On Fatphobia

Let’s talk about Fatphobia.

Fatphobia is the reason why — for many people — saying “I feel fat” is the same as saying “I feel depressed” or “I feel insecure and anxious.”

For the record, “fatness” is not the same as depression or insecurity or anxiety.

“Fatness” isn’t an emotion. It’s a description of a physical reality. All of us have some quantity of this physical substance — adipose tissue — on our bodies. We might have a lot or a little, relative to the rest of the population.

Being “thin” or “fat” is not inherently good or bad. Those words are descriptors. Just like “brunette” or “blond” or “tall” or “short.” Most of us don't say "I'm feeling so brunette right now" and expect people to understand that we are upset.

And yet, almost every woman I know lives in fear of being “fat.”
Even those really enlightened, fabulous, smart women who know that beauty standards for women are unreasonable.

On it’s most basic level, that is fatphobia. Many — potentially most — of us are afraid of becoming fat or staying fat. We don’t like or want fatness.

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that you didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be unfair or mean towards people who have more adipose tissue. Most of us want to be kind towards ourselves and others.

In general, we feel negatively towards fatness because of the society we live in (not all societies feel this way — here's one drastic example). Fatness is one of the last remaining ways in which it is socially acceptable to judge and discriminate against people.

To give just a few examples from one metastudy on weight bias:

  • 28% of teachers in one study said that “becoming obese is the worst thing that can happen to a person.”
  • 24% of nurses said that they were “repulsed” by obese people.
  • Parents provide less college support for their “overweight” children than for their thin children, even after controlling for income and grades.

It’s not just people in the largest bodies who suffer. Another study found that, all other things being equal, a woman who is average weight earns $389,300 less across a 25-year career than a woman who is 25 pounds below average weight.

Though women of all body sizes face a financial penalty for any weight gained, the study found that very thin women actually faced the greatest per pound penalty for their first few pounds of weight gain. The researchers hypothesize that because society so richly rewards women who conform to the unrealistic female standard of thinness, it also “mete[s] out the stiffest punishments for the initial “rebellion” from this standard.”

In other words, gaining any quantity of fat is literally costly for women.

Even writing about these studies makes me feel sad and frustrated. Do you feel that way, too?

Fatphobia is a social justice issue, and there are many activists now working towards a world where all bodies are equally respected and have equal access to opportunities — a movement that is alternately called fat acceptance, fat liberation, fat positivity, body positivity, or body liberation.

I can’t fully do these movements justice in this piece, but I think it’s important to mention for two reasons:

  1. If you struggle with your eating, a conscious or subconscious fear of fatness is likely contributing to your struggle.
  2. Your “body image issues” are not only a personal issue, they also exist within a larger social context. No matter how much inner work you do, if we continue to live in a fatphobic world, accepting and making peace with our bodies will be harder.

This is a deep, complex issue. And on one hand, that’s a bummer — this stuff goes so deep!

On the other hand, I hope it gives you hope that it’s not just you. If you are struggling, it is also because of factors beyond your control. But by getting aware and hopefully vocal, you can help  contribute to progress.

Here's a small challenge for you: The next time you think, man, I'd love to lose some weight, ask yourself: "Would I feel this way if I lived in Mauritania?"