PHOTO: AllGo – An App For Plus Size People
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
Fatphobia is the fear and hatred of fat bodies. It is related to the weight bias or weight stigma which means that we tend to see overweight or obese people as lazy, disgusting, or careless.
As Virgie Tovar, an anti-fatphobia activist, explains: “Fatphobia is a form of bigotry and a form of discrimination that says that people of higher weight are inferior physically, intellectually, morally and health-wise.”
Sometimes, fatphobia and fat-shaming are automatic in our culture and people might be even unaware of falling into the well-established convictions about what is good and what is bad in terms of the body, justifying judgements put on people whose bodies are not “normative”. Why?
We have been taught to believe that if we try hard enough, anything is possible and so is losing weight. So, an obese person is believed to be failing in trying hard enough and this failure is, for some people, a green light to judge them or “help” them to try harder.
Unfortunately, such convictions and therefore criticism of fat people that is camouflaged by “worry” about their weight, exposes obese people to daily psychological distress related to shame that further affects their self-esteem. It is very easy to assume that “something is wrong with me” if everyone else thinks so. And to even start believing these labels of “laziness”, “inferiority”, “carelessness”. And it definitely doesn´t help to break out of the patterns that lead to obesity, becoming a vicious cycle: I feel bad about being fat because it causes shame – I try to diet but I “fail” and my uselessness is confirmed.
Let´s talk about the harms of fatphobia.
It has been demonstrated in various studies that being fat might be a risk factor for many health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, reflux, arthritis, depression etc. But being obese is not a disease itself. On the contrary, other studies have proved that when it comes to mortality risk, fitness matters more than fatness. But doctors tend to prescribe “losing weight” as a universal cure to all medical problems that an obese persons has, causing in them guilt and shame.
It has been observed that doctors might tend to undertreat, overtreat or even misdiagnose patients in bigger bodies and because of this body-shaming, fat people are more likely to avoid medical care which might lead to the development of more advanced diseases and more difficulty in treatments.
Moreover, when doctors “prescribe” weight loss and physical activity, they don´t tend to take into consideration how the experience of fatphobia impacts their ability to be physically active in the first place. Going to the gym or putting on leggings or swimsuit is often related to the fear of judgement and harassment.
There is another very interesting question that many researchers haven´t taken into account: the increased risk for cardiovascular disease might also be due to the experience of living in that fat body, rather than the fat itself. A 2016 study found a significant association between a person’s experience of weight stigma and an increased incidence of heart disease, stomach ulcers, diabetes and high cholesterol, while other studies have shown that experiencing weight stigma consistently raises our cortisol levels.
Needless to say, fat people very often instead of enjoying their lives, live in the constant “stand-by” mode awaiting the moment of losing weight and starting to live. They fall into the trap of dieting, and they end up gaining more weight which perpetuates the stand-by mode that can easily evolve into depression.
And what happens if an overweight or obese person loses weight? Regardless of how they do it (e.g., by starving, vomiting, suffering, etc.), it is always met with positive reactions and judgements, only reinforcing the idea that “my value depends on my body weight”. Many adolescents and adults develop an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia but as long as a fat person loses weight, they are congratulated on that fact and the end justifies the means. As Tovar says: “Weight loss is always considered positive, no matter how it’s achieved. “You’ve lost weight!” seems innocuous, but it actually creates an uncomfortable sense that people are surveilling and judging your body.”
Body positivity is not about promoting obesity, we know that it is a risk factor for many somatic diseases. But it is about drawing people´s attention to the fact that discrimination is not a solution. Millions of dollars are spent annually on diets and fitness promotion and there are more and more obese people in the world. Something here is definitely not working. Anti-fatphobia movement is rather about promoting the idea that anyone, “even fat people”, can be happy in their body and that no one has the right to give judgements and advice on the bodies of others because all judgements are based on bigotry.
Barry, V. W., Baruth, M., Beets, M. W., Durstine, J. L., Liu, J., & Blair, S. N. (2014). Fitness vs. fatness on all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, 56(4), 382-390.