Fatness and Health
By: Saruh Lacoff
In our society, as is the norm in many societies, we have come to equate health with being thin. Conversely, we equate fatness with “disease” and being unhealthy. This phenomena is called “fat phobia”. For decades, doctors have been citing scientific research that posits that being overweight, fat, or obese, is a medically unhealthy, if not dangerous condition. Ask any fat person you know, and they will likely have at least one story of a doctor dismissing a health concern as the need to lose weight. In some instances, they will have stories of a doctor misdiagnosing a potentially life-threatening condition because of their fatness. Many will likely have at least one story of a doctor telling them that the answer to all of their health problems is to lose weight. While doctors and scientists have operated with the understanding that "fat=unhealthy", studies have been demonstrating that this notion is untrue. With this new information, it is critical that we reexamine our personal and societal relationship to fatness and fat phobia in order to create a world where fatness is de-stigmatized and subsequently normalized.
De-stigmatizing and normalizing fatness enables people to live without judgment, scrutiny and shame. Many people will experience resistance to the idea of normalizing fatness because we have spent our entire lives learning that fat is bad, unhealthy, and unattractive. Many believe that doing so will normalize an “unhealthy lifestyle”. In some ways, we associate fatness with a threat to our survival. The threat of not being seen as attractive and thus not finding or maintaining a partnership due to fat phobia, the threat of difficulty finding a job due to biases in the work place, and thus the threat of poverty. Our resistance to accepting fatness is a defense mechanism against these survival fears. As was previously mentioned, there is no current science to back up the view points at the root of our societal fat phobia. The reality is that we have been sold a harmful, even deadly idea, by the diet industry, which profits off of our unhappiness and self-consciousness, and it is not rooted in scientific fact.
So, if we know there is no scientific foundation to the idea that fatness is unhealthy, it is imperative that we change our thinking, actions, and cultural relationship to fatness. As we all experience internalized fat phobia, the work we will have to do to change our behaviors and thought-processes will be very involved. In many cases, it will involve a gradual and complete overhaul of thoughts, actions and institutions. In spite of how daunting of a task this seems to be, it is imperative that we do the work to make the shift. Not only will it create a better quality of life (and liberation!) for fat people, but it will also have the same positive effects on the thin community. Thin people are also victims of fat phobia and the false beliefs we have toward fatness, because it creates pressure to remain thin. Thus, liberation for fat people is liberation for all shapes.
Being aware of the dangers of our unfounded beliefs and biases is only the first step in unlearning fat phobia. The next step is figuring out what we can do to shift ourselves and our society so that we stop harming fat people. Here are some examples of personal and institutional changes we can make to make the world less fat phobic, and subsequently, more fat-friendly.
Refrain from commenting on weight loss or weight gain. Oftentimes, we congratulate weight loss. Doing so perpetuates the idea that "thinness=good", and "fatness=bad".
Refrain from using fatness as a negative descriptor. Oftentimes, we use language around fatness to indicate laziness, ugliness, evilness, poor character and generally negative physicality. Doing so perpetuates the idea that fatness is disgusting, and a sign of poor character.
Refrain from policing your food and body. This is a harder one for us to wrap our heads around and fully embrace. Allowing yourself to gain weight without judgment is one of the hardest things we can do. Allow your weight to fluctuate without judgment and reactionary dieting.
Refrain from speaking negatively about your body to yourself and to young children. Children learn both positive and negative body associations from the adults in their lives. The less they hear fat phobic ideas, and the adults in their lives speaking negatively about their own bodies, the less they will internalize those beliefs about themselves.
Refrain from categorizing food as “good” and “bad”. There are no true definitions for “good” and “bad” foods. The science around what foods are "healthy" is ever-evolving, and makes categorization incorrect. Eating cake once a week is fine. Eating cake everyday is fine. Avoiding the notion that some foods are “bad” and to be avoided as much as possible goes a long way toward fat acceptance in our society.
Refrain from correcting fat people when they refer to themselves as fat. Fat is not an insult in the world we are trying to create. Fat is just a descriptor with no inherent negativity and positivity.
Refrain from disparaging your own weight gain, or perceived fatness. Referring to yourself as fat is not an insult inherently, but is insulting to people who are fat because of how it implies you view fatness.
Refrain from saying things like “I shouldn’t eat that”, “I’m being bad”, or “I’m rewarding myself” when referring to certain foods. The notion that certain foods are bad is rooted in the fear of fatness. Some alternatives are “I want to eat that”, “I am going to enjoy this cake!”, and “I love how this tastes”. Reframing your relationship and thus your language to “bad” foods helps de-stigmatize fatness.
Remember that large-bodied fat people experience greater oppression and marginalization than smaller fat people, and thin people. Although there can be stigma against all body types (even skinny bodies), it is critical to remember that the larger a person is, the more likely they are to be denied medical care, jobs, and other benefits that smaller folks take for granted. Everyone’s struggle is valid, but acknowledge where your privileges are, and where you fit on the spectrum of marginalization in order to be the best supporter of the movement that you can be.
Support doctors with fat-positive views and practices. Ask your doctor if they are aware of research indicating that being fat is not an inherent issue. Ask them their perspective on fatness and challenge their fat phobic perspectives and practices.
If you notice fat coworkers being treated differently, speak up. Let them know that you see what is happening and that you are committed to working with them to improve working conditions. Ask them what you can do to be of help, and when appropriate, bring up concerning behavior and practices to human resources.
Stop dieting. Diets are the creation of the weight loss industry, and scientific studies have shown time and again that they do not work. Recognize the political weight of divorcing oneself from the predatory diet industry. It is critical to undermine this industry and thus, eliminate it. Research has shown that children are beginning diets at younger and younger ages. For many children, diets begin before puberty, and can wreck havoc on the developing body and hormones. Putting the diet industry out of business is imperative if we are going to create a fat-inclusive future for ourselves and our children.
Understand where you fit in this movement, especially in relation to more marginalized bodies. Refrain from taking up space in the Body Positive Movement if you are not fat, a person of color, LGBTQ+, and/or differently-abled. While the body positive movement has been coopted by white, fit, cis-gender, heteronormative women, the movement was created to provide a platform for marginalized people and their bodies. In a world that does not positively represent the bodies of fat people, people of color, LGBTQ+, and differently-abled people, the body positive movement is a space created for that representation. While the phrase “body positivity” resonates with so many of us because of how we have all been conditioned to view our bodies as an enemy, the body positive movement was not, and is still not for non-marginalized identities. It is important not to take up space in movements that don’t belong to us. The self-love movement is a great alternative for those of us who do not fit the identities previously mentioned, but who want to celebrate the awesomeness of our identities. We all deserve to celebrate our bodies, and to divorce ourselves from the harmful institutions of fat phobia that affect everyone, but it is important to always think critically about where we take up space, and who may need certain spaces the most.
Amplify the representation and availability of fat content, products, art and people. It is one of the best ways to normalize fatness and create access to more resources for fat people. We have seen time and again the importance of representation of marginalized groups, and fat bodies are no exception.
Support movies, shows, music, visual art that treats fatness as normal and avoids fetishization and stereotyping.
Support brands that make clothing for large bodies. Encourage brands that don’t support size inclusion start expanding the sizes they offer.
Support media that does not stigmatize fatness, and call out problematic expressions of fatness where you witness them.
Follow the multitudes of body positive activists who have spent time and emotional energy educating the public about fatness and the intersections of oppression that fat people face. Not only is it educational, but celebratory. Following people who celebrate their fatness helps shift our own perspectives on fatness.
This essay is merely the tip of the ice berg when it comes to unlearning fat phobia. Unlearning fat phobia and embracing fat-positivity may likely be a lifelong process that is never finished. Regardless of how much work it will be, it is critical that we begin the work so that future generations don’t have to endure the marginalization and oppression that we have experienced in our lifetimes.
For more ideas on how to shift toward a fat-positive perspective, here are some great articles and social media accounts to check out.
51 Ways to Make the World Less Hostile to Fat People
Fat Bias Starts Early and Takes a Serious Toll