Sizism: why overweight Aussies are turning on each other

According to a new study the overweight and obese in this country are quick to judge whenever they see other overweight people eating in public. You would think being overweight themselves, they would have some empathy for others who are struggling with weight issues, not so says the study by weight loss company Jenny Craig.

On 24th February 2012, Jenny Craig surveyed their database (which is predominantly women) and of the 4,239 responses received, 66% of overweight respondents and 58% of obese respondents, negatively judge other overweight Aussies who eat unhealthy food in public.

Although the survey by Jenny Craig was not distributed to a representative sample of the population, results of the study do point to an emerging trend in Western societies, that of sizism.

Psychologist, Sandy Rea explains: “Sizism is a fairly new term which relates to both normal and overweight individuals who have a perception and prejudice directed against overweight people. This attitude is keenly felt by overweight people and of course exerts a social pressure.”

“Underlying this social pressure linked to sizism is the perception that obesity symbolises an inability to be self-disciplined, demonstrate self-control and an inability to manage their personal health.”

Of those respondents who are overweight or have been overweight, one in four are so scared of public opinion, they limit themselves to eating only healthy foods when in public for fear of being judged by others.

“By inference ‘fatness’ reflects negatively on personal character. Thus those respondents who do not eat in public or choose healthy foods so as not to be judged, indicate a greater level of self-awareness.”

In this way, sizism is not too dissimilar to how smokers are treated like social pariahs whenever they light up in public. However, unlike a smoker, overweight people can’t hide the fact they are overweight and these negative attitudes follow them everywhere – into the workplace and into other areas of life.

“You can actually walk down the street and not know someone’s an alcoholic. But you can’t walk the street and not know someone is morbidly obese or overweight,” said Sandy Rea.

These are the unintended consequences of the public health campaigns created to change individual behaviours. These campaigns work so well that people who engage in unhealthy behaviours in public spaces are being negatively judged and in some cases, openly discriminated against. The message is clear, people who are overweight or obese are lazy, have no self control and they should feel ashamed.

The most surprising thing that came out of this survey is that women who are overweight or obese, are just as likely to discriminate against overweight individuals, as those men and women who fall within the healthy weight range.

I was watching ABC TV’s Q & A program on Monday night and amongst all the intelligent things Germaine Greer had to say, the feminist said this about our PM Julia Gillard:

“What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets. They don’t fit. Every time she turns round you’ve got that strange horizontal crease, which means they’re cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse Julia, get over it.”

So much for the Sisterhood! You don’t hear anyone criticising our male politicians in this way. When it comes to criticism of the way we look, other women really are our biggest critics.

Sandy Rea says overweight people are not a supportive group.

“If you’re an alcoholic, everyone in the group is very supportive of you. If you’re on drugs, there are groups that are very community orientated. But even when you attend group weight loss programs, the goal is to actually leave the group. That’s when you become successful, actually leaving the group because you’ve reached the desired weight.”

Photo credit: © olly – Fotolia.com

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