2024
24
Jan
, and

Addressing Weight Stigma in Libraries to Promote Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

By Lorelei Rutledge, Erika Church, and Devan Church

Abstract human forms. Foreground figural lines. Textured background. Subtractive markings.
Image: “As I Am”. Mixed media on paper. By Melissa L. Gygi. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In Brief

In her 2020 memoir, activist Aubrey Gordon describes the frequent cruelty she experiences because of her body shape and size, explaining that “there is a minefield of abuse reserved for the very fat. I have come to view the world through the prism of that abuse, negotiating my days around reducing it.”1 Gordon’s experience is only one example of coping with fat phobia or weight bias. Weight bias is defined as “negative attitudes toward individuals who are perceived to have excess weight.”2 These negative judgments are the result of the “valuing and privileging of thinness as the optimal body type and [are] associated with negative attitudes, stereotypes, and a desire for more social distance.”3 These negative attitudes can, in turn, lead to discrimination. Although stigmatizing people based on race, sex, gender, and similar categories has become less socially appropriate, judging people negatively based on weight and/or body shape and size is distressingly common and growing in prevalence, both in the United States and globally.4

Given that many libraries and librarians strive to advance equity, diversity and inclusion, addressing the challenges posed by weight or body shape and size discrimination is essential. As Farrell (2011) notes, “fat stigma divides people into those who belong and those who don’t, those who are praised and those who are mocked, those who merit first-class treatment and those who are expected to accept second-class, inferior status.”5  Even when people don’t explicitly promote fat stigma, they may still engage with people of diverse body shapes and sizes in ways that reinforce or perpetuate discrimination. Thus, it is important to recognize that weight stigma is pervasive and steps must be taken to remedy it. 

Weight stigma is also an intersectional issue, which involves a recognition that “oppression based on weight is usually tied into oppression related to gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.”6 Libraries are especially important places for the work of dismantling weight stigma to begin. As one librarian notes, “[l]ibrarians and libraries are frequently taking up matters of social justice, especially interrogating the ways in which their services and resources are less accessible to individuals affected by inequalities due to racialization, sex, gender and romantic orientations, disability, and socio-economic class. Advocacy for fat bodies and against fatphobia has been largely absent from these endeavours.”7 The goal of this paper is to help librarians understand why weight stigma and discrimination are pervasive, the impact they have on people, what interventions have been tried to reduce or prevent weight stigma, and what librarians can do to prevent and reduce weight stigma in libraries.

Reasons for Weight Stigma

Research indicates several reasons why fat people might face stigma. One of these is stereotyping. When people assume weight is controllable, then people who fail to control it seem lazy or sloppy.8 Therefore, fat9 people are often blamed for their body shape and size or treated as though they are lazy, inferior, or out of control.10  Puhl and Heuer (2009) explain that “these stereotypes are prevalent and are rarely challenged in Western society, leaving overweight and obese persons vulnerable to social injustice, unfair treatment, and impaired quality of life as a result of substantial disadvantages and stigma.”11 In addition to stereotyping, other proposed reasons for weight stigma include that people find fat people less physically attractive and therefore less socially desirable.12 In some cases, people have argued weight stigma has arisen out of recognizing that excess weight is unhealthy. However, this is untrue. As Farrell explains:

This idea— that we think poorly of fat simply because we know it is unhealthy— is particularly powerful within our contemporary context, when the health warnings surrounding fatness are ubiquitous, nonstop, and very alarming. What is clear from the historical documents, however, is that the connotations of fatness and of the fat person— lazy, gluttonous, greedy, immoral, uncontrolled, stupid, ugly, lacking in will power, primitive —preceded and then were intertwined with explicit concern about health issues.13

Through analysis of historical documents, Farrell (2011) shows that concerns about fat and bigger bodies arose in part from attempts to create a racialized and class based hierarchy of people.14 Fatness was associated with colonized people and people of color, so being fat became a sign of being primitive and was strongly related to racism, specifically anti-Blackness; as scholar Sabrina Strings notes, “the phobia about fatness and the preference for thinness have not, principally or historically, been about health. Instead, they have been one way the body has been used to craft and legitimate race, sex, and class hierarchies.”15 The power of these hierarchies also shows up in present times through discrimination. 

Results of Weight Discrimination

People who are fat or have larger bodies often face discrimination that leads to worse outcomes economically, socially, and emotionally. For instance, weight stigma leads to worse mental health outcomes, including higher rates of depression and anxiety.16 Fat stigma is also connected to spatial discrimination, described as “experiencing the physical and emotional effects of living in a world designed with smaller bodies in mind.”17 This experience can cause people of different body shapes and sizes to feel excluded or unwelcome in spaces.18 As Owen notes, “spatial discrimination as a form of microaggression is persistent, pervasive, and largely invisible, a silent condemnation of the reality of supernormative body sizes.”19 Fat people face stigma in healthcare and may receive lower-quality healthcare.20 Fat children are more likely to be bullied.21 Research also shows that even people who are fat perceive themselves and other fat people negatively.22 Perceptions of fat phobia can also lead to negative physical effects, including greater caloric intake, less physical activity, and negative physiological changes.23 Another challenge that fat people face is that society as a whole tends to think that weight loss is simply a matter of buckling down and committing to change, despite widespread evidence showing that much weight loss or gain is not under voluntary control.24

Fat people also face stigma in the workplace25, including lower wages.26 This wage penalty is especially prevalent for white women who are fat.27 Fat people are also seen as less employable due to their body shape and size.28 Roehling, Choi, and Roehling (2019) note that “research continues to provide evidence of consistent, significant discrimination against overweight job applicants and employees at virtually every stage of the employment cycle.”29 For example, fat employees in a recent study were rated as less employable when applying for jobs across multiple different levels of physical demand.30 Another study showed that participants, especially Anglo-Americans, were less likely to recommend overweight women be hired for positions.31 Even potential employees who had lost weight were less likely to be hired once potential employers knew that they had lost weight through bariatric surgery rather than behavioral changes like diet and exercise.32

Fatness is also connected with other forms of stigma, including racism, sexism, and classism.33 One scholar notes that “women’s concerns about weight are as much or more about class as about health. Achieving and maintaining thinness is an important way in which the contemporary elite in rich nations, and especially elite women, signal their status.”34 In addition, policing body shape and size is also a way in which bodies of color are controlled. “The idea that ‘obesity kills’ can and is used as a justification for imposing elite white preferences of thinness onto working classes and people of color, in an instance of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls symbolic violence.”35 As Amy Erdman Farrell notes, “fat denigration works in complicated ways to reinforce the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other processes by which our culture categorizes and oppresses people through bodily hierarchies and stigmatization.”36 However, findings in this area are complicated; some research shows that white men are more sensitive to weight stigma than black men.37 White women are also more likely to face wage penalties for being fat than women of other ethnicities.38 A 2020 study reported that the sexual minority men in their samples were more likely to experience internalized weight bias than heterosexual men.39 As Laurie Cooper Stoll explains, “To be clear, fat is a feminist issue, but it is also fundamentally a social justice issue that continues to intersect with other systems of inequality like gender, race, and class in very problematic ways.”40 Thus, body policing serves as a way to control bodies and intersects with other forms of stigma. 

Prior Interventions

Several interventions have been suggested in the literature as ways to reduce fat stigma. One strategy is informing people that weight bias exists or disputing the idea that weight is easily controllable through dieting and exercise, although researchers have cautioned that simply sensitizing people to this kind of bias is not enough to successfully reduce bias.41 One author suggests that “perhaps because weight bias is so strong, widespread, and often perceived to be socially acceptable, interventions that are designed to directly challenge negative weight attitudes and beliefs may arouse resistance and thus be limited in their effectiveness.”42 This means that interventions may have to change; for instance, perhaps interventions that focus on the negative outcomes of weight stigma in the literature may highlight the negative impacts of bias without directly challenging the bias itself.

Another type of intervention that has been suggested to reduce fat bias relies on cognitive dissonance—helping people see that their fat stigma is at odds with their values—although the outcomes of these studies have been mixed.43 Other strategies encourage having empathy for people who are fat and taking their perspective, which can reduce the sense that weight is controllable or fat people should be blamed for their body shape and size.44 Yet many of these kinds of interventions have also not led to a significant reduction in bias toward fat people.45 Another strategy is encouraging intergroup contact; contact and relationships with fat people can reduce fat stigma.46 An additional strategy involves disrupting stereotypes about fat people and/or reframing fatness as not negative and not acceptable to stigmatize.47 However,  research demonstrates that it can be difficult to successfully reduce this form of bias and finding successful approaches will require additional study.48 Some scholars also warn that interventions may actually increase weight bias: “Even though assigning individual responsibility for fatness is a key part of the logic of weight stigma, and thus an obvious and potentially important target for change, there is a danger that efforts to absolve individual fat people of ‘blame’ for their bodies nonetheless reinforce a view of fatness as an unfortunate and undesirable condition. As one of the goals of fat acceptance movements is to challenge the abject status of fat bodies and to instead understand fatness as part of the normal variation in body size, interventions that offer alternative explanations for fatness may unwittingly reinforce prejudice against fat bodies.”49

Efforts to address spatial discrimination should be in alignment with universal design principles, whose aim is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Center for Universal Design, para. 9) Library spaces have broadly overlooked body shape and size and instead focus narrowly on  complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).50 Knowing the shortcomings of previous interventions allows us to expand and refine similar frameworks to make them more direct and effective in addressing issues related to body shape and size.

Practical Recommendations

Beyond working to improve interventions at a research level, there are many things individual educators and librarians, as well as libraries themselves, can do to prevent weight stigma. On an individual level, library workers should strive to be allies to those stigmatized for their weight.  Przybylo and Fahs (2021) offer a variety of strategies to become “anti-fatphobic,” including learning to recognize fatphobia in one’s self and others, to recognize how fatphobia is intertwined with other forms of oppression, to speak up when one hears fatphobic slurs or jokes, and to avoid participating in fatphobic talk.51 In particular “straight-size people’s task will be threefold: not to buckle under the weight of their own discomfort, to stay in the conversation long enough to learn, and to take proactive action to counter anti-fat bias and help defend fat people.”52 Since many interventions have a hard time breaking down the fact that weight stigma is seen as socially acceptable, it will be the responsibility of individuals and groups to make it clear that such stigma is not an appropriate social norm. It will also be important to consider other kinds of stigma, such as not having appropriate seating for all body shapes and sizes, or leaving fat people behind when walking or interacting in a group, and how to replace these damaging social norms with inclusive behavior

In libraries, these are skills that could be taught as part of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) efforts. Weight stigma is intertwined with other forms of stigma, such as racism, sexism, ableism, and classism, and acknowledging how it is used to control and police people is important.53 It is also important to use these opportunities as a chance to acknowledge that speaking up when one hears disparagement of any body type is important.54 In this process, let fat people speak for themselves in explaining how they want to be supported if they wish to, without making them responsible for the content of training or for educating others about their experiences.

In relation to body shape and size, Solanke (2021) provides a useful paradigm for addressing stigmatized identities that does not otherize or pathologize the individuals holding these identities.55 By removing immutability from the equation and acknowledging stigmatization as a sociological phenomenon that directly impacts individuals, trainings may be refined to directly hone skills to be more effective at addressing anti-fat bias. Specifically, Solanke posits a set of questions about stigma that allow conversations to move beyond typical diversity trainings which, while well-meaning, can often be watered down.

At an institutional level, libraries can work to create spaces and purchase furniture that incorporates a diverse range of body shapes and sizes.56 Principles of Universal Design, which advocate creating spaces that are accessible to people with different types of bodies and abilities, can be a useful starting place for creating non-discriminatory spaces.57 For example, having chairs without arms is often helpful.58 When students, faculty, and other library users struggle with built environments that don’t fit their bodies, it can signal to them that they aren’t welcome in the space59 Library employees also deserve accommodations that match their body shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, many library furniture catalogs may not show the dimensions of the furniture or the weight load they can carry60, so finding this additional information may take some work. This is also part of a larger work of recognizing that “before we can tackle making the physical world a wider, sturdier, and more accommodating place, for people of varying sizes, shapes, and abilities, we must first begin to conceive of our bodies as legitimate and alive.”61

Additionally, paying attention to hiring and employment is a major issue. There are numerous strategies that interviewers can use when recruiting and hiring to achieve a more diverse workforce. By recognizing opportunities where unconscious bias or “prescribing preferences to a subject outside of one’s awareness,”62 hiring and recruitment teams can reduce the role that weight stigma might play in hiring choices. Examples might include doing more recruitment to a variety of diverse groups to widen the pool. Other options include using “a structured approach to the outcome of the interview”. . . [which] includes a set of clearly defined, performance-based criteria with a scoring rubric that is used by all interviewers to assess applicants.”63 Other suggestions are also available through the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).64

At a larger level, librarians can participate in discussions at the campus or state level to work toward making body shape and size a protected class: In most places, people who are fat are not protected from discrimination under the law.65 Michigan is the only state that prohibits discrimination based on body size by law.66 There are also few places that offer these protections internationally.67 However, even in places that do not prohibit discrimination, schools or libraries can develop their own statements including weight as one of their protected classes in hiring. For example, the University of Michigan non-discrimination policy reads: “The University of Michigan is committed to a policy of equal opportunity for all persons and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or veteran status in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions.”68

Conclusion

The American Librarian Association policy manual argues that libraries “play a crucial role in empowering diverse populations for full participation in a democratic society.”69 As numerous scholars have demonstrated, stigma based on body shape and size unequivocally harms those who are subjected to it. Thus, we all have a role to play in helping to ameliorate this kind of bias. Although the suggestions presented in this paper are only a few of the strategies that might be employed to reduce bias, continued efforts are needed. The issues of body shape and size are a matter of social justice and should be treated as such. 


Acknowledgments 

Our deep thanks to our editor, Ian Beilin, as well as our reviewers, JJ Pionke and Jaena Rae Cabrera. Special thanks to Melissa Rasmussen Gygi, who provided the art for this article and Sarah LeMire and Catherine Soehner, who provided a review of this paper before submission. We would also like to thank our many colleagues and friends who supported us in sharing these ideas, as well as the many authors whose work inspired us. Finally, we want to offer special acknowledgement to our furry, four-legged family, Hobo, Newman, Hedy, and Wilma, for their reassuring cuddles.


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  1.  Aubrey Gordon, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2020), 2. []
  2. Rebecca L Pearl and Christina M Hopkins, “Bias, Stigma, and Social Consequences of Obesity,” Clinical Obesity in Adults and Children  (2022): 58, https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119695257. ch5. []
  3. Andrea N Hunt and Tammy Rhodes, “Fat Pedagogy and Microaggressions: Experiences of Professionals Working in Higher Education Settings,” Fat Studies 7, no. 1 (2018). []
  4. Alexandra A Brewis et al., “Body Norms and Fat Stigma in Global Perspective,” Current Anthropology 52, no. 2 (2011): 26; Alexandra Brewis, Cindi SturtzSreetharan, and Amber Wutich, “Obesity Stigma as a Globalizing Health Challenge,” Globalization and Health 14, no. 1 (2018). []
  5. Amy Erdman Farrell, Fat Shame : Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (New York, NY : New York University Press, 2011), 4. []
  6. Cat Pausé, “X-static Process: Intersectionality Within the Field of Fat Studies,” Fat Studies 3, no. 2 (2014): 80. []
  7. Roger Chabot, “Is the Library for “Every body”? Examining Fatphobia in Library Spaces Through Online Library Furniture Catalogues,” The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science/La Revue canadienne des sciences de l’information et de bibliothéconomie 44, no. 2-3 (2021): 14, https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.5206/cjilsrcsib.v44i2/3.13632. []
  8. Mark V Roehling, Mahl Geum Choi, and Patricia V Roehling, “Weight Discrimination in the Workplace,” in The Only Constant in HRM Today is Change, ed. Dianna L  Stone and James H Dulebohn (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2019), 100. []
  9. In this paper, we are using fat as a neutral descriptor of bodies, although we recognize that the word fat might make people uncomfortable. For an example of this usage, see Abigail Saguy, What’s Wrong with Fat?: The War on Obesity and its Collateral Damage (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). []
  10. Farrell, Fat Shame : Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture; Ariane Prohaska and Jeannine A Gailey, “Theorizing Fat Oppression: Intersectional Approaches and Methodological Innovations,” Fat Studies 8, no. 1 (2019). []
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  12.  Roehling, Choi, and Roehling, “Weight Discrimination in the Workplace,” 100-01. R. M. Puhl and K. D. Brownell, “Psychosocial Origins of Obesity Stigma: Toward Changing a Powerful and Pervasive Bias,” Obesity Reviews 4, no. 4 (2003), https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1467-789X.2003.00122.x, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1467-789X.2003.00122.x. []
  13. Farrell, Fat Shame : Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture, 34. []
  14. Farrell, Fat Shame : Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. []
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  18. For another example of how spatial discrimination may affect people with different body shapes and sizes, review Burke, Sinéad . “Why Design Should Include Everyone” TEDNYC, March 2017, video, 09:48, https://www.ted.com/talks/sinead_burke_why_design_should_include_everyone/transcript []
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  34. Saguy, What’s Wrong with Fat?: The War on Obesity and its Collateral Damage, 13. []
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