Editor’s note: In keeping with comedian George Carlin’s philosophy, the author uses the term fat. Carlin once said, “I use that word because that’s what people are: They’re fat. They’re not bulky; they’re not large, chunky, hefty or plump. And they’re not big-boned. Dinosaurs were big-boned. These people are not overweight: This term somehow implies there is some correct weight … There is no correct weight. Heavy is also a misleading term. An aircraft carrier is heavy; it’s not fat. Only people are fat, and that’s what fat people are. It is not intended as criticism or insult. It is simply descriptive language.”
SUDBURY, ONTARIO – A t 5-foot-10 and 287 pounds, Jennifer DePoe is fat, fabulous and, in her own words, “f—— beautiful!”
But as a child, she was traumatized by unrelenting bullying, which took a toll on her mental health and led to unhealthy cycles of yo-yo dieting.
“It was like this low hum forever in the background,” she says. “I would get beat up for being fat by kids I went to school with.”
DePoe, a Toronto-based activist, eventually began internalizing her pain.
“It’s not like you can unzip your body, step out and get a bit of a break for a while and then when you’re ready go back to being fat again,” she says. “You just have to live with the constant punishing criticism, which you eventually just do on your own. Your bullies don’t need to be there anymore – you do their job for them.”
As an adult, DePoe has ended friendships with those who bullied her under the guise of “health concerns” by policing her diet and body – despite the fact her doctor has assured her she is in good health.
She also says dating is a challenge.
“Lots of people won’t date a fat person. And those folks aren’t really interested in questioning themselves around it,” she says. “I went on a lot of terrible dates and stuck it out in relationships where I didn’t feel an attraction because I was given the overall message by society that as a fat woman, I was dealing with a scarcity of people who would even consider dating me, and I should be glad that I had found someone to accept me in spite of my weight.”
Tracy Royce, who holds a PhD in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara, has found in her research that plus-size women may even face discrimination when attempting to report sexual violence.
“Fat women who have been sexually assaulted have disclosed that police officers have refused to take their reports and ridiculed them as insufficiently attractive to rape,” she writes in The Fat Studies Reader. Published in 2009, the book is considered essential reading in the emerging field of fat studies.
Although StatsCan data indicate more than 60% of men and 44% of women in Canada were considered overweight or obese in 2011, weight discrimination continues to be the last acceptable form of social prejudice, Tammy Cheguis, a public health dietitian with the Sudbury and District Health Unit, says.
But she argues genetics cannot be dismissed – they play a crucial role in determining body size.
“You’re born with what you’re born with, and we’re not all going to look like each other,” Cheguis says.
Mary Forhan, an occupational therapist and professor at the University of Alberta and a member of the Canadian Obesity Network, says fatness is often oversimplified. The message becomes “move more and eat less,” but ignores the complexities and multidimensional aspects of obesity. Fatness is then viewed as a moral failure.
“The way individuals living with obesity are portrayed in the media, and the values associated with body size, are values associated with being less intelligent, less motivated, less in control, that they don’t care, they’re not as serious,” Forhan explains.
They retreat and succumb to a slow withdrawal from social life, with networks getting “smaller and smaller.”
In work environments, Forhan says fat people are often overlooked and their productivity may be questioned. This leads to “an internal dialogue,” in which they begin to hold back and resist taking risks that could advance their careers.
A growing body of evidence points to systemic prejudice against fat people. A 2009 study by Rebecca Puhl and Chelsea Heuer, published in the peer-reviewed journal Obesity, found 25% of participants experienced weight-related job discrimination, which ranged from seemingly innocuous derogatory humour and comments, to lost opportunities for employment and promotion. Puhl and Heuer also reported that some respondents were wrongfully terminated because”of their weight.
DePoe can relate. Although no one has overtly stated it, she believes she has been bypassed for certain jobs and lost out on lucrative promotions.
“Pretty much every boss or supervisor I’ve ever had has tried to give me some kind of gym tips or how to get going with exercise and fitness routines tips,” she explains. “Just because my body doesn’t resemble your idea of a fit body doesn’t mean I’m not in great shape.”
Cheguis agrees that body size is not the sole determinant of health.
“Overweight people are not necessarily unhealthy, and people can do very undesirable things to achieve thinness,” she says. “They’ll go to extremes – dieting, exercise, substance abuse, smoking.”
The tyranny of thinness
Linda Bacon, a California-based professor and researcher, says it is not obesity, but the war on fat, that causes real harm.
“The war on obesity is causing untold damage to fat people and thin people alike,” she argues. “By stigmatizing fat and fat people, it’s supporting discrimination. Stigmatization and discrimination are known to cause stress, and stress is a risk factor for many obesity-associated diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”
The tyranny of thinness has spawned a multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry that includes pills, reduced-calorie foods, excessive exercise regimes and surgery. The diet-industrial complex is big business. Amy Erdman Farrell, author of the 2011 book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture, indicates Americans spend U.S. $60 billion annually. It keeps people dieting – by spending money on pills, health club memberships and, increasingly, bariatric surgery.
Cheguis argues diets, which lead to weight cycling, can “crush a person’s self-confidence” over the long term. She points out dieting can destroy muscle tissue and notes only a minute fraction of people, a measly 1%, manage to keep off the weight with diets.
Bacon says the emphasis on thinness, rather than health, can be disastrous in the long run.
“Weight loss attempts actually cause some of the diseases they’re supposed to alleviate,” she explains. “One of the many likely reasons for this is that calorie restriction dieting increases inflammation, as research shows. Repeated cycles of weight loss and regain – the common result of dieting – result in even more inflammation. And inflammation is implicated as a risk factor for many obesity-associated diseases, like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. ”
Bacon pioneered the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, which shifts the emphasis away from weight towards health. Central to the paradigm is the set-point weight, which is an individualized weight at which each body is most comfortable.
Think of it as the preferred temperature on a fat thermostat,” Bacon says. “Your body works tirelessly to bring your body into alignment with that point. It acts like a biological force: The further you go from centre, the stronger the pull to get you back to the comfortable range. Most people have a set-point range of about 10-20 pounds. Get too thin and there are intense mechanisms which push you to regain the weight. Do this repeatedly and you may even bump up your set-point, your body’s way of protecting against future threats.”
Bacon admits maintaining one’s ideal weight is a delicate balance.
“Put on weight and the mechanism tends to be more lax in most people,” she explains. “Your body will try to get you to lose weight – signalling fullness, for example, to get you stop eating – but, for many people, it’s easy to override those signals and be above your set-point.”
The health unit has adopted a balanced approach that emphasizes health and celebrates individuality.
“Eat properly, get some physical activity and create positive self-esteem. Be yourself and learn to accept yourself on your own terms – your uniqueness and the things that set you apart,” Cheguis says. “Don’t be so focused on the outward appearance.”
The health unit leans heavily on the Canada Food Guide, but Cheguis says it is most important to eat intuitively and slowly – a minimum of 20 minutes should be devoted to a meal. In this new paradigm, there are no “good” or “bad” foods.
“Get in tune with your hunger – realize when you’re full and stop eating when you’re full,” she notes. “Really enjoy your food. All of us today eat very quickly because we have rushed lifestyles. Sit down and enjoy what you’re eating, without distractions. That gives your brain enough time to send the ‘full’ signal.”
Fat, awesome and queer
DePoe had an epiphany several years ago when she was hit by a car.
“I was pushed by the tires, not driven over,” she says. “As I was watching my body do all this amazing healing, I realized what horrible lies I had been told. … My fat, amazing body wasn’t something to be punished with diets and food-obsessed calorie counts; it was something to be celebrated.”
She founded the Toronto-based Fat, Awesome and Queer (FAQ) group, which uses social media to create safe spaces for fat and queer individuals, and their allies, to share ideas and experiences. They also organize real-world gatherings.
“Most of the time, fat folks move through the world waiting for the bully to show up. You hold your breath without even noticing,” DePoe explains and says her group helps people “move through life and take up space joyously and unapologetically.”
Making fat women more visible
Karyn Johnson, Canada’s maven of curvy fashion, founded her blog, www.KillerKurves.ca, after being stopped repeatedly by women admiring her attire. The blog challenges mainstream views on beauty and strives to make people see plus-size women as attractive.
“Killer Kurves and other plus-size blogs show that world that plus-size women are beautiful and are fashionable,” Johnson says. “I think of myself as a representative for plussize women in Canada and I put myself out there for the world to see. I want the world to know that I am big, I look good and love fashion, just like any other woman.”
Johnson has hit her stride. She has been featured in the Globe and Mail, Elle Quebec, Toronto Life and Canadian Living and on CTV News. Johnson says the attention normalizes the idea of beauty at every size.
Stigma may lead to metal illness
Annick Buchholz, a clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says school becomes an unsafe space for children who are bullied by their peers, and may lead to problems with mental health.
“Being called fat is worse than being called stupid or ugly,” she says. “You can see how that quickly reduces a person’s confidence.”
She adds that children who are bullied are more prone to developing depression and anxiety disorders.
“They tend to feel judged at a very young age, and are very worried about what other people are going to think about them,” Buchholz argues.
Published in The Sudbury Star on Oct. 12, 2013