In the weeks that have passed since my country HuffPost Highline’s advantage over fat smear I came out, I was inundated with readers’ stories of how stigma affected their daily lives.
A reader told me that he is rarely overtly bullied by strangers, but their unwanted diet tips seem even worse. Another said she leaves the room when her colleagues start talking about their new meals, because it is only a matter of time before a younger woman describes herself as “huge.” Penetrating the workplace and social circles, these stories of personal discomfort can have dire and even deadly consequences. In the most disturbing story that reached my inbox, one reader said her doctor refused to give her an MRI after she complained of chest pain, and told her to lose weight instead. Years later, when she finally told him to take the test for her, he found a 12-pound lump in her chest that required surgery to remove it.
Overall, these personal stories coincide with a growing body of research showing that the stigma of obesity is severe and pervasive – and totally ignored by U.S. public health institutions.
In an effort to return to some of the findings that I was unable to include in the article, I asked Patrick Corrigan, the journal’s editor Stigma and health And author The effect of stigmaTo help explain it. Corrigan has been working on issues related to discrimination for over 20 years and has developed a program,Honest, open-minded and proudTell me what is unique about obesity stigma compared to other forms of discrimination, when we face it and why everything we do to combat it just isn’t working.
How do obese people differ from other minorities in terms of stigma?
In stigma research, we often talk about “visible” minorities, such as ethnic groups, and “invisible” minorities, such as people with mental illness or those with HIV. Visible minorities must navigate a world that sees them and makes judgments instantly. The invisible minorities must decide how and whether they want their status to be revealed.
The interesting thing about obese people is that they’re quite a bit of the two. People see you and make judgments, but you also need to reveal your desires, needs, and personality. What you are asking for is equality and an acknowledgment that bigotry is interfering with it.
As a young gay man, it seems to me that you’re talking about some form of exit, that moment when you choose between “I’m going to pose this now” and “I’m leaving this slide.” Why is it good for people to tell others what they need?
The first reason is that keeping secrets is terrible for you. We know this from the gay community and from mentally ill people. Even people who receive negative reactions after choosing to go out say they are happy to reveal them in the long term.
For obese people, of course [coming out] It looks different. There might be practical things they are afraid to bring up, like the ways in which the joke hurts them or the physical space it wasn’t designed for them. Or maybe they are tired of tiptoeing about their weight all the time and want to talk about it openly.
Another reason for disclosure is that, on the broader level, it helps reduce societal discrimination. We know that weight stigma is rife, and anything you can do to talk about it with your family or friends can help turn the tide. The more people do this, the better.
One thing I can’t get past is that The stigma due to weight seems to be getting worseEven as more people can be identified as obese.
The real significance of the term “minority” is not about numbers, it is about power. Another huge group that continues to face discrimination is women. Depending on the method of counting, they make up about 52 percent of the population. Or old Americans – we’ll all end up there, and yet the old people are being neglected in our society. For me, “the minority” is not statistically what we think. It’s just a group that is perceived as different or outside the norm, and we are trained to think that this is a bad thing.
It seems to me that ambiguity is one of the most stressful things about stigma. Was that waiter rude to me because I’m fat? Or is he rude to all of his customers? You are angry back and forth and then ask if you have the right to be angry. What do you tell people trying to figure out if what they are facing is really a stigma?
Nobody gets it right 100% of the time. A big component of fighting stigma is replacing the feeling of not being able to feel empowered. Prejudice and discrimination rob you of opportunities. Employers are taking jobs, landlords will not give you a place to live, and health care providers are not providing adequate standards of care. When you fight back, when you talk about yourself, you take back some of that strength. Standing won’t solve the stigma in this interaction, but it does give you a sense of control.
That’s why it’s important to find communities where you can talk about these experiences. You have to give yourself permission to make mistakes from time to time. The community is where you can have these discussions without anyone questioning your right to them. It is difficult to constantly explain basic basic issues to people.
What do we know about when people must face discrimination when it occurs?
I used to be against confrontation. The idea was, if you were in the minority and started to resist discrimination, you would entrench those discriminatory beliefs. But based on The research we’ve seen in the African American communityWe learned that an empathetic and educational confrontation can really change stigma.
Another interesting thing that we discovered is that, for example, if a white passerby saw someone say “All blacks are lazy,” and then jumps to say “No they are not,” then it will have a greater impact on a white person than a black person.
That sounds like an argument for the alliance, thin people should start standing up for fat people a lot more.
It’s one of the many reasons for Allies: You limit the number of spaces in which someone can say insulting things.
What else do we know about stigma reduction at the societal level?
We know most of what does not work. Education is ineffective, for example. Explaining all the genetic and hormonal factors contributing to obesity to people does not change their attitudes.
We also know word games don’t work. In Asia, they tried to rename schizophrenia to reduce stigma, and it had no effect on the public. People say, “I don’t care what you call it, they’re all just idiots.” These discussions also lead to word-tuning. You call it one thing and I call it another, and now we’re arguing about the vocabulary, but we’re not dealing with any of the underlying assumptions and finding out where we really agree or disagree. It is a big waste of time.
If efforts at the corporate level are not successful, should we do it individually?
The way we reduce stigma is to interact like peers with life experience. The more interactive, the better. Meeting someone who does not fit the stereotype and getting to know them well is crucial. I need to be close enough to a fat person to know he’s playing the piano or walking around or being grumpy on Mondays or whatever else I can add to that characteristic. Media representation can help with this, but it is personal relationships that matter.
For obese people, this is even harder because we have the perfect zeitgeist about thinness and health. We have increasingly positive media representations, but are steeped in the negative representation that being thin is inevitable and that either of us, if we are weak enough, can become a fat person. This is one of those fears that has to be faced in person.
And, of course, it is more work for obese people.
One of the tragedies of stigma is that the people who fall victim to it are always the ones who have to do the work to solve it. Although it was never their problem.
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