Creating Size Inclusive Farmers Markets
By: Ragen Chastain Posted On: May 9, 2022
If you attended the Nutrition Incentive Hub Convening, then you probably know that Ragen Chastain’s presentation, “Combating Anti-Fat Bias in Nutrition Incentive Work,” was a show-stopper. You can still view the presentation here if you didn’t catch it at the time! Meanwhile, we asked Ragen to write about how farmers market operators can address anti-fat bias in the design and messaging of their markets. You can learn more about Ragen and her work, and sign up for her Weight and Healthcare newsletter, at danceswithfat.org.
As farmers markets continuously work toward becoming more welcoming spaces for all members of our communities, it is critical that they also work to be inclusive of higher-weight people. While markets are rarely purposefully creating an environment that makes higher-weight people feel excluded, everything from health-messaging based in weight stigma, to space design that can’t accommodate fat bodies, to furniture that doesn’t fit us, can do just that. Solving weight stigma and inaccessibility for higher-weight people is an important part of making farmers markets a welcoming place for every body.
Farmers markets can be an important part of community food access, and are often recognized as champions of healthy food. Unfortunately, for many in this moment, the word “health” is falsely equated with the idea of thinness—which often leads to the stigmatizing of fat people as “unhealthy.” The first thing to be clear about when we are talking about “health,” however, is that it is an amorphous, multi-factorial concept that is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely within our control. Public health should be about removing barriers and creating access – not about making the individual’s choices the public’s business. It’s also important to know that weight stigma is dangerous for people’s physical and psychological health, so if we value health and health promotion, we must also be against weight stigma
What is Weight Stigma?
Weight Stigma (which can also be called size-based discrimination and weight bias) includes anything that suggests that a larger body is not as good as a thinner body, or any situation in which higher weight people do not receive equitable treatment.
When we think of weight stigma, we often think of microaggressions or individual experiences like bullying, street harassment, or fat-shaming. While these are certainly examples, another type of weight stigma that can have even greater impact is systemic oppression. This includes things like being hired, paid, and promoted less than thin colleagues, inequalities in healthcare access, lack of accommodation in public spaces and transportation, lack of positive representation and more.
Even some of the words that are often used to describe higher weight people are rooted in stigma. Take “obese” for example, this is a term that has become part of the medical and scientific lexicon, but it is just based on a Latin root that means “to eat until fat” – much more stereotype than science! Most of the fat liberation community (myself included) prefers the term “fat” used as a neutral descriptor (in much the same way that we use thin, tall, and blonde). That said, fat is a term that is in the process of being reclaimed, and is not universally embraced. For some people, “fat” can still feel like being called a name, so other non-stigmatizing terms can include higher-weight, larger-bodied, and people of size.
It is important to understand that weight stigma and pathologizing higher-weight bodies (including the concept of Body Mass Index/BMI) is rooted in, and inextricable from, racism and anti-Blackness. I highly recommend reading Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Blackness as Anti-Fatness to understand more about these origins and the ways that weight stigma continues to disproportionately impact people of color, especially Black people. Weight stigma is also often linked to ableism, this piece by Finn Gardiner provides some examples of that.
Creating Inclusive, Non-Stigmatizing Messaging
Often well-intentioned people create messages that are meant to be health promoting, but end up mired in diet culture, shame, and fear in ways that create weight stigma and decrease engagement. Examples of these mistakes include weight loss language, “anti-obesity” language, utilizing body size as a proxy for health, using fat bodies as cautionary tales, and a lack of positive representation of fat people.
Many farmers markets work with local public health nonprofits, and even local and or state health departments. These relationships can include anything from shared marketing to the organization having a booth at the market. Unfortunately, even public health organizations make mistakes when it comes to inclusion, so it’s important for those who are organizing farmers markets to be on the look-out for harmful messaging. For example, this picture was part of a campaign by the New York City Department of Health that was displayed in many places including subways.
Notice how a higher weight, disabled, person of color is used as a cautionary tale. The underlying message here is that if you don’t make the “right” choices, you will end up like the person in the picture. This reinforces not only weight stigma (and stereotypes, since people of all sizes drink sodas of all sizes, have type 2 diabetes, and have amputations), but also perpetuates racism and ableism. It tells people who have things in common with the person in the picture that their bodies are proof that they are bad and wrong.
Research shows that this kind of messaging increases stigma and decreases engagement. Studies have found that simply reading news reports about the supposed health risks of larger body size leads to greater anti-fat prejudice, including greater support for discriminating against fat people, and greater willingness to do so. This held true even if an explicit anti-weight-stigma message was included.
Another study out of Yale University found that messaging with stigmatizing language (including the term “obesity”) received the lowest intentions to participate, while study participants found messages that were focused on healthy habits and did not mention body weight to be the most motivating.
So how can we create messaging (and help those we work with to create messaging) that avoids doing harm and lets fat people know that they are welcomed and valued in our spaces?
- Make sure that fat people, including fat people with multiple marginalized identities, are given positive, non-stereotypical, non-stigmatizing representation.
- Use: Pictures of these folks as experts, vendors, and customers
- Avoid: Showing them with scales, tape measures, or food that is being considered “unhealthy”
- Avoid stigmatizing terms like “obese” and “overweight”
- Create messages that focus on health-supporting behaviors for all bodies, rather than messaging about body size or weight loss.
- Create requirements and guidelines for vendors that ensure that they are also avoiding weight stigma in their messaging.
- Make sure leadership, vendors, volunteers etc. include people (especially fat people, especially fat people with multiple marginalized identities) who are committed to fat liberation and ending weight stigma.
- Hire expert trainers/consultants to help educate your team and review your messaging.
Creating Inclusive Spaces
Farmers markets provide important options for accessing food, but only for those who can actually access them. As temporary markets are set up in often repurposed spaces such as parking lots and public parks, space can be at a premium, and yet, during the Covid-19 Pandemic, many markets created designs that could accommodate more room between stalls. This kind of spaciousness is important to allow fat people to participate equitably in the market both as shoppers and as vendors and volunteers. Here are some questions to ask yourself and your team about the physical spaces you are creating:
- Are the aisles and pathways wide enough to accommodate fat bodies and extra-wide wheelchairs, scooters, and other mobility aids?
- Is there fat-friendly seating and furniture? That means high-weight rated armless chairs, benches, and tables with moveable benches and chairs? Picnic tables and other tables with attached seating often fail to accommodate larger bodies.
- Is there any experience at your event that is not available to higher weight people due to size restrictions and/or weight limits? Examples might include things like hay rides, corn mazes, or games. If so, what can be done to make sure that everyone, of every size, has the same opportunity for experiences?
- If you have clothing for sale, do you have it available in the largest sizes (up to 6X at least)? Learn more about this through Saucye Wests’ #FightForInclusivity.
And, of course, it’s not just about size inclusivity. Apply this same process (and hire experts) to make sure that you are fully disabled accessible and inclusive and that you are actively anti-racist (check out groups like the Food + Wellness Equity Collective and the Antiracist Farmers Market Toolkit). Many people hold more than one marginalized identity (for example, someone might be Black, fat, and trans) so think about inclusion from an intersectional perspective. Make the creation of a space that includes, affirms, and protects every body a non-negotiable core value for you and your organization, and your market can truly thrive.
Content Warning: Many of these sources include stigmatizing language and still come from a place of eugenics toward fat people.
Frederick, D. A., Saguy, A. C., Sandhu, G., & Mann, T. (2016). Effects of competing news media frames of weight on antifat stigma, beliefs about weight and support for obesity-related public policies. International Journal of Obesity, 40(3), 543–549.
Puhl, R., Peterson, J. L., & Luedicke, J. (2013). Fighting obesity or obese persons? Public perceptions of obesity-related health messages. International Journal of Obesity (2005), 37(6), 774–782.
Saguy, A. C., Frederick, D., & Gruys, K. (2014). Reporting risk, producing prejudice: How news reporting on obesity shapes attitudes about health risk, policy, and prejudice. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 111, 125–133.
Ragen Chastain is a speaker, writer, trained researcher, multi-certified health and fitness professional, and thought leader in weight science, weight stigma, and weight-neutral health. Ragen has spoken to diverse audiences from Amazon and Google to Kaiser Permanente. Author of the Weight and Healthcare newsletter, and co-author of the HAES Health Sheets, and editor of the anthology The Politics of Size, she has been published in outlets from US News & World Reports to ESPN. In her free time she is a triathlete, and marathoner who holds the Guinness World Record for Heaviest Woman to Complete a Marathon. Ragen lives in Los Angeles with her fiancée Julianne and their two adorable dogs. You can find her at WeightAndHealthcare.substack.com