Weight Stigma: The Last Socially-Acceptable Prejudice

Posted By Kantorlaw || 17-May-2013

Originally Posted on Gurze Eating Disorders Blogs

A Unique Depiction of How One Woman Exposed Distorted Ideas Around Body Image, Weight, and Health
By Lisa Kantor, Esq. & Rachel Teicher
Kantor & Kantor, LLP, LLP

I was traveling with students in Barcelona in the summer of 2011, walking through La Rambla, when I noticed two guys making fun of me. I could see them in the reflection of a mirrored building, making gestures with their hands to suggest how much bigger I was than the thin girl standing next to me, her small waist accentuated by her crop top and cut-off shorts. They painted her figure in the air like an hourglass. Then they painted my shape like the convex curves of a ball. The guys were saying something, too, but there was only one word I could make out: Gorda. Fat woman.

Haley Morris-Cafiero, a Memphis based photographer, has uncovered and displayed weight stigma with an unusual and eye-opening social experiment. Using film to capture and defy the reactions of those around her, Morris-Cafiero found a bold way to expose what seems to be a collective and steadfast weight bias.

Reflecting back internalized attitudes about weight, Marris-Cafiero reverses the gaze of those around her through photographing and recording unmistakable weight biased reactions. Her unaltered images present a dreadful truth: weight stigma is pervasive throughout the entire world.

Weight stigma is defined as shame or judgment placed upon individuals based on weight or body size. One might experience judgment of character, work ethics, and personality based on weight - communicated both directly and indirectly. This stigma can be displayed through negative attitudes, subtle and overt expressions, prejudice and discrimination, inequalities in employment, health-care, and educational settings.

“There are so many people in the world who feel they have the right – no, the obligation — to criticize someone for the way they look, and to be that recipient of those insults can feel so lonely,” Morris-Cafiero explains.

Morris-Cafiero’s photographic series, titled “Wait Watchers,” is exactly as it sounds. She positions herself and the camera in a "public setting abundant with people"…and waits. Seeking out spaces that are visually interesting and geographically diverse, Morris-Cafiero performs ordinary tasks in public places - capturing not only her solitude in a busy crowd, but the appalling reactions that have contributed to her feeling “left out and awkward.” Her honest examination of how a larger body fits into society is artistically clever, her photographs are eloquent, and the reactions to her larger body are alarming.

“I’ve been hearing comments like this for much all my life.” Morris-Cafiero said. “Maybe someone else would have yelled at them, or shrunk inside. But I don’t get upset when this happens.” Morris-Cafiero does not waste time confronting people (who likely hold deep set ideas about weight); rather she remains calm and sets up her camera. Her photographs alone expose the gross injustices of the stigma she receives. For a full profile, click here.

Those of us familiar with the dangers of weight stigma will likely find the responses and reactions (captured so expressively by her photographs) to be outrageous, disgraceful, and intolerant. But there are many who will not see anything wrong with the captured reactions. And therein lies part of the reason for Morris-Cafiero's photographic exposition, to shine light on the fact that: weight-bias and weight stigma is a cultivated and lingering prejudice, which seems to be socially acceptable and internationally understood.

With harmful ideas about weight so entrenched and widespread, how can we begin to educate others on the damage of this stigmatizing and hostile climate?

In addition to inventive individual responses like Morris-Cafiero, you can join a larger and more collective movement to absorb the latest research and information on health, weight, and wellness. ASDAH (the Association for Size Diversity and Health), an international organization dedicated to shifting these antiquated and pervasive ideas about weight and health, was created as a peace movement: promoting education, research, and the provision of services which enhance health and well-being, and which are free from weight-based assumptions and weight discrimination. They have a strong mission which follows the Health at Every Size (HAES) principles, explaining that everyone has the right to be peaceful in their own body. HAES is a simple measure with important goals:

Much of the panic and stigma around weight has been fostered by the “obesity epidemic,” anti-obesity campaigns, and uninformed ideas about weight and health. There is considerable scientific evidence supporting the HAES approach, establishing that “obesity” is not the health risk it has been reported to be:

Deb Burgard, a Psychologist and expert in HAES, illuminates the urgency of eliminating body shaming and weight discrimination. “Having the privilege of seeing that weight and health are not inevitably linked, and seeing the terrible toll of weight preoccupation/obsession on my patients across the weight spectrum, as well as learning that people can accept and love the bodies they have, have all made me a passionate advocate for a change in our clinical interventions and public health messages.”

Although many people exhibit weight biased behaviors and do not understand the implications, weight discrimination is a human rights issue that demands attention and resolution. John F. Kennedy expressed the concept of change beautifully, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” Activists such as Haley Morris-Cafiero and Deb Burgard, and organizations like ASDAH have spoken out against the standard, demanding change, equality, and peace for any body size.

Suzanne Dooley-Hash, MD (Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Michigan, medical director at the Center for Eating Disorders) has described weight stigma as “The last socially-acceptable prejudice.”

The time for change is now.

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