Publically Misfitting: Extreme Weight and the Everyday Production and Reinforcement of Felt Stigma

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Abstract

Living with extreme weight in the United States is associated with discrimination and self-stigma, creating structural exclusions, embodied stress, and undermining health and wellbeing. Here we combine ethnographic interviews and surveys from those with experiences of living with extreme weight to better explain how this vulnerability is created and reinforced by public cues, both physical (e.g., seatbelts) and social (the reactions of strangers). “Misfitting” is a major theme in interviews, as is the need to plan and scan constantly while navigating too-small public spaces. The most distressing events combine physical misfitting with unsympathetic reactions from strangers. Sensitivity to stigmatizing public cues reduces with weight loss, but does not disappear. This study explains one basic mechanism that underlies the creation of felt stigma related to weight even after weight loss: the lack of accommodation for size and the lack of empathy from others that characterize modern urban spaces.

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