I love this video. It’s such a fantastic breakdown of how conversations about racism can derail, and how to keep them on track. These same scenarios can be true about a variety of oppressions: homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, and, with growing frequency, fatphobia.
Increasingly, the way we think about oppression in the US is as follows: “bigotry exists intentionally in individuals, and I do not intend to be bigoted, therefore I am not a bigot.” The problem with this logic? It acknowledges oppression in its smallest form, so that oppression in its larger, more nuanced forms can be denied or eschewed. On top of that, being “a homophobe,” “a racist,” “a bigot,” et cetera, is also narrowly defined—usually as whether or not you physically or verbally attack others on the basis of their identity.
This is not to say there isn’t a lot of individual oppression happening out there—there is. But to acknowledge that as a means to deny the experiences and needs of marginalized communities on a broader scale is a red herring. The reasoning goes like this: I don’t use homophobic slurs, so I’m not a homophobe. Homophobia exists intentionally in other people. Because I have acknowledged this, and proven that I am not a homophobe, all of my opinions are objectively true. Because I do not observe institutional homophobia, it therefore cannot exist.
I get a little sad typing that out. It’s shortsighted, but it’s really effective.
While many of us may recognize how oppression (and denial of oppression) operates within many communities, not all of us understand how that works with fat people. As with any system designed to exclude, shame or oppress people on the basis of shared characteristics or identities, it can be easy to assume that fatphobia only exists one-on-one, person-to-person. Not so. It’s a series of complex, interlocking systems designed to shame, silence and “correct” fat people.
Because discussions of fatphobia are new to many of us, we may not recognize it as a layered system of oppression. Plus, when we fail to recognize the ways in which fatphobia operates, it becomes difficult to recognize that it even exists, much less how to effectively interrupt it.
There are several levels of fatphobia. Among them: personal fatphobia, cultural fatphobia and institutional fatphobia. Let’s walk through what each of them look like in action.
This is where the conversation begins—and often where it ends. I’d define personal fatphobia as the ways in which fatphobia is perpetuated on a one-on-one, person-to-person basis. It’s important to note that personal fatphobia doesn’t need to be intentional. Regardless of what you meant by what you said or did, its impact remains the same. Some examples include:
- Policing what a fat person is eating, or telling them about their own health. Again, nobody knows more about diets, exercise, health and nutrition than fatties. Friends, family members, doctors, partners and even strangers on the street have freely suggested a million and one things that we can do to change our bodies. Many of us have tried them all. And for those of us who’ve decided to stop hating our bodies, policing what we eat is a harsh reminder that, within current social systems, we are prohibited from defining our own bodies.
- Shaming fat people for wearing “unflattering” clothing. See above. When I was in high school, my mother made a list of things I shouldn’t wear: cap sleeves, belts, skirts with hemlines above the knee, horizontal stripes, bright colors, drop waists, tank tops, pencil skirts. Needless to say, my mom-approved outfits looked like, well, something a mom would wear. The problem is that damn near every style guide and fashion magazine agrees that I should retreat to a life of caftans, muu-muus and graduation gowns. The implication here is that telling fat people what not to wear is doing us a favor, and allowing us to define how we want to be seen would cause us grievous harm. I heartily disagree.
- Giving unsolicited suggestions about weight loss “for our health.” This one’s problematic on a couple of fronts. First, as witnessed above, lots of fatties know a whole lot about losing weight. For real. Second, my health doesn’t require weight loss. Every physical I have shows that I’m healthy as a horse. Third, my health is nobody’s business. Seriously. Fourth, and perhaps most basically, the assumption underlying unsolicited weight loss suggestions is that we can all agree that my body is repulsive and abhorrent, and that I must hate it and desperately want to change it. Except that I don’t.
- Insisting that fat people are universally unattractive, or publicly refusing to date us. That one’s pretty basic, right? You don’t have to want to date us, but you don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, and you can’t speak for the whole rest of the world.
Again, personal fatphobia is a big challenge, and is where a lot of internalized fatphobia comes from. But personal fatphobia isn’t the whole picture.
I’d define cultural fatphobia as the norms, values and practices of a culture that devalue fat people, and value thin people as the norm.
A note on thinness: it does not, in and of itself, qualify someone as fitting into the beauty standard. Other determinants like race, ability, age, gender presentation and much, much more play into that. Plus, there is still some deep, longstanding pathologization (and simultaneous fetishization) of people—usually women—who are perceived to be “too thin.” As someone who has not ever been considered “too thin,” I can’t and won’t address that. When I say that a culture values “thin people” as the norm, I’m referring to the culture’s hegemonic values.
That said, here’s what cultural fatphobia looks like in action:
- Media images of fat people. We’ve all seen them. In the best cases, we’re jolly, fun, full of personality, and totally unsexed. In the worst cases, we’re slovenly, unhygienic, smelly, lazy, and morally corrupt. Either way, the roles we’re allowed to play are extremely limited. And an attractive, charismatic fatty? Perish the thought. Meanwhile, thin people (again, this is colored by many other characteristics & aspects of identity), can be anything. Not all thin people in movies, on TV, or in magazines are culturally defined as attractive, but damn near every person who’s culturally defined as attractive (and interesting, worthy, charismatic, etc) is thin.
- The myth that thinness has always been the beauty standard. Not so, y’all. Beauty standards are always, always, always defined by a time and place. They reflect the values, class politics, available resources and technologies, and historic context of the time and place they come from. Historically, fatness has, in varying times and places, been considered a sign of wealth, fertility, virtue and more.
Institutional fatphobia is arguably the farthest-reaching of them all. Institutional fatphobia can be defined as the ways in which institutions exclude, underserve and oppress fat people. Again, these institutionally fatphobic policies don’t need to be intended to exclude fat people—but they do disproportionately impact us. Examples:
- Changing BMI standards, and the consequent “Obesity Epidemic.” A lot has been written about this, including this and this, and I’m sure I can’t do it any better. But to give a quick recap, in a nutshell, the standards of the body mass index changed in the late 1990s, making 25 million people overweight or obese overnight. And, while nutrition, exercise and health are sorely under-addressed in the United States, to define that as an obesity epidemic is incredibly reductive, and it deflects attention from the way that classism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression play into body image, food availability, and more.
Concrete policies around nutrition, availability of food, and health education all break around lines of race, class and gender. Take schools, for example. People with more money are likelier to be able to attend smaller schools, where students get more individual attention and schools are likelier to provide fresher, more nutritious foods (ie, less mass-produced canned and processed foods). When we talk about fatness, though, it’s a two-dimensional conversation about reducing fat and calorie intake, rather than a multidimensional conversation about getting your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs. And it’s almost always a question of individuals at the expense of a conversation about policies. Ultimately, blaming fat people for a lack of willpower deflects from a much broader cultural conversation about nutrition, and reifies existing systems of oppression while making them invisible.
- Policies that require fat passengers to buy two seats on airplanes. Regardless of whether or not you think that fat people should have to buy an extra seat on an airplane, this policy inarguably excludes many fat people, especially those of us who can’t afford to find out at the gate that we need to drop an unexpected $400 on an additional plane ticket. (Sorry, poor fat people! No air travel for you.) Plus, the policy is decidedly punitive. It’s not designed to be equitable. It’s not designed to make fat people more comfortable. It’s designed, quite literally, to make fat people pay for their size, and the tone almost always steers the conversation toward a moral referendum on fatness.
what’s missing & what’s next
These lists and definitions aren’t complete and they aren’t meant to be. Fatphobia is dynamic, changing over time and adapting to the culture that produces it. So what’s missing from these lists? What kinds of personal, cultural and institutional fatphobia do you see at play?