Page last updated at 12:22 GMT, Thursday, 29 October 2009

Why are fat people abused?

Man measuring his waist

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Shouted at, spat at and even attacked, overweight people are campaigning for laws to protect them. Why is "fattism" seen by many as an acceptable prejudice?

"You big fat pig" is all Marsha Coupe heard before she was kicked in the stomach and punched in the face.

The 53-year-old businesswoman says she was sitting in an almost empty train carriage in the early evening when she was kicked, punched and shouted at for taking up two seats.

Her attacker was pulled off by another passenger and restrained, but got off at the next stop before the police arrived.

60% of adults are overweight and 26% are obese
28% of children are overweight and 15% are obese
Obesity surgery on NHS has risen by 40% in the last year
60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children will be obese by 2050 if no action is taken
Source: Department of Health

It might surprise some people that the person doing the kicking and punching was a middle-aged woman, who was also travelling alone. But it might not stun those who are already significantly overweight.

"Fat people are fair game for everyone," says Ms Coupe, who weighs 22 stone (139kg). "Yes, I've had beer cans thrown at me by youngsters, but the abuse doesn't just come from the obvious places.

"The normal rules about behaviour, respect and common courtesy don't apply to us."

The rise of what could be called "fattism" is being met with a backlash from those who are affected, triggering a nascent rights movement.

The unprovoked attack was not an isolated incident, say weight equality campaigners. And when it comes to verbal attacks, they are part of daily life for some of the overweight, from people commenting on the contents of their shopping trolleys to shouting abuse at them in the street.

Why are many folk so intolerant of fat people? Discrimination on other grounds is widely frowned upon, so why is weight different?

It all comes down to control, says Susie Orbach, psychologist and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. She believes the prejudice runs through our society.

'True aggression'

Often the assumption is that overweight people have lost their self-control. That frightens society because there is so much emphasis on being slim, she says.

"Often it's not the larger person's excess weight that is the problem, it's the other people's obsession with being thin.

"Most people want to be slim, but this perceived physical perfection is difficult to hold on to and they fear losing control of it. Women and men can be on diets their whole lives and it's utterly miserable.

"They project that fear and unhappiness on to people who are bigger and that often translates into abuse and attacks. It's a way of people disassociating themselves from what they fear the most - getting fat."

Marsha Coupe
Marsha Coupe was left with 40 bruises

Psychologist Ros Taylor agrees. "There is true aggression towards overweight people and it comes down to fear and a complete lack of understanding of the issue.

"People think 'I can control what I put in my mouth so why can't they'. But we're not all the same, we don't all start from the same point."

The perception that excess weight is largely down to a lack of self-control annoys many overweight people. They say it results in them being associated with laziness and greed, neither of which people like.

"I'm a qualified fitness trainer and healthier than a lot of my slimmer friends, but all these people see is that I'm larger and jump to conclusions," says Kathryn Szrodecki, who is 18 stone (114kg) and campaigns on behalf of overweight people.


"We're simply not all built to be slim, our genetic make-ups are all different."

Another reason for people's intolerance is the "mass-moral outrage" whipped up by the media and the government over the issue of weight, say campaigners.

They question much of the information and "scare stories" surrounding increasing obesity, but they don't doubt the everyday consequences of them for larger people.

Singer Beth Ditto
Campaigners say some larger people are happy with their size

"The government and the press have created an atmosphere where people think they have a legitimate right to go up to an overweight person and tell them how to live their lives," says Ms Coupe.

"To them we are all the anonymous pictures of fat people they see in the papers and are the cause of all society's ills, as well as a drain on the NHS. We deserve what we get. We're not people with feelings."

Some health professionals agree the handling of the obesity issue has increased negative attitudes towards fat people.

"It's created a huge social stigma," says Dr Ian Campbell, a specialist at the Overweight Clinic at University Hospital in Nottingham and honorary medical director of the charity Weight Concern.

"The result is the people who need the most help don't seek it. They are left feeling guilty and undeserving."

Campaigners agree, saying the constant bashing fat people receive in the press and in their everyday lives makes them stay indoors and retreat from society.


But the issue of control also throws up other questions. Can people control their dislike of fat people?

In some ways no, says Dr Campbell. Research has repeatedly shown that people respond positively to what they think are good looks and negatively to undesirable features - like extra weight.

"It's innate in people to dislike what they see as a lack of attractiveness," he says. "It makes them think such people are worthy of derision. Very young kids have been shown to have a bias against their overweight peers."

One study in America found attitudes towards overweight people are more negative than other types of stigma often seized on by children, such as wearing glasses or having a physical disability.

That doesn't mean they can't control their actions toward overweight people. But the more fat people are portrayed as social pariahs, the more justified people feel in attacking them.

"Society's increasing hatred of fat and obsession with thin is creating appalling prejudice," says Ms Orbach. "It is allowing people to feel justified about abusing fat people.

"Every overweight person has become the person we must not be."

Ms Coupe says the pressure to be thin is the only reason she can think of for her attack.

"I can only imagine this woman did what she did because she has been on a diet for most of her life and resents it. She probably hated me because I have accepted my weight and am happy with it."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I am ashamed of my reaction to obese people. I take great care over my health. I avoid high fat and high calorie foods, rarely eat meat, rarely drink alcohol and take regular exercise. I cost the NHS very little thanks to this. I get very angry when I see obese people sitting on a train eating a 1200 calorie meal; and my tax money pays for their lack of care of themselves. I'd never abuse someone, there's no excuse for verbal or physical abuse, but I do feel there is a lack of fairness there.
Robert Sanford, London

The obese are the only sector of society who are allowed to be constantly attacked, joked about and insulted because of a physical attribute. Obesity is a medical condition, whether due to insulin imbalance (hormones) or overeating (which is itself an illness). The excuse given for the abuse is that it is self-inflicted, but so is drug addiction, alcoholism, and sports injuries. I know a man who lost a leg through drinking and driving his motorbike but it's not acceptable to poke fun or abuse him. On the contrary he is treated with great respect because he is "disabled".
Helena, Sussex UK

In my opinion fattism is the last form of open "acceptable prejudice". I have always been big, in school I was always picked on, when I left college I found it extremely difficult to find a job, and a few times openly dismissed with out actually getting the interview, even though i had turned up. I'm not and never have been extremely fat and I have always played football as well as other sports (and won leagues and prizes). a little while ago i lost 4st (20>16Stone) by cycling to work and sensible eating. Not long after I went for a job interview and successfully got my dream job, unfortunately I know this wouldn't have happen if I was still 20st.
Barry, London

To physically attack or verbally abuse someone for being overweight is self-evidently outrageous and unacceptable. On the other hand, I'm dubious about the increasing implication that over-weight is merely a terrible affliction visited upon some people at random, who have no responsibility whatever for their predicament. As usual the truth it seems to me is between these extremes: that genetic variability will indeed produce widely different weight outcomes in people with identical eating and exercise habits; and that taking personal control over the type and amount of food consumed, and ensuring proper exercise, will keep the vast majority of us safe from obesity. I'm also a little bit cynical about the sudden rash of people who are apparently both fat and "qualified fitness trainer[s] and healthier than a lot of my slimmer friends".
Stephen Brown, London, UK

First and foremost, anyone committing a felony needs to be caught and punished by our legal system. Any victims of such thuggish attacks have my full sympathy regardless of their weight, sex, colour or religion. Back to the more interesting point of: "Why is "fattism" seen by many as an acceptable prejudice?" Being obese is not healthy. The health risks associated with being obese are already costing the NHS a tremendous amount of money and this amount is going to continue to rise. Adding to this is the amount of additional money the NHS has to spend on accommodating obese people (such as: "bariatric" ambulances, widening doors, strengthening trolleys and hoists, reinforced beds, extra-wide electric wheelchairs, etc). I condemn any abuse or violence that the obese receive but obese people cannot just assume that the more healthy members of the population should just accept that it is OK to get yourself into such a poor physical state.
Dave, Cardiff

Struggled my whole life with this diet and that diet. Had little kids call me names, but to see 'fat people' repeated in this article is another blow. Overweight, not fat, fat itself is a harsh word that I hear all the time. Tone it down BBC.
Mandy, Westcliff

People who hate fat people are nothing but bullies, as immature as school children. They are judging overweight people to be lazy with no self control when they know nothing about that person. The media has not helped. Fat people are victimised for being unhealthy despite the fact they may be fitter and healthier than a skinny person. The media has glorified impossibly skinny people and in turn brainwashed people into thinking being overweight is a sin. Anyone who thinks they have a right to judge anyone for the way they look is a pathetic individual. It's a horrendous crime to be racist to someone, so why is it acceptable to treat overweight people so badly? And it's not just the overweight. Smokers and ginger haired people get the same abuse and don't forget Sophie Lancaster who was murdered for dressing alternatively. I signed the petition after Sophie's death to expand the definition of hate crime on basis of appearance, so her death would not be in vain. Nothing has changed. And for the record, I am not overweight, but I, like most people, have had deadbeat thugs pick on me for any reason they can find, and I am sick of it. People need to learn they are no better than anyone else.
Lauren, Warwick

It shouldn't matter what size you are what is relevant here is that the abuse is taking place. I am very small and often have attacks thrown at me. It is never acceptable to openly comment in a negative way on anyone's appearance. However I find that some people find it more acceptable to call me skinny and question my eating habits and what I've had for lunch. However they would never dream of approaching an overweight person and saying "my you're big what did you eat for lunch?'. Society is to blame for letting this behaviour become acceptable - like my mother used to say, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all".
Melanie, Bristol

I am overweight and am fortunate in that I am rarely subjected to ridicule. I am comfortable with my weight but am nonetheless trying to lose some as I know it isn't healthy to be on the larger side. While it is perfectly acceptable for overweight people to be comfortable with their size, it should not be deemed acceptable to be overweight as there are too many health implications. People are swift to praise the likes of Beth Ditto for embracing their size, but are they really good role models for young women? The answer has got to be no. Being overweight can be just as dangerous as being underweight and society has got to realise that neither extreme is acceptable.
F, Nottingham

We all need to be aware of the benefits of healthy eating and exercise. However the financially poorer members of our society often lack the money to eat healthily (I'm thinking of people without cooking facilities in social service B&Bs forced to buy convenience food etc to survive) also many people work so hard physically doing several menial jobs for minimum wages that they are too exhausted to exercise during their non-working hours. Finally, the government did the state schoolchildren of today and future generations a gross misservice when they sold off all those state school playing fields for profit, they will never be replaced. On the same point the Tory inspired in-service training days for teachers and all the compulsory additional hours prevented hundreds of teachers doing their regular, voluntary out of hours activities with schoolchildren including team and individual sports. I know because I'm a retired teacher who used to spend all my free time doing unpaid, voluntary outdoor pursuits eg swimming, sailing, canoeing, caving, life-saving, abseiling etc etc with children and organising outdoor pursuits and cultural holidays in GB and abroad for them.
Maggie Cainen, Swansea Wales

It is truly awful that this woman was attacked, because it is a portrayal of how ignorant our modern society has become. There are many reasons as to why people put on excess weight, e.g, medication, thyroid problems. It is not down to greed, but with the media focus being on thin people, the public never gets to hear, or understand the plights of larger people who are, it seems, "on the wrong side of normal".
Carmel, Leeds, UK

People who are addicted to food should be treated in the same way as people addicted to any other substance; they should be given support and helped to recover from their addiction. To suggest that the law should protect them from discrimination is just bizarre. If we fail to acknowledge that obesity is dangerous and damaging to both the individual and society, we are just sticking our heads in the sand.
Pippa, Bournemouth

Clearly anyone who is overweight is eating more calories than their body can expend, and any conversations around "well I am genetically different etc" are all hollow words. We live in a world now where we are barraged with charity adverts showing starving people in the world; people that barely eat one meal a day and then we look up the average British High Street and it is now full of overweight people. The recent newspaper report of the morbidly obese man in the UK who was going to have to be crane lifted for medical treatment just highlighted that more often than not the tax payer is picking up the bill.
Peter Bradley, London, UK

Still waiting on someone to explain to me why my tax money should be used to pay for someone who eats excessively and has taken no care of themselves should be treated on the NHS. Not everyone, in fact not even the majority, of obese people have some underlying mental illness that causes them to eat - many of them just like the food and choose not to live a healthy lifestyle. Why should I pay for them? Anyone?
Steven, Stirling

I don't hate fat people, I feel slightly sorry for the massively over weight as they clearly have psychological or physical problems that have led to their condition. But then I'm not someone who would go around shouting at or attacking people in the streets anyway because I don't need to affirm myself worth at the expense of others. Still not sure legislation is the answer as it may make it impossible to suggest to anyone that they might want to lose weight. Besides we have too much legislation already telling people what they can and can't say.
Colin, London

This is so unacceptable - no-one should be abused for any reason but other groups within society are protected by law. For overweight people however things are very different, not only are they not protected but the government's appalling attitude to people with weight issues is an encouragement to those in society who want to find someone to abuse. I am so fed up of government interference in the lives of the public that I started a Facebook group.
Dawn, West Yorkshire

Obesity, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, fatty liver disease, gout, sleep apnoea... I look at a fat person and I think it's wrong - we aren't naturally that size - there weren't 22 stone women 10,000 years ago! I do not think people should be abused at all for being overweight but over-eating and being overweight shouldn't be ok, and should be viewed the same as under-eating and being too thin. Fat people - you do not have to eat so much, if you are overweight your body is telling you that you are giving it too much food. You wont die if you eat a little les but you might if you don't.
Les, Edinburgh

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific