April 12, 2011

Loving Your (Fat) Body Is Good For Your Health!

Researchers are beginning to pay attention to the body, including weight-based prejudice and discrimination, and the health consequences of such discrimination.

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Sex researchers have long known that you cannot accurately study sex and sexuality without considering the body.  Bodies, after all, are the vehicle through which we interact with other people, as well as ourselves.  And, adding to other forms of diversity, like race, gender, and sexual orientation, it is crucial to recognize the diversity that exists among bodies: size, shape, ability.

Weight-Based Prejudice And Discrimination

Increasingly, social scientists are also recognizing the importance of studying the body.  For example, a number of sociologists have began paying attention to prejudice and discrimination that exists on the basis of weight.  Like any other form of discrimination, weight-based discrimination, which is experienced more by people categorized as overweight and obese, has been linked with health.  That is, people who experience weight-based discrimination experience worse physical and mental health as a result of these discriminatory experiences.

Fatphobia And Health

Fatphobia, or prejudice towards plus-sized people, and weight-based discrimination are now being recognized as serious threats to plus-sized people’s well-being, health, and even success in school and work.  In direct challenge to the medical research linking obesity to poorer health comes the finding that plus-sized people’s social experiences, at least in part, contributes to weight-based health disparities.  Purdue University sociologists Markus Schafer and Kenneth Ferraro found in a 10-year national study that one’s subjective weight status predicts their health status — not their “actual” weight status (based on body mass index, or BMI).  And, one’s subjective weight status as overweight or obese was the product of past experiences of weight-based discrimination.

Challenging Fatphobia

Three factors exacerbate fatphobia: 1) who’s to blame for one’s weight and size, 2) plus-sized people’s own, internalized fatphobia, and 3) the absence of a positive collective plus-size community.  Taking race as an example, one’s racial identity is seen as unchangable, thus equal rights for all people regardless of race are granted.  (This is different, for example, than sexual orientation, which many continue to argue is chosen.)  Indeed, people of color who have internalized negative views toward their own racial group have been found to experience worse physical and mental health.  However, people of color who have a positive racial identity and strong connection with their racial group are protected from the negative health consequences of racial discrimination.

A future without fatphobia and with a celebration of body diversity depends, at least in part, on challenging cultural and internalized fatphobia and fostering a greater sense of self-acceptance and pride about one’s body in each individual.

  • Sonya

    Great job, Eric. As I’m sure you know, I think understanding weight-based prejudice and the ways it interacts and exacerbates other forms of oppression is key to really getting at why we do what we do sexually.

    I also appreciate your highlighting that the negative outcomes often go the opposite way from how we interpret — that, in fact, fatphobia can CAUSE poor health, rather than fat somehow being the major catalyst for negative health outcomes. Because as much as we say we understand “correlation doesn’t equal causation!” those of us who do health research conveniently forget this mantra when it comes to fat bodies and holistic ideas of health.

    More, please!