The Psychology of Why People Dislike or Hate Fat People

Obesity is a problem for which we need more empathy.

Posted May 06, 2011

The hoots and hollers were cringe-inducing as the television comedian's fat joke landed to wild applause. It was strange how the audience erupted as if they'd heard something genuinely funny or even interesting on a particular recent night at an L.A. comedy club. But to hear yet another comedian make a stupid fat joke reflected the least funny or interesting thing he could say. Truthfully, the audience wasn't laughing because the joke was good: They laughed because they hate fat people, and worse, because they believe fat people deserve such spite.

Wow, is it that simple? Is the world really chock-full of haters who don't have feelings or derive pleasure from putting others down? If we take a minute to look at it, we quickly find that it's actually not that simple. What's happening as the haters laugh? They're taking a mental break — almost like releasing a valve with too much pressure — from judging themselves.

It never fails: In therapy, my clients are often shocked to find over the course of therapy that their own judgments of others simultaneously reflect the degree to which they also judge themselves. Each day, I find myself blurting out, "You're too hard on yourself!" There appears to be limitless self-judgment out there in the universe, and it's poisonous because these self-judgers are twice as good at judging — even hating — others for any number of reasons (too fat, too gay, too ethnic, and so on).

When it comes to fat people, the obese are easy targets. Their flaw (or medical problem) is out there for the world to see and judge. I have tremendous empathy for anyone who is overweight because it's hard on them physically and emotionally — a real double threat. Most people's flaws (infidelity, bad temper, etc.) aren't so apparent, so you have to get to know your average person to actually see his or her flaws. But with fat people, there's no hiding. From this perspective, it really sucks to be fat, huh?

The more our society can learn to feel empathy for others, the less judgment we'll have to spread amongst ourselves. You know the problem is serious — in this case, hating or discriminating against fat people — when one person hates another without ever even having met! But that's exactly what happens when many men and women encounter someone obese: Snap judgments are made, and the fat person is typically summarily dismissed as lazy or weak.

If you find that you have negative views about fat people, or perhaps another group of people that you've decided you don't particularly like, the next time such thoughts or feelings come up, take a moment and take a step back. The truth is simple: If you are hard on others, you are also going to be hard on yourself in some other way. So here's my crazy idea: Don't be critical of yourself or others. And please, if you are a fat-hater, leave fat people alone! Finally, you can even go a step further if it's someone else who makes a nasty comment about anyone overweight: Take a stand and stick up for that person. In small ways like this one, you'd be doing your part to make the world a kinder, more understanding place.

Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.