Fatphobia: An Interrogation

What is fatphobia? I would define it as systematic, societal discrimination and prejudice against fat people, people in larger bodies, people who are regarded as ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’. I use those words in inverted commas because the ways in which those terms of defined are, to me, not particularly linked to anything other than profit.

I’ve been reading some excellent content about weight bias and the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement mostly via Instagram and also in Caroline Dooner’s The Fuck It Diet and Joshua Woolrich’s Food Isn’t Medicine as well as Tabitha Farrar’s recovery books (Love Fat!, Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover!). I would thoroughly recommend all three as well as the studies they link to, in particular, the HAES study which provides evidence that the long term effects of dieting do not ultimately lead to sustained weight loss and is actively detrimental to our bodies.

But to return to fatphobia – I think this is an under-discussed topic by the left for a number of reasons. Chiefly, most people don’t actually believe it’s a ‘thing’. A lot of people I’ve spoken to think, whilst people are rather mean about fat bodies, there is no systematic discrimination or oppression of fat people. This is incorrect – there are huge health disparities in terms of treatment and health outcomes of fat people due to active discrimination and medical neglect based on weight bias. There is also, in some countries like the US, a wage gap between those in smaller bodies and those in larger. These things can, of course, be linked to other factors such as poverty, race and gender but I don’t think they can be boiled down to this in all instances. It is another aspect of oppression which deserves its own liberatory politic.

Another reason I feel people are reluctant to discuss fatphobia is that is seen as an acceptable form of prejudice. Surely one’s own body size and health is something that can change and that we have some level of control over? Again, I think this is a part of the conservative ideology that one’s health is something that one has complete control over. That individuals are responsible for their own health and that weight is something that’s always within our control. This is categorically not that case. Our weight comes down to a complex mix of genetic, environmental and some lifestyle factors. The way in which we define ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ weights is not evidence based, rather it has been historically decided by the diet industry lobbies and insurance companies. These are all arguments discussed in the books I mention and worth educating ourselves on.

I went on a diet. I can’t say I’ve been a chronic dieter. My Mum tried to get me to diet with her once – something akin to the Atkins diet to get a ‘bikini body’, I think was how she put it. I immediately snubbed the idea because I was vegetarian and wanted to eat some fucking carbs. Something I find interesting about this framing, though, is the almost implicit recognition that the slimming down would be temporary. Diets are seasonal. They come after periods of feasting or before periods where we are likely to be displaying our bodies – readying them to be more socially acceptable and attractive.

I don’t think I ever understood that dieting doesn’t work – even if I might’ve read that somewhere on some ‘riots not diets’ feminist zine somewhere. Yet, whilst I was in the midst of my most restrictive eating, still somewhat pretending that I was simply ‘dieting’ my thought upon reading that ‘95% of diets don’t work’ was merely that I would just have to diet harder, I would just have to not go back to eating normally or lose enough weight that it ‘wouldn’t matter’ if I gained again.

Are people with eating disorders fatphobic? This is something that I find it difficult to answer. Did my desire to begin the diet that led to my disordered behaviours stem from some sort of desire for thinness that was rooted in fatphobic beliefs? I think there’s some truth to that. Do all anorexics hate fat people? I don’t think so; perhaps some but I certainly hold myself to a complete double standard. I believe others to be attractive when fat but not myself.

But also anorexia is pathological, it is a fear of gaining weight that has gone far beyond any sort of rationality or reason. Many people seem to complete the behaviours out of compulsion rather than an active desire to necessarily be thinner in the end. I think the idea that eating disorders arise out of some sort of failed vanity project is misogynistic nonsense. I think desire for thinness within our culture is entirely understandable, given the amount of pressure we are all under to pursue it. Bombarding women with messages around their need to be be thin and desirable and then treating them as idiots when they care about those things is deeply patriarchal. Even the message that men and non-binary people get about thinness, I think, arise from the same patriarchal, violent, gendered, racialised, fatphobic bullshit.

I feel it fair to point out that many, many people with eating disorders are not underweight, have never been underweight and may also be described as overweight. This is an issue I’ve seen discussed more and more recently and yet another example of extremely harmful discrimination and weight bias by the medical profession. I’ve heard stories of people behaving in far more extremely disordered ways than myself, people who struggled for years and years and never got help because they were considered overweight. (I would recommend the podcast Maintenance Phase for more on this).

It is understandable, then, that there are spaces created for fat people and that a lot of fat activists have some negative feelings about thin people in those spaces. My own feelings around this are complicated at the moment. I was fat. I don’t mean that in the body dysmorphic way I feel fat now – I mean, I was fat and experienced some discrimination because of it. I was told to lose weight by the doctor at my gender identity clinic if I ever hoped to have surgery. This is quite a routine thing, based on ignorance about anaesthetics and their effects on larger people. It’s a risk adverse position and, far as I can tell, not really based on any sound data. A lot of assumptions are made in the medical world out of, what I can only assume is a lack of time and desire to really drill down into what is being advised, whether it really bears out or is simply ‘routine’.

Fear of being fat can often be fear of the discrimination that is levelled at fat people. This is not unfounded. There are many ways in which one is treated better when in a thinner body. There are many ways that one is made to feel more or less desirable based on this. Desire is an interesting one and, I suspect, different for heterosexual and queer people.

The radical queer spaces I’ve existed in often profess to body positivity. I am in circles where there is at least some gesturing towards it. But still I noticed over the years, when I gained weight, that people did react to me differently, treat me differently, look at me differently. And I notice a change now, also, that I am thin. It’s likely not conscious for most people but there are bodies we have been taught are acceptable and it takes a lot to unlearn this.

Due to the fact that weight can change so much I think it can be difficult to categorise people’s lived experiences in a straight forward way – one rarely can, in any case. I would once have belonged in a space that is just for fat people to discuss their experiences. Yet I could hardly impress myself upon it now. It feels strange because I have suffered so much, every part of my thinness feels fake, extremely temporary, almost unreal. It was all so fast, though it felt painfully slow at the time. My brain hasn’t caught up, my sense of self has not caught up. It felt, at certain points, that giving up any compulsions would lead to me immediately becoming fat again, as I was before.

What we associate with being fat is often extremely negative. It comes to represent a lot more than simply fat stored on our bodies. It means something – it means failure, lack of discipline, lack of control, chaos, undesirability, lack of love, lack of care. We think nobody can love us that way. Perhaps because we secretly think these things about fat people ourselves, compare ourselves and think that, at least, we are better when we are thin. The illusion of control, of superiority. But of course, none of it is true. As stated, our body shape and size is not fully determined by our own actions, our own lifestyles and behaviours. There are many, many other ways in which this is determined but we cannot acknowledge this because to acknowledge this would be to accept a lack of control and power over our own bodies, our own circumstances.

Things that seem like choices often aren’t. Working class people, people in poverty have their choices around food and movement restricted every day by their material circumstances. The ‘choice’ of fast food, ready meals, less ‘nutritious’ food is not really that when this is the cheapest and most readily available, the thing that takes the least time, the thing that makes their kids happy, the easiest way to feel good for once. In the West this is why those in poverty tend to be in larger bodies and part of why fatphobia and the framing of an ‘obesity epidemic’ is almost always classist bullshit that doesn’t help anyone.

Why can I write all of this yet still feel I want to crawl out of my own skin when I feel I’ve gained any weight? I have been gaining weight, I have been doing a lot better in recovery than I ever have before. I haven’t relapsed or significantly restricted my food intake for a solid three weeks which is the longest I’ve ever gone. I haven’t done exercise properly for around two weeks even though every fibre of my being wanted to. So, yes, I have been gaining and having a lot of feelings about that. I’m hoping starting therapy soon will help me unpack this more. The NHS have assessed me but don’t seem to be in any rush to help – I’m doing most of this on my own, with help from partners and friends.

Fighting and understanding fatphobia, with regards your own body and the wider issues, is tough but important work. I invite myself and others to continue to interrogate, discuss and advocate on this issue. Stay curious, stay fighting. That’s what I intend to do.

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