the racist roots of fatphobia

content warning: eating disorders and sexual abuse
reach out for support here

thank you for all the love and support for my first two posts- I felt really happy hearing all the positive feedback, but also saddened that so many of you could relate!! I hope that the information and resources I presented help guide you towards making peace with your body

let me ask you: are you currently on a diet? how many diets have you been on? how many of them have worked in the long run? how did they affect your relationship with food and your body? do you listen to your body? do you even trust your body?

a study revealed that 1/3 of participants in the UK reported feeling low in the past year due to their body image (Mental Health Foundation, 2019), and most of us know the toxicity of diet culture yet we continue to go back and forth between trying to love our bodies but also wanting our dream bodies. we keep waiting for the right diet to come along, we tell ourselves that this will be the one. we will be successful this time. but the right one has yet to come

try to really reflect on the following questions: would you be able to stop restricting, listen to your body and give yourself unconditional permission to eat absolutely whatever you desire? (I’m not saying you have to, you have every right to do what you want with your body) does that idea frighten you? are you afraid of gaining weight? now ask yourself: why?

fatphobia : a form of bigotry against people of higher weight, believing that they are inferior physically, morally, intellectually, and health-wise (also known as anti-fatness, weight stigma, anti-fat bias)

nearly half of adults (47%) in the British Social Attitudes survey believed that ‘how you look affects what you can achieve in life’ and nearly a third (32%) believed that ‘your value as a person depends on how you look’. we live in a society that highly values beauty and health, and associates fatness with ugliness and poor health, so it’s no wonder that we fear weight gain. there is a belief that fat people are just failed thin people, and if they had ‘discipline’, they too, could shrink their bodies. the diet industry uses the social consequences of fatness to scare people into policing their bodies.

common examples of fatphobia:

  • unsolicited weight loss advice, assuming that everyone wants to lose weight
  • the belief that only thin people can have eating disorders
  • commenting on the social media posts things like “wow the CONFIDENCE!!! ur so brave I could never wear that😻😻🙌✨✨” (this may be well-intentioned but this implies that someone shouldn’t wear something because of the way their body looks and it’s also very patronising)
  • food shaming and trying to police the food choices of others
  • using ‘fat’ as an insult (the word ‘fat’ is being reclaimed as a neutral term, however, this word does carry a lot of abuse and trauma for many people, so never assume that anyone is comfortable with being called it)
  • straight size people feeling superior, assuming that they’re healthier and know more about health than those in larger bodies (straight size: any size that isn’t considered plus size)
  • the medical industry doesn’t take the health concerns of people of higher weight seriously, they will just blame their weight
  • plus size fashion – a lack of choice and expensive, especially within sustainable fashion but when people of higher weight have to support fast fashion they are shamed for shopping unethically (I will make another post abt this!!). “are they fashionable or are they just skinny?”
  • telling someone that they would look good if they lost weight

the roots of fatphobia

have you ever wondered where our societal obsession with thinness, and disgust with fatness came from? within discussions of fatness, many people know that a large body was associated with wealth in the past. however, we are not taught that anti-fatness is actually rooted in racism and colonialism.

the book ‘fearing the black body’ by Sabrina Strings explains the history in great detail, which I’d recommend reading as I will only be writing a brief summary, leaving out a lot of detail. I will not be referencing much, as almost all of this information is from that book.

1400s – 1700s

during the Renaissance era in northern and western Europe, white male “race scientists” were trying to justify the enslavement of black people, by claiming that they were inferior to white people. the current ideal body type for women (cis white European women) was a perfectly proportional, fair-skinned, well rounded, ‘plump’ body. thickness was an indicator of good health, whilst thinness indicated bad health.

Venus in Front of the Mirror (c.1614), Peter Paul Rubens – source

when black women were introduced as slaves in Venice, “their presence signaled both the exotic lands beyond the sea and the European conquest of said lands.” (Strings, 2019).

they were seen as a ‘hot commodity’ and it quickly became fashionable for aristocratic Italian women to have a black woman or girl as a maidservant. the growing presence of black women in Italy, came with the growing interest in their artistic portrayal: “they were typically rendered as the physically alluring social inferiors to white women, a representation that reified social distinctions”.

the portrayal of black people in Italian art emphasised their ‘social distance’ from white people, depicting black people as the inferior servants. however it’s important to note that black women were the aesthetic equals of white women, their bodies were seen equally as alluring and their social status did not affect their bodily beauty. (but they were critical of their facial features because of the Eurocentric beauty standards, those who were considered beautiful adhered to those standards)

The Four Rivers of Paradise (c.1615), Peter Paul Rubens – source

as Europeans ‘explored‘ and colonised Asia, Africa, and the Americas, they studied the indigenous people and wrote about the difference between westerners and non-westerners. the colonisers saw themselves as superior and believed that the indigenous people were ‘uncivilised savages’. they emphasised the otherness of non-western people, by comparing the bodies of the indigenous people to European standards, and studied the link between their bodies, food, cultural practices, and the climate they lived in (this is known as climatic theory).

for example, they theorised that the people of India had larger bodies because of the food they ate, but also because “the humidity and soaring temperatures of the Indian subcontinent supposedly produced lazy and effeminate natives.” (Forth, 2012). they believed that the climate of North America created slender bodies, and Europeans who went there would lose weight, and those who went to countries of hot climates like Africa or India would gain weight. these ideas changed often, with many different explanations for the link between body size and climate.

the link between body size and morality was already in place, and colonialism amplified this through ridiculing their beauty standards and cultures, as they believed they were more civilised in Europe. they noted how in China, they had a preference for thin and small women (they often criticised the practice of foot-binding), and they noted this difference: “what constitutes beauty in Europe… creates ugliness in China.” (Forth, 2012).

they expressed disgust in the cultural practices and bodies of non-westerners, asserting distance between them and making them seem strange and different to the Europeans. however, it’s important to note that these ‘explorers’ only focused on the physical features of the small elite, not the ordinary people – they generalised these populations, assuming that they all had the same bodies, beliefs and practices.

in the book ‘Anti-diet’, Christy Harrison discusses how the moralistic ideas of food (rooted in Ancient Greece) were enforced when Columbus colonised the Americas. the ‘good food’ was the food of the Europeans, and the ‘bad food’ was the local food, and so they avoided eating it in fear of looking like the indigenous people they were colonising.

“they also began to believe that food helped create the physical distinctions between Europeans and the “others” they were encountering. That is, the Spaniards thought their bodies looked different than indigenous people’s bodies because they ate differently—an early colonial example of the belief that “you are what you eat”—and that if they started eating the “bad” local foods, their bodies would literally transform to look like the people they were colonizing. That seemed less than ideal to the Spaniards, who also believed they had been sent by God to “civilize” these distant lands, and that even their appearance was a mark of this chosen status.”

(Harrison, 2019)

Europeans were growing increasingly anxious of their own bodies, with their ideal body type being ‘not too thin, not too fat’. they compared their bodies to the bodies of the ‘others’, and questioned their morality – what kind of people would want to look that way, be attracted, and not be disgusted by such bodies. they claimed that civilised people were disgusted by fatness, and would consider it an unhealthy condition. the elites were encouraged to view fatness as “evidence of ‘primitive’ impulses more appropriate to ‘savage’ than ‘civilized’ individuals.” (Forth, 2012). and so, race scientists decided that they were the ‘superior race’, due to being logical, rational, and also because they could control their appetites.

the initial ‘novelty’ of black maidservants faded, and now the valued ‘plumpness’ of their bodies was associated with white women instead. Strings (2019) explains that the bodies of black women were used to elate the beauty of white women, as blackness became linked to unattractiveness, and whiteness became increasingly linked to beauty. England joined the slave trade in 1555 and that year, racist stereotypes of African people appeared in books, describing them as “sexually and orally indulgent”, and these ideas spread quickly. the bodies of black people had long been sexualised and commodified, and a horrifying example of this is the case of Sara, also known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’.

content warning for the next paragraph: s*xual abuse, and also some graphic description of violence so please skip the next two paragraphs if this could be upsetting!

Saartjie “Sara” Baartman, belonged to the Khoikhoi tribe and her parents were slaves on a colonial farm in South Africa. after her parents died, she did many different jobs until a Scottish man, Dunlop, was fascinated by her body and her curves and wanted to use her as an exhibition for his circus in London. she refused at first, but then she was convinced with the promise of being treated well and compensated, however the contract was shady and took advantage of the fact that she could not read English. she was made to display her body, and had to do whatever they instructed her to and the audience were allowed to touch her body. her case was taken to court but was dismissed, giving more publicity to the show. after Dunlop’s death, Sara was traded around different circuses and ended up in France. she was treated even worse as she was examined, sexually abused, impregnated, lived in terrible conditions and turned to alcohol and smoking to cope.

Sara died in 1815 when she was only 26, after a life full of abuse, humiliation and dehumanisation. but her mistreatment did not end there. after her death, a physician examined her body and removed her brain and genitals, placing them in jars and displaying them alongside her skeleton in a museum in Paris up until 1985 (or 1974, I’ve seen different sources). after years of negotiation, in 2002 her remains were returned to her home in South Africa, where she was finally laid to rest in where she was born, and representatives of the Khoikhoi people were among those who attended her funeral. (this video explains Sara’s story in much more detail).

the long eighteenth century

in England, new etiquettes were forming which included the idea of how well-mannered people should eat and drink. showing restraint around food by eating and drinking less, was seen as elegant and civilised, as did the thinness that resulted from this. and so, gluttony became linked with larger bodies, which was associated with African women. “Fat, presumed to be the product of immoral and irrational intemperance, was considered lowbrow. In women, it was also comically unattractive.” (Strings, 2019).

physician George Cheyne linked the body with spirituality, advocating a special diet to create a god-honouring body. he had lost a lot of weight, and a lot of people, especially women, went to him for weight loss advice. he promoted a vegetarian diet, but also encouraged fasting and purging to become as thin as possible, to rid their diets of unholy excess and to transform their bodies into temples for their God. (*blinks*)

English women were slimming down and suddenly the shape of a woman’s body indicated both her intelligence and morality. throughout most of the Victorian times (1837-1901), the most beautiful women were pale, plump, and hourglass shaped (with their corsets and puffy dresses), showing that their husbands could afford to feed them and keep them away from labour. beauty meant rich and white. but in the late Victorian era, with the creation of the ‘gibson girl’ came a shift in the female body ideal to a thinner body.

the gibson girl (source)

flapper girls (source)


with the rise of the ‘flapper girl’ in the 1920s, a slender, androgynous body with a tiny waist, and no curves became the ideal. they worshipped youth, and so having a ‘womanly’ body was out of style. they would bind their breasts and significantly restrict their food intake, as corsets were now out of trend. this opened a market for quick-fix slimmIng products, and dieting became the norm. there were oppositions to this, such as the founder of Kellogg’s and other protestants who feared that thin white women would become infertile, and cause the white anglo-saxons to die out. the men blamed feminism for this. doctors encouraged women to eat in ways that ensured the survival of “a race of supermen”. (Strings, 2019).

however the medical field focused entirely on the health of white people, and people of minority ethnic groups were rarely discussed at all. in fact, Kellogg and many eugenicists believed that these groups would “die off”, meaning that there’s no need to do research on them. it was the common notion that they were “constitutionally diseased”, so that there was need to recommend changing their diet and body size. in the U.S, life insurance companies began to create data comparing height, weight, and mortality rates, to determine what to charge policyholders – and soon, weight was seen as the main indicator of health. these were flawed because they had no medical expertise, their sample was not representative of the population, and it varied from company to company. eventually, the medical community found another measure: the BMI

the issue with the BMI

in the early 20th century, U.S insurance companies had began using the ‘Quetelet Index’ (now known as body mass index/ BMI) to decide what to charge customers, categorising them as ‘underweight’, ‘overweight’, and ‘normal’, which was the ideal. it was created by Adolphe Quetelet in the 1830s, who was many things – an astronomer, sociologist, mathematician, but he was not a medical professional. his work identified finding the ‘average man’ (l’homme moyen), the societal ideal, and his research was based solely on French and Scottish men.

in 1972, an American researcher by the name of Dr Ancel Keys coined the term “body mass index” in a study on the fatness of about 7,400 men from seven countries (five in Europe), and chose the BMI as a simple way to measure the body weight-to-height ratio. although Dr Keys confirmed that the BMI was only appropriate for population based studies, not for individual diagnoses, it soon became used to track the disease risk factors of individuals worldwide.

“By the turn of the next century, Quetelet’s l’homme moyen would be used as a measurement of fitness to parent, and as a scientific justification for eugenics — the systemic sterilization of disabled people, autistic people, immigrants, poor people, and people of color… it was never intended as a measure of individual body fat, build, or health...

For its inventor, the BMI was a way of measuring populations, not individuals — and it was designed for the purposes of statistics, not individual health.”

Your Fat Friend

the BMI cannot differentiate between fat, muscle and bone, and also does not take into account age, ethnicity, gender or body composition. it also cannot measure mental health, metabolic health, cardiovascular health, and musculoskeletal health (source). a person’s weight does not reflect their health, as you cannot tell if someone has achieved their body through healthy or unhealthy behaviours.

science shows that a measure built by white Europeans for white Europeans is less accurate for people of colour, and can lead to misdiagnosis and mistreatment.

  • 47% of individuals defined as ‘overweight’ according to the BMI, are metabolically healthy (source)
  • one reason black people tend to have higher BMIs than white people is because black people commonly have a greater bone mineral density, and/or muscle mass (Strings, 2019)
  • research shows that that while black women had higher BMIs than white women, they also had lower mortality rates at a given BMI (Strings, 2019)
  • black women don’t show a significant rise mortality risk until BMI 37, and the optimal BMI for black people is 23-30, compared to 23-25 for white people (source)
  • a higher BMI puts white New Zealanders at a higher risk of health conditions compared to those of Maori/ Pacific descent (source)
  • Asian Americans are more likely to develop diabetes at a lower BMI (23-25), which is considered healthy. (source)
  • in the UK, the criteria of an anorexia diagnosis includes having a BMI of 17 or lower (source). this is very harmful as it reinforces the idea that they aren’t ‘sick enough’ to have their illness taken seriously. you cannot tell how healthy someone is based on their body
  • a higher BMI acts as a barrier for gender affirming surgery (source)

this document has more facts about the inaccuracy of BMI

this was a very brief history of fatphobia in the west, I left out a lot of detail to keep this post short. if you’re interested to learn more about how anti-fatness, colonialism and racism are all linked, I would recommend reading ‘Fearing the Black Body’ by Sabrina Strings to get the full picture. it’s such a good book, I learned a lot from it and I read it within like three days and took lots of notes!!

next week’s post will continue with the topic of diet culture, in relation to fatphobia
˚ ༘♡ ·˚ ₊˚ˑ༄ؘ

works cited:

‘Fearing the Black Body’- Sabrina Strings (2019)

‘Fat, Desire and Disgust in the Colonial Imagination’ – Forth (2012)

‘What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat’ – Aubrey Gordon (2020)

Anti-Diet‘ – Christy Harrison (2019)

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