Being overweight has been viewed in various perspectives all around the world and throughout history. In some past civilizations, especially where money and food were scarce, people would see a fat figure as a sign of prosperity and having enough to eat. Plump bodies were considered to represent beauty, fertility and wealth. On the contrary, over just the past few decades in the modern developed world, people began to view being fat not as a sign of prosperity, but a source of shame.
If we look back into history, we can see evidence of deities and symbolic figures depicted as fat people. For example, we have the figurine of Venus of Willendorf, uncovered in Austria in 1908, believed to have been created thousands of years ago. Although the face is indistinct, the body is anatomically correct – and very obviously overweight. Over the past century, she has been used as a symbol of fertility, a toy, or a teaching device for pregnant women. The Venus is not the only fat figurine in history. There are also the “Fat Ladies of Malta”, another set of figurines of overweight female figures, mostly with no heads or very small heads relative to their body size. Often found in burial sites and shrines, historians have suggested that these Maltese figurines held some symbol of importance to the people of that civilization. Additionally, ancient fat figurines were not all women. There is also a jade carving from Guatemala believed to have been created around 700 BC, depicting the “Fat Lord and Frog”. This man is obese and must have constituted some importance in society then, as common folk would not have their images carved into jade.
The very fact that these figurines exist prove that people in the past may have held fatness to some level of reverence. At the very least, it is unlikely they thought being fat was a bad thing. How, then, have we conceived these notions about people’s mass today? Why is being fat a negative thing in modern society? And, more importantly, are we allowing our delusions of a person’s body shape to influence decisions that are supposed to be perfectly logical?
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” That was what the model Kate Moss said in 2009, resulting in a lot of public backlash. Critics argued that she should not encourage this kind of thinking, which could easily cause many more eating disorders among her numerous young fans. Unfortunately, Moss is not the only person who has said such statements regarding plump bodies. Our society, particularly that of America, has developed such views toward fat people and in turn influenced others to label fatness as a bad thing.
There is also no denying that being fat can come with several health complications. And unlike most people’s flaws or shortcomings, a fat figure is plain for all to see. Some people may argue that fat shaming stems from a desire to help people to minimize their health risks, but is this entirely true? Most likely, people who insult others as “fat” are probably not worrying about their health concerns, and besides, insulting others can have detrimental effects on one’s health anyway.
Fatness has also evolved into a sign of laziness. In the past, people struggled to feed themselves, and one who had enough to eat to the point of becoming plump was considered lucky. However, in today’s society, food is readily available to almost anyone in developed countries. Instead of finding food, the focus has shifted to having enough time to work out and prepare healthier meals to have a slimmer body, suggesting the notion that a fat person is lazy, weak and lacks the willpower to lose some weight. Of course, we know that while a sedentary lifestyle could possibly lead to someone becoming fat, others are simply naturally plump even if they try to slim down. Some people are born on the chubbier side, while others have a low metabolism rate and easily gain weight from simply living a normal lifestyle. Yet others may be under medications with side effects that cause them to gain weight or have difficulty losing it. None of these factors really link to the reasoning that a fat person is lazy or weak, but the subconscious association is still there, perhaps even in fat people themselves.
Perhaps the evolved notions regarding body mass can be due to people’s self-criticism in finding greener pastures. When the majority of people are thin, they look to plumpness as a desirable outcome. But when the scales have shifted and the majority of people now have no trouble putting on a few pounds, they then look to thinness as a desirable outcome.
It is undeniable that all these assumptions about fat people in today’s society have led to fat shaming in job culture. For one, fat people are generally less likely to be offered a job, even if they have the exact same qualifications as a slimmer person. Studies on subconscious discrimination have shown that job interviewers were more likely to follow up with someone who was not fat compared to someone who was fat, even if the interviewers themselves did not mindfully discriminate against fat people in general. Society has ingrained in us a deep mindset that people find difficult to shake, regardless of their voluntary views toward fat people.
One possible reason why employers may be reluctant to hire fat people is that the employers could be concerned about a fat person’s health and whether they will be able to work as effectively as anyone else. Given that the general stereotype for fat people is that they are lazy and weak, most people who grew up surrounded with these stereotypes in their society tend to form similar subconscious associations when they see a picture of a fat person, without ever meeting them in person or talking to them.
It is easy to use reason to say that these assumptions are baseless, but much more difficult to change an entire society’s way of thinking. After all, from observing how the shift in society’s attitude towards fat people has occurred, it is likely that we would need a complete turn around of work and food availability in developed countries to trigger such an evolution again. In our “golden age” now, where people in developed societies live a life of luxury and accessibility, we may never know hardship in our lifetimes. As such, people may be inevitably shaming fat figures in the job market for years to come, regardless of how much awareness spreads about the discrimination of others. Are we content to sit idly by and allow these blanket ideas to drive our society, or will it ever be possible to turn the situation around again? Are we willing to give up a cushy life just to make a stand for humanity?
May 12, 2020