Stereotypes, and the resulting prejudice, develop from a belief that a group of people share common characteristics. This belief is almost always grounded in myth. The following widely-held beliefs about fat people are often used to justify treating fat people as second-class citizens, and create a "blame the victim" mentality. The information which follows may help to explore our biases against fat people and increase our understanding of people of size, which is the first step in ending size discrimination.
MYTH: "If fat people really wanted to, they could lose weight.."
FACTS: Permanent weight loss is elusive for most fat people; 95-98% of all diets fail over three years. Contrary to what the $33 billion per year dieting industry would have us believe, the failure of diets is not the fault of the dieter; rather, the body's response to a very low calorie diet (VLCD) dictates that the diet will fail.
A person's body weight is determined by a number of factors, including genetics, metabolism, and dieting history. The body will naturally stabilize at a certain weight; dieting serves to raise this natural "setpoint". This is because the body interprets a VLCD as a period of starvation; in response, the body slows down its metabolism, in order to conserve energy (calories), and sends messages to the dieter that it needs more food. When the dieter goes off her diet, her body converts extra calories consumed as fat, in anticipation of the next period of "starvation," resulting in weight gain greater than the amount lost. This "ratchet effect" is evident in yo-yo dieters, who may lose 20 pounds, gain 30, lose 30 pounds, gain 40, etc.
MYTH: "It's not healthy to be fat."
FACTS: The issue of fat and health is a complex one, with many factors to consider. Medical research has raised more questions than it has answered. It seems that, while there are health risks associated with being fat, there are also some health benefits. It may be healthier to remain at a stable high weight than to yo-yo diet.
Added to questions raised by medical research, we also must consider that, in our society, it is very difficult for fat people to stay healthy and become fit. Due to prejudicial medical treatment and harassment by health care professionals, many fat people do not receive adequate preventative health care, and put off seeking treatment when there is a medical problem. In addition, many fat people do not feel comfortable participating in activities that would lead to a greater level of fitness. Due to the harassment they face, fat people rarely feel comfortable using public pools or health clubs, or participating in recreational exercise.
Given that permanent weight loss is elusive for most fat people, the issue of fat and health is irrelevant. The only true option available is to be as healthy as you can, regardless of your weight. (Often times the health issue serves as a smoke screen to justify denying fat people their civil rights. The assumption that fat people are unhealthy is often used to defend discrimination in employment, educational opportunities, housing, and adoption privileges. Health issues should never supersede one's civil rights.)
MYTH: "All fat people are compulsive overeaters. "
FACTS: The compulsive eater, whether fat or thin, is a person with an eating disorder. Simply being fat does not indicate the presence of an eating disorder. Studies which set out to prove that fat people eat more than thin people concluded that there is no measurable difference in the food consumption of fat and thin people. Compulsive dieters, who ignore their body's hunger messages, tend to become obsessed with food, and usually overeat after a round of dieting.
MYTH: "Fat people are ugly."
FACTS: Beauty is a learned concept, and the cultural norm of beauty changes over time. At the turn of the century, the leading sex symbol, Lillian Russell, weighed over 200 pounds. Marilyn Monroe would be considered "overweight" today. The media, advertisers, and the diet industry tend to set the standard of beauty in today's society. We must remember that they are selling us dissatisfaction with our bodies in order to make a profit.
MYTH: "Fat people can't find romantic partners."
FACTS: It's estimated that at least 5-10% of the population has a preference for a large-size partner. Because our society does not view this as a legitimate preference, many people who prefer fat partners face harassment from their families and peers. As the preference for the large-size partner is legitimized, the 5-10% figure may rise.
Adapted from material developed by Carrie Hemmenway
PO BOX 188620, Sacramento, CA 95818 Phone:(916) 558-6880 Fax:(916) 558-6881
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