“You’re celebrating obesity.”
“You’re giving people an excuse to treat themselves poorly.”
“If you truly love your body, you don’t abuse it.”
I received responses along these lines when I published this article that debunks cultural myths about obesity.
The assumption that being fat = disease is an inaccurate myth, ingrained into cultural consciousness due to financial bias and dirty politics… just like the outdated “scientific” belief that butter is bad for you. Read my post, Why Fat Shaming Doesn’t Work for the details.
While carrying excess weight can absolutely hinder one’s quality of life, science doesn’t show that being fat causes disease. Research fails to show a causal relationship between fat and disease, although there is correlation. In fact, fatness is correlated to a longer life.
I also see refrains of the above comments whenever I read a social media post, article, or watch a Youtube video about fat acceptance. For example, just peruse the comments on this Broadly video about an adult summer camp for fat individuals.
If fat people are encouraged to love their bodies, are we glorifying obesity? Are we giving them an excuse to treat their bodies poorly? And are we giving them a free pass to be a burden on our healthcare system?
Oh hell no.
In this post, I’ll explain why.
Internalized Fat Phobia
In our culture, we’ve all internalized fat phobia. This is a fear of fatness, because being fat is equated with moral failing. Fat phobia is similar to racism in that it’s a subconscious, inaccurate and negative prejudice that leads to systemic injustices. Literature shows that “obesity stigma” and “size discrimination” leads to poorer medial treatment, workplace bias, and academic bias (1, 2).
IMPORTANT DEFINITION: An internalized belief has lodged itself in our subconscious, due to cultural or religious indoctrination. Even if we intellectually think it’s not true, we emotionally react as if it is true, because we’ve been brainwashed. It takes a lot of attention, awareness, and self-work to undo an internalized belief.
At a subconscious level, we equate being fat with being lazy, irresponsible, and lacking willpower (1). Due to this internalized belief, thin people tend — on a deep, subconscious level — believe we are superior to fat people. Our thinness, we believe, is a visible measure of our willpower and self-efficacy.
On the other hand, fat people often struggle with the subconscious belief that they are indeed lazy and irresponsible. We have all been conditioned into a Pavlovian response: when we see a fat body, be it our own or someone elses’, we automatically think, “less than, lazy, lacking willpower.” When we see a thin body, we think, “better than, self-determined.”
Further, we live in a culture that disastrously conflates beauty with self-worth, particularly for women. This is another internalized belief. Consciously, we know women have value beyond their appearance. Subconsciously, we believe that no matter how a contributes to society, if she falls short of the beauty standard, she falls short of being a woman.
Thin creates the foundation of our beauty standard. We consciously believe fat people are less beautiful, and, as a result, subconsciously believe fat people are less worthy.
If you’ve been raised in modern American culture, this mental response is inevitable and automatic. That’s why it’s critical that we all do the self-reflection and cultural examination to deprogram this internalized belief.
IMPORTANT DEFINITION: Deprogramming is a term that describes opening someone’s mindset after they’ve been brainwashed in a cult. It’s a strong word but it’s appropriate here, because our culture’s worship of thin bodies is a cult-level obsession.
Those who believe that it’s dangerous or threatening, in some way, for fat people to love themselves are reacting from their internalized fat phobia. Let’s do some deprogramming.
Thin is a privilege
Another cultural myth is that being fat is a choice. This fat myth goes, “If you’re fat, it’s your fault because you’re choosing not taking care of yourself.” But this assumption ignores the system of thin privilege in which we live.
IMPORTANT DEFINITION: Privilege describes benefits given to certain individuals and denied to others, based on their race, appearance, religion, sexual orientation, or heritage.
Peggy McIntosh offers an analogy to describe white privilege, but it describes other forms of privilege including thin privilege. “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, vistas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” (3)
To illustrate how being thin is a privilege, and not just personal choice, consider my upbringing. I was born into a white, upper-middle class family. My Seattle-tech-industry dad provided my stay-at-home mom with financial resources to buy organic groceries, and the time to make meals from scratch. Our community shared our socioeconomic status, and so I tended to eat home-cooked, natural foods when I stayed with friends or family.
I faced family trauma when I was 11, which led me to use anorexia as a coping mechanism. Thankfully, I was recovered fully with the help of regular therapy, which my family could afford. Although my home life continued to be challenging in some ways, it was relatively stable and I was afforded opportunities to be in positive academic and workplace environments throughout high school.
I was a thin child, and I grew up into a thin adult. Thinness wasn’t solely my choice: it’s largely a matter of my privilege.
What if I my socioeconomic background was different? What if I turned to emotional eating instead of anorexia? What if my family couldn’t afford therapy for my recovery? What if I didn’t have positive environments outside my home? If I was a fat child who grew into a fat adult, how would my fatness be my choice?
Additionally, being thin carries societal privileges — it’s a knapsack filled with free passes and money.
Ashley M. Seruya, an artist who uses her Instagram channel to educate and advocate for fat acceptance, created this informative image on thin privilege
View this post on Instagram
She defines thin privilege as a systemic reality that grants unearned privileges to those in small bodies. Some of those benefits include:
- Being able to speak about your health and health habits without extreme pushback
- Being able to eat what you want without being scrutinized by those around you
- Being taken seriously when and if you need help with an eating disorder
- Not having to endure unsolicited advice from others about what you eat and how you move your body
- Being able to go to the doctors office and having the clinician listen to your symptoms without jumping to prescribe weight loss
- Not having to worry about employers firing you for your size
- Being able to walk into any clothing store and find something in your size
Resistance to dismantling thin privilege
Wherever our society has internalized a belief around one groups superiority, resistance arises to eliminating that illusion of hierarchy. Every time there is a movement towards greater equality of marginalized groups (such as people of color or LGBTQ folks), we witness a backlash. Why?
Because people who’s identity rests on their superiority are afraid of equality.
Read that sentence again.
In every system of injustice, such as a culture of fat phobia biased against fat people, the privileged group has some resistance towards dismantling a system where they have control and supremacy.
We often fail to recognize when we’re acting from this fear, because runs so deep in our subconscious and is an ugly part of ourselves to see. Any time we find ourselves resisting the full humanity, worthiness, and equality of a person, it’s worth asking the difficult question:
Why am I invested in being superior to this person, or group of people?
If you are someone — especially if you are a thin person — who resists the concept that fat people should love themselves and feel comfortable in their bodies, it’s worth asking:
Why am I invested in being superior to fat people? What ways do I want to be superior to them?
Are you invested in perceiving that you have greater willpower than fat people? Or that you’re more attractive than them?
I’ve faced this question in my life, and not just around my internalized fat phobia. I realized I subconsciously held the belief that I needed to be be better than other people to be enough. I thought I had to be morally better, academically better, more beautiful, and professionally better.
That’s a great way to beat yourself up, push people away, and burden yourself with judgement. If you live with that mindset, then you need to make others worse to feel okay about yourself. As a result, you live in a state of fear and separation, rather than trust and connection.
Emotional eating vs. culturally-acceptable emotional avoidance
What happens when we’re given cultural or familial messages that our emotions are wrong, dangerous, or inappropriate? What happens when we are not equipped with healthy ways to verbalize and feel our emotions? We turn to emotional avoidance strategies.
IMPORTANT DEFINITION: Emotional avoidance occurs when we are afraid to feel and express our emotions. As a result, we get stuck in emotional states rather than processing our feelings.
Emotional eating, such as overeating and binge eating, is a form of emotional avoidance often used by fat people. When it comes to avoiding our emotions, it could be said that we pick our poison. But it’s more accurate to say that our environment picks our poison for us. When we don’t have healthy emotional coping skills, we often use whatever is accessible and seemingly least destructive to our lives to numb out our feelings.
Thin people use other unhealthy strategies to avoid or numb emotions, such as alcohol, caffeine, prescription drugs, workaholism, or forms of self-harm such as cutting. These “thin” emotional coping mechanisms are not better than emotional eating, although they are more culturally-acceptable.
When we’re avoiding our emotions, we’ll use the best strategies available for us. In various ways, we all try to drown out pain with pain. Let’s support each other in handling our emotions in healthy, empowered ways.
Shame doesn’t heal
Those who insist that fat people shouldn’t love their bodies often say, “that will excuse them from improving their health.” This rests on the assumption that one can hate him or herself healthy. But hating your body is the most physically and psychologically toxic way to exist in your body, and how can a toxic means result in a healthy end?
Shame corrodes the human soul. When any person is ashamed of their body, it results in a loss of human potential everywhere.
In her TEDxTalk, Meagan Ramsey reports statistics of how low body confidence undermines society. She says,
“When it comes to exams, if you don’t think you look good enough, specifically if you don’t think you’re thin enough, you will score a lower grade point average than your peers who are not concerned with this. And this is consistent across Finland, the US and China, and is true regardless of how much you actually weigh.
Low body confidence is undermining academic achievement, but it’s also damaging health. Teenagers with less body confidence to less physical activity, eat less fruits and vegetables, partake in more unhealthy weight control practices that can lead to eating disorders, they have lower self-esteem, they are more influenced by people around them, and they have greater risk of depression.
And we think it’s for all of these reasons they take more risks with things like alcohol and drugs, crash dieting, cosmetic surgery, unprotected earlier sex, and self-harm.”
She continues to explain that we don’t grow out of this — when we feel insecure in our bodies, it negatively impacts our work, health, sexual wellbeing, and relationships.
“17% of women wouldn’t show up for a job interview on a day that they weren’t feeling confident about they way they look,” Meagan reports.
She adds, “Ever think about what this is doing to our economy? And if we could overcome this, what that opportunity looks like? Unlocking this potential is in the interest of every single one of us.”
Victim blaming fat people
Fat-shaming and fat-phobia are forms of victim blaming.
IMPORTANT DEFINITION: Victim blaming occurs when culture shifts the responsibility of the perpetrator’s actions to the victim. A common example is shaming a woman for her inebriation or clothing choice if she gets raped (“she was asking for it”), when the individual responsible for the crime is the rapist.
When we hold the belief that it’s someone’s fault they are fat, we are placing full responsibility of a broken, abusive system on their shoulders.
Fat people DO NOT deserve to be blamed for…
- the inaccurate cultural belief that body fat automatically makes someone unhealthy or unmotivated.
- a culture of predatory food corporations that spend billions of dollars to addict you to unhealthy foods.
- using emotional eating to handle trauma and repressed emotions, because they are not equipped with healthier coping mechanisms.
- being born into a race, socioeconomic or family education status that limits their healthcare quality or availability to healthy food. (4, 5)
In her exhaustively researched book Body Respect, Dr. Lindo (Bacon reports that health behaviors (such as food and exercise choices) accounts for only a quarter of health differences between people… social differences (including racism and socioeconomic status) has the biggest impact. Dr. Bacon also states,
We don’t have an epidemic of obesity; our epidemic is one of judgment, bias, and hyperbole.
If you’re fat
If you’re fat, it’s not your fault. It may, in fact, simply be your body type… something you can’t control, just like your height or the color of your skin.
Your fatness might also be influenced by living in a culture of predatory food corporations, chronic body shaming, economic inequality, toxic emotional repression, and systemic racism… to name a few factors. If you have a history of dieting, that can also be a reason for fatness, as dieting tends to cause weight gain over time by slowing down your metabolism. (Of course the diet industry doesn’t tell you this.)
However, you have responsibility to feel comfortable, healthy, and empowered in your body. You are capable of loving your body in a world that tells you not to.
Weight loss companies and bullshit media like The Biggest Loser tells you that you can turn a fat body into a thin, chiseled frame and keep it that way. You may need to adjust your weight loss goals to reflect reality (empowering) instead of marketing-fueled illusions (disempowering).
For more support here, I recommend my article, Is Dieting Dangerous?
If you’re thin
And if you’re thin, it’s not your fault that you’ve internalized fat phobia. You hold subconscious beliefs that your thinness makes you morally superior, more beautiful, and more worthy than fat people. You were indoctrinated into that belief before you had the ability to say, “No! I don’t want my subconscious drinking that Kool-Aid!”
But it is your responsibility to root out these toxic, fear-based beliefs. Thin people have just as much responsibility to educate ourselves about obesity myths, the dangers of thin glorification, and our culture’s toxic beauty standard.
My upcoming book (Sounds True, 2021) is a great place to start with that education, and I can’t wait to share it with you!
Let’s make society an easier place for all humans — fat, thin and in-between — to exist comfortably in their bodies.