Lauren Williams at Stereohyped linked to a story on NPR that asks whether “fatism” is indeed more widespread than racism:

A new report in the current issue of the International Journal of Obesity suggests that weight discrimination is on the rise.

“Overweight women are twice as vulnerable as men, and discrimination strikes much earlier in their lives,” the report states.

The reason used by some to justify the bias: weight is modifiable, race isn’t.

So does this reasoning have any merit? If you believe that weight is modifiable, it seems like it would. But I call bullshit.

Let’s say for argument’s sake that weight is modifiable. Take me for example. When I was 17 I started my first “successful” diet and lost 60 pounds; I’ve not stayed at a stable weight since. For almost 20 years I have been either losing or gaining weight, living in a state of constant weight (and wardrobe) fluctuation. So, is weight modifiable? Mine sure is. I don’t even know if my body has a set point, much what that set point could be because I’ve never given my body a chance to find it. Now that my brain has decided that being fat is okay, I am both fascinated and terrified to see what my body ultimately makes of this information. But that’s beside the point, which is that sure, technically weight is modifiable.

But it’s not modifiable in any controllable way. I can set my sights on a particular weight and throw all my energy into getting there and maybe I will, but probably not (in all of my weight’s amazing malleability I have never achieved a “goal weight”). Even if I get close, I have proven time and time (and time and time) again that any weight below 200 pounds is unmaintainable for me without untenable sacrifice. Modifying my weight is less about a precision manipulation and more about setting forces in motion and hoping for the best. So how modifiable is something that we can change, but only with intense effort and never permanently and never in a focused and specific way? Not fucking very.

But even if weight is arguably modifiable, even in a grossly imprecise way, the modifiability justification falls short. Under US law, deafness is a disability and discriminating on the basis of deafness is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But deafness is also modifiable in some instances with cochlear implants. Should it be legal to refuse to make a reasonable accommodation for a deaf employee who is eligible for a cochlear implant but refuses to get one? Religion is a protected class under Title VII, making it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of religion. But religion, as important is it is to many people, is not a genetic trait and so is 100% modifiable. If scientists suddenly discovered a quick and easy gene “therapy” that would change a person’s race, should racial discrimination suddenly become legally acceptable? Relying on modifiability as a justification for weight-based discrimination is convenient, but ultimately unsatisfactory.

Not to mention that the underlying legal philosophy used to justify the bias basically says “Here is an acceptable way to be. You don’t have to be this way, but if you chose not to be, you have to face the consequences.” Who is defining acceptable? And how are they defining it? And who died and made them boss, anyway? What we end up with is anti-discrimination law as a tool of social control – conform or you’re fired, fatty.

But not only is this whole “if you can change it, we can discriminate against you for it” explanation pretty bogus, as Tara at Fatshionista explains, this line of thinking (and the report Lauren linked) fails to consider the complex intersectionalities at play here too. Lauren addresses this at the end of her post when she asks: What if you’re black, a woman, and obese?

Despite the assumptions underlying Title VII and related case law (very little of which was written or interpreted by non-white non-men (I don’t know how many of these white dudes were fat, though)), apportioning discrimination neatly into buckets labeled “gender,” “race,” “color,” “nationality,” or “religion” is impossible. Generally under US law, if you are a black woman who is passed over for promotion in favor of white women and black men, you’re SOL; the employer promoted other women and the employer promoted other black men so under the law? No actionable discrimination. When a report like this suggests (or when the media interprets a report like this to suggest) that “fatism” is more widespread than racism, it is saying that it’s possible to cleave fatness away from race, to say definitively that if an employer discriminatorily fires a fat black woman, it’s because she’s black. Or fat. Or a woman. But not some combination of the three. Consider fat and disability in the same framework. Is an employer illegally refusing to make a reasonable accommodation under the ADA if it could cheaply widen an existing ramp door to allow a fat person who needs a large size wheelchair to access the building but refuses to do so?

Is there a point at which the modifiability justification and the shortcomings of anti-discrimination laws at addressing intersectionalities come together? I was hoping to find that when I started writing but it’s getting late and I’m not there yet so I open up to you, dear readers. I think this is an important conversation to have. I chose to post about this here instead of commenting on Stereohyped because I wanted to think about this using FA principals as a given rather than getting bogged down in “fat is unhealthy/losing weight is easy and awesome” debate and, ultimately, not getting anywhere new.

ETA: I was fixin’ to climb into a nice warm bed with a nice warm dude and two nice warm cats when it occurred to me that I should make a very important clarification. I AM NOT asking whether “fatism” is more prevalent than racism. That question, in the parlance of the internet, is made of fail. I am talking about modifiability as bias justification and intersectionality. I also don’t mean to limit the discussion to race, gender, or disability – that’s just what came out when I started typing. Okay go.