Challenging Anti-Fat Bias in Digital Spaces: A Journey Towards True Design Justice

May 15, 2024

This blog was written by Dr Aisha Sobey. It is based on her paper, Conceptualising Fatness in HCI: A Call for Fat Liberation, which was published on May 11, 2024, and presented asynchronously at CHI 2024.

In today’s digital age, not only does the design of digital systems shape our online interactions and experiences, but it also profoundly impacts our ‘real’ lives, and the distinction between real and digital existence is getting ever narrower. These systems have been shown to reflect and perpetuate societal biases, finding their way into the very fabric of our online experiences and reinforcing discrimination against marginalised communities.

One such bias that has profound consequences is anti-fat bias, which is deeply ingrained in society and has been evidenced across healthcarelegal systems, and employment, to name a few. Recently, Uber has been questioned over its use of a driver’s weight in its driver assignment algorithm. Yet, the roots of anti-fat bias can be traced back to the colonial project, serving to reinforce white fragility and superiority over marginalised groups. The historical constructions of thinness as an ideal, rooted in racialised and religious messaging, have evolved to prioritise aesthetics and control of bodies.

Additionally, metrics like the Body Mass Index (BMI) have been used to justify societal biases against fatness, perpetuating oppressive norms through healthcare. Metrics like the BMI serve to quantify and justify these biases, further marginalising people who do not fit into idealised standards.

In response, Fat activism and liberation movements, emerging from queer feminist circles since the 1960s, challenge the medicalisation of bodies and advocate for the emancipation of fat individuals from oppressive norms. These movements prioritise community-centred solutions and reject commercial interests like the diet industry. Online spaces, particularly social media, have become platforms for fat activism, fostering community and resistance against stigma.

Yet, such spaces, despite being platforms for fat activism, also expose fat individuals to abuse and shame, highlighting the urgent need to address anti-fat bias in the digital world. Research into digital anti-fat bias primarily stems from healthcare researchers and often frames “obesity” as a problem to be solved while questioning online abuse. This research, while valuable to highlight the problem, tends to overlook lived experiences, focusing instead on content analysis of online interactions through social media posts, leaving research into the lived experience of digital anti-fat bias, and the complexities of data, representation, and digital design, limited.

As such, within academic literature, there’s a notable gap in understanding the interaction between anti-fat bias and digital design. While some papers critique normative body standards and explore gender norms in online spaces, the majority either reinforce weight stigma through a default focus on weight tracking and loss, or overlook the complexities of weight and fatness entirely. This gap in understanding presents an opportunity for a transdisciplinary approach to advance Fat Liberation within Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

Design Justice is a design practice which centres normally marginalised communities and aims to infuse equity into the design of the systems. It is popularly employed within HCI studies and offers a pathway to counteract biases at the intersection of digital systems and society. However, Design Justice does not currently engage with anti-fat bias or fat liberation. I therefore suggest that fields like HCI and, specifically, Design Justice could benefit from incorporating the perspectives of fat communities to enhance disciplinary diversity and inclusive practice.

In my paper, Conceptualising Fatness in HCI: A Call for Fat Liberation, I set out the intersecting areas of possible research and space for fat liberation to propose a research agenda to identify and address anti-fat bias within digital systems based on a review of all current HCI work in the ACM Library which incorporates body weight as an area of study or intervention.

Largely, the works assessed, focussed on behaviour change and health technologies, with a significant overlap with papers studying behaviour change for weight loss, justified through a healthcare lens. This complicity of HCI as a field of research with anti-fat messaging is concerning but offers a space for more just design.

I suggest strategies for fat liberation in HCI, such as:

  • Incorporating fat voices into the design process,
  • Disentangling health from fatness in design practices and removing the BMI as a valid health metric
  • Promoting expansive design to accommodate diverse user needs.

Ultimately, anti-fat bias is a social problem that cannot simply be designed out of existence. Combating anti-fat bias in digital spaces will require a concerted effort from researchers, designers, and activists alike. Yet, there are practical ways of designing that do not assume the status quo is correct. Through a transdisciplinary approach rooted in Fat Liberation principles, we can pave the way for a more just and inclusive digital world.