordon, a self described “fat woman about town”, and as she discusses in her hit podcast Maintenance Phase, ugly stories like these are common if you happen to find yourself fat in America.
I began listening to Maintenance Phase shortly after it started in 2020, and it’s been an eye opener. Over the past 40+ episodes, Aubrey and co-host Micheal Hobbes tackle how anti-fat bias courses through the veins of our society through misinformation, grifters looking to make a buck, and reinforcement from the ever present weight loss industry. They debunk spurious claims through tremendous academic rigor, unearth the absurd origin stories that inform our beliefs about fatness, all while being incredibly funny and witty.
I was drawn to learn more about the uniquely terrible experience of being fat in America, and what follows are my key takeaways from season one, episode 6, titled “Anti-fat bias”.
It’s hard to be fat in our society
Fat people have to endure a punishing layer of existence that thin people rarely have to think about, if ever. The world is designed for thin people, and you don’t have to look beyond the size of airline seats and restaurant booths to see how. Anti-fat bias expresses itself in business policies, social prejudice, and unsurprisingly, in socio economic indicators like lower pay for the same work, and diminished career potential.
Can you imagine getting kicked off of a flight because of your body? To avoid complaints from fellow passengers, which is the first step to being escorted off the flight, Aubrey describes how getting ready to fly is a massive, stressful production. To ensure she won’t have to get up during the flight, she avoids drinking any liquids on the day of travel. She pays extra to board early and sit next to a window, so that people won’t have to squeeze past her. She brings her own seat belt extender so that she won’t have to suffer the humiliation of having to ask for one in front of an audience of people who don’t want her there in the first place. Understandably, she takes anti-anxiety medicine, intended for panic attacks, to help cope with the stress and ridicule of flying.
Being fat amplifies other forms of discrimination that you might already face. For instance, losing weight can be a precondition to scheduling gender affirming surgery, despite the fact that weight loss is wholly unrelated to the procedure taking place. The requisite ‘fat talk’ that doctors feel compelled to give patients often prevents them from addressing the actual health issues that drove the patient to make an appointment in the first place.
Fatness can even be used against you in a court of law. During the trial of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who was choked to death by a police officer in 2014, the defense asserted that Garner’s death was inevitable, and therefore could not have been the fault of the cop. Here’s the quote shared during the episode: "He died from being morbidly obese. He was a ticking time bomb that resisted arrest. If he was put in a bear hug, it would have been the same outcome." Fat discrimination successfully deflected the assertions of clear racial discrimination, and the officer didn’t receive any punishment as a result.
Most of us don’t realize how we’re part of the problem
Like fish unaware of the water they live in, most of us are unaware of the negative views and reactions that color our thinking about fat people. Is it any surprise though, when we've been surrounded by anti-fat messages and ideas for decades? If you’ve ever heard of the 'war on obesity' or the 'obesity epidemic’, then you know what I mean.
Aubrey points out that much of the anti-fat bias that exists comes from talking about fat people, instead of talking with fat people. Prior to listening, I felt discomfort in using the word ‘fat’ in everyday conversation, thinking of it as some kind of negative indictment on a person’s character. Maintenance Phase helped me recognize the offensive premise that this flawed logic was built on.
As our opening story shows, society doesn’t bristle or condemn a thin person for admonishing a fat person for being fat. And while not every thin person is a bully, nearly everyone is content to silently watch anti-fat bullying as it happens. Silence is acceptance.
Just as there’s little sympathy for a fat person being publically mistreated, we often come up short when a fat person reaches out for support. It’s not uncommon for thin people to react to stories like the one about the melon with skepticism, asking "but is that really what happened? I think that lady was just trying to help you." This kind of insensitive feedback leaves a fat person feeling dejected for a second time, and when this negative feedback cycle plays out over enough experiences, fat people naturally begin to wonder they're just wrongly interpreting their experience altogether. It’s textbook gaslighting.
It’s a cruel fact of the world that most of us still require the shock that comes from a victim, reliving their trauma in a public forum like a podcast, to finally see how the world works for people with the short end of the stick.
What to do from here?
The host’s steadfast belief that no one should have to suffer a diminished quality of life because of how their body looks, or what it can do has become a north star in helping me determine how to be a better person in the world.
Aubrey shares a story where she and a friend are being shown to a table at a restaurant, and upon seeing that they’re headed for a small booth, her friend points out that the table “won’t work for my friend.” In that moment, the friend validated Aubrey’s humanity while simultaneously snapping the hostess out of the obliviousness that led to a needless seating choice that would have excluded Aubrey. Though it’s a small act, powerful moments like this only become possible when we begin to see things from a fat person’s point of view.
Asking myself how I can show up for fat people in my daily behavior has been a humbling and transformative experience. It’s never fun to reflect on how I’ve been part of the problem in the past, but doing my part to make a world where we all feel like we have a seat at the table feels worth it.