For a long time, while I was growing up, being fat was something that I could not think about without getting depressed. I was encouraged to believe that fat kids were unhealthy, unattractive, and unable to accomplish things. I had a nagging fear that my weight was the most notable thing about me, that it trumped any other aspect of my identity in the eyes of my peers and severely limited the kinds of stories I could tell about myself. I resented it when other people brought up my size as a problem or encouraged me to lose weight but I also had a lot of shame about my body. I remember wishing desperately to be thin when I grew up, thinking that it would make me happier, healthier, more confident and more attractive than fat people were allowed to be.
I don’t actually spend very much time thinking about my weight these days and I do feel healthy, happy, and confident about my body most of the time. I am able to feel sexy and connect to myself and others physically in ways that would not have seemed possible to my younger self. I am still fat. Recently, some interactions with friends and family prompted me to think more explicitly about the way a fear of fat shapes many of the assumptions people make about each other and ultimately restricts everyone’s ability to comfortably and confidently be ourselves.
Health: Fat as Disease
One of the excuses that people often use to justify fat phobia is to claim that being fat isn’t healthy. Health can be measured in a whole lot of ways. Often, however, holistic assessments of heath that take the individual mind and body into account are ignored in favor of scrutinizing numbers on a scale and making broad assumptions about them.
The code for fat in medical language is BMI [Body Mass Index], the simple ratio of someone’s weight to their height. This number is often used as a key metric in assessing the health of large populations and individual people but it does not indicate anything about blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body type, the activity of one’s lifestyle, or whether or not someone has a history of chronic pain or illness. Studies linking BMI to chronic illness and increased mortality often fail to take these other factors into account. People who have low BMI’s can still suffer from ‘obesity related’ illnesses and those who have high ones may not. According to my BMI, for example, I am clinically obese but I have always tested well for blood pressure and cholesterol and am fairly active and healthy. I am not saying there is never a measurable connection between weight and chronic illness, but that healthy bodies are not uniform and statistical inferences are not particularly useful when compared to paying attention to the needs of a real, individual body in question.
Procrustes was an ancient Greek bandit who famously hacked and stretched kidnap victims so they would fit into his uniform beds. The adjective procrustean refers to the tendency to violently force people into a mold. The BMI and all of the assumptions that shape its use are procrustean tools because they convince people that health and happiness will be achieved by cramming ourselves into a pair of jeans that didn’t used to fit rather than by paying attention to our bodies and refusing to resent them.
Some of the ways modern society affects our bodies and makes them sicker are framed in the alarmist rhetoric of the “obesity epidemic”. It is true that aspects of consumer capitalism in rich countries have led to increasingly sedentary people with abundant access to crappy processed calories. Many of us, whether we are fat or not, have at times used increased screen time and so called comfort foods to numb ourselves to the poverty of everyday life. Framing the effect as an epidemic of obesity, however, encourages people to react to fat bodies as if they are diseased rather than emphasizing all the ways in which activity and nutrition are related to mental and physical health. It sends the message that the worst thing about a sedentary life and poor nutrition is that you may get (or stay) fat and shifts focus away from any larger conversation about the health effects of capitalism on our bodies.
A result of all this is that many people confuse ‘being healthier’ with ‘being thinner’ and are backed up by a medical establishment which overvalues the hazards of being fat and undervalues the hazards of feeling shitty about your body. By overestimating the relevance of weight to overall health, doctors and other well meaning medical professionals often fail to correctly diagnose ailments or recommend effective treatment. I have a friend who is fairly healthy and was told by her doctor to consider radical weight loss surgery before even being asked about her diet and lifestyle or having her blood work done. In an age of increasing healthcare costs, telling someone to lose 10 pounds and hoping the situation will resolve once they do is no substitute for actual preventative medicine.
Eating well and being active are definitely important things to do but they do not always make people smaller. Focusing on weight loss as the reason to be mindful about what we eat and how we move can turn eating and moving our bodies — two things that should feel good and be a joy — into shame filled activities; chores that we must attend to for the sake of a thinner future. My own resentment for the way that diet and exercise were pushed on me as a kid meant that it took a long time for me to realize I could think about eating and moving in healthy ways without attendant shame. I am not always the healthiest eater today, but when it comes to avoiding processed foods and eating leafy greens, I do at least as well as most of my thinner friends. I am not always as active as I want to be, but I walk and bike a lot and dance my ass off until two in the morning occasionally if I want to. I do feel better and healthier when I am eating and moving in healthier ways, but those periods do not neatly correspond to a dip in my BMI and generally have an inverse relationship to the times when I am more self conscious about being fat.
There is also a way in which the visibility of fat people means that when we do have health problems, we get judged for them in absurd ways. A fat person can be healthy for years, but if we ever do develop high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, or any of the other ten thousand ailments that have been connected to obesity (it seems like most have), it will be said that we could have prevented all of it by controlling our appetites. The effect is that fat sick people are often seen as responsible for their illnesses in ways that thinner people rarely are. This is despite quite a bit of medical evidence suggesting that fat people who lose weight usually gain it back and that repeated cycles of dieting and weight gain are far more detrimental to long term health than maintaining a stable ‘obese’ weight. It has even been shown by some studies that fatter than average people who develop heart disease and some other chronic illnesses later in life actually live longer than thinner counterparts*.
Beauty: Fat is Ugly
Often when people equate being fat with being unhealthy, though, they are not actually talking about health at all, they are talking about beauty or attractiveness.
I was on an internet dating site the other day and I saw a profile that said something to the effect of: “I’m not into meeting overweight people. I have worked too hard to be hot for that.” I don’t begrudge anyone for having romantic preferences, we all have patterns and preferences in the kind of people we gravitate towards or find ourselves attracted to. What bothers me about statements like the one above, besides the rude tone, is the way that they defend individual preferences by asserting that beauty (often encoded as health) is objective and implying that we are all clearly ranked in attractiveness relative to one another. This allows people to feel justified in devaluing bodies they are not attracted to without taking any responsibility for those judgments.
These sentiments are not uncommon; many ideas of beauty rest on a bed of unexamined assumptions about attraction that make expressing repulsion for certain types of bodies, including fat bodies, socially acceptable. This is clearly obnoxious for people who have bodies that are deemed ugly, but it is also disempowering for anyone who is compelled to compare themselves to an ideal they don’t match. It robs the person making the assessment of being able to recognize that they have the power to explore, negotiate, and be surprised by their attractions; that all of us are, in fact, idiosyncratic bundles of desire that have been shaped by a combination of proclivity, circumstance, and choice.
Any hierarchy of beauty that places thin or athletic bodies at the top inherently relegates fat bodies to ugliness. The problem is not who is at the top, but that the hierarchy exists at all. Standards of beauty are not natural; they are constructed and change over time. They are not necessarily linked to what is actually healthy or what individual people may or may not find attractive. For a long time chubby people were considered more attractive because chubbiness was connected to wealth, fertility, and not having to do hard physical labor or worry about going hungry. There have also been more recent periods where ultra thin bodies have been seen as ideally beautiful even though many people would be malnourished if they tried to force their bodies to conform to that standard. It is interesting to think about how these things change and what forces shape them, but it is dangerous to assume that our own bodies should conform to a fetishized style of the moment. Beauty is a useful concept only insofar as it maps onto our actual bodies and allows us to be open about our desires; to recognize that the world is impoverished when people are not able to see themselves as beautiful.
Personality: Fat and Lazy
The perceived relevance of body size in assessing health and beauty is often mirrored in assessments of personality. Fat people as a group are commonly assumed to be less intelligent, less hard working, and less likely to control their impulses than people who are not fat. Media representations of fat people often reinforce these stories; we are all familiar with fat characters that are either stupidly cheerful or slovenly and pathetic.
The story about fat people as lazy likely stems from the reductive idea that body size is directly related to appetites that are supposed to be controlled by force of will. Appetite, then, becomes a metaphor for the way that people deal with their intellectual or emotional lives. Thinness in the context of abundant food is seen as a symbol of self-control while fatness becomes a mark of laziness and a lack of control. Since it is also assumed that no one wants to be fat, becoming fat implies discontent or apathy and a lack of commitment on the part of the fat person to either get, or stay thin.
These default assumptions are not definitive, but they do shape first impressions and can form low-level expectations in the back of people’s minds that are easily confirmed. When people gain weight it is often seen as a sign that their lives are falling apart and when people lose weight, they usually get positive attention and are perceived as having their life in order regardless of their physical health or mental state. Often this means that fat people have to prove that they are in fact intelligent, active, or reliable despite their size. As with physical health, fat people that do feel tired, run down or less energetic on any given day are liable to have those things attributed to their weight.
Thinking about these things can lead one to question the whole concept of laziness as a vice and industriousness as a virtue. It reminds me of the way that the demands of industrial capitalism have shaped our ideas about which personal qualities are valuable and prepare us to be compliant workers. Hard working industriousness and periods of high productivity are seen as hallmarks of personal success worthy of admiration, while slow and deliberate minds that engage in extended periods of idle reflection — unless they exist in very specialized contexts — are seen as lazy and stupid. These are convenient values for power structures that see reflective time as time lost and frenetic time as time well spent. Learning to distrust the values we have been encouraged to embrace doesn’t mean we should simply invert them, but perhaps dismantling our assumptions about the morality of personal qualities can allow us space to be idle and productive without guilt and in ways that are less predictable to the bosses or the ad executives.
Why this matters to everyone
It’s true that fat people have to ignore strong societal messages in order to develop a healthy self image but people who are fat are not the only ones damaged by these stories; the fear of fat affects the way that many of us think about ourselves and others.
All of us have bodies and often our relationships to those bodies are not particularly empowering ones. I still go through periods where I feel less attractive and less connected to my body and I probably always will. Body size is also just one of the many axes along which we are judged and encouraged to judge. Gender, race, ethnicity, wellness, and ability are only some of the more obvious and prominent categories that have similarly rigid standards into which people find their bodies squeezed. But being fat has also made me who I am in ways that I do not regret, and coming to appreciate my body for what it is instead of resenting it for what it isn’t has had a powerful effect on my ability to connect with people and engage more fully with the world.
For all of us, learning how to be confident and comfortable with ourselves means figuring out what we need to be the people we want to be. This can include changing how we act and what we eat, but it also means revamping or abandoning concepts and stories that take power away from us and recognizing that shame, anxiety, and insecurity are not particularly useful tools for self assessment.
*The Fat Acceptance Movement, Health at Every Size (HAES), and Fat!So? by Marilyn Wann are good places to start looking for deeper treatments of this topic.