Why “Weight Stigma Awareness Week” Makes Me Nervous
The campaign, brought to us by the Binge Eating Disorder Association seeks “to bring awareness to a common and entrenched social injustice that often results in serious physical and mental health consequences.”
Many people I know are participating in WSAW, on- or off-line. In general, those people are highly involved in the Fat Acceptance and/ or the Eating Disorder Recovery communities, both of which I consider vital movements. They believe, as I do, in putting forward fat acceptance and recovery messages whenever we’re able to do so. I’m grateful to them for seizing this week as a vehicle to do additional advocacy. I’m also grateful to the new audiences, opening themselves to our messages, perhaps for the first time.
I’m uncomfortable with WSAW. I recognize the good that’s taking place under its name, and I’m grateful for it – but I remain uncomfortable. After all, good occurs during Fat Talk Free Week, the Tri-Delta-sponsored event to eliminate body snark. That doesn’t make the campaign a pure, unadulterated Force o’ Good. People take intense comfort in Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. That doesn’t change the fact that the Komen foundation has some s’plainin’ to do.
And this, ultimately, is my understanding of WSAW as well: There is good happening under this heading. And still, the heading feels dangerous.
At the core of my discomfort is this question: What is “weight stigma”? Is it synonymous with “fat stigma”? Is it the oppression fat people experience at the interpersonal (“should you be eating that?”) and systemic (“war on obesity!”) levels?
…Partially. Fat acceptance is certainly one platform that ends up speaking through the microphone of this awareness week. Unfortunately, it’s not the only one. It’s not the only one because — by shifting from “fat” to “weight” — we open the door to those who put “skinnybashing” under the weight stigma heading. In doing so, we usher in a veritable Equivocation-fest, in which it doesn’t matter if you’re too fat or too thin, you’re put through the wringer based on your body, and no one deserves that.
Let me be clear here.
No one deserves that.
No one deserves to be shamed, hated, or discriminated against based on their body.
And still, regardless — skinnybashing is not on par with fat oppression.
The fact that skinnybashing is not on par with fat oppression does not mean it hurts less. The pain skinnybashing causes individual people does not hurt less (or matter less) than the pain caused by fatphobia. But it does occur in a different context, and it has not been institutionalized to the extent that fat oppression has. And no matter how genuinely pained thin people are — and no matter how much we should be doing about that – terms like “weight stigma” and “body diversity” erase the power dynamics between body types. They suggest we are all harmed equally. They erase the prevalence of fat oppression, specifically.
The fact that thin-shaming is not about thin oppression does not mean it’s not worth addressing. It means that, if we’re to address it effectively, we must consider its true causes.
For starters: saneism (the privileging of those without mental illnesses). Many claims of “skinnybashing” are linked to the presumption that the thin person has anorexia. When thin people are presumed anorexic and told to “eat a sandwich” – they are not the target of a social, anti-thin agenda. They’re the target of stigma toward mentally ill people in general, and toward people with EDs, specifically. The vitriol spewed at people with eating disorders would likely astound anyone without one. Everything from death threats in the inbox (interpersonal) to the refusal of medical coverage (systemic). These are awful realities. But convincing people that we can be thin and healthy, thin and sexy, or thin and beautiful won’t change them.
How can I be sure of that?
Because people are already convinced of those things.
…Because every public representation of a “healthy” body is thin – even if you have been told, as a thin person, that you look sick. Because “sex appeal” is consistently portrayed as thinner than the average person, even when it’s portrayed as “curvy.” Becausediscussions of anorexia are consistently linked to discussions of the beauty ideal, — because we take it for granted that the struggle to be thinner is, automatically, the struggle to be beautiful. And we do this because we equate thinness with beauty.
If skinnybashing is – in part — about cultural attitudes toward anorexia, the solution is minimizing stigma toward those with eating disorders, not those with a low BMI. (Conflating the two only further solidifies the notion that thin people — only and always — have EDs.) The solution is minimizing stigma and increasing awareness about what anorexia really means. About the fact that it can occur, can be occurring, can even be severe in any body type. About the reality of anorexia as an illness, the difficulty of finding and affording quality treatment, the ongoing confusion about what causes this disease and what should be pursued as a cure.
It’s no secret that body-policing is rampant in our culture. But if we want to put an end to that, we must do so for those who experience it most consistently. We do not dismantle racism by defending my right not to be called “cracker.” We do not dismantle sexism by defending men’s right not to be presumed rapists. And we will not end sizeism by defending the beauty and health of thin bodies.
We must neutralize the fat body.
It is entirely possible to have an eating disorder and to be fat. But having an eating disorder is not in itself a pass to ignore fat oppression. Nor is being fat a pass to understand or berate those with eating disorders. I fully believe in these two movements working together. But are they doing so here, in a way that recognizes the power dynamics?
And if not, how can we change that?