Over the past few decades, there have been significant changes in society's attitude towards people based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. But for overweight and obese people, there has been no budge in how they are treated.
“People might not say things to my face so much, but the way they look at me...says everything,” Toni* tells SBS . “People snigger at me or stare at me when I’m eating. It’s like they’re disgusted by my size so much that I shouldn’t eat.”
Toni, a 38-year-old woman from Queensland, says she’s been overweight for most of her adult life. Consequently, she’s received cruel words, brazen insults, and taunts, often from strangers, because of her larger size.
“Every time I leave my house, I feel so judged. One day, I’d like to just go to work and spend my free time just enjoying myself, instead of feeling like I have to justify my existence.”
"It’s like they’re disgusted by my size so much that I shouldn’t eat.”
Toni is one of millions of Australians who is classified as overweight or obese, a category that has grown dramatically in the past decade.
Professor Joseph Proietto, who leads Austin Health’s Weight Control Clinic in Melbourne, says that the taunts Toni experiences may be quite common. He says many Australians have a negative reaction to obese people because they assume their large size is the result of laziness or greedy behaviour. In short, the common belief is that their obesity “is their fault”.
“Most people in Australia believe that obesity is self-induced and it’s a sign of weakness in turns of gluttony and laziness,” says Professor Proietto. “And this has been the general belief for a very, very long time.”
According to the National Health Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 71 per cent of men and 53 per cent of women are either obese or overweight.
A 2015 study by Bond University examined what doctors, psychologists and community members thought of obese people. The results showed that although the people surveyed didn’t hold an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards obese people, the three groups strongly believed that a person’s behaviour and psychology caused obesity.
"And society has been becoming more critical as more people become obese, including children.”
Meanwhile, the federal government’s policy direction on obesity shows that Canberra may also align with this point of view. In recent years, it has splashed more than $100 million on programs, advice and marketing, all with the aim of encouraging Australians to move more and make healthier food choices. Again, this policy solution focuses on obesity being the culmination of poor lifestyle choices and not a medical disease with a genetic cause.
Professor Proietto believes that while such policy measures help, and diet and exercise are important steps to overcoming obesity, there is “overwhelming evidence” that genetics play a key role in determining whether a person is more likely to put on weight.
Professor Proietto, who features in the new documentary series on SBS The Obesity Myth, explains that our modern lifestyle has drastically reduced the need for most people to physically move. This has contributed drastically to the sheer increase in overweight and obese people in Australia.
“There weren’t as many fat people because there wasn’t the built environment in which we don’t need to do a lot of physical labour to travel or find food,” says Professor Proietto, an endocrinologist specialising in diabetes and obesity.
“We don't even need to get up to change the channel on the television or get out of our cars to open the garage.
“Modern life has made those people who are pre-dispositioned to put on weight, to actually do so. And society has been becoming more critical as more people become obese, including children.”
Unlike other forms of discrimination, including that based on gender, race or sexual orientation,‘fat-shaming’ is not illegal. Senior lecturer in human development at the USA's Massey University, Cat Pausé, says the public acceptance of fat-shaming is probably the reason why it continues.
“The structural discrimination against fat people makes it particularly difficult for them to navigate the world and live full lives. This, in combination with fat stigma perpetuated through micro- aggressions, prejudice, and everyday sizeism, means fat people face an array of social, cultural, economic and political challenges.”
The Obesity Society, a USA-based group dedicated to eradicating stigma, believes these attitudes are revealed through jokes, teasing, name-calling and insults, plus physical barriers and obstacles including plane seats that are too small. This happens in family, social and work situations, with recent research showing that “overweight employees are ascribed multiple negative stereotypes including being lazy, sloppy, less competent, lacking in self-discipline, disagreeable, less conscientious, and poor role models”.
“The structural discrimination against fat people makes it particularly difficult for them to navigate the world and live full lives."
These attitudes, which been proven to detrimental to overweight people’s mental health and confidence are international and have even penetrated cultures such as American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Tanzania. Research from Arizona State University shows that historically, in these specific countries, larger people have been not only accepted, but desired because "plump bodies represented success, generosity, fertility, wealth, and beauty”. But the recent western fetishisation of slim bodies and the "globalisation of fat stigma", researchers say, have changed the long-held positive interpretation these cultures have had about larger bodies.
The good news is that in other parts of the world, the fat acceptance movement - also called ‘fat activism’ – is gaining ground. The aim of this global movement, sometimes supported by social media campaigns, is to counter harmful stereotypes of obesity. It also attempts to challenge myths and assumptions about why some people gain weight and related health issues, and change the current social and cultural bias against overweight people.
As Professor Proietto continues to raise awareness about the genetic realities of obesity, he remains hopeful that attitudes will change once people become more accepting of the science behind obesity.
“Gradually, we’re getting the message across that things are not what they might seem on the surface,” he says. “We want to dispel the myths around obesity.”
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.
If you or someone you know needs support contact Lifeline 13 11 14, or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.
WatchThe Obesity Myth on SBS on Mondays from 4 September at 7:30pm on SBS or view each episode after it airs on SBS On Demand.