the demonisation of fatness

in the last post, we explored the racist roots of fatphobia in the west, but to this day it continues to be a serious issue. in order to tackle it we must get uncomfortable, we must address our own biases and beliefs.

reminder: I’m not an expert on this topic and I’m not qualified to educate others so I’m just sharing my research and I encourage you to do your own research and come to your own conclusion. although I try to write based on impartial research instead of my opinion, my own experiences with eating disorders and body image do shape my views and because I feel so strongly about what I write about, it’s difficult for me to not be biased.

As Harrison (2019) wrote, “diet culture pushes the narrative that the reason we stigmatize larger bodies is because higher weight “causes” poor health. In reality, though, fat bodies were deemed “uncivilized” and therefore undesirable long before the medical and scientific communities began to label them a health risk around the turn of the twentieth century. Fatphobic beliefs pre-dated health arguments.”

‘what we don’t talk about when we talk about fat’ by Aubrey Gordon (2020) is another book I would highly recommend reading, to learn about fatphobia through the lens of someone who experiences it. she discusses how anti-fatness has become invisible as its so normal, and people rarely challenge it.

in the Maintenance Phase podcast episode called ‘anti-fat bias’ (spotify link), Aubrey Gordon discusses her experiences of fatphobia. the topic of fatness is usually only discussed among straight size people as a form of ridicule, or discussing the inconvenience it causes for them.

chapter one of Aubrey’s book focuses on one of the most prevalent conversations surrounding fatness: travelling. discussions of people with larger bodies travelling on planes don’t usually revolve around how those affected feel in these situations. these conversations focus on the ‘inconvenience’ they cause those sitting next to them, or the plane by simply being on it. they see the people in larger bodies as the issue instead of the fact that plane seats are getting smaller as the population is getting bigger. planes are becoming more crowded in order to increase profit. if they increase the seat size, they’ll have less room to seat passengers therefore making less money. their priority is not passenger comfort, it’s profit. people in larger bodies are dehumanised in discussions of whether they should pay more to travel, or whether they should be allowed to travel at all. everyone has the right to travel. (if you want to learn more about this, this article is great)

people tend to assume that by looking at someone’s body size, they know what they eat, how much they eat, how much they exercise, and their mental state. many thin people think they know the most about nutrition and dieting. however many people of higher weight know a lot about nutrition, especially those who have spent their lives trying to shrink their bodies due to years of body shaming. those of us in straight sized bodies need to think hard about how we contribute to weight stigma. this may be difficult as we like to believe that we don’t contribute to any kind of hatred. (maybe you don’t and that’s amazing, because fatphobia is a product of diet culture, and it’s very difficult not to be influenced by it). we need to get uncomfortable in order to make change.

when unwanted comments about the eating habits or body size of people of higher weight are made, many people claim that they’re only trying to help. but, fat shaming does NOT work. people claim that they’re only encouraging them to be ‘healthier’, however studies (Mann, Tomiyama & Ward, 2015; Vogel, 2019) show that fat shaming does the opposite, it leads to weight gain and puts people at a risk of emotional eating, depression, anxiety, low-self esteem, and eating disorders. be more compassionate, don’t tell people to ‘just lose weight‘. don’t be so heartless.

fat shaming does not work

Even a quick glance at the weight research shows that, despite decades of trying, there is no evidence that efforts to prevent or reverse “obesity” are successful. In fact, there’s much evidence to suggest that the prescription for weight loss is more likely to result in physical harm and weight gain.

Lindo Bacon (2019)

“The more people are exposed to weight bias and discrimination, the more likely they are to gain weight and become obese, even if they were thin to begin with. They’re also more likely to die from any cause, regardless of their body mass index (BMI)”

Vogel (2019)

Vogel (2019) noted that fat shaming causes cortisol (stress hormone) levels to spike, self-control to drop, and increases the risk of binge eating. people try to make themselves feel better for their fatphobia by telling themselves that it’s because they have ‘unhealthy’ bodies. even if that were true, when is it ever okay to look down on, or bully someone for having an unhealthy body?? it’s wrong to discriminate against any kind of body, having an unhealthy body does not justify being mistreated – a person’s health is not a reflection of their morality.

Mann, Tomiyama & Ward (2015) challenged a few misconceptions about weight in their study, and found that:

1. restrictive diets do not work
2. weight stigma (or fat shaming) will not reduce ‘obesity’
3. weight does not equal health

read more about them below

skinny shaming?

the subject of skinny shaming is always brought up when talking about fatphobia. skinny shaming is referred to as the ‘all lives matter’ of body talk for a reason. it is usually only discussed when talking about fatphobia, it doesn’t exist on its own. thin people usually misinterpret the issue of fatphobia as individual bullying because thats their experience with skinny shaming. it is completely different. body shaming is wrong and can have a traumatic effect on anyone- no one should be made to feel insecure of the way they look and all these feelings are valid, no matter your size. however, it’s important to realise that the anti-fat bias is institutional, the effects aren’t just feelings of insecurity. fatphobia is not suddenly solved when an individual becomes more confident or ‘body positive’, and it is very different from being told to eat more. for example, people of higher weight are less likely to be hired and promoted, are paid less, and receive biased medical treatment (Bacon, 2019). thin people are not subjected to the overt discrimination, prejudice and harassment that people in larger bodies receive.

read this: in 2017, a canadian judge claimed that a 17 year old sexual assault victim might felt “flattered” after she was groped by a taxi driver, because of her weight. also said “it can be said that she is a little overweight, but she has a pretty face”

media representation of body size

note: I use the word ‘fat’ as a neutral and descriptive term, with no derogatory connotations intended

Herbozo et al (2004) found that in popular children’s media, there is a great emphasis on the importance of beauty, as beauty is associated goodness and ugliness with evil. beauty is equated with thinness (example: every disney princess ever). fatness is connected to negative traits like unfriendly, cruel, unattractive and evil (example: Ursula in the little mermaid), whilst thinness is equated with desirable traits such as kindness, happiness, sociability and success. they discussed how the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype develops during early childhood, and it is very likely that children internalise fatphobia through the media.

in an analysis of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon programmes, Northup & Lieber (2010) found that these programmes maintain a white, thin ideal. fat characters were either used as comic relief or villains, and did not have dating storylines – they were supporting characters, whose lives orbited around the main character. the antagonists in these shows were usually the school bullies, often with large bodies and dressed as goths (just so you know that they’re the bad guys), who were shown in contrast to the thin, beautiful, kind protagonist, reinforcing the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype. they also found that the thinner a character was, the more likely she was to receive positive comments from other characters.

Klein and Shiffman (2005) studied the portrayal of body size in cartoons, and found that fat characters were less likely to be shown as attractive, happy, loving, or energetic, and more likely to be shown as unintelligent, aggressive, anti-social, evil, and suffering from a physical disability. two interesting findings were that thin characters were more likely to be shown eating, but fat characters were more likely to be shown eating ‘junk food’. also, thin characters were more likely to be active, while fat characters were more likely to be shown exercising (maybe whilst trying to lose weight?)

Eisenberg et al (2014) suggested that in popular tv programmes for adolescents, there is a message that fat shaming is acceptable and normal. the neutral reactions of the target of the ‘jokes’, and the bystanders who laughed along, reinforced the idea that fat people should just accept the abuse, and maybe even humour them. they also suggested that these ideas may lead thin individuals to believe that it is acceptable to abuse their fat peers, and make fat people feel inferior.

fat character tropes

there were a lot more, these were just the most prominent ones. I decided that I will make another post all about the media representation of fatness, and just diet culture in the media in general, because I did a lot of research and I can’t squeeze it all in here. I want to discuss ‘reality shows’ such as supersize vs. superskinny, the biggest loser and my 600-lb life. there’s different stereotypes and tropes when fatphobia intersects with gender, sexuality, disability, religion, and ethnicity, so I want to focus more on this.

the importance of good representation

positive media representation matters – it’s more than just being able relate to story and feeling seen. good representation can help break down negative stereotypes, as the media shapes how different groups are viewed by others, but also it can shape how they see themselves. marginalised groups (such as people of ethnic/religious minorities, LGTBQ+ people, people with disabilities) have very little media representation, and the representation that they do get are usually stereotypes that reinforce offensive beliefs. positive representation is so important, and those of us in thin, white, cisgender, able-bodies may take this for granted, as our stories are already told.

Klein and Shiffman (2005) discussed cultivation theory, which suggests that people develop beliefs, attitudes and expectations about the real world based on what they see in the media. they explained that many people internalise the thin ideal propagated by the media, and those who do this are vulnerable to developing eating disorders.

Northup & Lieber (2010) noted that the children who watch Disney Channel and Nickelodeon programmes are of the age where they begin to become more aware of their bodies and develop their own sense of how attractive they are, and young girls in particular are likely to compare themselves to what they see in the media. the same study found that in these children’s programmes, 93% of characters under the age of 10, 87% of the ones between the ages of 10-17, and 75% between the ages of 18-22, were below average weight. weight-based stigma such as insults about body size, was observed in 84% of the popular children movies studied by Howard et al (2017).

Botta (1999) found that media has an impact on body image disturbance in girls, as they look at people they see on television to define what their bodies are supposed to look like. they see them as the ideal, and strive to look like them. the media promote a thin, white ideal, and the more these girls compare themselves to what they see on television, the more they will dislike their own bodies.

2021 body image statistics:

  • nearly 80% of teenage girls fear becoming fat
  • nearly 70% of adult women admit to withdrawing from activities due to their body image
  • around 50% of 13 year old American girls reported being unhappy with their body, and by the time they reached 17 this percentage increased to 80%!!!
  • 25% of male children in the US were concerned with their muscularity/ leanness, and had a greater desire for toned and defined muscles
  • in a study of more than 50,000 adults, 41% of men and 60% of women admitted to feeling self conscious about their weight, and thought they were too heavy

the ‘health’ question

people justify their fatphobia by claiming to be concerned about health. even within the body positive movement (which was created for marginalised groups but hijacked by skinny white girls… look at the #bodypositive hashtag on instagram), many people will exclude those in larger bodies and accuse them of ‘glorifying obesity’. people will often claim to be ‘body positive’ but only towards ‘healthy‘ people. however by giving unsolicited advice in attempt to improve someone’s health, they’re actually doing much more harm than good.

I can’t really say much about the debate between health and weight, because I’m a sociology student not a nutritionist, but I have cited a few articles and research at the bottom of the post. so instead, I want to introduce a sociological theory of ‘health’. our society places the complete responsibility for health on the individual, and those who do not embody this standard of ‘health’ are seen as immoral. this concept was first critiqued by Robert Crawford (1980), who referred to it as ‘healthism’. Crawford defined ‘healthism’ as “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary- often the primary- focus for the definition and achievement of well-being”. neoliberalist ideology of individual responsibility also promotes the assumption of individual blame. healthism fuels the idea that the solution to health issues depends on the “individual’s determination to resist culture, advertising, institutional and environmental constraints, disease agents, or, simply, lazy or poor personal habits” (Crawford, 1980).

healthist societies focus on an individual’s lifestyle and their effects of disease prevention rather than medical care, making the patient responsible for their own health.

the following extract was written by Robyn L. Goldberg, further expanding on the concept of healthism

“1) (Healthism is) the belief system that sees health as the property and responsibility of the individual and ranks the personal pursuit of health above anything else.

2) It (healthism) ignores the impact of poverty, oppression, war, violence, luck, historical atrocities, abuse, and the environment (which includes traffic pollution, clean water, etc.).

3) It protects the status quo, leads to victim blaming and privilege, increases health inequalities, and fosters internalized oppression.

4) It judges people’s worth according to their health.

To summarize, healthism involves individuals not thinking about satisfaction, taste, cost and availability when considering their health. Thin privilege and financial privilege have a significant impact on the belief system that people have regarding what they should and should not eat.”

Goldberg also explained that within diet trails and studies, we aren’t informed of the background of the participants. the results may differ according to age, socioeconomic status, and psychiatric history. a healthy body is a privilege, and there are many factors that contribute to someone’s ability to perform health, including their socioeconomic status, bodily ability, and whether they have the time, resources and funds. healthism makes those who are disabled and sick feel that they are individual failures, resulting in low self esteem, even though these reasons are often out of their control. weight is linked with healthiness, and only those with thin bodies are believed to be healthy.

Focusing on weight—or health behaviors—puts the burden on the individual, deflecting attention from the more pernicious problem: systemic injustice. Conditions in the places where people live, work, and play affect health outcomes to a much larger degree than health behaviors, which, all told (including eating, activity and other behaviors), account for less than 25 percent of differences in health outcomes. 

Bacon (2019)

the impact of healthism is made clear when telling people that they can do what they want with their bodies is seen as radical. we really need to question our beliefs, why do we feel so strongly about these things? what made us think this way?

this youtube video for example, shows the extent of healthism and fatphobia in our society. the ‘weight loss guru‘ and presenters are very patronising towards Dr Natasha Larmie aka ‘the fat doctor’. the weight loss guru clearly does not want to hear what she has to say, and completely dismisses every point she makes and interrupts her.

whenever she tried to answer any of the questions they asked, they cut her off, accusing her of ‘glorifying obesity’ instead of listening to what she had to say. it seems obvious that they were not interested in her work or research, because as soon as the registered GP with almost 20 years of medical experience tried to challenge the status quo, the TV personalities did not want to hear it. on twitter, everyone seemed to also feel the same way and called her ‘fat’ to insult her.

if I had watched this interview before I learned about the diet industry, I probably would’ve sided with the weight loss guru, and would’ve been baffled by her words too. healthism and fatphobia is all fuelled by diet culture. it’s no surprise that the weight loss guru is very biased, his whole career is based on being a so-called weight loss expert (I tried to find his credentials but I don’t think he has any lmao. edit: I was wrong he graduated from the London College of Hypnosis 😁😁). I wanted to be fair and take him seriously, and I really did try but I soon discovered that he hosted fat families and looking at his website, I felt like I took a trip to the seventies. he sells a ‘FATnosis’ programme (hypnosis for weight loss *smiles*), and is regularly featured in the daily mail, loose women, this morning, good morning britain, and hello magazine and that’s all I’m going to say about him.

itv‘s this morning does seem a little biased, Philip Schofield lost weight on a diet created by Michael Mosley who is also a regular on the show and widely known for endorsing unhealthy diet advice. I’ll admit that I’m also very biased because I dislike this man so much (I watched his documentaries, bought his book, and took his advice as the gospel truth when I was deep in my eating disorder)

although I said I wouldn’t talk about nutrition, I do want to discuss the misconception of intuitive eating. it is often labelled as unhealthy, as it is misinterpreted as mindlessly eating whatever and feeling terrible, however that is not the case at all. learning to eat intuitively means listening to your body, so ‘losing control’ and eating until you feel sick is not listening to your body. eating intuitively is healthy, it’s important to connect with your body. listening to your body does not mean that you will want to eat dessert all the time (after restriction this may be the case but these cravings go away when you really begin to listen and honour your body!) anti-diet dietitian Christy Harrison (whose work I cite a lot in my posts) is targeted by trolls because she is thin, and they accuse her of not listening to her own anti-diet principles, because they believe that you cannot be thin and eat intuitively, which is also not the case at all.

Dr Natasha Larmie does have a lot of evidence to support what she said, and writes a lot healthcare and weight. if you’re genuinely interested in reading more about this research, you can find some here:

the following extract is from Christy Harrison’s instagram post, linked here. I wanted to share it because I like it a lot and I think it could be very thought-provoking and could encourage people to be a little more open minded.

“One argument that often gets used to justify discrimination against people in larger bodies is, “being heavy just isn’t *healthy.*” There are so many problems with that argument that it’s hard to know where to begin; for one thing, there’s robust scientific evidence that body size is NOT actually a reliable indicator of health (e.g. the study “Misclassification of cardiometabolic health when using body mass index categories in NHANES 2005–2012”).

For another, thin people are rarely chastised for any “unhealthy” behaviors that they may engage in—behaviors that put them at risk of the exact same health conditions that get blamed on higher weights.

But at the end of the day, the most important rebuttal to the “fat is unhealthy” argument is this: None of us owes anyone our health. Health status has no bearing on our worthiness or value as human beings, and we all deserve respect, compassion, and equal rights no matter what health conditions we have or what size our bodies are. Plus, not everyone has equal access to healthcare or is privileged enough to be able to engage in behaviors that promote well-being—and people in marginalized communities face constant stigma and discrimination that puts their health at greater risk.

So rather than blaming individuals for these social inequalities, we need to address these issues at the collective level. And rather than blaming people’s size for their health outcomes, we need to recognize that weight stigma will only make things worse, and that we have no right to comment on anyone else’s health anyway. People in larger bodies don’t have to “prove” their health to anyone. No one does.”

it’s important to respect an individual’s choice to do what they want with their body. no one has the right to police other people’s bodies, which does much more harm than good. a person’s ideal body is the one that allows them to live a happy and healthy life, and feel energised and strong. commenting on someone’s food or body may seem harmless to you, but that comment might deeply affect them. if people truly cared so much about the health of others, they’d try to address the social inequalities that affect their health, instead of shaming them.

promise to treat every body with respect, including your own?

˚ ༘♡ ·˚ ₊˚ˑ༄ؘ

works cited:

Bacon (2019): Fat Is Not the Problem—Fat Stigma Is
Botta (1999): Television images and adolescent girls’ body image disturbance
Crawford (1980): Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life
Eisenberg et al (2014): A content analysis of weight stigmatization in popular television programming for adolescents
Gordon (2020): What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat
Harrison (2019): Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating
Herbozo et al (2004): Beauty and thinness messages in children’s media: a content analysis
Howard et al (2017): Obesogenic Behavior and Weight-Based Stigma in Popular Children’s Movies, 2012 to 2015
Klein and Shiffman (2005): Thin is “in” and stout is “out”: What animated cartoons tell viewers about body weight
Mann, Tomiyama & Ward (2015): Promoting Public Health in the Context of the “Obesity Epidemic”: False Starts and Promising New Directions
Northup & Lieber (2010): The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: beauty ideals on the Disney and Nickelodeon channels
Vogel (2019): Fat shaming is making people sicker and heavier

more resources on health and weight:

What is ‘health at every size’?
Size Diversity and Health at Every Size
Common myths about HAES (health at every size)
How To Leave Toxic Diet Culture Behind And Pursue Actual Health

Fat people do not need your concerns about their health
The Complete Guide to Becoming Your Own Medical Advocate
For Fat Patients and Their Doctors
An Open Letter to Cancer Research UK

Covid-19 Does Not Discriminate by Body Weight
The Latest on COVID-19 and Weight

BMI vs. Belly Fat (youtube video)
The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic? 
The effect of the COVID 19 pandemic on the UK’s “fatphobia” epidemic
Thin is good, fat is bad: How early does it begin?

THIS blog post is really good, I’d recommend reading it it’s super short and informative – it’s so cool that it has so many reblogs too I was very surprised!!
THIS food psych episode is amazing, it answers a lot of questions about ‘health at every size’ & intuitive eating

the work of Ellyn Satter is really useful, she has a lot of information on learning how to eat normally and trust your body:

2 thoughts on “the demonisation of fatness

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