There are pivotal moments in our lives when we discover how the world sees us, and whether or not we have value in said world. From race to gender, we learn early on, often in childhood, of the hierarchies that exist in the labels bestowed on us.
For me, a series of experiences shaped my relationship to my own body well into adulthood. Casually reckless comments. Looks of disgust toward certain bodies. Movies and TV shows always making fat people the butt of a joke.
One memory: I was in second grade, on the playground, minding my own business. The fourth grader who always made it a point to insult me for no apparent reason, pointed at me while telling two other boys, “She’s fat. Look at how her stomach pokes out.”
I remember grabbing my stomach and saying no I’m not, before running back to the jungle gym with my friends.
The thing about internalized body hatred is that it’s never one moment, it’s the repetition of moments that trigger the same feelings over and over again. The fat comment from a kid on the playground. That Auntie at Thanksgiving telling you to lose weight. Or the high school crush who tells you “I don’t date fat girls.”
Fatphobia, like racism or ableism, is something we are socialized into. Except unlike the aforementioned, hating fat people is often more acceptable. In fact, some folks consider it a moral stance against “unhealthiness.”
The Boston Medical Center defines fat phobia as “the implicit and explicit bias of overweight individuals that is rooted in a sense of blame and presumed moral failing.” This bias impacts every facet of our existence, whether you are fat or not.
We live in a culture where the fear of gaining weight looms over us. In the late 70s, SlimFast made its market debut. Then there was Jenny Craig in the 80s. And of course, the 2010s when we saw the rise of Flat Tummy Tea, marketed to us by Instagram models usually with surgically modified bodies. These are just a few of the ways fat hatred has been normalized.
While some may regard phrases like “body positivity” and “fat liberation” as a new age trend, folks have been advocating for the rights to exist in their bodies as far back as the 60s. In 1967, 500 people in New York City met up in Central Park to protest bias against fat people. This growing movement would lead to the founding of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). Additionally, the Fat Underground was a LA based collective founded in the 1970s that was heavily influenced by second wave feminist and gay activists.
It was just as controversial then as it is now to advocate for fat acceptance. Because we have been taught to believe that being fat is the worst thing you could possibly be, the affirmation of fat bodies can be triggering. Social Justice activist and author of Fat Girls in Black Bodies, Joy Cox emphasizes this during our conversation.
“I think oftentimes the moment people hear the term fat, there’s a shrinking back about the term and that’s because of the connotation that the term holds. So, when we talk about fat liberation, and we talk about fat acceptance, everybody tends to jump to this idea that we are glorifying, quote, unquote, obesity.”
If anything, fat acceptance promotes the safety, livelihood and physical health of fat folks.
It’s not being fat that makes folks unhealthy, it’s the fact that people are denied quality healthcare simply on the basis of being fat. Weight-based medical discrimination ranges from demeaning comments from healthcare professionals as well as neglect from assessing other causes for health issues besides weight. These experiences deter folks from seeking medical assistance, even when they desperately need it.
But these biases don’t just exist in healthcare, they impact one’s ability to gain employment, which in turn impacts housing, access to food and the ability to literally stay alive. Has history taught us nothing about what this type of marginalization can lead to?
While racism is not as acceptable as it used to be, it is still very much an issue. Ironically, though, fatphobia could not exist without it.
The very foundation of fat hatred is anchored in a deeply anti-Black history.
In her book, Fearing the Black Body, Sabrina Springs takes a deep dive into the racial origins of fatphobia. During early colonialism, it was not just race that determined what bodies were deemed “desirable,” Europeans’ observation of Africans deemed their large bodies as proof of their inferiority, and thus, justified their enslavement. Springs gets to the heart of this in an NPR interview, “...French philosophers in particular were arguing that...’You know what? When we’re in the colonies, we’re noticing that Africans are sensuous. They love sex, and they love food. And for this reason, they tend to be too fat. Europeans, we have rational self-control. This is what makes us the premier race of the world.’”
Spring’s analysis on the historical roots of fatphobia have greatly impacted current-day fat liberation movements. And it is one reason some folks have shifted from body positivity to fat liberation as part of their work against fat stigma.
In 2023, fat activists are still trying to get people to understand that fatphobia is not only an intersectional issue – it’s hurting all of us. Mikey Mercedes, a Fat liberationist shares why Fat Liberation is important.
“I think the primary [reason] is that somebody’s fatness should not deem the life they live in society. . .whether or not somebody is fat should not impact their broader movement through the world. It shouldn’t impact the opportunities they have. . . the respect or disrespect they’re given by others. And ultimately, it’s the assertion that fat people have value as people, and thus they should be afforded the same ethical treatment that others are afforded.”
The fact of the matter is, as Mercedes mentions, everyone is aware of how fat people are regarded in society. This adds pressure, even to thin and straight-sized folks, to avoid fatness by all means.
On the flip side, sometimes well-meaning body positive advocates exacerbate fatphobia by decentering those who are most impacted by it. Cox references a very common criticism of the body positivity movement. And it is a justified one.
“I think some of it is the history, the historical connection to body positivity, and how body positivity came to be. And so when you think about the ways in which body positivity as a movement has been kind of usurped by smaller body women, able-bodied women, individuals, you start to feel like you don’t have space [or] room to even occupy the space that you created, the space that you helped build.”
This hi-jacking of the movement by non-fat folks manifests in other ways as well. We can see it in the marketing shift of places that carry “plus size” clothing. A quick scroll through their models reveals that they all seem to have the same Coke-bottle figure. And typically fall between a size 14-16, which is a much easier size to find in stores than say a size 24-26.
As I mentioned in my piece New Year, Same Body, weight stigma is bad for both your physical and emotional health. 2022 saw a global increase in the prevalence of eating disorders. Additionally, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Due to medical racism, Black folks and other marginalized groups with eating disorders are less likely to be diagnosed, and this only further validates the stereotype that eating disorders only impact thin white women.
So where do we go from here? Well, Cox has an answer for that, and I agree: let people be fat in peace:
“I often talk about what it means to ‘fat’ in peace. . . To live this life in my body and be at peace with my body, because that’s something that can be done internally, but also in relation to the spaces that are occupied. And I think that’s where the fight is. . .But when we start talking about how your body operates in relation to the things that are outside of your control. . .that’s when we [get] issues of racism in medical institutions [or] not being able to find proper clothes to wear and furniture that’s going to support you...”
But how do fat folks come to a sense of peace with themselves or at the very least move towards centering fat liberation in their own lives? Mercedes encourages finding community among other fat folks:
“Fatphobia depends on keeping fat people isolated. . . that’s one of the ways that you deprive people of [their] collective power. If you make people feel weak, then they are weak. And so not feeling weak because you have people on your side, and you understand your worth. It is one of the things that Fat activism has given me that I am so grateful for.”
However, before we join or build these communities of fat folks, we have to attend to our own internalized fatphobia. Cox shares, from personal experience, ways we can do that internal work.
“The steps that I took towards fat liberation and fat acceptance were really investigating a lot of the thoughts that I had about myself. . . I would stand in the mirror. If I had on an outfit, [and] I don’t like where my knee starts and runs to my leg. I asked myself, why don’t you like it? ‘Well, because somebody said my legs look like tree trunks,’ but are your legs tree trunks? ‘No, my legs are not tree trunks.’ So, what’s the problem? And from doing that type of work with myself, I was able to pull out the lie [and] throw it away.”
Unpacking your relationship to fatphobia, whether you are fat or not, also means interrogating the ways you engage in anti-Blackness, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. Fatphobia is an intersectional issue, and Black, queer and disabled folks carry the brunt of that burden.
Who taught you that fatness was bad? Why do you believe fat folks inherently hold less value than everyone else? And most importantly, if applicable, ask yourself if you belong in fat people’s business.
For myself, I try to shut down any negative self-talk about my body. On the days I feel most insecure, I thank my body for carrying me in spite of that. But what has been the most impactful are the fat queer folks and women I share a community with who vigorously challenged me on internalized fatphobia. It wasn’t until a friend bluntly asked me, “Would you call me fat and disgusting?” that the cruelty of it all really hit me.
And that has stayed with me, a reminder to myself that how I treat my fat body impacts how I treat other fat bodies, especially the fat bodies of those I love. This is what fat liberation calls us to do. Create a world where all bodies, especially our own fat bodies, are treated with care and dignity.