A Primer on Fatphobia, Body Image, and Disability

by Staci Forrest

Back in April, I had a little bit of a health crisis. I had off and on stomach pain for most of the semester which, coupled with pain from my chronic illness, landed me a spot in the local community hospital’s ER several times. My stomach pain came to a head in the middle of the month and, again, I headed to the ER. I was expecting the hospital to do a pain management regime and send me home. Instead, I ended up staying in the hospital for four days preparing for and recuperating from emergency gall bladder surgery and an infection. After I was discharged and arrived home from the hospital, I read my discharge instructions. The instructions listed all the usual things that hospital discharge instructions usually list, including diagnosis.  Under the heading ‘Secondary Diagnosis’ appeared the phrase ‘Morbid Obesity- BMI 55.2.’ To most people, I don’t even appear to be ‘morbidly obese.’

No, I don’t eat too much. No, my parents weren’t pushovers who allowed their child to eat so much that she gained a large amount of weight. No, I don’t go to McDonald’s every day-in fact, I don’t even like McDonald’s. I AM however from a family featuring big women and I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome coupled with Insulin Resistance. I have been told by my primary care physician that both of these factors play a role in my weight.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), being obese in of itself does not constitute a disability. However, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act in 2008, being obese due to some type of medical impairment does. Therefore, because I can prove that my weight is directly affected by my chronic illness, I am covered under the ADA.  However, a person who cannot prove that their weight is affected by an underlying condition is not covered.

In Disability Studies literature, two disability models, medical and social, are established.  The medical model of disability focuses on impairments of the individual while the social model of disability looks at what makes a person “disabled” in society. In her academic journal article titled “Disparate but Disabled: Fat Embodiment and Disability Studies,” April Herdon argues that, in fact, people who are perceived as being fat are also perceived as being disabled. Herdon states, “the reliance upon biological truths about bodies….serves only to further pathologize individuals.”

I have seen the correlation of fatness being perceived as disability in my own life.
A few days ago while riding the local fixed-route bus with my Mom; I came face-to-face with a rather uncomfortable situation. My Mom and I boarded the fixed-route bus that would take us back home at about 5:00 in the afternoon. As one would expect, the bus was extremely crowded and only one seat was available. The seat itself was a bench seat that had the capacity to hold three people. When I went to sit down in between the two women sitting on the bench, the woman sitting to the right of me started immediate protest. “Oww, Ooo. You sat on me,” she said. “I’m sorry,” I replied and moved over the tiny bit that I could. “It is so sickening to look at, you ugly girl. What’s wrong with you? Why haven’t you gotten lap band or gastric bypass surgery yet?” the woman replied. Now, I do realize that people often think that they are being helpful when giving advice to us fat people to go to the gym three hours a day, or go to a nutritionist, or even to get lap band or gastric bypass surgery, however, I have found that, in most cases, making these suggestions are not helpful. Instead they are hurtful, especially when those recommendations are from strangers who do not know me or my medical history. In fact, these types of suggestions are triggering for me. It is good to know that people do genuinely care about me, but in this instance I would prefer sometimes if people would back off. In my opinion, the woman on the bus wasn’t trying to be helpful at all. In the end, I ended up deciding that I would just stand up while traveling.

The example of “the woman on the bus” clearly demonstrates to me that some people do view fatness as a sickness, as a disability that needs to be fixed, altered, and made extinct. Perhaps there is a place for people who are fat to be covered in the ADA when one takes into account the “perceived as having a disability” component of the ADA.

After reading the April Herndon paper, I was so excited and enthralled by the revolutionary
research it presents that I decided to share it with a friend of mine who is a major activist within the fat acceptance community.  Fat acceptance is essentially the movement against sizeism, the discrimination against people based on their size, to include height and weight.  Initially,my friend seemed quite interested in reading the article. A few days after I had given the article to her, she gave it back to me with the review, “I find it disgusting that she would compare us to people with disabilities. We ARE NOT like that. I do not like that she wants to label us like that.” My friend was completely fixated on the label of ‘disabled’.

The last thing anyone wants to be labeled as is disabled. In the eyes of many, to be disabled is to be less-than human, to be anything but human. In reality, we are all humans no matter who we are and what oppressed group we may or may not belong to.

Although us disabled people are seen in larger society as being “less-than human” and “broken,” beauty standards still exist for us as they do for people without disabilities. On June 4, 2012 at 10pm, a new show called Push Girls will appear on the Sundance Channel. The show chronicles the lives of four women, Tiphany, Auti, Angela, and Mia. All of the women featured have become wheelchair users due to injuries sustained in car accidents or other sudden onset disorders. In the ads preceding the premiere of Push Girls, I tend to notice two things. The first, obviously, is that all of the women use those sleek-sporty wheelchairs and generally, look sexy.  Second, all of the women adhere to the universal standards of beauty that threaten all women, disabled or not. They are thin (not fat!), have pounds of make-up applied to their faces, have their hair perfectly styled and they are wearing the latest and greatest clothing brands. To me, the Push Girls represent a bittersweet reality. The sweet: it’s great that we are finally seeing smart, strong women with disabilities represented in media. The bitter: people who are paralyzed due to automobile accidents or sudden-onset diseases only represent a portion of the whole disability population. We are establishing what the whole disability population should looklike based on a fraction of the entire disability community. In reality, the disability community represents a much broader physical make-up than Push Girls represent. Furthermore, the same phenomena of basing an ideal body image that only a sliver of the population can obtain is happening in general society today. The big idea surrounding this is that we are in the midst of a double standard: on one hand, we as people with disabilities are seen as less-than-human, on the other, even though we are seen as less-than-human we must adhere to impossible beauty standards.

While we have covered disabled females, what about disabled males? The prospect for body image as it relates to males isn’t pretty either. Disabled males are often portrayed as deformed or disfigured (e.g. Frankenstein), less than intelligent or, in the case of Rain Man, possessing above average or above human intelligence. These stereotypes hurt disabled males as much as the previous stereotypes pertaining to disabled females hurt. They can make men feel that they are less-than masculine and ultimately, less-than human.

This post is only meant to skim the surface of fatphobia and body image theory as it relates to disability. It is meant to ignite discussion about a population that is often not accounted for when talking about body image issues and theorem. Future research and discussion around body image issues and genderqueer individuals with disabilities as well as individuals with disabilities who also belong to other non-normative groups should be pursued. In the fall, I will be completing an independent study focusing on body image issues as it relates to females with disabilities. To learn more about the project, please email me at chronicillnessgirl at gmail dot com.

* Fat Acceptance is a relatively new movement. Fat Acceptance strives to enforce the idea that all people are beautiful no matter size and that a person should not change their size due to exterior pressures. The Fat Acceptance Movement commonly believes that health is based on a number of factors and not just weight.

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