Sizeism is a form of discrimination entrenched within our society that sees people judging a person based on their size or shape. It can be either overt or covert- obvious or subtle, and can effect a person’s self esteem for many years. If you have ever been treated differently because you were overweight, underweight, too tall, too short, or just treated with disdain because of how you look, then you have been a victim of Sizeism. It can be an extremely humiliating form of attack that comes from every direction from employers, to people on the street. Sizeism is not controlled by the law even though it is a very real and very hurtful form of discrimination.
Why do so many people discriminate based on size? Could it be that they believe that it’s ok to do this because it’s common practice within their society? Do they have a genuine concern for that person’s health? Or perhaps those who discriminate have their own self esteem issues that they cannot accept and so they take out their own insecurities on people who are shaped differently?
Whatever the reason, in almost every country in the world there are laws to protect its people from discrimination. Discrimination is when a person or organisation believes that another person is not entitled to the same rights as everyone else, because of something that makes them different. Currently it is illegal to discriminate against people because of their race, creed, nationality, religious beliefs, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, or medical records. These laws are applied to many different arenas from the workplace, to education, accommodation, and the provision of services.
Who Discriminates and Why?
So given that all of these forms of discrimination have been made illegal, there has to be a reason that people feel inclined to want to discriminate in the first place. It is a natural human response to look at other people and assess them. It is something that we all do every day. In our heads we have automatic thoughts that compare ourselves with other people. Comparing ourselves is how we learn to identify ourselves, for example ‘I am different to that person because they are X and I am Y.’ This is natural and part of our human instinct or ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, but it is not discrimination. We are all created differently with our own unique blend of DNA that no two people can share, but we are all the same because we are human. Therefore our human rights should be the same.
When we are young, we naturally compare ourselves to others. Our comparisons can either stay as such, or they become judgements. Judgement comes from our tendency to see things as either right or wrong, good or bad. Exposure to judgement comes initially from our parents, and then from our own observations of others. In an ideal world, our parents would teach us that judging another person does not make us better than them, it only makes us different, and that we each have our own good and bad points and that no one is either innately good or innately bad. Our parents teach us what is right and wrong, but they are just a product of their society, so our parents are not perfect. And each society is different, so there is no one single source of right or wrong, so depending on the society that we are born into, our beliefs will potentially be different and the labels that we assign people will be different.
When we judge certain groups of people before we know them, this is called making an assumption. When we assume we know something about someone before we get to know them, we are judging them. If no one teaches us as children that judging people is unfair, this practice can continue into adulthood, and it does for many people. It often takes generations before discrimination can be removed from a society, which is the reason that the laws were put into place to protect people in the here and now.
When a person moves from one society to another, the rules by which they live change. We need to adapt our beliefs by considering other points of view, which in turn expands our own point of view. For example in some countries physical abuse against women is considered legal. In Western societies on the whole, this is not tolerated. So when someone moves from their society to a new society, they must accept the new society laws. But this doesn’t mean that they can’t be changed if the society as a majority agrees that the laws should change. For example in ancient times, it was legal to kill your children if they disrespected you. That would simply not fly in this day and age. As a society, we decided that murder was not an act that we wanted to condone.
When we believe that we are better than someone else, or when we judge them as either good or bad, we can either unconsciously, subconsciously, or consciously allocate them different labels that may be true or may be false. The point is, that you just don’t know. Until you give someone a chance to present their unique point of view, until you get to know a person, you don’t know what that person has gone through. You have no idea what their life was like. And you don’t know what they are capable of. They could be completely different, or they could be exactly the same as you, just wrapped up in a different package. This is why it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on a preconceived notion or assumption. As the old adage says, ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.’
How Do We Choose?
Realistically in some situations, there is no shortage of choice, so how do we choose if we cannot discriminate? We have to get to know the person and then as the next resort, we rely on personal preference. Given that everyone should be entitled to the same human rights from birth, our only way to make a choice about one person or another in a job interview for example, is to identify preferences based on aspects of that persons personality. Do they have a record of trustworthiness? Would they be a good company fit? Are they a good communicator? Would they bring any unique talents to the role based on their resume? There are many ways that we can find the right person for the right situation, but realistically there could be many right people and the decision can be difficult to make sometimes. But it can be done legally and ethically.
So given that it is illegal to discriminate against people based on almost every other difference, why is Sizeism so rampant in our society? Firstly, it could be because it’s rarely noticed by people other than those who are being judged. In some societies, being overweight is considered to be a status symbol and so the parents will force feed the children to make them gain weight. In my opinion, this is just as bad as saying that someone is not good unless they are thin. But this cultural difference highlights that it is not intrinsically good to be shaped in any one particular way. There are many shapes and sizes that make up the world, so why in our society do most people look down at people because of their size? The issue of health is always at the forefront of this argument. The assumption of laziness, bad diet, lack of self control, and mental disorder always come in next.
But the truth is that many people who are overweight or underweight have been through traumatic experiences that they wish they’d never had. Perhaps they don’t know how to process certain emotions, perhaps there are other reasons too. When it comes down to it, we shouldn’t have to justify our weight issues to every person on the street. Whether we can ‘just lose weight’ or not, our issues are our own. And they are for each individual to work through. No one should be judged before we know more about them according to the law, so why does it continue? Is it because of a lack of knowledge about this issue by the people who are discriminating? Surely with the steps we’ve already taken as a society, it would be possible for the government to acknowledge that this is a problem, and put into place measures to combat Sizeism as they have every other form of discrimination? But that would require taking action on an unpopular issue. That would require us to agree as a society that we will no longer treat people as stereotypes. That would require us to take a good hard look at ourselves.
So Where To From Here?
If you feel that you have been discriminated against, how do you move on with dignity? Perhaps the only way that the governments of the world will change their policy is if people stand up for what is rightfully theirs. And if we want to make a change to the way the world works, we need to start by recognising our own unique qualities, and then standing up for them in the face of disapproval. We need to start by loving ourselves and showing people that there is a damn good person inside this human shell. The more we shine, the more people will see our light. TV shows, movies, and other forms of subtle education are starting to sway the way people think, not just for other people, but also for ourselves. The media is picking up on stories about unfair treatment, and though change is slow, it is happening. In the meantime, the change must come from within. Don’t accept the negative treatment that others may wish to dole out. Just say ‘thankyou for sharing, but I do not see things as you do.’ Feel your emotions, but then turn them into action. Make a noise, and make sure you’re heard. Because when it comes down to it, if we can dream it, we can make it happen.
Written by Sharona Radovsky.