In 2019, the term “grossophobia” entered the French dictionary. The Larousse definition states that this is an “attitude of stigmatization, discrimination towards obese or overweight people”. While it is true that grossophobia refers to the discriminatory phenomenon in the broad sense (including insults, harassment, bullying, etc.), it is nevertheless important to stress that the recognition of discrimination experienced by fat people is quite recent.
It was not until the end of the 1980s that this vocabulary found an echo in the French associative movement in particular. For the general public, it is the book by actress Anne Zamberlan that imposes the term. Published in 1994 and titled Coup de gueule contre la grossophobie , it inaugurated on French television sets a discussion on the discrimination suffered by fat people. With her association “Allegro Fortissimo” the actress operates a first reversal in France: the problem is no longer on the side of fat people but rather grossophobic people and the terms of social and health care of these questions. But there remains a paradox: according to the High Authority of Health (HAS) 46.5% of adults are overweight and 20% are obese.
Very gendered discrimination
A translation has been made of the determinisms of obesity – that of education and low income – to transcribe it in terms of an essentially educational, even moralizing discourse, the effects of which (reduction in obesity and overweight, better nutritional knowledge ) are largely debatable. Thus fat people are suspected of being in a permissive relationship with their bodies, where gluttony, laziness and gluttony are the prerogative of fat people.
However, according to the World Health Organization, obesity is defined as a disease but more recent militant actions, in particular those of associations such as “Political Fat” have caused a significant shift in the recognition of obesity in the world. beyond the medical sphere to support the visibility of actions to fight against pejorative representations with regard to this population.
Films, often documentaries, have also made it possible to better understand the issue of grossophobia in France. To name a few, in 2019, Why Do They Hate Us Fats? starring Charlotte Gaccio, Ma vie en gros , with Daria Marx in 2020 and, recently, Gabrielle Deydier’s film, On completes bien les gros , released in 2020. These films often take the form of a biographical narrative and bear witness to life daily life of people affected by grossophobia.
The pressures of social and aesthetic norms are felt more strongly among girls. A recent survey indicates that, at age 15, half of them say they need to diet, while only one in ten girls is overweight. Even more worrying, this concern is now found among preadolescents: 37% of 11-year-old girls say they are dieting or have been on a diet. This assignment to thinness and this recourse to diet in the youngest makes the bed of eating disorders.
These figures are clear: the youngest – and women in particular – are indeed victims of grossophobia. One of the main reasons for this remains the extent of the spaces producing weight control and normativity. Rebecca Puhl’s surveys are particularly interesting in this regard because they highlight the strong link between the stigmatization of fat, overweight or obese people, and the public health issues that result from it. To put it another way, the more areas of grossophobia there are, the less effective the discourse of prevention against obesity.
Worse, they even tend to increase the prejudices and discrimination experienced by the people concerned. This is particularly the case at school, where the maintenance of public prevention policies in the area of sports and nutritional health draws the outlines of over-empowerment of young people who are fat or overweight. “If despite everything you do not lose those pounds, it is because you did not follow the advice.” But it would be completely limiting to look only at the side of the school because the family is, too, a place of stigmatization of overweight, as this young woman expressed it during one of our research in 2016:
“Have I ever been insulted or annoyed for being fat?” No, I do not see. I do not believe. (pauses, thinks, then adds) actually, it depends what you call getting bothered. When I was little, my family called us my sister and I the little sausages. And my cousin said it at school. So everyone called us that, even the sports teacher. But hey, it was for fun. “
Social distinction, mockery emanating (paradoxically) from people who are supposed to love us, not taking into account insults and bullying experienced outside, phenomena of guilt … many are the rooting vectors of grossophobia (tacit or explicit) in the family context. Even more, in a digital society where the boundaries between the public (especially school) and private (especially family) spheres are shrinking, the role of social networks must be questioned head-on, because grossophobia is not limited to physical interactions: it finds its exact counterpart on social networks .
Prevention campaigns against obesity have given rise to gendered, sexist and stigmatizing representations. It was only very recently, in October 2021, that the first international benevolent image bank was created with people affected by obesity. For a long time, this difficulty in portraying obese people in the media gave way to bad representations .
For lack of finding images that correspond to them, and in which they can identify with, young people turn to social networks, leaving them the best part to invest in questions of identity, for better or for worse. Facebook and Instagram have thus become the leaders of image banks on the body and the differences among the youngest.
Finally, we would like to stress how difficult it is to know how to name people affected by grossophobia in a benevolent way. Are they fat? Overweight ? Or obese? However, this confusion is not without consequence in the taking into account of the body of people known as fat. Because all in all, there are still no criteria specifying from when a person is fat. The notion of size remains totally subjective and differs according to many factors such as culture, education or even self-esteem. While obesity is a chronic multifactorial disease defined by the WHO with very specific criteria.
This confusion of terms maintains the lack of support for the people concerned, and young people in particular, in a period where self-representation on social networks is not carried out without a link with weight concerns .
In other words, people not concerned by obesity, but stigmatized as being round, even fat – in adolescence in particular – find themselves dieting or developing eating disorders in response to this marking of the body’s body. side of the pathology. And people affected by obesity have internalized a guilt of not knowing how to “lose weight” while their difficulties do not stem from a simple will but from a complex pathology which requires multidisciplinary support and relational attention from the start. younger age.
Author Bios: Arnaud Alessandrin is a Sociologist at the University of Bordeaux and Marielle Toulze is a Communication Researcher at Jean Monnet University, Saint-Étienne