The idea that people who are actively against racism, sexism, and homophobia (a.k.a 'woke') could also be wildly fatphobic has been bothering me. In fact, this topic has been on mind so much that I felt compelled to put my words down on paper.
But before I get started, there are a few disclaimers I want to get out of the way:
- I acknowledge my thin privilege and have never experienced discrimination based on the size of my body
- I'm not an expert on this topic, I'm writing what I've observed
- I'm not speaking for people who have been and are victims of fatphobia
- I use the word 'fat' as a descriptor, not as judgment of another person's character or worthiness
- Content warning for fat phobic comments
- Finally, this is an invitation for all of us to do better
Recently I scrolled past a Twitter thread posted by a black woman about the history of police brutality in major U.S. cities, complete with facts, stats, and her own commentary.
Her final tweet ended with #blacklivesmatter.
It turns out that she's active in her community and online, with a pretty big following. I kept scrolling to see more of her posts and I thought "Cool, she looks like someone I could learn from".
But when I got about 20 tweets deep, I came across this:
"Women, stop saying that fat is beautiful cuz it's not...LOL". There were several others like it.
This is an example of someone who has taken a clear stance for justice and equity while openly expressing disdain for fatness.
This is fatphobia in a woke space.
And it's not the only example I've seen: black fitness experts speaking out against racism in the the fitness world, but still perpetuating the idea that fat is undesirable, unnatural and therefore should be fixed. Or a well-known anti-racism educator suggesting that women beyond certain size shouldn't wear leggings.
A few years ago I wouldn't have thought there was anything wrong with any of this. Sadly, I probably would've even been in agreement. But after the work I've done in the past year to unlearn the messages I've been taught about fatness, it makes me sick. I now see how our desire to marginalize plus-sized bodies is inconsistent with our desire for collective liberation.
We live in a culture that demonizes fatness and has a pathological obsession with being thin. And there's no doubt in my mind that diet culture, and the weight stigma it perpetuates, are an assault on our humanity.
And while folks may think that a few fat jokes sprinkled into casual conversation are harmless, they're often the gateway to justifying mistreatment and humiliation.
Fatphobia is embedded into so many aspects of our culture that it feels normal for us to believe that being fat is wrong and should therefore be left out of social justice conversations.
Often, discrimination against people of size is justified as "motivation" for them to lose weight and get 'healthy', but research suggests that it's harmful and counterproductive:
- Negative attitudes and stereotypes about body fat held by healthcare providers and wellness practitioners can result in inadequate preventive screenings and delayed treatment for serious illness (1)
- The stigma associated with living in a larger body can cause psychological stress and decreased quality of life
- The prevalence of weight-based discrimination is catching up with race-based discrimination (2)
I know that statistics and facts don't always sway opinions, but I hope there's one thing we can agree on:
We all deserve to exist peacefully in our bodies.
This fatphobic culture has given folks the green light to treat fat as a condition to be avoided at all costs. We act like we've been given a permission slip to treat people in larger bodies with disrespect and deny their humanity.
And once someone is considered to be less than human, exclusion, marginalization, and abuse become easy next steps.
I have no doubt that fat liberation should be included in our work towards social justice. It makes sense that the work to eliminate dehumanizing policies and practices based on color, gender, ability, and sexuality should extend to body size.
As Audre Lorde said "...among those of us who share goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchy of oppression." (3)
When we exclude people from the liberation conversation, the systems that we oppose get to remain firmly intact and our work towards equity and justice is incomplete.
As I mentioned at the start, this is an invitation for all of us to do better. I know first-hand how difficult it is to challenge and change long-held beliefs about weight. It can take a lifetime to untangle this mess because many of us have our own complicated history with food and body image, BUT there are some things that we can do right now:
- Become educated and informed. In the past year, I've learned a lot from people like Ashleigh Shackelford and Ragen Chastain. I've included articles written by them in the suggested reading list below.
- Challenge the idea that a person's humanity is contingent upon their body size. Do whatever it takes to reject the idea that human dignity has a weight limit.
- Speak out when you see fatphobia in action. This is what I should've done when I saw those tweets, but I didn't. Staying silent makes us complicit in the dehumanization of people simply because of the body they're in. I’m committed to doing better.
I hope you are too.
P.S. You can also listen to me and Christy Harrison discuss fat phobia in woke spaces on the Food Psych podcast.
Your fat stigma is racist- here are 6 ways to shift that, by Caleb Luna
There is no social justice without bodies by Linda Bacon
The body positivity movement still looks a lot like white feminism by Ashleigh Shackelford (also, don't forget to drop a few coins in support of Ashleigh's brilliance and work: Support Ashleigh's art )
4 Problems with the trauma-leads-to-fatness narrative by Virgie Tovar
1. Puhl RM, Heuer CA. Obesity Stigma: Important considerations for public health. Am J Public Health. 2010 June;100(6): 1019–1028.
2. Puhl RM, Andreyeva T, Brownell KD. Perceptions of weight discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America. Int J Obes (Lond) 2008;32(6):992–1000
3. Lorde A. There is no hierarchy of oppressions.