Sunday, August 2, 2009

Obephobia: The Last Acceptable Bigotry

Megan McArdle has written a couple of intriguing blog posts arguing that obesity wrongly has become the new boogie man for everyone to get worked up about in the name of public health and lowering the costs of health care. She and the author she interviews assert that all of the "data" warning about obesity's dire health consequences and the impact on health care's bottom line are bloated, false charges.

Some day I might write about McArdle's posts, but now I want to approach this from the perspective of being a formerly morbidly obese person living in a world of obephobes: people who dislike, fear, and/or discriminate against fat people.

As of today, I have lost 92.9 pounds. When a reporter asked the first Survivor winner Richard Hatch why he lost so much weight, he allegedly said, "because being fat sucks." Having weighed nearly 250 pounds at 5'1, I can attest that indeed, it very much does.

I am nowhere close to thin, but if I never lost another pound, I'd be happy in my current body after inhabiting the morbidly obese one for so many years. I went from truly standing out in a crowd and barely being able to buckle my seat belt on an airplane to being just another average, overweight American. The difference in how I was treated at 250 pounds and how I am treated at my current size is pretty stunning.

"Fat" in this culture is synonymous with or represents lack of self-control, gluttony, and laziness. No one speaks up when fat people are humiliated for their weight. In a Washington Post review of Fox's new reality show More To Love, which is simply a super-sized version of The Bachelor, the reviewer refers to the plus-sized contestants as "porkers." This astounds me.

Frankly, the existence of the show astounds me, and further proves my point: when we're not busy ridiculing fat people, we're busy gawking at them. Note the 15 or so rotating shows on Discovery and TLC that offers you an hour's glimpse at the super-obese. These shows do nothing to educate or help either the subjects or the viewers; they exist merely as a kind of gross cultural pornography.

Obephobia is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination in this country. In fact, Washington, D.C., is the only province in the U.S.A. with laws to protect employees from being wrongly discriminated against because of their weight. People routinely denigrate and shame overweight people with no social consequences. It reminds me of my mom's stories of growing up in Memphis at the height of Jim Crow. Please do not tell me that black people are born black but "fatties" choose to be fat; I'll decimate that argument in another blog post. This one is already too long.

I could write for hours about the embarrassment that I endured because of my previous size, but I want to point out a select few:

1. Calling a restaurant that advertised the need for a hostess. On the phone they were enthusiastic and interested, and when I showed up for the interview about an hour later, the boss looked at me from head to toe and told me the position already was filled.

2. There are all these scam charities in D.C. where canvassers approach you on the street asking for a donation to "help save the children from violence." They get cagey and defensive when you point out that they have no non-profit status or address. Once when I was approached downtown, I said, "I'm sorry, I don't give money to this type of charity." The canvasser replied, "You need to be spending your money on Metabolife."

Sometimes obe-phobia is blatant, like the examples above, but I think the more socially acceptable form is the kind McArdle writes about; people justifying ludicrous behaviors that punish obese people in the name of public health. A junk food tax? Please. Under its Customers of Size policy, Southwest Airlines, which I still haven't forgiven for this, began requiring obese people to pay a discounted rate for another half seat if they're large. I just sat on hold for 11 minutes to verify that this policy is enforced. See what I do for my readers? I asked the rep at SWA how they'd handle it if you did not book the extra seat for whatever reason, and she told me that if you were really in the way of another customer they would require you to buy the extra seat on the spot if you wanted to complete your flight. The Rep tried to stress that it's not really an obephobic policy; she said her brother is a professional body builder with huge shoulders that creep into the neighboring passenger's body space, and he has to buy the second seat. I actually see the rationale here, but those types of policies really devastate fat people; I just wish the airlines could deal with this more delicately. One of my husband's super-obese relatives hasn't flown in decades because she's afraid of navigating the airlines at her size. I haven't been on a full flight in years; is it that hard to rearrange people, so maybe a fat person ends up with an empty seat next to him? Reading SWA's forums on this topic, people seem to have no compunction referring to overweight folks as "hippos." If this doesn't remind you of racists referring to black people as "monkeys" or "water buffalo," it should.

I want to close with a quote attributed to Plato, James Barrie, and a dozen others: "Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." This is so true. Obese people know they're obese. They are embarrassed. They know they're taking up too much room on the train, plane, or stadium seating. They have probably spent thousands of dollars on dozens of diets trying in vain to lose weight and feel hopeless. A warm smile from you goes a long way.


David said...

The SouthWest airlines thing is the one that gets to me the most. I am pretty much dead-center average for height and weight for an American male - however, after reading their guidelines, I have no idea whether or not those restrictions would apply to me. Am I a "customer of size"? Well, no, because I'm not a customer; but if I chose to fly SouthWest, then I certainly would be a "customer of size" - one of the definitions of something existing in the three-dimensional world is that it possesses size and volume - therefore, everyone from Yao Ming to Mini-Me would be a "Customer of Size."

Even worse, SouthWest only has one model of airplane - just how hard would it be for them to specify precisely how many inches there are between the armrests? Apparently it's hard enough that they're unwilling to do so...

Sarah said...

I agree. When I pressed their phone rep for guidelines on how to tell if you're obese enough to require the second seat, she was deliberately vague. I guess SWA doesn't want to box itself into a corner.

S said...

I think lots of forms of discrimination still exist - and I really like the way you closed this entry: Be kind. That's "all" it takes.

Gosh, how many ills would be solved (eliminated!) if we all just followed that very simple suggestion?


Anjali said...

This was a lovely post. Meanness sucks, no matter who it's directed toward.

zb said...

Wow. I'm horrified by that SWA question and answer page. The vagueness seems custom-designed to use the policy in a discriminatory way (i.e. to use it against some customers but not others, in this case). And, the vagueness creates a "prior restraint" worry, that is, a customer being afraid of flying Southwest because they're worried that they might be a "customer of size.", thus encouraging people to self-censor themselves out of flying Southwest.

They're on my avoid list now. If they published a specific size or weight guideline, I might reconsider. For example, they could state that everyone over a certain weight or over a physical dimension or offer people seat tests in the airport. But the way they've written the guideline and answered the questions makes the practice very questionable.

Elise said...

Great post. Thanks so much for writing it. I look forward to your future posts on these topics - especially the "decimating" one.

Anonymous said...

Airline seats in coach class are not large enough for everyone. If you are too big, the airlines cannot just let you sit on the person in the next seat. Airlines that have done so have lost lawsuits.

EVERY airline has this problem. Most airlines wait until you don't fit and then bump you if the flight is full. That's both embarrassing and inconvenient.

Southwest gives you the ability to plan ahead and prevent this from happening. Just pay for a second seat and you get to pre-board and use two seats. It's almost like flying first class. You'll never be bumped or have to try to squeeze into one seat.

But here's the best part: You can get a refund of the money you paid for the second seat virtually every time! Unless the flight was oversold, your refund request will be honored. If they filled the plane with standbys, you still get the refund.

Customers who have used this feature swear by it. No other airline will give you a refund for a second seat.

The question of how to determine in advance whether you need a second seat is legitimate, but there is no good solution. Butt sizers at the gate? I don't think so.

Here's my solution: If in doubt, buy the second seat. If you aren't large enough to need it, the people at the gate will tell you so. Then you can get a refund and you'll know where you stand.

Many people who are not quite too large to fit would like to buy the refundable second seat, but they are not allowed to. You can only get this deal if you actually don't fit in the seat.

See for more information.

Sarah said...

Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

One further clarification: As I understand it, the determining factor on whether you are considered too large to fit in the seat is whether or not you can lower the armrest between the seats. That rule would appear to exclude bodybuilders, so perhaps the employees have some discretion about people who are very large at the shoulders.

For non-bodybuilders, if you can lower the armrest you are not a customer of size. If you cannot lower the armrest, then you should buy the second seat.

Southwest flies Boeing narrowbody planes which, if I recall correctly, have 16 inches between the armrests. The front two rows are narrower, so avoid them. Seat 11E has open space to the right, which may help. (There is no seat 11F; it's the exit window area.)

Or find an airline like JetBlue that operates Airbus aircraft, which are 6 inches wider, allowing up to one inch extra width per seat. For those with deep pockets, paid first class tickets are cheaper now in real terms than they've ever been.

All this and much more is regularly discussed on the flyertalk forums, by the way.

Tyrone said...

Why exactly do you object to a junk food tax? Thin people would pay it as much as the overweight.

Elise said...

Why exactly do you object to a junk food tax?

I know this wasn't directed at me but ...

I object to a junk food tax for two reasons. First, it's too inexact. What's junk food? Coke? Diet Coke? Coke Zero? Twinkies? Newman's Cookies? All food from McDonald's? Some food from McDonald's? How about that plate of nachos at Friday's - is that junk food?

More than 25% of calories from fat? Then olive oil is junk food. More than so many calories per ounce? Butter.

Second, the problem with a junk food tax is that if we classify as junk what most people think of as junk - say, McDonald's - thin people and fat people might both pay it but poor people will feel the pinch a lot more than rich people. Fast food is very cheap and it's very convenient for families where mom and dad are both working long hours.

What I would support is a tax on high fructose corn syrup and its bastard child, crystalline fructose. Make it high enough (and stop subsidizing it and lower tariffs enough) to drive the manufacturers who use it back to sugar. Think of it as a real-world experiment to see if HFCS really does have any impact on obesity.

Sarah said...

Tyrone, Elise said it well. I'd also question the reason behind a junk food tax. Is it punitive? Is it to make up for the supposed correlation between obesity and health? My original post spells out my objections to that.

I also question what foods would be included. 100% fruit juice? I think that's junk.

I also object to this trend of taxing any behavior we don't like. It feels a little fascist to me, and feels like one more step toward the total nanny state we're creating.

Tyrone said...

No one has proposed a complete junk food tax, mainly because there is no easy way to define 'junk food'.

The only concrete proposals I've seen is to tax sugared sodas and corn. You don't even need to tax corn, just stop subsidizing it.

I support both of these, but concede there won't actually be much of a reduction in obesity. Corn subsidies are still worth getting rid of for a host of reasons (safer beef, getting rid of HFCS, even reducing illegal immigration).

Why do it then? Well as tax revenues go, I'd rather tax something both bad and avoidable - tobacco, alcohol, definable junk food, fossil fuels - than things that are good, like work, savings, and investment.

As an aside, how did you manage to lose 90 lbs? How long have you kept it off? I am 70 lbs overweight, and have never lost more than 10 lbs, and never sustained that for more than a year. I'd given up hope that weight loss is possible.

Elise said...

Who gets to decide what's "bad and avoidable"? Why sugared (I assume you mean HFCSed) sodas and not ice cream? Why not beef instead of or in addition to fossil fuels? Beef is actually avoidable; fossil fuels are not. And there's evidence a little red wine is good for the heart.

You might try reading Anglachel:

... food snobbery and obesssion with body image maps very nicely onto the metaphors used by WFN [Whole Foods Nation] to discuss politics. ... An intersection of body, gender, class and politics. They are actually considering putting sin taxes on "junk food" in California, punishing those who ingest lower order things.