Last year, Pre-pandemic, I flew to Dallas, Texas for a national queer conference. This was only my third time flying, and my second time taking a long distance trip. Two weeks before this trip, I combed through every possible scenario of what I could need during my travels. Feeling calm and prepared, I stepped into my flight and was approached by a flight attendant. Instead of greeting me like it was done with every other passenger, they asked if I would like one of their seat belt extenders. Once he explained that I looked like I needed one, he showed me to my seat and asked if the seat belt was “big enough” for me. Of all of the imaginable situations that my anxiety could have created, this actual conversation was worse.
Come to find out, after this flight attendant had drawn intense scrutiny over my weight, a seat belt extender was not necessary for my flight.
This was one of my worst nightmares, being called out and ostracized because of my appearance.
After having a day or two of processing my emotions, I began learning about the ways in which sizes are targeted within our society.
My first foray in this adventure was regarding seat belt extenders (of course). The average seat belt size varies based on the plane, as does the policies around extenders. The Federal Aviation Association has rules and regulations of extenders, which makes bringing personal extenders all the more challenging. This leads people to have to approach the airlines themselves about getting an extender for their seat. Some airlines charge for these extenders and some will require the purchase of another seat in order to maintain “safety”. Other airlines, such as ones in Australia, refuse to charge larger passengers for a second seat, while airlines in the United States and the United Kingdom have begun to adopt this extra charge.
This added charge is commonly known as “Fat Tax”: a colloquialism tied to higher prices that plus size individuals face. Fat Tax has recently become a bigger topic of conversation, as many feel that it will work to offset weight issues. This is a daft solution, as it causes intense inequality as well as discrimination within social settings.
This idea can be dangerous because it does little to address “health” and instead works to ostracize and shame individuals. The tax is meant to cause higher prices of items and foods that are considered unhealthy or needed for plus size individuals, in hopes that this added cost will encourage people to make “better choices”. This decision is very arbitrary and works to decrease the autonomy of individuals.
When looking at charging a fat tax for food, you are actually targeting a wider audience than is intended. The fat tax for food is supposed to be applied to foods that are high in fat, cholesterol, or sodium and increase the price so that individuals will be discouraged from spending that extra dough. In theory, this works off of the thought that the financial drain of eating unhealthy will cause people to begin eating better for them. This in turn creates a more classist issue, as fresh foods and foods that hold higher nutritional value are more expensive. This is because canned foods and foods with higher levels of preservatives last longer and can be transported and created easily. If an individual is on a strict budget due to a lack of substantial income, then they might not be able to afford those higher quality food items. Enforcing a fat tax on the cheaper items will cause an even higher percentage of food insecurity, because incomes will not be increased along with this tax.
Here in Mecklenburg county, we are facing immense issues when it comes to food security. There are many food deserts around the county that force families to supplement their diet with foods with less nutritional value. A food desert is an area where a large portion of residents do not have adequate access to a grocery store or marketplace. Residents within food deserts often have to rely on
gas stations and corner stores which are much more likely to contain pre-packaged foods that would be affected by the fat tax. Taxes of this nature would only ensure a more limited selection and even more gouged prices within food deserts.
Many supporters of the fat tax also do not address the ways in which this can affect the food system within the United States. The drive behind fat tax is to discourage the sales of unhealthy products, but there is no alternative plan for how to address supply and demand changes. By this assumption, there will be an increase in healthy product sales, but how will companies work to solve future shortages and surpluses as a result of this.
This financial issue is illustrated by Denmark. In 2011, Denmark introduced a fat tax that was an extension of its sugar tax and within a year, the country had to retract the policy. Some might cite the tax being problematic, but Denmark had to change this policy because of the financial drain on their economy. From a decrease in jobs and problems with the way that food companies operate. In that year, butter only saw a 37 cent increase, but pairing that with higher unemployment and economic uncertainty can create a larger financial ruin.
Not only can fat tax influence finances, it can also cause larger divisions in societal standings. Already there is a disdain for plus size individuals within popular culture (as can be seen with the controversy around Lizzo owning her body) and fat tax can create further "justification" for treating plus size people as less than. The tax perpetuates that stereotype that plus size people do this to themselves and therefore deserve this tax. There are a plethora of reasons for an individual being plus size and it's frankly no one else's business other than that person.
Though fat tax can create more bias and exclusion, the tax itself is not fully thought out to solve widespread issues. A UK study found that the tax must apply a 20% increase in order to actually have an effect, and even then, there must be subsidies placed on healthier food options to create a more equitable solution. To tackle this issue, there needs to be a better recognition that obesity and health issues have to be addressed as a public health issue, not a politically driven stance. Fat tax is divisive and we have seen an uptick on politicians weighing in, when this is not their area of expertise. much like vaccines, these solutions need to be driven by health experts instead of political campaigns.