The Fear of Fat
Nearly everyone will tell us that fat is bad. From highly trained medical professionals to friends and relatives, we hear accusations and intimations of laziness, gluttony, poor health, and irresponsibility. Fat is an epidemic, and anyone who is fat is a burden on society.
These people are wrong. If you think these things about fat people, you’re incorrect. If you think these things about yourself, it’s time to stop.
I am fat by any standard. I’m 5’9″ ish and somewhere between 240 and 250lbs (I don’t weigh myself generally, but I was 243 at my last doctor’s appointment). My weight and size has been an issue since I was a girl. My mother had to remove the scale from our house because I was weighing myself every day, often more than once. I was not a fat kid, nor was I a fat teenager. I fluctuated but never crossed the line into “fat”. Despite this truth, I once shattered a mirror because I despised my reflection. I obsessed over food in myriad ways, usually by controlling what kinds of food I was “allowed” to eat. My uncle used to tease me for being too skinny. In high school, I was once described as being “husky” and that’s why it was surprising that I was voted School President. After I broke up with my very first real boyfriend, I lost a bunch of weight as I starved with a broken heart…and was complimented for it. A boy I liked told me I was a little chubby when I was wearing a bikini. The list, and the contradiction, goes on. One consistency was always receiving positive attention when someone perceived me as not-fat. As an approval seeking girl, I got hooked on the praise.
Now, after a pregnancy and a severe depressive episode, I am living in a body that doesn’t feel like mine. Thinness, and all the identity that went with it, is gone. So I find myself wondering who I am and where I belong. Because my identity is/was so wrapped up in being not-fat, I feel stripped of any identity. I have to make a new one.
All the things that were there before fat are still there. My friends and family still love me, I’m good at the things I do, and I have a strong moral compass. But when fat came along, I abandoned the tenuous grasp I had on self love, and began to self-loathe instead. Every fat negative message was running through my head in a relentless loop.
I AM LAZY. I AM IRRESPONSIBLE. I AM UGLY. I AM UNLIKEABLE. I AM A FAILURE. I AM A BAD PERSON.
Over and over and over in my waking and dreaming life, I am not worthy.
It turns out, none of that is true. The turning point came when I stumbled upon The Fat Heffalump. She’s fat, unapologetic, and fights fat hate everywhere. She intimidates the hell out of me and she changed my opinions…of myself, of fat, of other fat people.
Fat kills, but not in the way you think. The fat/disease correlation is crumbling under scrutiny in the medical community, yet ”If left untreated, a [fat*] person is at pronounced risk of developing serious mental disorders, such as depression, personality disorders, or anxiety disorders [...]. For many, [fat] leads to chronic and often life-threatening eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa. Feelings of shame and a profound sense of isolation often accompany obesity“. Fat is not fatal – despite what we’ve been told – but fat shaming, and the fear of fat, is.
Regardless of the thin veil of “concern for health” that hides what is actually fat prejudice, fat people are just people, and it’s NOT OKAY to segregate us. We have to shop in different stores, we are expected to eat differently in public, we are expected to wear certain clothes, do certain activities, and in general, always apologize for our fatness. Disagree? Then imagine a thin person eating fast food, wearing a shirt one size too small, suntanning in a bathing suit…now imaging a fat person doing these things. There is a double standard, and if you try to tell me you don’t hold fat people to a different set of rules, you’re probably lying. Not necessarily out of maliciousness, but because social conditioning tells us to. Despite my conscious decision to reverse and eliminate all the wiring in my brain that tells me fat is inherently bad, I often stumble across bias so ingrained in my own thinking, it looks like truth.
I know a lot of people who think it’s funny to make fun of fat. We provide endless fodder for criticism, snark, and jokes. It is not only socially acceptable, it is encouraged. Billboards shaming fat kids, news reels with decapitated fat bodies, hate pages on social media platforms, constant advertising for weight loss. Even so called “harmless” jokes comparing something to fatness makes it funnier. The message is that fat people are not only less acceptable, but that it’s a state of being that will force you to the parameters of society. Fatties not included.
It’s very difficult to find positive images of larger people despite the fact that “metabolically healthy obese individuals are part of the normal variation of human heights and weights“. I am never the heroine, the love interest, the example, the role-model in movies, books, TV (save for a scant few). I am the villain, the comic relief, the project, the loser. I am learning to handle this, to not take it personally, but only after 35 years of the opposite. Only after reading endless articles, finding writers and other fat activists, watching videos of fat people fighting back. Only after finding new role models and heroes do I feel strong enough, worthy enough, to recognize and call out the constant barrage of negative messages.
But what about all the women (and men) who don’t find what I have found? There’s more of them than me. The women who contemplate suicide because of fat. The people willing to trade a limb or 5 years of life for thinness? The children, especially, but not exclusively, girls who have no counterpoint? We are raising a generation of kids who do not like themselves if they exist outside the definition of acceptable size. And I can tell you right now that shaming people into changing does not work. Can anyone here give me examples of how making people feel terrible about themselves results in happy endings?
You can tell me “it’s about health” but I know differently. Thin people don’t get hounded and questioned about their health. You can tell me it’s about the cost of healthcare, but it’s a lie. Elderly folk and pregnant women don’t get reminded that they cost hospitals an ass tonne of money. You can even try to convince me it’s about self-love, but why do I have to be thin to love myself? How is being fat a symptom of me not loving myself?
I can’t change the minds of people determined to promote the fear of fat, and this is not really my point here. What I really want to do is maybe, just maybe, create a little hope in anyone who has become the target of suffocating stigma. This applies to all bodies.
In short, to quote Lezley Kinzel:
- You can’t tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them.
- You can’t tell how much someone eats or exercises just by looking at them.
- Even if you could, it’s none of your business anyway.
The body of any fat person (or thin person, or in between person) is not your business.
If you think making fun of or criticizing a fat body is acceptable, REGARDLESS OF YOUR INTENT, you’re being a jerk.
To exclude, alienate, isolate, or otherwise segregate people who are different, says more about the person creating the boundaries than the person outside of them.
I am under no obligation to use my body in a way that pleases other people, and neither are you. We don’t need permission or approval to live in our skin, no matter how much it covers. I am taking my body back.
*I prefer the word “fat” over words like “obese” because the latter pathologizes fat which in turn, reinforces that fat is a disease…but it’s not.