Photo: Weight from Rohit Mattoo Flickr photostream

Avoidance of working on ones PhD comes in many guises, and for Angela Meadows it has taken form in the brilliant Weight Stigma Conference that is now entering its third year. The call for delegates arrived in my inbox recently and it reminded me of last year’s conference, which was attended by a range of academics, practioners, and local policy makers exploring the impact of weight stigma.

During the conference a succession of slim, outraged researchers decried the abuse that fat people experience as part of their everyday lives. That their audience contained fat people who had chosen to go to a conference on weight stigma seemed lost on the presenters.

Sitting there, it struck me that, however well meaning, this was a form of fat discrimination – constructed through the rhetoric of outrage and the repetition of the outrageous behaviour (in the form of quotes from research participants demonstrating their fat-hatred). The talks seemed more oriented towards telling people that this is what went on, as if their intended audience were people who had not experienced fat stigma. In articulating the abuse the speakers failed to acknowledge that fat people might be their audience too, and in doing so it failed to recognise them as valid members of the audience.

This ‘othering’ of fat people is a familiar trope in public health discourse. Critical health and biomedical researchers such as Lucy Aphramor, Katharine Flegal, and Chin Jou have challenged the notion of obesity as a personal choice or direct cause of illness, bringing into question the efficacy of pointing out to people that they are overweight.

big fat problemNonetheless, these approaches persist. There are a range of examples, one is a health-promotion booklet jointly produced by the Welsh Government and the BBC. It features the now clichéd representation of the overweight body – a dehumanised headless person, bursting out of their straining clothes – and the all too familiar semiotic shorthand for fat bodies as bad bodies encapsulated in the title ‘Big Fat Problem’.

Whose problem is it? How would you like to be called a problem? Evidence shows that the linking of being fat bodies with ill-health and a failure of personal responsibility leads to feeling of stigmatisation and disempowerment. Despite this, the idea that fat people are a problem (both for themselves and society) persists particularly in health promotion and health policy. The role of the ‘abject’ other is crucial to neoliberalism, as Tyler demonstrates in relation to asylum seekers, gypsies, chavs, or Egan argues in relation to young female sexualities, under neoliberalism the public need someone they can pour their anxiety into – someone to hate, to blame, to redirect their otherwise terrible fears in an uncertain world. It would appear that ‘those who are fat’ are also on this list of abject, easy targets. But at what cost?

By repeatedly using an oversimplified ‘calories in / energy out’ model, the complex social, cultural and commercial factors that influence our health and lifestyle are ignored. The scientific uncertainties around what constitutes a healthy diet , and the ineffectiveness of lifestyle advice are glossed over. There are significant health gaps between the rich and the poor, for example, wealth inequalities are related to a 13-year life expectancy gap for men in the UK, but by emphasising ‘lifestyle choice’ as the cause of overweight and ill health, the myth of the level playing field is perpetuated. The focus becomes about encouraging people to lose weight, what Deb Burgard calls the ‘weight cycling industries’, rather than working towards the things that promote health at a population level: the availability of affordable and nutritious food, safe and affordable places to exercise, job security, living wages and good quality housing.

The individual impact of assuming personal responsibility for weight and therefore health can be profound. People who are designated as overweight or obese are less likely to go to a doctor about their health concerns, and more likely to have their symptoms dismissed or ascribed to their weight. Health-promotion campaigns that relentlessly target weight can increase anxiety even in people without a ‘weight problem’ and stigmatize others. When Professor Craig Currie called Britain “a nation of lazy porkers” in a 2013 interview with the BBC, he framed the issue of increasing rates of type II diabetes in moral terms, with the population ‘at risk’ from and responsible for their obesity and its consequences. This judgemental culture means that in our everyday lives we experience a relentless surveillance – from checking out the content of each other’s shopping trolleys to deciding if we are going to listen to our doctor: our anxieties around weight and consumption structure our day. Concerns around food, weight, consumption and exercise ironically make it harder for us to conceptualise living healthy lifestyles as pleasurable. Food becomes a risk to be managed.

But perhaps the biggest cost is making people abject – making them devalued, denying them the right to exist as people. After last year’s Weight Stigma conference, a delegate tweeted: ‘surprise by how unfamiliar it felt to be somewhere fat folks’ ideas were not immediately discredited’. Thank goodness then, for Angela Meadows and her PhD avoidance, for providing an opportunity to think and act outside dominant tropes, even if the thinner speakers need to be reminded of their audience.

About the authors: Sarah Riley is Reader at Aberystwyth University. She is a critical psychologist interested in how people make sense of themselves and the wider discourses that allow that sense making, with particular reference to identities related to bodies, gender and age. Martine Robson is a 3rd Year PhD student at Aberystwyth University, looking at how people in long-term relationships manage lifestyle change and advice after a partner’s diagnosis with heart disease.