Monday, December 15, 2014

Oh, Splenda, I can't even

This morning I ran across this little beauty. My initial reaction is that it’s just more of that unconscious weight bias inherent in our society. Today, though, I found that I didn’t like the negative connotation that implied. I think of all the things I’ve learned in my life, and I wouldn’t want people judging me on my actions about something before I knew better. We need a way to describe our society that captures the unique difficulties faced by people of size or with obesity while not demonizing those who are thin.

Some of this alteration to my thinking came from my 15 year old daughter, who has very passionate opinions about the social justice implications of the heteronormativity of our society. (Would anyone think less of me if I admitted I don’t think I’d heard the term “heteronormativity” until she taught me?) What I really like about the term is that it gives an explanation for the difficulties experienced by those who do not fit into traditional gender roles and heterosexuality. But while identifying heterosexuality as a societal norm, it does not imply that heterosexual individuals have done anything “wrong”.

I realized this matters a great deal in how we perceive weight bias. Underlying the terms we use—thin ideal, thin-obsessed, weight bias—is some level of assumption that thin is bad or that individuals are responsible for the things they say. Just like obesity, the truth is a much more complicated picture. It’s acceptable for Splenda to say “This packet has been approved for swimsuit season” not because Splenda wants to stigmatize people and we’ve simply allowed it to happen, but because our society just assumes that thin is what people are always striving for. 

In order to shift the view from “people with obesity are stigmatized” to “we need to recognize the societal roots of our beliefs”, we need a better term. Heteronormativity does not suggest that those of other sexual orientations aren’t stigmatized—of course they are. But it recognizes that stigma as rooted in a deep societal construct. By understanding what underlies stigma related to sexuality, we can consider how best to alter that stigma and lessen the strength of society’s heteronormativity.

We can do the same with obesity. If we better understand what underlies the stigma experienced by people with obesity, and accept it as a societal construct—let’s call it “thin-normativity”—then we can better isolate where stigma is rooted in individual prejudice and where it’s instead the unsurprising result of a thin-normative society.

After all, if we want people to understand that obesity is a complex issue and not simply the fault of individuals, don’t we also need to understand that weight bias is a complex issue and not simply the fault of individuals?