Why are fat people abused?

Shouted at, spat at and even attacked, overweight people are campaigning for laws to protect them. Why is "fattism" seen by many as an acceptable prejudice?

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

[Getty Images]

"You big fat pig" is all Marsha Coupe heard before she was kicked in the stomach and punched in the face.

The 53-year-old businesswoman says she was sitting in an almost empty train carriage in the early evening when she was kicked, punched and shouted at for taking up two seats.

Her attacker was pulled off by another passenger and restrained, but got off at the next stop before the police arrived.

It might surprise some people that the person doing the kicking and punching was a middle-aged woman, who was also travelling alone. But it might not stun those who are already significantly overweight.

"Fat people are fair game for everyone," says Ms Coupe, who weighs 22 stone (139kg). "Yes, I've had beer cans thrown at me by youngsters, but the abuse doesn't just come from the obvious places.

"The normal rules about behaviour, respect and common courtesy don't apply to us."

The rise of what could be called "fattism" is being met with a backlash from those who are affected, triggering a nascent rights movement.

The unprovoked attack was not an isolated incident, say weight equality campaigners. And when it comes to verbal attacks, they are part of daily life for some of the overweight. From people commenting on the contents of their shopping trolleys to shouting abuse at them in the street.

Why are many folk so intolerant of fat people? Discrimination on other grounds is widely frowned upon, so why is weight different?

It all comes down to control, says Susie Orbach, psychologist and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. She believes the prejudice runs through our society.

'True aggression'

Marsha Coupe was left with 40 bruises
Marsha Coupe was left with 40 bruises

Often the assumption is that overweight people have lost their self-control. That frightens society because there is so much emphasis on being slim, she says.

"Often it's not the larger person's excess weight that is the problem, it's the other people's obsession with being thin.

"Most people want to be slim, but this perceived physical perfection is difficult to hold on to and they fear losing control of it. Women and men can be on diets their whole lives and it's utterly miserable.

"They project that fear and unhappiness on to people who are bigger and that often translates into abuse and attacks. It's a way of people disassociating themselves from what they fear the most — getting fat."

Psychologist Ros Taylor agrees. "There is true aggression towards overweight people and it comes down to fear and a complete lack of understanding of the issue.

"People think 'I can control what I put in my mouth so why can't they'. But we're not all the same, we don't all start from the same point."

The perception that excess weight is largely down to a lack of self-control annoys many overweight people. They say it results in them being associated with laziness and greed, neither of which people like.

"I'm a qualified fitness trainer and healthier than a lot of my slimmer friends, but all these people see is that I'm larger and jump to conclusions," says Kathryn Szrodecki, who is 18 stone (114kg) and campaigns on behalf of overweight people.

Guilty

"We're simply not all built to be slim, our genetic make-ups are all different."

Another reason for people's intolerance is the "mass-moral outrage" whipped up by the media and the government over the issue of weight, say campaigners.

They question much of the information and "scare stories" surrounding increasing obesity, but they don't doubt the everyday consequences of them for larger people.

"The government and the press have created an atmosphere where people think they have a legitimate right to go up to an overweight person and tell them how to live their lives," says Ms Coupe.

"To them we are all the anonymous pictures of fat people they see in the papers and are the cause of all society's ills, as well as a drain on the NHS. We deserve what we get. We're not people with feelings."

Some health professionals agree the handling of the obesity issue has increased negative attitudes towards fat people.

"It's created a huge social stigma," says Dr Ian Campbell, a specialist at the Overweight Clinic at University Hospital in Nottingham and honorary medical director of the charity Weight Concern.

"The result is the people who need the most help don't seek it. They are left feeling guilty and undeserving."

Campaigners agree, saying the constant bashing fat people receive in the press and in their everyday lives makes them stay in doors and retreat from society.

Undesirable

But the issue of control also throws up other questions. Can people control their dislike of fat people?

In some ways no, says Dr Campbell. Research has repeatedly shown that people respond positively to what they think are good looks and negatively to undesirable features — like extra weight.

"It's innate in people to dislike what they see as a lack of attractiveness," he says. "It makes them think such people are worthy of derision. Very young kids have been shown to have a bias against their overweight peers."

One study in America found attitudes towards overweight people are more negative than other types of stigma often seized on by children, such as wearing glasses or having a physical disability.

That doesn't mean they can't control their actions toward overweight people. But the more fat people are portrayed as social pariahs, the more justified people feel in attacking them.

"Society's increasing hatred of fat and obsession with thin is creating appalling prejudice," says Ms Orbach. "It is allowing people to feel justified about abusing fat people.

"Every overweight person has become the person we must not be."

Ms Coupe says the pressure to be thin is the only reason she can think of for her attack.

"I can only imagine this woman did what she did because she has been on a diet for most of her life and resents it. She probably hated me because I have accepted my weight and am happy with it."

October 29, 2009 — Return to cover.
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