It’s hard to grow up in the world that we live in and not have body image issues. No matter what you look like, you undoubtedly have been exposed to advertising or messaging that tells you there is something wrong with the way you look. From “detox” teas to “anti-aging” skincare products to shapewear, someone somewhere is constantly telling us that there is something we need to change about ourselves, that we are never enough.
While it’s important for us to acknowledge the realities of our experiences and talk about our body image issues, it’s equally important—if not more so—to be mindful of the fact that despite our personal issues with our bodies, some of us have a certain degree of privilege depending on the way our bodies are perceived by others. That’s why we need to be sensitive and inclusive in the language we use when we talk about our body image issues.
Given the negative body talk we’ve been exposed to since childhood, it’s inevitable for us to have issues with our body image—even if we are not fat.
I’ve grown up with body image issues almost my whole life. From the time I was in the third grade, family members began commenting on my weight. Those comments became more frequent and more critical as I became older and showed no signs of getting thinner. Being surrounded by these comments—the nicknames about being fat, the policing of what I could wear to hide my shape—reinforced in me the idea that I was fat, and that being fat was something bad. It would be years later before I discovered the fat positive and body liberation movements and realized my body was never the problem—society was.
In 2016, a study found that the average American woman’s size is between 16 and 18—sizes that are often considered plus size territory, as most mainstream retailers only go up to size 12 or 14. Despite this, our understanding of women’s body sizes is warped by the lack of body diversity in media. I stagger between size 12 and 14 myself, and I rarely see women whose bodies look like mine star in films, television, or advertisements. With the exception of plus size brands, I almost never see models of my size when online shopping for clothes. Even in plus size fashion, models wear padding to fit into different sizes, and to create the “ideal” hourglass shape of larger breasts, butt, and thighs paired with a slim waist. The notion of an “ideal” body is so pervasive that it’s no wonder so many of us struggle with our body image in some way or another.
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I cannot claim the word fat for myself—by conventional standards, I’m not fat. Still, I am hyperaware of all the parts of my body that are deemed flawed by societal standards. I’ve spent years feeling insecure about the way my abdomen looks in form-fitting clothes, my “double chin,” and the way my thighs look when I’m sitting down in shorts. All these supposed flaws stem from the pervasive fatphobia in our society that tells us characteristics associated with fatness are unattractive. So although I am allowed to feel the insecurities that I’ve internalized, I have to acknowledge that fatphobia lies at the root of these insecurities.
While our own personal body image issues are real and valid, recognize that they are not equivalent to the fatphobia and size discrimination fat people face on a regular basis.
Fatphobia can manifest in many forms, such as job discrimination, workplace harassment, and more. One of the clearest examples is in the fashion industry. For the most part, I can walk into a clothing store and usually find something I like that’s in my size. Anyone who’s a size 16 or above—and sometimes even a size 14—is likely to find that their sizes aren’t offered at many places. The internet is full of articles about how difficult it is for fat women to find clothes in their size. When plus size women do find clothing in their size, it’s often limited in variety—almost as if plus sizes are considered an afterthought in the fashion industry.
Even worse, medical discrimination against fat people is rampant. There are numerous accounts of medical providers fat shaming patients—for example, recommending weight loss as a treatment for fat patients while recommending different treatments for thinner patients. Because our culture sees fatness as a health problem, doctors sometimes dismiss fat patients’ symptoms and concerns as a result of their weight, resulting in underdiagnosis. What’s more, fat people who have eating disorders often slip under the radar and are praised for their weight loss, whereas thin people would be offered treatment.
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While I may feel insecure about my body, I know that I don’t face the same judgments and discrimination that fat people face. Doctors haven’t recommended weight loss to me as a solution to my health concerns, and people don’t generally make assumptions about my health just by my size. And when I go shopping, it’s not all that difficult for me to find something in my size. It’s important to understand the privileges we have so that we can be careful about the language we use when we discuss our body image issues.
People say a lot of fatphobic things all the time—often without meaning to—when they express their insecurities about their bodies. This is harmful and it needs to stop.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out with friends—friends who are thinner than me—when they said something fatphobic either to describe their eating habits or express their discontent with their own bodies. Statements expressing disgust or shame at eating large meals or fatty foods, or judgments about having “muffin tops” or “flabby arms” are only a few examples. Likewise, I’ve seen thin friends call themselves “fat” as a joke during meals, not realizing the potential impact of their words. Because fatphobia is so often the underlying cause behind our body image issues, it’s easy for us to use oppressive language when talking about our bodies and our insecurities.
We need to think about the real meanings behind what we’re saying when we talk about our body image issues. When you complain about “feeling fat” or “looking fat,” what you’re really saying is that fatness is bad—essentially using fat folks as a punchline in describing your insecurities. The same is true when you talk about your desire to lose weight or work on getting a “beach body.” Every time we make these statements—every time we do so without thinking about their true meaning—we reinforce the fatphobia that marginalizes and hurts fat people every day.
Instead, we need to be honest about the privilege that some of us have. We have all been conditioned to dislike our bodies in some way—usually as a result of fatphobic messages—but unless we are fat, those perceptions are usually only within ourselves. On the other hand, fat people have their appearance, lifestyle, and health subject to scrutiny all the time, from family to doctors to strangers passing by the street. That’s not to mention the amount of fat shaming we see everywhere—such as the “fat Monica” jokes on Friends and the weight loss tips on the covers of women’s health magazines—that serves to remind fat folks that their bodies are deemed “undesirable.” When we acknowledge the fatphobia that is so often behind our body image issues—and when we accept that we do not face size discrimination in the way that fat folks do—we can become more critical about our own feelings about our bodies and the language we use to talk about our insecurities.
[Featured Image: A black and white image of a person with medium length hair and a bang over left eye. They are wearing a sweater and photographed from the shoulders up. Pexels.com]