Temporarily Embarrassed Thin People: Why Internalized Fatphobia Hurts Fat Liberation

Siren Song Soap - Ms. Andry's Bath House
Siren Song Soap – Ms. Andry’s Bath House

We have all seen this happen in a comment thread. Someone will post something fatphobic—let’s say, an article that positions fat bodies as something to be avoided, or weight gain as the scariest thing that can happen to a person—and a fat person (or several) will jump in and say, “hey, that’s really fatphobic and hurtful.” A few more support the initial comment. Maybe somebody tries to patiently educate the original poster about why articles like this are fatphobic. But then, inevitably, comes the fat collaborator: “Well I’M fat and I don’t think it’s fatphobic at all. I know I need to lose weight. I love my body but I want to know how to make it healthier/better/sexier/smaller.” And just like that, all the fat-haters find their cover.

Talking about fatness can be really difficult. While we’ve come a long way in terms of body acceptance in the last 30 years or so, a lot of people in our society still equate fat with unsexiness, unhealthiness, laziness, poverty, gluttony, capitalism, and everything else we think is bad. And like every other kind of anti-oppression movement, there are always those who reject it, and take the side of the oppressor, even though it means prolonging their own oppression.

Fatphobia is something many if not most of us have internalized. Like so many other women in the United States, I grew up firmly rooted in diet culture. This was a gendered thing as much as anything else: dieting was what grown women did, what they talked about, what consumed their days. Maturity, to me, was wrapped up in constantly hating your body for not being thin enough (usually while eating, because self-loathing is awesome for digestion). Body hatred made me a very depressed and anxious person, but also a very angry one. I was angry at myself, and I was angry at everyone else. I struggled with binge-eating for most of my teens and twenties until I finally discovered the Fat Acceptance Movement when I was in grad school. I think it saved my life. I still struggled with depression and anxiety, but I was able to see how bingeing was related to my body hatred. Slowly, so slowly, I started constructing a new relationship with food, with exercise, and with my body. I called a truce with myself. I forgave myself for not being thin. I stopped apologizing for requiring the space I required. Fat acceptance made me a happier person and a better feminist.

Because we’ve been socialized into diet culture, there are a substantial number of actual fat people who believe they deserve their oppression, or that it doesn’t matter because it’s only temporary, and if they just really put their minds to it, they can be un-fat.

One of the most insidious things about diet culture is how it corrupts and poisons our relationship with our bodies and, consequently, with the social world they inhabit. We think of food as an enemy. We think of exercise and movement as a punishment. We measure our worth in calories and crunches and steps. We see our bodies as separate from ourselves. And that’s where they really get you: they convince you that your wrong body is temporary, that there’s some shiny, new, young, permanent thin you just waiting to be let out of its tired, sick, gross, fat cage. That distance promotes resentment and hatred because it’s not the real you; no, you’re just trapped inside this monster, and if you do enough burpees and only eat kale and never even smell bread, the monster will die and your real self will emerge like Aphrodite, floating in her shell from the ocean, drinking only the best coconut water. (Full disclosure: I love coconut water. I’m still fat.)

This is where the fat collaborators come in. Because we’ve been socialized into diet culture, there are a substantial number of actual fat people who believe they deserve their oppression, or that it doesn’t matter because it’s only temporary, and if they just really put their minds to it, they can be un-fat. So when we try to get accessible, armless chairs in public areas, they’ll join the chorus to push back and say that restaurants and universities and doctors’ waiting rooms shouldn’t have to accommodate us, because we should just lose weight.  When we say that that healthcare professionals should treat patients in a weight-neutral way, and not shame the people on their treatment tables, they come back to brandish all their “research” that fat is unhealthy, and that of course it’s reasonable for your doctor to bring it up when you’re just there to see if you have strep throat. And when we say that arguing that fat is gross, that weight gain is something to be avoided at all costs, or that weight loss is an assumed good are all fatphobic, they are right there to say, “Wait, I’M fat and I don’t think that. Shame away, shamers.”

Fat collaborators have bought into the dominant narrative, and by virtue of their shame become its most vociferous defenders. Driven by fear or self-loathing, they imagine their own fatness to be just a temporary roadblock, and obstacle to overcome on the path to acceptability. Maybe they think that if they join in the fat-hatred, the thin people around them won’t detest them. Maybe they think that by abusing other fat people, they can make everyone around them forget that they are fat. Just like the rest of us.

And this is why fat liberation in its most radical form is the only thing that’s going to fix this mess. Not some milquetoast “body positivity,” that has co-opted the rhetoric of a social justice movement so it can sell us diets repackaged as “lifestyle changes,” or “tummy slimming” jeans or tights, or make us believe that all these size 8 models are “plus size.” No. What we need is good, old-fashioned radical fatness, loud and unabashed, taking up space and making people uncomfortable. We need to unashamedly declare that yes, fat people exist and will continue to exist and deserve accommodations that allow us to participate in society. We need to be there to remind folks that weight-loss talk is not neutral, and no one should assume that it is wanted or welcome. We need to relentlessly challenge the idea that losing weight is something that should be congratulated, or that people’s bodies need commentary at all. We need to center fatness at the heart of our embodied discourse, because fat bodies are the ones that are being systemically oppressed and violently excluded from the public sphere (and yes, that means that there is a sliding scale, and that the fatter a person is, the more oppressed they are based on body size, and the MORE CENTRAL they should be to our activism, and yes that absolutely means that fat disabled people and fat people of color and fat poor people are more oppressed than others and they should be right at the forefront of any liberation movement).

The worst nightmare of the fat collaborator is that someone will realize they are fat. So instead of giving in to these arguments and moderating our message, let’s break down the structures that stand in our way. Let’s make it safe to be fat. Then the collaborators won’t have anything left to fear.


Sarah E. Watkins is a former academic who now spends her time helping people write better sentences. She writes about gender, sexuality, and power. You can find her on the web at Raccoona Editing, and occasionally on Twitter, @sarahewatkins.

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