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Essay: Black Women And Size Stigma

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Essayist Jessica Young describes how Black women are at the forefront of discrimination when it comes to size stigma.

Sizeism or size discrimination is the idea that people are prejudged or discriminated against because of their body type or size. Sizeism can cause problems in one’s workplace, social and love life, and can affect health outcomes.

Community activist and essayist Jessica Young touches on the negative consequences of sizeism, especially among women of color, in her essay “Black Women and Size Stigma."

I’m a white, 30-something Wisconsinite woman, and I identify with writers and activists like Tess Holliday, Roxane Gay, Sonya Renee Taylor and YRFatFriend on Instagram. I also identify as fat. I’m married to a “normal” sized man, and I work in human resources, go hiking, do yoga, eat pizza, vegetables, cheese and drink beer.

I was 6-years-old when I learned that I was fat and that fat was shameful, ugly, non-feminine, not worthy or respectable, disgusting and my fault. I grew up in Wisconsin, a place often satirized with farmlands and fat, white farmers. My teen years were filled with adult women’s business casual clothing from Lane Bryant, because sizes above 18 did not exist elsewhere. At my lowest weight, I was encouraged to join Weight Watchers.

My whole life, I’ve been acutely aware of discrimination against fat people in health care. Researchers and doctors are calling weight/size/fat stigma a public health crisis. I once had pain in my wrist and was told it was because I had gained 5 pounds (a few doctors later, I found out I had carpal tunnel). When I had a miscarriage, my OBGYN told me that my glucose was likely the reason for miscarriage, despite having just passed a three-hour glucose test. After pointing this out, she quickly changed her story to explain that in the first trimester, miscarriages are high due to genetic issues. She also didn’t believe that I ate vegetables.

Working for a large health care organization, I have seen firsthand how an institution struggles with addressing weight stigma in general. In the current pandemic, “obesity” is listed as a risk factor for COVID-19, despite no direct evidence linking body size and COVID-19 severity — the assumption being that fat people have underlying health conditions or are not living a healthy lifestyle. Fatness has been a discriminating factor in whether a hospitalized, COVID-19 patient will receive a ventilator when there is a shortage.

Despite experiencing size discrimination, myself, I must acknowledge my privilege as a white woman. One of the most important things I’ve learned regarding the history of weight/size discrimination is that it disproportionately affects Black women, and the history of sizeism is based in racism. This means that there is current size discrimination, the history of which is based in racism, already existing in health care, and the disparities for Black women are intensified due to the pandemic.

Our country and our community are experiencing unprecedented stress and trauma that has started to make space for incredibly hard truths and discussions. It is my hope, but also imperative, that we immediately include weight discrimination in the conversations we’re having about racial disparities in health care in order to fully address how weight discrimination compounds the disparities for Black women of size. In a few years, obesity stigma will be part of history as one of the many disease stigmas that disproportionately affects a population, like cholera (Irish immigrants were blamed), tuberculosis (African Americans were blamed), HIV/AIDS (the LGBTQ community was blamed), and right now fat people, specifically Black women, are being blamed for their weight and size.

Obesity stigma and weight discrimination are directly related to racism, and health care must be part of the conversation so we can do right by Black women and people of size in this country as we move forward toward justice, equity and inclusion.

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