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Author, activist advocates end to weight discrimination

TEDx SoMa/Flickr
Virgie Tovar grew up overweigt and experiencing discrimination because of it, and now, she spreads the message of "lose hate, not weight" through her writing and activism.

Discrimination is a word associated with a variety of populations, and as one author explains, mistreatment based on weight is common in our society, and she’s working to end the hate altogether.

Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and expert on weight-based discrimination and body image. She joined “Take Care” to talk about her work and how to change the conversation around weight, body image and self-worth.

Tovar, author of the book “You Have the Right to Remain Fat” and other upcoming works, said weight discrimination can be seen on many levels of society. On the governmental level, 49 out of 50 states allow discrimination based on weight, and on the employment level, studies have shown clear overweight bias in the workplace, she said.

“They believe overweight candidates are less likely to have leadership potential,” Tovar said.

Tovar said that studies have shown that plus-size women earn between $9,000 and $19,000 less per year than their thinner counterparts.

On the social level, “fatphobia” is itself a form of discrimination, she said, but many people don’t realize that.

“We are used to understanding the issue of weight from a health lens, but the reality is, when you look at the lived reality of that phobia, that matches all the criteria of any other form of discrimination,” she said.

Fatphobia, Tovar explained, has multiple dimensions to it -- intra-personal, interpersonal and institutional. Intra-personal relates to how we feel about ourselves.

“You’ve likely been exposed to the idea that thinner is always better, and this leads to a sense that you are never good enough,” she said.

Interpersonal is between people, which can show itself in dating discrimination, where overweight individuals are seen as less desirable. The institutional can be seen in societal structures, sometimes in ways most don’t consider.

“It looks like the subtle messaging of who belongs in what spaces,” she said. “For instance, the size of seats in restaurants, the size of seats in classrooms as well as airplanes.”

And fatphobia can show up in unexpected places, like the medical field.

“Most medicine is not tested for efficacy above a certain [weight], and so, this means that we don’t exactly know how effective medication is for higher-weight people,” she said.

Fatphobia can cause a chronic, heightened sense of hyper-vigilance and stress that creates the sense that one isn’t welcome anywhere. And that stress can cause a huge strain on one’s physical health, Tovar said.

“What that does is it creates stress hormone release,” she said. “This leads to heightened blood pressure. This leads to the suppression of the immune system, and on a mental health basis, this manifests as depression, anxiety and a sense of isolation.”           

Women are much more likely to experience this fatphobia and weight discrimination than men, and because of that, overweight women can experience gender differently from thinner women. Tovar knows this from her firsthand experience growing up overweight.

“Growing up as a fat girl, I had a lot of confusion around my gender,” she said. “I knew I was assigned female at birth. I knew I was a girl, but I didn’t have any of the social cues that indicated that I was a girl.”

The messages she was getting from society were telling her girls were supposed to be small and fragile, like flowers, and boys treated girls in mostly romantic ways. But Tovar didn’t experience any of that; she wasn’t seen as small nor fragile, and boys were very aggressive toward her, treating her almost like one of the guys but not quite.

“That sends a message of, ‘well, what am I, then?’” she said.

As she went into grad school, Tovar interviewed many overweight women, and a lot had the same experience, like they felt they were straddling the feminine-masculine line.

“We live in a culture in which … the smaller you are, the more feminine you are considered to be, and so, the corollary of that, of course, is the larger you are, the further you are from ideal femininity,” she said.

In adulthood, her participants took this perception of gender identity and took it one of two ways -- hyperbolic femininity, with plenty of dresses, makeup and hairdos, and a more masculine look.

"Every single person deserves to live a life free from bigotry regardless of size or health status."

After feeling the struggle herself and seeing others experience the pressure society puts on overweight people, Tovar decided to do something about it, taking on “lose hate, not weight” as her rallying cry.

The motto comes from talking with hundreds of chronic dieters about their experiences trying to lose weight and ultimately just wanting love, respect, dignity, romance and other things that their thinner counterparts get to enjoy freely.

“It’s important to recognize that dieting for a lot of people is deeply symbolic … of the ways in which we as individuals attempt to meet society’s standards in hopes that we get things that all of us need,” she said. “We as a culture … have been taught that thinness is tied to the acquisition of those things.”

Since society has taught overweight people that they need to be thin to experience these parts of life, many will put off important moments until they’re thinner, like going to the beach.

Lose hate, not weight, then, is about giving up on the notion that one needs to lose weight to be happy or that overweight people don’t deserve the same opportunities as the thinner members of the population.

“It is not weight that needs to be lost, but the ideology that we are not good enough as we are,” she said.

This ideology stems from fat positivism, a movement Tovar discovered when she was a young adult. She described it best.

“It really blew my mind, the idea that I could just be a fat person and actually have no problem with being fat -- make no attempts to diet, make no attempts to reduce my weight, and just decide that I’m going to live my life, unapologetically, on my terms as well as I can,” she said.

Tovar said fat positivity is different from other body positivity movements in that there is no weight cap -- everyone deserves to be happy in life, regardless of how heavy they are.

“What sets fat positivity apart is that it’s specifically looking at a group of people who are highly discriminated against and reviled in our culture and flips the script completely and says, ‘You actually don’t have to attempt to change your weight. You’re actually completely fine in your higher-weight body, and you have the right to love, respect and dignity at your size,’” she said. “There’s something really, really powerful about that.”           

Tovar said she has seen some positive change in the right direction in the present society, with overweight people around the country forming a grassroots movement to create an alternative vision for representation.

Ultimately, Tovar wants all people -- regardless of size -- to realize their self-worth and for those discriminating against overweight people to realize the hurtful effects of their actions.

“Fatphobia is not about health,” she said. “It’s not about improvement. It is about discrimination and bigotry, and it needs to end because … every single person deserves to live a life free from bigotry regardless of size or health status.”

Tovar’s next book, “The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color” is set to be released in 2020.