Weight Stigma is a Feminist Issue//Jaclyn A. Seigel

The past decade has seen a renewed interest in feminist media and activism. As a reflection of feminism’s cultural resurgence, the term itself was named Merriam Webster’s “Word of the Year” in 2017 (Criss, 2017). In particular, increased attention has been paid to intersectional feminism, which emphasizes the ways that people who have multiple marginalized identities are subjected to overlapping forms of oppression. Yet, one intersection remains woefully overlooked, a form of prejudice that is rampant, pervasive, and largely considered socially acceptable: weightism (Calogero, Tylka, & Mensinger, 2016; Puhl & Brownell, 2001).

Over forty years ago, Susie Orbach published her sensational book “Fat is a Feminist Issue” (Orbach, 1978). The book achieved worldwide recognition for highlighting many of the structural issues surrounding women and weight. And yet, in many ways, Orbach’s book missed the mark (Diamond, 1985; Fikkan & Rothblum, 2012). Fat is certainly a feminist issue but encouraging individual women to “successfully” suppress their own weight to avoid the pernicious stigma attributed to higher-weight individuals is not an effective long-term solution. Rather, the target of feminist intervention must be the pervasive and systematic repudiation of people in fat bodies (Fikkan & Rothblum, 2012; Saguy, 2012).

While feminism is no longer fundamentally abhorrent to most, the other “F-word” (fat) still evokes feelings of hatred and disgust (Rothblum, 1994; Fikkan & Rothblum, 2012). Weight stigma can be defined as “the social rejection and devaluation that accrues to those who do not comply with prevailing social norms of adequate body weight and shape” (Tomiyama et al., 2018). This prejudice is pervasive: experiences of weight stigma have been reported in nearly every area of people’s lives, from employment settings to healthcare to interpersonal relationships (see Puhl & King, 2013). Although experiences of weight stigma are, by no means, uncommon in men (Himmelstein, Puhl, & Quinn, 2018), many studies suggest that women report a higher number of weight-stigmatizing experiences (Roehlig et al., 2007; Spahlholz, Baer, Konig, Riedel-Heller, & Luck-Sikorski, 2016), and that the consequences of weight stigma are more severe for women (Fikkan & Rothblum, 2012) compared to men.

Given that weight stigma is detrimental to women’s happiness and well-being, the systems and structures that maintain and reproduce it (i.e., the dieting and “wellness” industries; Knoll, 2019) would seem obvious targets for feminist intervention. Yet, this is not the case. In fact, some have even attempted to make a feminist case for diet-related behaviours, given that (temporary) weight loss can purportedly lead to feelings of confidence and empowerment for individuals (Cairns & Johnston, 2015; Meltzer, 2013).

Feminist scholars have written extensively about the emergence of neoliberal and individualized forms of (post)feminism in the Western world (Budgeon, 2015; Rottenberg, 2014). As Dr. Catherine Rottenberg explains, “the neoliberal feminist subject is … mobilized to convert continued gender inequality from a structural problem into an individual affair” (Rottenberg, 2014, p. 420). Under neoliberal (postfeminism) feminism, all choices, even those that reinforce deeply entrenched and patriarchal power structures, can be framed as feminist choices, so long as they are “empowering” (Banet-Weiser, 2018; Gill, 2007) or boost “confidence” (Gill & Orgad, 2015). Under postfeminism, taking measures to avoid weight stigma, such as “choosing health”, extreme fitness, and disordered eating, can be framed as “feminist” stances (Cairns & Johnston, 2015; Musolino, Warin, Wade, & Gilchrist, 2015; Washington & Economides, 2015).

Dismantling a culture that valorises thin bodies and villainises fat ones should be a priority for feminists everywhere. Rather than surveilling our own bodies and praying we do not fall victim to weight stigmatizing attitudes, feminists must reject diet culture and instead advocate for a society that is safe and just for people in fat bodies. As long as weight stigma continues to negatively influence the lives of girls and women, fat is, indeed, a feminist issue.

Written by Jaclyn A. Seigel


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