Academics say fat-bashing doesn't fly
"Pay only for what you weigh!" is the catchy new slogan at Samoa Air, where "the sky's the limit" for fat and thin alike. The "air fair" fare is based on the combined weight of each passenger and their baggage, which means overweight people pay more for their seats. Scales at the check-in catch out any cheaters.
"A kilo is a kilo is a kilo," says Chris Langton, chief executive of the Pacific nation's airline of the fat tax. And many agree: 85 per cent of respondents to a Fairfax Media online poll this week said overweight people should pay more to fly.
Passengers might pass the flight reading NW magazine, which this week pokes fun at Lara Bingle's "lumpy tummy" and the "junk in the trunk" of Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence. Or for variety there's Woman's Day, which delights in a "fat fight cat fight" between former Olympian Lisa Curry and TV trainer Michelle Bridges, who made a contestant cry on The Biggest Loser by screaming at him to "either go down man-up road or pussy street".
Anyone who is overweight or obese could well face similar scorn, regardless of their postal address. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to pursue his ban on large sugary drinks, recently ruled invalid by the Supreme Court, warning of a "public health crisis". Australia, meanwhile, remains mired in an "obesity epidemic".
Some argue the focus on health risks has tipped over into prejudice and discrimination against fat people. Australia has become "fattist" or "fat-phobic", with obese people reviled or, in extreme cases, viewed as diseased, says Sydney University sociologist Deborah Lupton. "We are already dealing with a vulnerable population and we are further stigmatising them and humiliating them."
Her 2012 book Fat examines how stigmatisation of body fat has grown with the increased focus on obesity this century. The pendulum of "moral panic" over anorexia in the 1980s and 1990s has swung against obesity, she says.
While we condemn sexism, racism and homophobia, fat people are apparently fair game. "It goes back centuries to Judeo-Christian beliefs that if you allow temptations of the flesh to overcome your will, you are a weak person and an inferior person. It affects smokers these days as well. We have great disdain for people who are seen to invite ill health or disease into their body," Lupton says.
The title of the reality show The Biggest Loser, where obese contestants compete to shed the most weight, reinforces a general view of such people as "losers in life", she says. The decision by Samoa Air to charge fat people more to fly further "exacerbates the sense of public humiliation", she adds.
The airline's policy requires passengers to divulge their weight when booking a ticket online. Fares vary depending on the distance flown, from $1 a kilogram on short domestic routes to about $4.16 a kilogram between Samoa and America Samoa. The airline's Chris Langton says a similar policy will apply to flights to and from Australia later this year. He says the policy helps cater for the obese by reconfiguring seats to give them more space.
Samoa is often ranked in the top 10 countries by obesity levels. In Australia, some 63 per cent of adults are overweight or obese, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. An estimated 25 per cent of children are considered overweight or obese. But Qantas has no plans to introduce passenger weight-based fares, a spokeswoman says.
The total cost of caring for the nation's overweight and obese is more than $56 billion a year, according to a Sydney University study in 2010. The personal toll borne by such people is also significant. Fat people are statistically more likely to live in poverty, earn less or be unemployed, be less educated and experience lower living standards, Lupton says.
Obesity has been linked to low self-esteem, guilt and depression. A US study in 2010 found parents were less likely to help overweight offspring buy a car.
Public health campaigns, such as Western Australia's Live Lighter, make fat people "feel disgusted about their own bodies", Lupton argues. But Mike Daube, director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, says they raise awareness about the significant health risks of obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Early feedback for the Live Lighter campaign is positive, according to the Heart Foundation in WA.
"We used to hear in the old days with our campaigns against smoking that we were stigmatising smokers," says Daube, professor of health policy at Curtin University. "I think it is undoubtedly true that some people who are seriously obese feel a discomfort about that but ... if two-thirds of us are overweight or obese then I find it hard to claim there is serious discrimination going on."
Indeed, it is difficult to think of situations where the largest group in society considers itself a victim.
Some of the nation's larger population have started pushing their weight around (horrid pun intended). Groups such as Chub Republic and Aquaporko, a "fat and fabulous" synchronised swimming team, are trying to reclaim the word "fat", turning it from a source of discrimination to one of empowerment.
Victoria University lecturer Jennifer Lee wrote about Australia's growing "fat activist" movement in Overland magazine in 2012. "Fat people are sent constant messages that they are wrong, that they need to change, that the world around them is fine and doesn't need to cater for them," she wrote.
It was time to acknowledge "thin privilege" in the same way society had identified the advantages afforded Caucasians, heterosexuals and the wealthy, she argued. "This is a big fat battle - let's fight."