Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Vegan Fat-Shaming: Not Kind. Not Helpful. Not Okay.

Is fatphobia one of the final frontiers where people feel comfortable publicly voicing and exercising their prejudices? Depending on the company one keeps, I wouldn’t go that far. We are a pretty bigoted species. The justifications used for upholding discriminatory attitudes toward people in larger bodies are unique and noteworthy, though. Not many people boast about their racist views, but I have observed many proudly describe the hate and discrimination they direct towards people in larger bodies as nothing less than a public health service. Could veganism actually offer the perfect cover for such bigoted individuals to hide in plain sight? I believe so. First, though, I want to address a word and suggest an imperfect replacement for it.

The word is one I’ve already used. It is fatphobia.

I started out using the word fatphobia because, while it isn’t as common a term as homophobia, it is an established word and it is intuitive: you hear it and are more-or-less able to discern its meaning with its tidy marriage of prefix and suffix. That said, I think it is a sloppy word in the same way that “homophobia” is: excep
t for rare cases, it is not a true phobia but a form of oppression and discrimination. A phobia is an extreme, irrational fear that is outside of one’s control and phobias can be very personally challenging to those who have them, often resulting in severe anxiety and avoidant behaviors that can impede a person’s ability to move about in the world. Discrimination and hate directed at those who are in larger-sized bodies, however, is not really a phobia any more than discrimination and hate towards homosexuals is evidence of an actual phobia: it is a form of bigotry. (There are no doubt real cases of phobia here but they are the exception rather than the norm.) Thus from this point on, I am going to use the word “size-bigot” and its various forms as well as some other terms because to me, they are more accurate and we need to stop making excuses for what is in fact discriminatory behavior, not phobic behavior. Language is powerful.

Size-bigotry is a natural byproduct of diet culture, something we are so steeped in, we usually don’t even notice it. It is the air we breathe and the water we swim in; steeping in it like tea bags, diet culture is what we absorb. Press us and diet culture is what we will express. It is so pervasive, though, we can scarcely see it.

Diet culture is a complicated shape-shifter of a concept and it is aided and abetted by our collective denial about it, but I will try to describe it with the help of the work of Registered Dietitian and intuitive eating counselor
Christy Harrison, whose incredible Food Psych podcast has been an invaluable resource for so many people, myself included. Diet culture is a system of beliefs that aligns slimness with health, value and moral virtue, as well as connects larger bodies with poor health, diminished personal value and moral virtue; diet culture also promotes weight loss and slimness as a necessary means for social elevation and increasing one’s moral status.

Diet culture tells people that we have less value and that we’re lazy, indulgent and gluttonous unless we hew to a certain narrow size range and then - if we are even able to attain it - our worth hinges on this very shallow and fickle factor, often requiring vigilance to maintain, if it is even possible. Diet culture makes us hate and judge ourselves and others; it both magnifies and invisiblizes people in larger bodies. It harshly judges and it swiftly convicts. Diet culture makes us obsessive. It diminishes us. It limits us and distorts our worldview. As Christy Harrison has aptly characterized it, diet culture is a life thief, robbing us of our time, our money, our resources, our relationships, our peace and our happiness.

According to the
National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder - from anorexia to binge-eating, bulimia to compulsive exercise - in their lifetimes, and the best-known environmental contributor to the development of an eating disorder is the sociocultural pressure toward thinness.

Why then would vegans, who seemingly believe in compassionate living, reinforce attitudes and biases that contribute to real-life harm? If they believe that shaming will result in the greater good by creating slimmer, seemingly healthier, bodies, perhaps
research proving that weight-stigma actually results in more eating and less physical activity, presumably the opposite of what size-bigots profess to encourage, should matter but it usually does not. It is proven, though, that weight stigma has negative physiological and psychological health outcomes for people in larger bodies, generates health disparities and, in fact, these attitudes of bias and discrimination encourage detrimental outcomes. The negative health consequences of the stress of living as a part of a stigmatized population is noteworthy in and of itself, but chronic stress and anxiety are actually linked to abdominal weight gain, driven by physiological mechanisms that increase appetite and diminish satiety so, in fact, weight-based discrimination can actually exacerbate the factors that lead to stigma. In other words, you cannot shame someone into weight loss because it simply doesn’t work and, there is a lot of research proving, in fact, that this kind of prejudice actually encourages the opposite to happen.

What I am interested in understanding is why ethical vegans would compound the stress and suffering of another. Why compassionate people would marginalize and discriminate. Why those who reject the status quo in so many ways would be content to reinforce it here. Why people driven to take action against injustice would knowingly behave in ways that contribute to it.

Well, I’ve been paying attention long enough to know the rationales. Here are some…

I care about kindness to animals and if you are fat, you are doing harm to yourself. After all, you are an animal, too. This is why I speak up.

This one. Oh, this one.

How about this? How about not being so condescending, ignorant and presumptuous about the “right” size for someone else, the factors that contribute to that person’s weight and the notion that you have any right to assume one’s health (and presumed worth) by your visual scan or that your judgements are welcomed. You are not a compassionate person. You are a condescending, intrusive bigot. Go away.

But it’s because I care and I want to help!

If you knew that reinforcing stigma actually resulted in worse health outcomes, would that change your behavior? Because it does, in more than one way. Take the fear of seeing a weight-stigmatizing physician alone as just one example. It’s not an unjustified paranoia that causes people with larger bodies to feel mistreated by their physicians: Research has shown that doctors
reported that seeing patients was “a greater waste of their time the heavier that they were, that physicians would like their jobs less as their patients increased in size, that heavier patients were viewed to be more annoying, and that physicians felt less patience the heavier the patient was.” Many people in larger bodies avoid seeing their doctors as a result of the stress of this stigma being directed at them; can you imagine the consequences of not getting adequate checkups and office visits? Do you see how fear of weight-stigma could actually lead to someone’s avoidable death in a way that has everything to do with the bigotry that diet culture promotes? (If you are looking for a healthcare provider who is committed to not discriminating, please check out this resource.)

There are starving people in the world! Fat people eat more than their share.

Okay. This is wholly irrational.

Food insecurity is caused by a complex, interconnected web of factors but the underlying issues are usually poverty and political inequality as well as other factors, like climate change and poor food distribution. This is not to minimize the role that consuming flesh and animal products has on world hunger - as noted, climate change and poor distribution, like redirecting grains to feed the animals people in turn eat rather than grains themselves, resulting in a great inefficiency, are drivers of food insecurity - but it’s not because “fat” people are being so damn greedy and gluttonous. It’s not as if all the food in the world is represented by a large pizza and the fat people eat six of the eight slices, leaving the poor just two pieces. That is not how how food disparity and hunger works, at all. Do not use the hungry of the world as a justification for your meanness. Educate yourself and develop some compassion.

I lost 100 pounds. Weight loss is a matter of discipline and not sitting on your ass, stuffing your face with junk food and being whiner. I can say this with authority because I used to sit on my ass, stuffing my face with junk food and being a whiner.

Okay. Okay. Okay.

I will ignore the growing amount of research now showing that different bodies do indeed respond to calories in different ways. (Well, I will ignore it but for posting a
link you can follow on to do some more research on your own.)

To the person who says this, well, good for you if weight loss was a goal you sought and accomplished.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to
say except to ask what part of “someone else’s body is not your business” do you not understand? It is not your business. Unless you are this person’s physician and you have talked together about weight loss strategies, someone else’s body is SO MUCH not your business it’s not even funny. I know you think people in larger bodies are lying around, withhold the world’s seemingly finite pizza supply from the hungry and then whining about being fat, but that is really not the case. How hard is it to stay in your own lane? Again, shaming and stigma do not help anyone so don’t even try to pull that nonsense.

You are a bad example to the public if you are a vegan in a larger body.

You know who’s a really bad example? Vegans who are self-righteous, self-absorbed, shallow, bigoted, nosy assholes. You are a really bad example to the public. You need to stop. This is your intervention.

We are in the midst of a reckoning that’s exposed the long-accepted culture of sexual harassment and gender bias in the animal advocacy movement, a reckoning that points out not only how pervasive the culture has been but also how many talented women have left organizations due to the injustices they faced as women. I would venture a guess that many more talented, dedicated people have silenced their voices and limited their outreach for the animals fearing that they would be called “fat” or “bad examples” by those who are entrenched in shaming diet culture. It cannot be overstated how profound this loss of talent and dedication is for the animals, who desperately need all hands on deck.

There is so much to say on this topic but this is already so long. You catch my drift. Stop being a size-bigot. It isn’t just. It isn’t helpful. It isn’t intersectional. And it most certainly is not compassionate.

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