I, as a life-long fat person, have been the target of weight stigma and fatphobia ever since I can remember, only I had no idea that what I was experiencing was a form of prejudice. I figured I deserved it, since I was fat and all. Then, a few years ago, I was introduced to the world of fat activism and body acceptance. That was when I learned about weight stigma and fatphobia, and it completely changed my world.
What is Weight Stigma/Fatphobia?
This is one of the first questions fat activists often need to tackle when introducing people to the broad world of fat activism. I remember when I was first introduced to the terms ‘weight stigma’ and ‘fatphobia’ I found myself thinking ‘so, is it like gender stigmatisation? Or homophobia?’
The answer is, in short, yes.
Weight stigma in general refers to negative attitudes and behavior made towards fat people; attitudes and behavior that mean fat people are not able to participate in every day society the same way that thinner people are. It is theoretically similar to gender stigmatisation affecting people of minority genders, except here it is happening to fat people.
Fatphobia is, in simplest terms, a dislike of fat people and/or obesity. Again, theoretically, it is similar to homophobia, except here the dislike is being aimed at fat people.
There is a wide variety of ways in which both of these social phenomena manifest themselves. Here are some common examples:
- In employment, fat employees are often seen as lazy, sloppy, disagreeable, less conscientious, etc. They tend to be paid less for the same jobs, have lower paying jobs, and are promoted less often than their thinner counterparts.
- In education, fat students (from kindergarten right through to higher level university) are often the victims of bullying and are viewed negatively or treated less well by teachers and other educators.
- In dating/relationships, fat people are seen as unattractive and disgusting – the sort who are only dated by people who ‘cannot do any better’, or by people who have a fat fetish, which is also seen it itself as unattractive and disgusting.
- In the fashion world, fat bodies are inadequately catered for, with less than half of the main high-street retailers catering for customers above a UK size 16 (despite that being the nation average in the UK), and fewer still catering for anybody above a UK size 20.
- In medicine, fat patients are overwhelmingly viewed in a negative light by doctors, nurses, dieticians, etc. They are seen as lazy, unintelligent, weak-willed, and uncaring about their personal health. As a result they are frequently mistreated, misdiagnosed, and flat-out denied medical treatment.
Who Is Affected by Weight Stigma/Fatphobia?
Weight stigma and fatphobia have an impact on fat people, as they are the direct victims of both of these phenomena. What is perhaps not quite so apparent is that weight stigma and fatphobia have an impact on thin people too, and that impact is far from positive.
As mentioned previously, weight stigma and fatphobia have a direct negative impact on fat people’s day-to-day lifestyle. Fat people find that they have, among other things:
- Fewer job opportunities
- Less respect from their academic leaders and peers
- Fewer dating/relationship opportunities
- Fewer clothing options
- Less chance of being treated seriously and with respect by anybody in the medical profession.
As well as these immediate consequences, there are the after effects of constantly being subjected to these stigmatising attitudes and behaviors.
To put it succinctly, weight stigma and fatphobia victimize fat people, and create a societal norm whereby it is acceptable, and indeed expected, for fat people to be stigmatised against.
As I mentioned in the Overview, until a few years ago I myself truly believed I deserved to be treated unfairly. As a result of this societal norm, fat people suffer from, among other things:
- Higher rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation
- A two to three times higher chance of engaging in suicidal thoughts and behaviors
- Higher rates of engaging in dangerous weight control and binge eating behaviors
- Lower rates of physical activity
- Lower rates of participation in preventative health services
Although some of these specific facts might seem surprising to many, there is a general understanding among the populace that fat people have a hard time of it. As well as causing fat people to suffer, weight stigma and fatphobia also cause thin people to be afraid of becoming fat, thereby increasing the pressure to stay thin at any and all costs.
There happens to be a lot of evidence out there (scientific, peer-reviewed studies and everything) concluding that being fat is, actually, not bad for a person’s health. But the actual evidence doesn’t matter here, because the argument that fat is bad for one’s health is never made out of concern for fat people’s health. It is instead an argument made to justify being explicitly weight stigmatising and fatphobic. And because the ‘fat is bad for you’ myth is so accepted in our society, it is an extremely effective method of justification.
Do not be fooled, Dear Reader: explicitly weight stigmatising and fat phobic people are not concerned about fat people. They just enjoy bullying fat people and don’t want to have to give up that privilege.
What Can I Do About Weight Stigma/Fatphobia?
Neither of these social phenomena are going to be cured overnight. Weight stigma and fatphobia need to be heard about, acknowledged, and challenged. Here are a couple of easy ways in which you can join the fight, whether you yourself are fat or thin:
1. Spread the word about weight stigma and fatphobia.
These issues are not as well known about as they could or should be, and it is impossible to acknowledge the existence of something without knowing about it in the first place. Feel free to tell people about this 101, or link them to articles and explanations of weight stigma/fatphobia and its effects. Also, feel free to let them know, in no uncertain terms, if they are behaving in weight stigmatising or fatphobic
2. Get talking to some (other) fat people.
This might sound silly, but it is important. It is likely that everybody reading this article knows at least one (other) fat person. If they are at all interested (and remember, they have every right to not be interested), get talking to them about their lives and what they do with themselves from day to day. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much they defy the lazy/ugly/uncaring/slobby stereotype fat people are burdened with. If you already know some fat people really well, or you yourself are a fat person, take a moment to think about their/your lifestyle/s. Again, you might be surprised with what you realize.
3. Lastly, start to challenge any weight stigmatising or fatphobic thoughts you find yourself having.
For example, if you see a fat person walking by and find yourself thinking something like ‘ooh, she’s had a few dinners’ or ‘I hope they’re taking care of themselves’, take a minute or two to stop, consider what you have just thought, and challenge it. Remind yourself that you do not know these people, and that you cannot assume from looking at them that they are big eaters or that they don’t take care of themselves. Also, what concern is it of yours what their lifestyle habits are? This might not seem like it will do much, but this is how you can train your mind out of thinking weight stigmatising or fatphobic
If you yourself are negatively impacted by weight stigma or fatphobia, here are some things you can do to help yourself, and hopefully lower the impact weight stigma and fatphobia have on your life:
4. Learn to appreciate your body.
I know, this could very well sound ridiculous. But I cannot emphasize enough how important it is. If you have spent years and years hating your body, and having the addition of weight stigma and fatphobia telling you that you should hate your body, then learning to not hate it is going to take some time. But it can be done. Trust me. There are some great resources both online and offline (some of which are even available right here on The Body Is Not An Apology #shamelessplug) that can help you to learn to appreciate your body.
I recommend starting small, with a body part you like (it was legs and nose, for me), and identifying what it is you love about it. Then move on to other parts of the body, ending with what you might consider the ‘worst’ parts (belly and second chin, for me). There is also getting to know different parts of the body and how they work. What makes them different? Is it good? Is it bad? Experiment with a few different techniques and see what works for you, and don’t give up if there are techniques that don’t work. Learning to appreciate your body is the most powerful armor you can possibly have against weight stigma and fatphobia.
5. Call people out/set boundaries.
This is much easier said than done, but it does still need to be said. You are, above all else, a human being, and you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. If somebody in your family or friendship group says something to you or acts in a way that is weight stigmatising or fatphobic, tell them about it. You do not have to get angry or upset (but feel free to get angry AND upset if that’s what you want/need to do).
You can simply say “listen, saying/doing that makes me uncomfortable. Please don’t do it again.” If they are good people and they respect you, they will stop their offensive behavior. If they don’t stop, feel free to remind them again, as many times as you can tolerate. If they carry on being disrespectful, you might want to consider my final suggestion just below.
More Radical Reads: 5 Myths That Are Keeping You From Having a Fabulous Fattitude
6. Cut disrespecting people out of your life.
This is an even easier one to say and a still harder one to do, but still, it needs to be said. Sad though it is, there could very well be people in your life who refuse to treat you with the respect you deserve. If that is the case, it might be worth considering cutting them from your life. This might seem like a drastic move. You might think something like “Never see or talk to them again? Over a few fat jokes?” But in a way it doesn’t matter how trivial the point of disrespect might seem. You would not stand for it if somebody was causing a friend of yours harm, so why should you stand for it yourself?
More Radical Reads: My Body Acceptance Journey
What Does This Have to Do with Radical Self Love?
Like every type of stigma and prejudice out there, weight stigma and fatphobia teach society to see a certain type of body as a body undeserving of love, whether that be self-love or love from others. Love for a fat body is seen as disgusting, as something that encourages obesity and the myriad of problems supposedly caused by it, as perverted, as abnormal. As far as myself and the rest of us at The Body is Not an Apology are concerned, that is unacceptable, and our work is about dealing with anything that might prevent us all from being able to radically love not just ourselves, but everybody and every body.
In order to continue producing high quality content and expanding the message of radical, unapologetic self-love, we need to build a sustainable organization. To meet these efforts, we’re thrilled to share the launch of our #NoBodiesInvisible subscription service. This service will provide our community with access to additional content and rewards for your monthly investment in furthering our radical self-love work.
[Feature Image: A fair-skinned person with long blonde hair is standing outside in the sun. The person is wearing red lipstick, a red scarf and denim jacket with a serious look on their face and stern brown eyes.]