Content note: Discussion of stigma and discrimination against fat people and other targeted groups.
We all know that being a member of a stigmatised group is incredibly stressful. Not just the major, overt things, like people throwing stuff at you when you’re out exercising, or not being hired for a job because of your size. But the little everyday things. The looks, the body language, the ubiquitous media messages that your body type is unacceptable and an insult to society.
We also know that these daily little things create a hostile environment. Even if none of them happen to you on any given day, you’re always fearing and dreading them. You are never at ease. As you get on the bus, you’re nervous that you may not fit into the seats. Will people tut and shake their heads as you approach. Will that person getting on the bus now sit next to you, or give you a dirty look and stand rather than risk catching your fat cooties?
Whether these things happen, whether you think they might be happening but aren’t quite sure, or whether you are simply anxious about the potential of them happening, this constant barrage of anti-fat bias acts as a chronic stressor. Your body responds as it would to any other form of stress, with the release of stress hormones. In a dangerous situation, this stress response prepares you to fight or flee – this is what it was designed to do (or how we evolved to survive, if you’re being technical about it). But when the stress response is maintained over time, as it is with chronic stress, the effects are extremely damaging to health. Being the victim of actual or perceived discrimination is associated with an increased risk of a range of conditions linked with the inflammatory response – hypertension, heart disease, diabetes. This isn’t just for fat people – the effects have been reported in the wider prejudice and discrimination literature – racism, homophobia, mental health stigma. Being stigmatised is not good for your health, quite apart from any direct consequences of the stigma, such as the impact on employment, education, health care and so on – confounding already existing structural inequalities.
But new scientific evidence is emerging that stigma is not only bad for the health of the stigmatised, but the stigmatisers may be copping some of the effects also. For example, communities with high levels of racism report worse mortality statistics for both Black and White inhabitants, than those with low levels of racism, even after controlling for other likely contributing factors. Lab-based studies suggest that interactions between a racist individual and a cross-race experimental partner raised the same stress response in the prejudiced individual as in the victim, but that this didn’t happen when the experimental partner was of the same racial group. Low-prejudiced individuals didn’t get the same rise in stress hormones in a similar cross-race situation.
And a recent study found that homophobia in heterosexuals was associated with a 25% higher mortality risk in a given time period than those not harbouring anti-gay prejudice, with the main driver of the effect apparently being an increase in death from cardiovascular causes. The authors calculated that this translated into about a two and a half year difference in life expectancy.
This is a very new area of study, and no data exist as yet on whether anti-fat prejudice harms the prejudiced as much as the victim, but given the biological pathways, and the astonishing anger and vitriol that seems to be directed against fat people for their very existence, it seems likely.
So to all those concern trolls who are just so worried about our health, perhaps you should start thinking about your own health and try and be a little nicer. It won’t kill you!