Scales and the Emotional Underside of Fatphobia

Michael Orsini explains the pervasiveness of discrimination, fear, and hatred related to ‘fatness.’

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It’s convenient to dismiss the recent flap over the removal of scales at the Carleton University gym as yet another case of political correctness run amok.

Did Carleton Athletics simply cave in to pressure from overly sensitive gym patrons who were ‘triggered’ by the sight of a scale? While tempting, that would be the wrong question to ask in the wake of this controversy. Rather, what is it about weight itself that would unleash such a torrent of emotion and name-calling?

Conservative media commentators mocked the University for its decision, revealing the extent to which the conservative battle against political correctness is fueled by ugly views about fatness.

That is not to say that all liberals are fat-loving citizens. Far from it. Fatness arouses a range of complex moral emotions in all of us, from feelings of pity and sympathy to fear and disgust, regardless of our ideological leanings.

In a world in which we come to rash conclusions about people based upon their appearance, being fat or ‘obese’ is shorthand for being slovenly, lazy, and ‘out of control.’ As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman argues in his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, we often make decisions based on visceral feelings, strongly felt emotions that typically serve as poor guides. For example, in discussing the palpable fear of shark attacks, Freeman Dyson notes that we pay more attention to sharks because they frighten us, even though “riptides occur more frequently and may be equally lethal.”

How does this matter here? Assumptions about fat people and the “obesity epidemic” are based on feelings about fatness that are difficult to challenge because these feelings are ubiquitous. The scale is a discursive weapon in the war against fat. It goes hand in glove with a culture of fat shaming, which undergirds the multi-billion-dollar diet and weight loss industry.

Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö by Marianne Lindberg De Geer (2006). Photo Credit: Wikipedia photo/ OpenStreetMap

Fat hatred is a staple of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has also mocked disabled people, poor people, women – the list goes on. Trump called out comedienne Rosie O’Donnell for being a slob, referred to a former Miss Universe winner as “Little Miss Piggy,” and even mused during the presidential campaign that a ‘400-pound guy sitting in his bed’ may have been behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Fatphobia has insinuated its way into all corners of life: when an airline passenger asks to switch seats so as to avoid sitting next to a fat person. Highly gendered, weight discrimination occurs in a range of employment, health care, and education settings.

It is not uncommon for the political right to attack what it sees as an extreme political correctness agenda. This debate is particularly nasty, however. As one online commentator wrote: “I haven’t been to college for a long time, but are there a lot of fatties going to the gym and pretending to work out now or something?”

Another added: “Social Justice Warriors have placed their crosshairs on the ever-triggering scale, which makes perfect sense since scales inform us of objective facts and we all know how the Left feels about those.”

Well, dear conservative fatphobes, there is a lot of ‘objective’ research out there that questions a singular focus on losing weight. You do not have to be a social justice warrior to appreciate that the primary metric used to measure ‘obesity’ – the Body Mass Index – is inherently flawed. As Stuart Nicholls argues, the classification of individuals into categories of underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese minimizes “the differences within these weight categories and introduce perceptions of significant differences between classes.” Moreover, Nicholls explains, processes of classification are not benign: “Grouping does not just classify weight, it classifies people.”

Our society’s relationship with weight is complex. And our discomfort with fat bodies is pervasive. People who say they are ‘triggered’ by the presence of scales in the gym are not “snowflakes” who are asking to be shielded “from a truth which makes them uncomfortable.” Fat people are asking us to think differently about what constitutes a healthy body. While removing scales will not erase weight discrimination and fatphobia, it might remind gym goers that weight loss is not synonymous with good health.

Carleton just announced that it was stepping back from its recent decision to remove the scale after a storm of protest from student athletes and others who say that weighing themselves is a necessary part of their physical activity. Conservative critics are right about one thing – fat people cannot expect to be protected from offensive commentary from people who are repulsed by the sight of fat bodies. Here’s hoping, however, that the bluster about political correctness can be swept aside to make way for discussion of the real issues faced by fat people, chief among them fat hatred in all of its forms.

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Michael Orsini is a Professor in the School of Political Studies and Vice-Dean, Graduate Studies, in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. @OrsiniMichael