Last week, Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, was shot four times by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio (NYTimes). As we’ve written previously, adultification bias influences how young Black girls are seen as older and more threatening than they are. But it’s also important to understand how anti-fat bias magnifies violence against Black communities and that anti-fat sentiment is just as ingrained in Western culture as other forms of oppression.
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Fatphobia is rooted in racism and white supremacy. As the transatlantic slave trade grew in the early 1800s, colonies were introduced to African people of all sizes and body types. Race scientists started to create false correlations between curvier body sizes of African people – particularly African women – and their characteristics, suggesting that they were promiscuous, greedy, and aggressive. These stereotypes placed people that demonstrated them at the bottom of the social hierarchy and used them to justify the enslavement and discrimination against those villainized for it. These perceived behaviors were also discouraged in Protestantism, a form of Christianity popular during this time that celebrated moderation, not excessive consumption. So both religion and slavery greatly influenced the weaponization of fatness against Black people. Sabrina Strings’ book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, is a comprehensive resource on this issue. Her 12-minute interview with NPR offers a full overview. Anti-fatness in the slave trade institutionalized that oppression in the same way that its institutionalized racism, ableism, and colonialism.
If you abolish anti-fatness today, and not anti-Blackness, you don’t abolish anti-fatness. They exist, and they come online into a coherent ideology through the exact same mechanisms.”
Our healthcare system has reinforced systemic anti-fat bias by discriminating against fat people in policy and practice. One way is through the use of the body mass index, or BMI. A mathematician designed the formula as a quick hack to determine the degree of obesity in the general population, based on the body proportions of a white man. It doesn’t consider the wide genetic predispositions of different bodies, and it was explicitly not designed to gauge individual fatness. You can read a bunch of other reasons it doesn’t work in this NPR article.
And consequently, a war has been launched against the “obesity epidemic,” which equates fatness to disease, placing individual responsibility on the perceived adverse health effects of being fat that is often a result of a biased, oppressive system. This translates into interpersonal oppression that only exacerbates the harm of the whole. Many physicians will be quick to tell a fat person to “lose weight” instead of investigating the true cause of an ailment (illustrated by Jess Sims in her article for Well+Good). What’s worse: 24% of physicians admitted they were uncomfortable having friends in larger bodies, and 18% said they felt disgusted when treating a patient with a high BMI (Scientific American). This leaves many genuine medical concerns undiagnosed; in fact, fat people are 1.65x more likely to have significant undiagnosed medical conditions than the general population (APA). Consequently, fat people are more likely to avoid medical care when they believe they won’t be treated appropriately, which increases the likelihood that a health condition can go longer untreated.
Anti-fat bias also exacerbates the state-sanctioned violence that Black people experience. Police often try to justify violence against Black victims based on their size. The officer that killed Michael Brown in 2014 referred to him as a “demon” and said restraining him felt like “a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” (Slate). After Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by police officers in July 2014, the coroner referenced his weight as a contributing factor to his death. U.S. Congressman Peter King stated that a chokehold was necessary to restrain Garner because of his size, and if he didn’t have “asthma and a heart condition and was so obese,” he “almost definitely” would not have died from it (Huffington Post). Both insinuate that Eric Garner’s death is because of his weight, shielding the system of police brutality from accountability. This sentiment certainly influenced the case; federal charges against the officer responsible were ultimately dropped (NYTimes).
Officers unable to restrain an obese person without killing him are not fit to be serving in a country in which more than one-third of all adults are obese, particularly since these rates are going to be higher in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas that are disproportionately likely to attract police attention.”
Rebecca Kukla and Sarah S. Richardson, “Eric Garner and the Value of Black Obese Bodies” for Huffington Post
Through all this and more, anti-fatness shapes nearly every aspect of our society, including how clothing is sized (Vogue Business), public spaces are designed (Teen Vogue), and health insurance is designed (National Institute of Health). Fat people are discriminated against in the workplace, earning $1.25 less per hour than other employees, which can lead to a loss of $100,000 throughout a career (Yes! Magazine). Even movies and TV shows about fat people are more likely to cast a non-fat actor than a fat one (GEN). In late 2019, TikTok admitted to hiding content created by fat users and other marginalized communities to prevent cyberbullying – a shameful way for a social network to eschew responsibility for toxic behavior (Slate).
Addressing anti-fatness will take more than just changing individual behavior – but that’s a necessary first step. We must stay in inquiry about how we reinforce systemic narratives through body shaming and holding conversations about weight – with each other, but especially within ourselves. And as you continue along on your anti-racism journey, know that dismantling anti-fat bias is part of the work.
• Anti-fatness outlines the systemic and interpersonal oppression that fat people experience.
• Anti-fatness has roots in slavery and exacerbates racial violence.
• Fat people experience discrimination in the workplace, the healthcare system, the criminal justice system, and other aspects of everyday life.