Fatphobia: A Guide for the Disbeliever
First, a little bit about me. I'm an American who has lived on one coast or the other, who has spent extended time in Poland and in London. I've been familiar with fatphobia my whole life, as my mother is fat, my grandmother is fat, and I became fat during my teenage years due to a combination of medication and genetics. I'm larger than the "average" size, which as of 2013 was about a size 14. I'm a size 24 US, size 22 UK. I eat about 1800 calories a day, snack on nuts and rice cakes, have a green smoothie a day, work out twice a week, and am reasonably active. I have mostly cut dairy out of my diet, never eat beef, and am about 50% gluten free.
I get at least 20-30 comments a week on average telling me that my fatness means I must be inactive, eat poorly, and am unhealthy. When someone wants to insult me, the first thing they turn to is my weight. The contents of my grocery basket is analyzed by people I don't know when I go to the store and I regularly receive diet advice I haven't asked for. I have had my ass grabbed, my stomach touched, and my arms pinched by strangers commenting on my weight.
And it's not just civilians - when I go to my GP, they often tell me that while my heart is healthy, my cholesterol is perfect, and my risk for diabetes is low, any health complaint I have is due solely to being fat. I have never gotten treatment for severe back pain or my knee ligament injury. I've had people working at clothing stores ridicule my body. I've had police officers taunt me when trying to make a report as a victim of a crime. I've been threatened with rape, assault, and murder *for being fat*.
This is why when I saw this piece by Carolyn Hall on Thought Catalog (and worse, the comments when someone posted it) I knew I had to explain why the Fat Acceptance Movement is a thing that exists, and why it's important. I mean, stories like Lindsey Averill's about the phone calls and death threats she received for doing a fat documentary should be more than enough proof, but just in case you're still dubious.
It's impossible to talk about obesity without also talking about poverty. Anyone who has lived in poverty can tell you that when shopping for a limited budget, it's cheap, nutritious, and quick - pick two. America loves processed food - it makes up 70% of our diet, more than pretty much any other country in the world. If you want proof of how shitty processed food is for health? Compare Britain during rationing with Britain after it. Many foods and drinks contain high fructose corn syrup, a cheaper alternative to other sweeteners. We are obsessed with weight, yet our cultural eating habits encourage eating junk, and often. Schools don't want to provide healthy food options, because they're expensive and take more time to prepare than frozen pizza. We have food deserts all over the place, where the closest thing to a local grocery store is a 7-11 (and yes, that's more processed food and sodas).
Yet we also have extreme body dysmorphia. We hate anorexic models, but consider women with dress sizes *below the national average* to be "plus size". We eroticize extreme skinniness. We accept fatphobia as "deserved". Fat people don't get employed because of stigma and beliefs that fat people are stupid, lazy or dirty. Fat women are told we're animals (pigs, cows, heifers), while fat men are insulted for having "feminine" bodies. This is a real health campaign. We aren't even allowed to have faces when articles are written about us, dehumanizing us entirely.
How can you look at that and say America is extremely accepting of fat? Even more interesting, access to healthy food isn't the only contributor to fatness, yet it's the one we focus most on.
2. The medical industry regularly risks fat people's health by refusing to take health issues seriously
Many fat people refuse to go to medical professionals because their doctors answer every medical concern with "lose weight", whether or not that's appropriate. We are often not asked about our eating habits or how active we are, but are told that everything we suffer is due to our lack of self-discipline. Our doctors humiliate us, insult us, exhibit disgust. We run incredible risks when our GPs don't listen to our complaints: cancer goes ignored, ligament issues worsen and give us early arthritis, we're told to stick to diets that almost kill us.
Also notable? We still use BMI as a yardstick for health, and penalize people who are deemed unhealthy by it, even when that's clearly wrong. We ignore the fact that the mathematician who invented the BMI formula (in the late 19th century, mind, when we were still eating lead) said that using it to measure fatness was a stupid idea. Somehow society calls this "looking after our health", despite proof to the contrary.
3. Despite the fact there's more women over size 12 than not, clothing retailers refuse to cater to plus sizes
When I lived in London, I could find clothes that fit my body in a good number of high street shops. Not all, certainly, but many. I didn't feel too limited in my options, and I could buy tights, trendy clothes, and lingerie that looked cute as well as fitting me comfortably (and without spending a lot of money). It was the first time I didn't have to choose between dressing like a Goth and dressing like a 40 year old soccer mom.
Imagine my surprise when I came back to the US only to find companies like H&M, who served me so well in the UK, didn't carry clothes in my size in the US. Lots of clothing companies have been getting shit for fatphobia, from Abercrombie and Fitch to American Apparel to Lululemon. It doesn't matter that we're a, well, huge market - companies see making clothes for fat people as "bad for (their) image". It's apparently worse to have fat people wearing your clothes than it is to get bad PR for shaming fat people.
It's pretty clear that "fat" is also seen as related to class as well as race. Many of these companies are pretty invested in a slender, middle class, white average consumer... despite the fact that niche markets are expanding over in the UK, and size 16 mannequins are being introduced. This is another example of how the US is actively hostile towards fat people.
4. Fat people are considered fair game for humiliation...including by professionals
As a fat person you're insulted pretty regularly. This image with the cop is just one example. There's the tanning salon who refused fat people service. There's the pedicurist who refused a fat woman service. Some restaurants are considering refusing service to fat people. Teachers shame fat kids.
Airlines are particularly savage, however, even as they try to cram more people onto a flight. I've been terrified of being singled out in front of the rest of the plane and told I have to buy another seat (something apparently they don't do in Canada, where a doctor's note can get you a second seat shame free.)
Good luck with that note, though, considering doctors might refuse you for being fat, too.
5. The belief that "personal preference" exists above and beyond cultural norms is ignorant
First, let me show you these graphs which suggest what the average BMIs are around the world. Then let's add in that in some cultures being fat is seen as attractive. And let's add in how beauty is often defined by wealthy white standards, creating unrealistic expectations for, well, everyone else. Finally, how about the fact that as we culturally began to freak out about fat... we got fatter? How did that work?
Anyway, it seems pretty clear that "personal preference" is related more to cultural norms than to some biological urge. And this manifests in how we date, how we're received, and how people treat our partners. It even manifests in our attraction to other fat people. This is a cultural construct. And it's not even a consistent one here- look at these exotic dancers! There's a reason why my article on having fat sex is the most popular one on my blog.
Fat people are treated as fetish objects (there's a whole adult market around us) and yet we're told we're completely undesirable. I mean FFS the woman who was asked to cast/perform in "The Guide to Wicked Sex: Plus Size" has said multiple times about how there are "good" fat bodies and "bad" fat bodies. It's a fucking land mine, and no, it's not so easily blown off as "personal preference".
In short? Fatphobia is real, and fat acceptance/HAES is seriously needed. I guess you're pretty lucky, Carolyn Hall, to not have experienced the myriad acts of institutionalized oppression placed on fat bodies, so that you can just "not get it". I at least hope you try to learn a little bit from people whose lives are affected by this every day.
Photos to illustrate that it's perfectly possible to be fat, fabulous, and fierce. Fuck anyone who tells you differently.
More from health