What We Think About When We Think About Obesity

(Liya Rechtman)– “If I have to pay more for luggage if it’s five pounds over, fat people should have to pay more too. They’re weighing us all down.”

The above is a direct quote from my boss the one summer I experimented with working on Wall Street. It was a summer full of seven-coffee-cup days and men in jeans more expensive than my phone ogling at my still semi-pubescent breasts. They called me the “little hippie” and I was pretty patently unhappy to be in the office in the first place, but that comment took me over the edge. I knew I couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t directed at me, merely flung out over my cubicle to the business-school-bound college grad who shared my desk. I remember my hands shaking as I took a giant swing of coffee and learned to stomach the tip of what I now understand to be blatant and widespread discrimination against America’s growing population of obese.

Here’s a fact: obesity is a HUGE problem in our country. The Center for Disease Control estimates that as of 2008, 33.8% of adults and 17% of children can be classified as obese in the United States. These numbers are only increasing. Obesity causes all sorts of health complications, most notably type II diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and infertility. These health issues lead to huge costs for the American people.

You’ve heard the facts before. You’ve seen Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign, and the American Heart Association advertisements. You’ve also probably heard that fat people are lazy and stupid.. You’ve probably seen a morbidly obese person eating a giant hamburger or smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer and it’s made you feel disgusting. You may have, out of a perverse sense of curiosity, checked out The Biggest Loser, at least during that ground-shattering first season.

We, especially at an elite predominantly white institution, have a pretty set and uniform idea of who and what fat people are. And that’s exactly the problem.

Because there are a couple things we don’t talk about.

People don’t just ‘get fat’ by eating poorly. The situation is more complicated than that. Obese people are very often of a lower socio-economic status. Yes, of course unhealthy, high-fat/sugar food leads to unhealthy weight gain, but it’s also the cheapest, and therefore most accessibly food available. When an apple costs as much as a McDouble and you only have so much to spend on dinner, you’re probably going to go for the meaty, filling burger. And that’s assuming you have there are apples at the closest grocery store, or that you have time to buy fresh groceries weekly. Obesity rates are highest (around 30%) in African American and Hispanic populations, the two demographics that are also as a group of the lowest socio-economic status in the country. Obesity, then, can become a coding for race and class.

So when we, say, at a small liberal arts school in the North East or a fancy Wall Street office, talk about obesity, what do we actually mean? Are we really just talking about ‘fat people?’

When my boss, returning from a highly unpleasant flight squeezed in between two fat people, made his comment, my co-worker laughed. As did a man in the cubicle over. It is highly significant that the comment was made in the workplace. Because discrimination against the obese is so normalized, offensive statements like that can be made publicly. My boss would never dare to make a similarly spirited observation overtly regarding race, or gender (at least in New York state…), but there was no thought on his, or anyone else’s part, about the effect of his comment on the obese population.

Similarly, there is no institutional movement to consider that fact that obese people have a much harder time getting jobs, and are substantially less likely to receive promotions than their thinner counterparts. Studies show that obese people, especially women, are systemically subject to stigmatization in the workplace, and further, employment-related victimization.

Finally, the real problem: obesity becomes an easy cycle. If obese people are being discriminated against in the workplace (at all levels), then they are being paid less. If they are paid less, they have less expendable income and time to spend on making healthy food and exercise choices. If they have less time, they will continue to become obese. AND, if they have children, they won’t have resources with which to provide those children healthy food either. Hence, more obese children.

Would’ya look at that? We seem to have an epidemic on our hands… moreover, an epidemic in which poor black and Hispanic people are yet again legally discriminated against and subordinated.

#newjimcrowpart2: Michelle Alexander rightly categorized the American penal system as a 21st century renewal of Jim Crow laws, pushing black men out of the voting booths and into jail for non-violent crimes based on mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In much the same way, discrimination against the obese pushes specifically black and Hispanic women out of the workplace, thereby relegating them further into economic stasis and restricting access to healthy choices.

This isn’t a post about fat-hate, or body positivity, about which I easily could have written instead. And this in no way should be read as directed simply at my boss that one summer. No, this a bigger issue than either of those isolated communities. The question of discrimination against the obese is a bigger problem than that: who do we protect legally, why, and who are we actually helping?

– Liya Rechtman