When You Have to Confront Weight Stigma

Angry FrustratedA very consistent question that I get from people who e-mail me is about how to deal with a conversation they have to have that may be derailed by fat phobia.  Whether it’s talking to someone at HR about their problematic workplace wellness issue, or talking to someone at their kids school about weight-based bullying, or talking to a health care practitioner about a health issue.

One of the issues with fighting fatphobia is when you are trying to address it with someone who holds size-based prejudices and is part of the problem.  So things that should be obvious (like the fact that workplaces should not engage in appearance based discrimination, that bullying is unacceptable behavior, that coming to the doctor for a broken arm should not involve weight shaming) can become blurry in the mind of the person holding the prejudice  (“I think bullying is bad but omgdeathfatz blah blah blah”)

I’ve found that if I know that I’m going to have to engage in one of these conversations, it can help to do some prep work and have a plan.  Here are some suggestions that have worked for me, as always your mileage may vary, please feel free to take what you like and ignore what you don’t.  Also, please remember that I’m not suggesting that this is the best method to have a dialog about Size Acceptance or Health at Every Size, I’m suggesting that it’s one option that you can use if you have to address fatphobia with someone who is fatphobic.

First, I would suggest starting off the conversation by gaining a baseline agreement. Perhaps start with something like “I’m sure that we can both agree that bullying has no place in school,” or “I’m sure we can agree that a hostile work environment doesn’t support productive employees” or “I’m here because I think my arm is broken. I understand that you can help me with that, is that correct?”  I think it really helps to start with this kind of baseline agreement.

Next, make the case in three points. I used to do a lot of  Queer community activism, training large groups of people to work with hostile media (media who wanted to get a “bad quote” and make us look bad.) When I did that we used something called the media circle (I’m not sure who created it and my Googling has failed me, if you know I would love for you to let me know so that I can credit them.) It was taught to me as a method of couching a message in a way that keeps others from pulling you away from your core message. It works great to teach a whole bunch of people who are going to be at a rally.  I’ve found that it also works great in conversations where fatphobia may be involved.  It’s composed of three things:

  1. The problem
  2. The solution
  3. What I want done about it.

So for example

  1. The problem that I’m here to talk about is that kids in this school are engaging in appearance based bullying.
  2. The solution to that is education about the issues with bullying, and a zero tolerance policy from authority figures.
  3. I’m here to ask that you implement those things in your classroom.

The reason it’s a circle is because if someone says something that tries to pull you off topic, you go back to number one. So, if the teacher says something like “well, we do have to worry about health and weight” you simply say “That’s not the issue here. The problem that I’m here to talk about is that kids in this school are engaging in appearance based bullying…” and go back through the circle.

Another example:

  1. The problem is that our employee wellness program is not evidence-based/is potentially triggering to people  who may have, develop or are recovering from eating disorders/is discriminatory/ encourages appearance-based discrimination/creates a hostile environment
  2. The solution is to implement a Health at Every Size Based Approach.
  3. I’m asking that you provide: evidence for the efficacy of this program in improving long-term health/help me understand how you are mitigating the issues with tiggering/help me understand how this program doesn’t discriminate on the basis of health status disability/discuss a HAES approach to workplace wellness

One more example

  1. I think my arm is broken.
  2. I was told that I should see a doctor.
  3. I came here to have my arm treated.

So once you gain agreement and go through your three media circle statements, you can tell the story that brought you here. You get to choose how much detail you want to go into. I would suggest that it’s important that you not, in any way, attempt to apologize for or justify your size. You are not in the wrong here, your body is fine and not up for discussion. If the person you are talking to tries to make your fat body, or larger bodies in general, the issue, just take it right back into the media circle. “That’s not what I’m here to discuss, the problem is…”

It can also help to have resources to offer. For help with that you can check:

Here for some general resources

Here for bullying resources

Here and here for help at the workplace

Here for help at the doctor’s office

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4 thoughts on “When You Have to Confront Weight Stigma

  1. I really like the media circle. I should use it more for my frequent meetings at the school to stay on task. Thanks!

  2. I agree, the media circle – and examples – are great. I need to remember to keep coming back to number 1 when I’m having tricky discussions (talking to my teenagers comes to mind).

  3. Oh wow. This is brilliant! I honest to god wish I’d been taught the Media Circle when I was going to school to be an AF Public Affairs specialist (and when I went back for a PR degree). It has SO MANY applications! Excuse me, I have to drill this into my brain!

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