Is discrimination of body size a new form of classism? The Chilean case

Maria Alejandra Energici

There are two facts about obesity that are well documented and tend to be common to many societies. First, rates of obesity are higher in poorer populations (Darmon and Drewnowski 2008; Drewnowski and Darmon 2005; Drewnowski 2004). It is a well-known and simple fact: in developed or developing societies, moving down in the social scale is accompanied by an increase on the rate of obesity. On the other hand, a second fact that has remained almost unrelated to the first one is that obesity is a very stigmatizing condition. Many aspects of an obese person are affected by his or her weight: school or work, home and public life, among others (Sobal 2011). For example, obese individuals have a lower probability of finding a job (Grant and Mizzi 2014) or to be selected as possible dating mates (Guzman, del Castillo, and García 2010). Even discrimination from health professionals has been observed (Pantenburg et al. 2012; Sobal 2011).

I have been conducting research about the social construction of fatness by adults and young people in Santiago, Chile. We analyzed ‘fatness’ instead of obesity, in part to inquiry if fatness is considered a disease. We recruited six discussion groups, three of young people, three of adults, each containing representation from the different socioeconomic groups.

It seems that fatness is constructed as a three dimensional problem: it is a physical condition, not necessarily a disease, and more of an enlargement of the body and a deterioration of the fitness of the body; a psychological condition determined by low self esteem, lack of self control and discipline; and an aesthetic condition of ugliness and deformation.

The traits used to describe (and consequently discriminate against) fat people called to mind both class-divisions and common characterizations of poor people. To elaborate: Chile is a very unequal, class-divided and segregated society. People from any given social class tend to frequent the same places, attend the same schools and live in the same areas of the city. They commonly befriend and marry people with the same socioeconomic status.  As a consequence, social class is a very important dimension of social interaction. In Chile, people are very fast to discern someone’s social class: it is essential for interaction so they can know if they have to treat him or her as an equal or as a ‘stranger’. Fatness seems to be one of the traits that helps people to make rapid, spontaneous judgments; all those who have participated in the study have openly declared that poor people tend to be fatter than rich people. So fatness or obesity in poorer populations is not only of academic interest, but also important for social interaction.

But it is not just that body size helps to categorize someone’s social class, it also endows them with a series of traits that are very similar to the ones traditionally attributed to poor people. In a society characterized by neoliberal ideas, poverty has been constructed as an individual matter; that is, poverty is not explained in terms of social or economic causes but rather in terms of personal choices. ‘Laziness’ plays a key role in this kind of explanation: a person is poor because he or she is indolent. Sadly this is not an uncommon judgment in the Chilean society. What interests me is that fat people are described in very similar terms; for example, a sedentary life style is highlighted as the main cause of fatness. The sedentary lifestyle is not put down to a lack of exercise, rather it connotes a morally connoted state of “doing nothing” or laziness. Fat people are the way they are because they are lazy; they prefer to watch television instead of exercising; they prefer to eat fast food instead of taking the time to prepare something healthier. As a consequence, laziness becomes a key aspect to explanations of fatness.

If we take together theses two judgments, that poorer people tend to be fatter than rich people and that fat people are like that because there are lazy, we have the same net result, namely, poor people are lazy. Laziness, traditionally used to explain the condition of poverty, now is extended to bodies. The laziness marks the body in a way it didn’t before. This is what leads me to think that in the Chilean case discrimination of body size could be a form of classism where the body symbolizes laziness by its shape.

With this study we have become very aware that stigmatization and discrimination over body size don’t occur in a social vacuum. They interact with other forms of exclusion or violence. It has been shown how discrimination by body size tends to exacerbate violence to women (Fikkan and Rothblum 2012; Rothblum 2011). What our research is showing is that we should also study how it interacts with classism.

 

References

Darmon, Nicole and Adam Drewnowski. 2008. “Does Social Class Predict Diet Quality?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87:1107–17.

Drewnowski, Adam. 2004. “Poverty and Obesity : The Role of Energy Density and Energy Costs.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 6–16.

Drewnowski, Adam and Nicole Darmon. 2005. “The Economics of Obesity: Dietary Energy Density and Energy Cost.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 265–73. Retrieved (/Users/grahamjeffries/Documents/literature/Am J Clin Nutr 2005 Drewnowski A.pdf\nhttp://www.ajcn.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=16002835).

Fikkan, Janna L. and Esther D. Rothblum. 2012. “Is Fat a Feminist Issue? Exploring the Gendered Nature of Weight Bias.” Sex Roles 66:575–92.

Grant, Sharon and Toby Mizzi. 2014. “Body Weight Bias in Hiring Decisions: Identifying Explanatory Mechanisms.” Social Behavior and Personality 42(3):353–70. Retrieved (http://openurl.ingenta.com/content/xref?genre=article&issn=0301-2212&volume=42&issue=3&spage=353).

Guzman, Rebeca Maria Elena, Arturo del Castillo, and Melisa García. 2010. “Factores Psicosociales Asociados Al Paciente Con Obesidad.” Pp. 201–18 in Obesidad. Un enfoque multidisciplinario, edited by José Antonio Morales. Hidalgo: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo.

Pantenburg, Birte et al. 2012. “Medical Students’ Attitudes towards Overweight and Obesity.” PLOS ONE 7(11):1–8.

Rothblum, Esther D. 2011. “Fat Studies.” Pp. 173–83 in The Oxford Handbook of Social Science of Obesity, edited by John Cawley. Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.

Sobal, Jeffery. 2011. “The Sociology of Obesity.” Pp. 105–19 in The Oxford Handbook of Social Science of Obesity, edited by John Crawley. Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.

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