I recently had a conversation with my client, who we’ll call Joanna, about fatphobia.
Joanna is a very thin, white, blonde, and conventionally attractive cisgender woman (facts which will become important in a moment), who came to me to work to overcome her anxiety and obsession with food and exercise, as well as her super-negative feelings about her own weight, shape, and appearance.
Having been working together for a couple of weeks to untangle and understand where her specific obsession and insecurities were coming from, we started talking about how we become conditioned to believe fat is bad in a culture where fatphobia and thin supremacy biases are the norm.
When I mentioned the word “fatphobia,” Joanna immediately burst out: “Yes OMG that’s me, I’m fatphobic!”
Technically she’s right of course, especially if we look at the “phobia” part of the word as personal and literal, as if it simply means “the fear of getting fat.”
Having bought into the idea that fat is bad and ugly, while thin is good and beautiful, Joanna is constantly terrified to eat too much, or the wrong things, because nothing scares her more than the idea of gaining weight. She’s terrified to have babies in case she puts on weight she can’t lose after. She’s terrified to take a day off from exercise, or travel, or even go out to restaurants, because she feels like she needs to control absolutely everything in an effort to avoid gaining weight.
There’s so much fear that calling this a phobia probably isn’t much of a stretch.
But the thing is, the word fatphobia doesn’t just mean “fear of fatness.” It’s a term for the system of culturally supported discrimination and marginalization of fat people, more like the word homophobia than arachnophobia.
Instead of simply being an extreme irrational fear of fatness, “fatphobia” refers to a prejudice against fat people.
Think about how “homophobia” isn’t just the fear of being/becoming gay, it’s a bias against gay people– both the fear of, or dislike/hatred for, gayness and gay people, and/or a belief that gay people are inferior, bad, or wrong.
Fatphobia is the same thing: it’s both the fear of, or dislike/hatred for fatness and fat people, and/or a belief that fat people are inferior, bad, or wrong.
It’s important to make this linguistic distinction, because a collective social prejudice against fat people upholds fatphobic policies and fatphobic systems, leading to discrimination, marginalization, a lack of accessibility, worse health outcomes, and inequality for people in larger bodies.
After briefly talking through this all to Joanna, she responded that she didn’t think she was fatphobic toward other people, only toward herself.
I thought that was interesting. On the one hand, I know she has a huge compassionate heart and would never judge other people like she judges herself. But on the other hand, how can you think gaining weight would be the worst thing that could ever happen to you, and still feel neutrally about fat people?
Is it possible to think you’d be less worthy of respect, happiness, and confidence if you gained weight without also thinking other people are less worthy of respect, happiness, and confidence because they live in larger bodies? Is it possible for such prejudices to be purely personal, without also being social and political?
I’m inclined to think not. Even if a person could truly not judge others for the thing they hate and fear in themselves, I believe their fatphobia still ends up affecting others and upholding systems of discrimination and oppression.
For example, I’ve worked with many clients who identify as fat, and tell me that their thinner friends often talk about diets, complain about the size of their bodies, and use language like “I feel fat” around them. Even though these conversations are intended to be personal, with the smaller-bodied speaker only saying that her own body/weight is unacceptable, such conversations often make the larger-bodied people nearby feel judged, shamed, uncomfortable, disrespected, and even attacked.
I said this to Joanna, that while she may think other people’s bodies are perfect, speaking badly of her own body around them might have this effect, especially since Joanna is quite thin and conventionally beautiful. After all, saying “ugh I feel so fat and gross today” is akin to saying “anyone my size or bigger is fat, and being fat is gross and shameful.”
It’s kind of like if a gay person said “it’s fine for other people to be gay, but personally I feel disgusted and ashamed of my own sick sexuality.”
People get the message, even if you’re not intending to send it.
This is why I never approach body image issues without also approaching systems of oppression. We all learn implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) messages about what kinds of bodies are more and less worthy of respect, equality, rights, safety, health, and opportunities, based on how it looks.
We already know this system of prejudice and oppression exists in terms of race and gender. But it can be especially hard to see when it comes to weight.
Just because it’s hard to see doesn’t mean it’s not there, though.
If a thin person spends their life obsessively dieting and exercising to avoid getting fat, they are essentially a walking anti-fatness billboard, which contributes (if accidentally) to upholding a bias of “thin supremacy.” This in turn upholds the anti-fat bias, and all the systems of discrimination and marginalization that come with it.
I don’t believe it’s possible to be fatphobic within yourself without contributing to fatphobia in society, just like I don’t believe it’s possible to be homophobic within yourself without contributing to homophobia in society.
That said, nobody wants to believe they’re hurting other people, especially if it’s on accident! So while upholding a system of oppression is exactly that– hurting people– we must have the courage to own the ways in which we contribute to it, and the self-compassion to recognize that our internalized fatphobia doesn’t make us bad people.
It just makes us a product of fatphobia programming. (Which means it’s something we can also reprogram ourselves for with time, effort, courage, self-examination, and education!)
You might not be aware of the effect your internalized anti-fatness has on the world around you, but no matter how self-contained you feel it to be, it’s existence helps uphold a system of violence, discrimination, and inequality.
With curiosity and compassion,
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