Let’s Also Stop with the Fat Shaming

Content warning: discusses weight issues, bullying, and put-downs; also mentions diets

Oh, let me tell you, I’ve had enough of this one. My fat shaming began at Day 1 of life when everyone apparently laughed and laughed when I drank two bottles of formula (not the modern stuff, either) right after birth. Well, you would have, too, if your bone-thin mother’s smoking and drinking had kept you deprived of delicious nutrients while you were in the womb listening to her puff away.

Sturdy, that’s the word. Note Cracker Jack box.

My first diet was in 6th grade, after getting sick of being called fatso, water buffalo, elephant, and such. I was always tall and sturdy for a child, so all those stick children* thought I was fat. I lost ten pounds on that early version of the Atkins diet, and since I was also going through puberty, I grew my final few inches, so I both appeared slimmer and became comparatively smaller, since all the other girls were growing. That was the last year I was second-tallest in the class. By seventh grade, I was short, because the boys started growing. I remain short and sturdy, just like my dad.

My mother’s side of the family were thin people. I’m the big one.

Yes, it’s genetic. I didn’t get my mother’s natural slimness, I got my dad’s natural roundness. And that leads me to my point, which you can learn a LOT more about in this fine Highline/Huffington Post article from 2018 that I read yesterday, Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong, by Michael Hobbes. I think I read it before, but yesterday, since I was still sort of steaming from thinking about ableism, I really started pondering how this bias against fat people has messed with my mind and my biases.

Dad and I had the same build.

Because of all the labeling my family and friends did when I was little, I have always been fat in my mind, even when, looking back, I was pretty average. I blamed most of my problems on being fat (and ugly). I was sure that’s why I didn’t have boyfriends (never imagining it might have been how I acted or my personality).

Too bad. I liked my high school friends. I still like my high school friends, regardless of size.

And I went on diets and more diets, though thankfully I mostly did the “eat less, and eat healthy food, and get exercise” method, which is at least not harmful. I’ve only stopped with all that in the last year or two, and it is hard, hard, hard to just accept myself at the weight my body naturally stabilizes at. But, I’m close to being there! I’m me, and this is how I look! I am in good physical shape, can do lots of things, walk/ride horses/do chores a lot, and don’t eat too many things that are “empty calories.”

Here I am thin. It is because I was so stressed out I couldn’t eat. And getting this thin did not prevent my husband from leaving me, either.

So, my attitude to myself is better, and I’ve stopped labeling myself. But, all that talk I heard growing up, all the put-downs I heard aimed at myself and others, and all the media pressure really got to me. I can still hear people calling a kid named Larry “Lardo.” I remember my high school boyfriend and his best friend making fun of all my chubby girlfriends (except the thin one, who they made fun of for something else). (Hmm, making fun is not actually fun, it turns out.)

I’m afraid I’ve had a pretty bad case of bias against fat people my whole life. Sure, I made lots of strides, and have even been in a relationship with a very large man. My current spouse has always been on the larger side. And of course, plenty of my friends are in various sizes. But still, somehow, my first impulse upon seeing a large person is that they are dirty and lazy. That’s my unconscious bias sneaking out, like if you can’t control your weight, you don’t care about yourself or anything else. ACK.

This self analysis is exhausting (photo from 2013, a thin period).
I’m way happier in this larger photo than in all the thin ones!

My intellectual self knows perfectly well that my biased reactions are unfounded, wrong, and quite unkind. I mean, how many clean, energetic, amazing fat people do I have to know to get this gone? I could name dozens of people I admire, look up to, think are beautiful, and even love that do not fit my stereotype. It makes me very disappointed in myself and angry at society to think of how deeply ingrained my unfounded bias is.

Oddly, once I get to know people, the weight issue disappears for me. I don’t put my friends into fat vs. not fat categories. I may assign labels, but they are more like kind, funny, grumpy, brilliant, talented, or annoying. None of those things correlate with size.

What can I do?

As with all the unconscious biases we don’t realize we have most of the time, a great first step is acknowledging the bias. Once I saw it was there, I could work on retraining my mind to not implicitly judge people based on their weight. I know, having retrained my mind on things in the past, that it will take a bit of conscious work to not ignore or pass over fat people when I first meet them, which is what I always tended to do. It will be worth it in the long run, though, because I’ll get to make friends with all kinds of great folks faster than I would have otherwise.

If you catch me putting people down because of their size, their appearance, or other external qualities, please point it out. It will help me remember that judging people by appearances is not helpful at all (see, I didn’t say it was dumb!).

Back to the theme of the article I read, it really helps to remind ourselves that fat does not mean unhealthy, nor does thin mean healthy. People’s heredity, social circumstances, and many other factors affect weight, not just whether they eat too much of the “wrong” things. We need calories to live and thrive, including fat. Like almost everything else, our weight is caused by lots of factors. It’s not a character flaw.

Food is our friend!

I am convinced that if we studied how to use moderation in everything, like food, exercise, sleep, and work, we’d all be healthier. And certainly, with all the stressors out there, we don’t need to pile on more.

We are all doing the best we can, unless we don’t care, and then that’s our business, right?


*Note that it was pointed out to me, correctly, that calling thin children “stick children” was thin shaming. I shall endeavor to do better in the future, and appreciate this being pointed out!

Book Report: The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias

Rating: 5 out of 5.

At least you get a lot of reading done in bad weather! I zipped through the second of the unconscious bias books I bought to review for work. The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams, by Pamela Fuller and Mark Murphy with Anne Chow, is from FranklinCovey, the business consulting firm. That turned out not to be a bad thing.

Their format made the book interesting to read, and I was surprised how helpful some of their simple charts and learning aids were. Plus, the authors shared lots of detailed and varied stories about how they experienced unconscious bias, from the giving and receiving sides.

The business focus helped the focus stay on doing concrete things to address these biases and make the workplace better. I enjoyed the examples from different types of businesses, too.

Each short and info-packed chapter is followed by exercises that I didn’t find annoying or stupid. It’s pretty obvious that these folks know how to teach adults and engage them.

I had a few aha moments about areas I can work on. One of those is working with neurodivergent people. I plan to look for more resources to help me find ways for teams and individuals to do their best work with fewer frustrations.

An interesting passage on being careful about cultural fit interview questions

On the other hand, I saw some areas where I feel like I, and my employers, are doing a really good job with hiring and employee inclusion. Of course, we can all do better, but I think it’s a wonderful challenge and I enjoy working with our diversity and inclusion initiatives. It feels like a tangible way to make things better for all of us.

Book Report: Sway

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When you’ve got to stay in side and try to keep warm, you can read! Yesterday, I finished Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, by Pragya Agarwal. It’s another big ole book with an academic focus, but I learned a lot about all kinds of bias and how it’s formed.

The author shared some helpful personal stories about being someone born in India who has become a citizen of the UK and has biracial children. She also had some interesting stories about how she is treated as a woman, too. These were my favorite parts of the book.

The long descriptions of various research studies that painstakingly listed every author and where their academic credentials are made a lot of the book a hard slog. I think I prefer books that do share the sources of information, but leave them in notes. That makes it easier to follow the information.

Nonetheless, anyone wanting to study unconscious bias seriously, work in the field, or teach it would benefit from reading Sway. I’m very glad I read it, because I learned a lot about the kinds of bias you find in other places, like the UK and Germany. That’s a topic I’d like to find out more about.

My other favorite sections were when Agarwal talked about bias against accents, which is something I hadn’t thought about before (though I happen to have minimized my own native north Florida accent when I became an academic, knowing I’d be taken more seriously). I found out what kinds of accents are looked down upon in Australia, England and Germany, among other places (that RP British accent is posh everywhere, it seems). And by the way, your native accent makes your amygdala happy, as I found when I talked to the nice AT&T lady on the phone last week while getting my phone plan upgraded.

I’ll leave you with the hopeful conclusion at the end of the book. I hope it’s true:

Understanding more about unconscious bias is not going to magically fix all the injustices in the world. But, if we start becoming more aware of our unconscious bias and what triggers when we are most vulnerable to it, we will become more attuned to the consequences of externalising our unconscious biases in the form of behavioural outcomes. And if we actively exercise strategies to mitigate and counter our unconscious biases, we can hopefully finally put a dent in them.

Sway, p. 408

That’s my plan. To realize when I’m under pressure, stressed, or overwhelmed with data and allow myself to pause and ensure that I’m making my decisions as bias free as I can. And I’ll know there’s always work to do to make things better!

Positive Unconscious Bias?

I got so involved with writing my previous post that I forgot to make one of my points. While thinking of types of people I might be biased against, I became very aware of some ways in which my subconscious biases me toward some people.

While out on a walk with Anita and Pickle, I even said, “I always think I’ll like anyone who has this sign in front of their house.”

The sign has all my buzz words on it. Plus I like the flag addition: it’s for all of us in the USA.

Now, there’s a positive bias! I just assume that, by buying one of these signs, they must be great folks. These must be fine people, too:

I happen to know the sign’s owner IS a nice person, but from actually knowing her, not from her sign.

This is just as inaccurate a way to judge others as lumping all people with Trump pickup-truck flags in the same boat. You really don’t know what a person is like until you actually get to know them (yes, I know their signs DO give a hint, but let’s not pre-judge!).

I tend to have a favorable bias towards dog lovers, too (which helps mitigate some other biases). And if you own a spotted mini-donkey…oooh, you must be GREAT.

Now you know why I fell for my spouse. It was the dogs.

I have some other positive biases, mostly based on education, career choices, and hobbies (I always feel betrayed when I find out a fellow knitter is actually creepy, but having read comments directed at some of my gay knitting heroes, I know they’re out there).

I blame my bias on Mike. Most things are his fault, after all. Here we are in 2013. Apparently I’d just given him a rabbit hutch.

Speaking of which, I’m pretty sure I’m positively biased toward gay men (more neutral toward others). I wonder if it’s because they’ve been kinder to me most of my life, in general, than any other group. Or it’s just empathy based on my family and past friends’ experiences. Of course I’ve known some unpleasant gay men, but my bias makes me assume I’ll like them. Like with any other group, of course, it’s better to get to know individuals than make sweeping generalizations.

Here we are again in February 2020, just before being attacked by the quarantine and becoming more…substantial. I have no idea where we are.

To be honest, after thinking about my positive biases, I can see that they can be helpful shortcuts to identifying potential friends, but they can also make you assume things about people that might not be true. I’m going to make sure I identify the positive ones as well as the negative unconscious biases.

Enjoy this cloud formation in far southeast Austin as you ponder bias.

What are yours?

Who Has Unconscious Bias?

The short answer to that question is: all of us. Bias is normal for humans, and there’s no way to eliminate it; it’s part of being human. There are, by the way, both positive and negative biases (we are biased toward the kinds of people who most resemble you or share your beliefs, while people who don’t fit into our ideas of “normal” often engender negative biases). Anyway, I’m not here to write a book about bias (go here for more info). I just want to make it clear that there’s no way to get around having unconscious biases, because all of us can’t be aware of everything that’s influencing us or we’d be bombarded by thoughts. Our unconscious biases are part of what led humans to succeed (being biased against funny-looking strangers probably saved a lot of past people).

The tattoo bias is one that comes up a lot in these trainings. Image by  @noralynepo58 via Twenty20.

Why I’m thinking about this today is that I have been helping out with a diversity and inclusion initiative at my job. One of the things I said I’d do was evaluate some potential training courses on unconscious (or implicit) bias. There’s nothing this old instructional designer likes better than evaluating online training, so I was happy to do so.

I went through two different courses. In one of them, the presenter repeated so many times that unconscious bias is normal that I’m pretty sure THAT is seared into my unconscious. But I see why they did that: you don’t want people feeling guilty or that they’re a bad person for having them. That first course reminded me that I’ve been reading a lot about unconscious bias in the books about race in the US, so I was feeling all good about myself. The course encouraged me to write down biases that might pop up into my head while I was learning, and sure enough a big ole list started growing.

The second training was more scientific than the first, and I enjoyed that. It also had some exercises in identifying bias that I really enjoyed. Sure enough, I have a bias toward males in certain roles (science rather than art). And I totally messed up another exercise that proved the same thing. These results make a good point, that many of us retain biases that aren’t even in our own self-interest, thanks to cultural traditions, media depictions, etc.

Am I Biased?

Heck yeah, I’m biased. Some of them I’m more conscious of than others, because, like the trainings pointed out, by introspection and careful observation, you CAN see some of your biases and make an effort to mitigate them in the workplace (and beyond). Also, by actually exposing yourself to members of groups you have an unconscious bias toward, you can start to see each person as an individual, rather than a group member. I’m eternally grateful for linguistics classes and factory jobs for exposing me to people outside my in-group and letting me see them for themselves.

Here are a few biases I’ve made an effort to work through, and how I think I got them:

  • People with tattoos (blame my mom)
  • Muslim men (blame a long string of horny married men in college/grad school)
  • Black people (blame growing up in the South in the 60s)
  • Fraternity members (blame college)
  • Smokers (also blame my late mother, who died of lung cancer)

I’m not saying I’ve eliminated my biases, but I know they are there, and now I can make a conscious effort to treat people as people. I’ve benefited from this a lot. Now the bias is just a twinge, which I acknowledge and move on really quickly.

How many irrational Suna negative biases are in this photo? A bunch. Will they affect my hiring practices? Nope. Image by @zelmabrezinska via Twenty20.

Now, other biases I wrote down I have a harder time with. As I wrote them down, I could readily see that some of these are really silly. I also can see where some of the biases are based on bad experiences, formed in self defense, and related to safety (like the Muslim men one, which required many years of meeting Muslim guys who did not try to proposition or assault me or my friends). Here are some silly ones that I need to work on. I have biases against people:

  • With strong body odor
  • With dirty hair
  • With tongue piercings
  • With poor dental hygiene
  • From New York (rudeness)
  • From California (constant bragging)

Who speak or write with poor grammar in formal/business settings (as opposed to cultural identity things like Tex Mex or Black English, which don’t bother me, or informal slang)

Mom also said that wearing curlers in public was trashy. How 60s.

A lot of these look to me like things my mother would have said denote “low class,” and I got it drilled into me that no matter what I did, I was not to appear like “white trash” (Mom’s words). This verifies that biases against “out” groups from your childhood are hard to get rid of, even in the face of experiences that prove them wrong. The New York and California things are based on personal experiences, and I know perfectly well they are stereotypes. They are just very sticky to me. Do you have any like that?

Biases That Protect

A couple of the biases I wrote down are pretty obviously based on protecting myself from negative consequences (real or imagined). For example, I am biased against narcissists, and that’s based on how I’ve seen friends treated and how hard these people are to eliminate once they attach themselves to you. Now, narcissists can’t help being who they are, since it’s a mental illness. And I need to not treat them differently in the workplace, but I’ll avoid them in personal relationships as much as I can, to protect me. Do you avoid people with certain personality types?

Here’s a negative bias I plan to work very hard to get rid of. I hope this goes both ways. We’re all citizens of the same country and want the best for our families.

While I’m being honest, I’ll admit to being biased against people who display giant Trump flags on their property or pick-up trucks. In my mind, I see them as the radical types who actually believe I have an agenda to take away their rights or force them to have an abortion. That’s probably not true of most of them. But, thanks to the media and reading comments on social media, this one is stuck within me. Note, however, that I am perfectly capable of working with, finding commonalities with, and even living with people who voted differently from me. How about you?

While waiting to give birth to my first child, I edited this book. I removed the word “basically” about 897 times. I did get a Society for Technical Communication award for it.

The final self-protection bias is one I am working really, really hard to get rid of, but it’s sort of funny. You see, I once worked for the great Stephen Wolfram, who is a certified genius with a heart of gold, but at least as a younger man was hard to work for. There was an incredible amount of berating, cursing, odd demands, and eccentricities to negotiate (I could write a book, but I won’t; we both have fond memories of each other…now). The thing is, he had a particular English accent based on where he was born and educated. Coincidentally, one of my coworkers at Planview has the exact same accent, being from the same area. So, every time this other person talks, I hear Wolfram. Everything that person says sounds like a criticism or a put-down (it doesn’t help that sometimes it IS that), but I have to make a huge effort to separate the two of them. My Wolfram PTSD is not doing me any favors!

I wrote this. It was very funny at the time. From Stephen’s website.

I wonder how many of us deal with biases like that? I’d love to hear some stories.

In any case, there’s no doubt in my mind that my biases that popped into my head are just scratching the surface and that there are many more hiding down deep in the recesses of my subconscious, helping me make judgments quickly, but not necessarily fairly. Acknowledging them is a good start, as long as it’s followed by making the effort to eliminate them in important business activities like hiring, reviewing, and such. I’m on it.

PS: I just ran across an article that provides some great ways to open up conversations with people toward whom you may have negative biases. Check it out!