“Hey, look! The fat lady is trying to lose weight!”
This remark changed my life.
As I crunched along the gravel path that loops around the park near my downtown apartment I took in the scenery, couples picnicking on the lush grass, goofy Labradors bounding after sticks thrown by their owners, proud young parents pushing baby strollers. It was a perfect spring day! Until I rounded the first corner of the park: “Hey, look! The fat lady is trying to lose weight!” Jarred by the loud remark, I came to stop and spotted the source, about fifty feet away was a group of young boys carrying skateboards. Dozens of retorts raced through my mind.
“They’re just kids,” I finally told myself, and kept walking. Once my anger wore off, a flood of forgotten feelings came rushing back to me, the persistent taunts from schoolmates and the ongoing loneliness I felt as an overweight child. I have struggled with my weight my entire life. Once I hit puberty I ballooned to 275 pounds. At 5’4”, I was considered what I now know is morbidly obese.
During my adult years I managed to keep my weight just under 200 pounds, but only with extreme measures like diet pills, and weeks of nothing but protein shakes. I exercised regularly, though it was often difficult because of persistent fatigue. It was at this point in my life the cruel remark affected me so deeply.
Heading home, I vowed to learn more about obesity discrimination. What is being done to educate the public? What are the consequences of being obese in today’s society? I also vowed to become healthy, to stop focusing on society’s approval or disapproval of my weight and start focusing on my well-being.
During my research I uncovered shocking statistics. Studies in the International Journal of Obesity report that weight discrimination, especially against women, is increasing in U.S. society — and in some cases is even more prevalent than rates of discrimination based on gender and race. Reported discrimination based on weight has increased 66 percent in the past decade, up from about to 12 percent of U.S. adults. (About 17 percent of men and 9 percent of women reported race discrimination.)
Among severely obese people, about 28 percent of men and 45 percent of women said they have experienced discrimination because of their weight.
There are two types of weight discrimination: institutional and interpersonal. Institutional discrimination involves healthcare, education, and workplace situations. I personally experienced this when I was denied individual health insurance by a well-known provider because of my “height/weight variation.” The web site cswd.org reports that workers who are heavier than average are paid $1.25 less an hour. Over a 40-year career, they will earn up to $100,000 less before taxes than their thinner counterparts (Baum, 2004).
Interpersonal discrimination is what I experienced that day in the park.
“Weight discrimination is a very serious social problem that we need to pay attention to,” says Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Puhl believes weight discrimination will not decrease until attitudes change and laws begin addressing it.
No federal laws against weight discrimination exist. Michigan is currently the only state with an anti-size discrimination law on its books, though the Massachusetts Legislature held hearings last month on a proposed law. San Francisco joined Washington, D.C., and Santa Cruz, Cal., as the only cities with bans on weight discrimination.
Like so many suffering from obesity, I had an undiagnosed health condition.
I now know I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a metabolic disorder that affects women. PCOS causes weight gain and a myriad of other symptoms: unwanted facial hair, irregular periods, depression, and even infertility. I’ve learned to eat in a way that stabilizes my blood sugar (imbalances in insulin are the root cause of the disorder), take the right combination of vitamins and supplements, and have joined numerous online support groups for PCOS sufferers. I am now a healthy 145 pounds.
I urge anyone who is obese to diligently research common underlying causes: pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome/syndrome X, insulin resistance, hypothyroidism, and subclinical hypothyroidism.
There are many advocacy groups fighting to end weight discrimination like The Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.