How to Spot the Dangerous "Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner" Approach to Weight Stigma
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One of the things that I run into a lot doing this work is someone who tells me “you should check out so-and-so’s work, they have great anti-weight-stigma resources.” In many cases, I know so-and-so and their work isn’t truly anti-weight-stigma because they are still pathologizing higher-weight bodies and invested in the weight-loss paradigm. This is to say that they are suggesting that fat people should not be stigmatized, but definitely still believe that being fat is bad and that weight loss is something that fat people should pursue.
To put it in its simplest form, when it comes to weight stigma this point of view boils down to “I don’t think we should stigmatize fat* people (or, as they like to stigmatizingly call us “people with ob*sity”), but I support a paradigm that insists they should risk their lives and quality of life trying to be thin.”
That’s not actually an anti-stigma view.
While I would never directly compare differently oppressions since they come from different places and privilege and oppress differently, as someone is is both a queer person (who came out in Texas in the mid-90’s) and a fat person I definitely experience parallels between the “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach that some people take toward those of us in the LGBTQIA+ community, and the “hate the fat, love the fat people” approach that is taken towards those of us who are fat. Basically, that people can pick and choose which parts of us they do and don’t want to eradicate, and then pat themselves on the back for being “anti-stigma”.
Part of this is just the diet industry trying to co-opt the language of true weight stigma advocates. But there are other people and organizations that do decent anti-stigma research, but are still deeply invested in anti-fatness, often within the same research (frustratingly, they seem to have a much easier time getting funding than those who want to do true anti-stigma work from a weight-neutral, weight inclusive or fat affirming perspective.)
It’s also easy to be fooled by these people/orgs/studies, especially since they typically bill themselves as fully anti-weight-stigma. Here are ways to spot them:
They pathologize higher-weight bodies
It is sometimes necessary to use terms like “ob*se” or “overw*ight”* when discussing existing research, but there is a way to do it that is critical of the paradigm (like explaining it, using the asterisk etc.) If they are uncritically using terms like ob*se, overw*ight or stigmatizing person-first language like “person with ob*sity” or “person affected by ob*sity “ etc. and/or if they are advocating for the view that existing in a fat body should be considered a disease requiring cure, then they are anti-fat, not truly anti-stigma.
They claim that weight stigma is bad because it keeps people from dieting
If the research claims that one of the harms of weight stigma is that it makes people less likely to participate in weight loss interventions, that’s weight stigma in action (and it would be even if weight loss was likely to work, which it is not.) As a queer person I’m trying to imagine someone claiming to be anti-homophobia claiming that one negative outcome of homophobia is that people are less like to engage in ex-gay programs.
They claim that weight loss is bad because it causes weight gain
When we talk about weight gain as a side effect of dieting or weight stigma, it’s important that we are clear that there is nothing wrong with being fat or becoming fatter, but there is a problem with something foisted on us by the healthcare industry as a healthcare intervention that has the opposite of the intended effect. On the other hand, fear-mongering language, stating that being fat or getting fatter is a negative outcome of weight stigma is, in fact, a stigmatizing point of view.
They tout weight loss as a cure for weight stigma
Whether they are saying directly that weight loss is a solution to weight stigma, or they list things like improved self-esteem or improved body image as outcomes of weight loss, they are still suggesting that stigmatized people should change themselves to escape stigma and that, again, is an inherently stigmatizing point of view.
They profit from the weight loss paradigm
If they are employed by, funded by, or affiliated with the weight loss paradigm, including weight management clinics or programs (including within universities,) diet companies and astroturf organizations like the Ob*sity Action Coalition (that masquerade as advocacy groups for higher-weight people but are funded by, and act as lobbying groups for, weight loss companies) then their work should definitely be scrutinized. It doesn’t prove bias (and I would actually be happy to see people find ways to take money from those organizations and use it for true anti weight-stigma work) but it’s the affiliation is a reason to take a closer look, especially with companies like Novo Nordisk trying to co-opt the idea of anti-weight stigma into a tool to sell dangerous diet pills.
They only cite other pseudo-anti-stigma work
If they fit into the above categories and they only, or almost exclusively cite other work that fits into the above categories (and seem allergic to citing the work of fat scholars and fat studies scholars,) then that’s a good sign that they aren’t actually invested in true anti-weight stigma work.
Again, some of the anti-stigma research done under this guise can be helpful for making various arguments and points about weight stigma (especially since those who want to do true anti-stigma work have such a difficult time getting funding,) but we should take care to be clear about the limitations of the research (and the people/orgs doing it) and always beware of anyone taking a “love the fatties but hate their fat” point of view.
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*Note on language: I use “fat” as a neutral descriptor as used by the fat activist community, I use “ob*se” and “overw*ight” to acknowledge that these are terms that were created to medicalize and pathologize fat bodies, with roots in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. Please read Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body – the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness for more on this.