Diana Polekhina

Unpacking fatphobia

As we head into autumn, put your hands up if thoughts of mulled cider and hot chocolate are marred by a disciplinarian voice in the back of your head (which most likely takes on the persona of your Mother, Aunt or Grandmother), which shouts the word “fat” at you before you can put anything in your mouth. While many of us spent the summer obsessing over being “beach ready”, as the long nights begin to draw in we continue counting calories and watching what we eat. Well, if you find that shrill puritanical voice rearing its ugly head yet again, you’re not alone. But it is worth asking, why, in the first place, have we become so afraid of the word ‘fat’, and why has this otherwise objective term come to be recognised as such a loaded and damning insult to be avoided at all possible costs? The answer: sizeism. It is everywhere, it is all around us; it is in the workplace, in education, transport, healthcare, and access to the commons, it is inside us and it socialises each and every one of us. 

Born in the year 2000, the Wii Fit in the corner of the room, I’d be hard pressed to tell you a time in my life when my parents weren’t dieting, that my friends weren’t being dragged along to weight-watchers appointments, and that after the age of six, I wasn’t wishing to lose weight or change my body. I want to establish straight away that I am a thin white woman, I am in a body that is widely accepted and faces minimal discrimination. By the accident of birth, I have lived out the security and privilege that this affords. However, my own experiences of living with an eating disorder and more significantly, my later recovery from one, have shown me first-hand the very lived human consequences of a thin-obsessed society. Of course, recovery from something like that entails far more than physical rehabilitation. It entails entire cognitive reconditioning, and as such, one begins to notice not only the prejudices, biases, and fears of one’s own mind, but those external and common to society at large.

It was only recently that I began to recognise the narratives of weight stigma and obsessions with thinness for the radically exclusive, dangerous and socially powerful tools that they are. Disciplining our food intakes and exercise, remaining thin, what wonderful apparatus these all are for imposing mass docility! The millennia wasted, the collective time we could have spent working on personal projects, exacting social change, pursuing creative endeavours, or just simply enjoying our lives, rather than hyper-fixating on the number on the scale, is enough to inspire mass weeping. The need to discipline our bodies, to manipulate our weights and conform to a body politic has become a fait accompli, a set of internalised behaviours and necessities which we must observe and that by definition are exclusive and discriminatory.

You could castigate me for ‘promoting fatness’ and overlooking the risks associated with obesity, and whilst it is true that rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and cardiovascular disorders are higher amongst larger body types, let me first propose that we have never conducted a study with such findings outside of a fatphobic society. The discrimination faced by fat people everyday – which excludes them from health care procedures, which means they are more likely to be overlooked for promotion at work, which inadvertently encourages bullying and disordered relationships to food and the body, which means that they have to plan their life around accessibility to transport and public access, not to mention navigating the ubiquitous criticism, jokes and dismissal from others – may just be in itself a key driver of these conditions (all of which we know to be encouraged by stress) amongst the ‘fat’ population irrespective of their body size, and there is next to no legislation in our society to prevent this. 

But it is not as if diet culture and fatphobia only impact the lives of those in larger bodies. Eating disorders affect people of all sizes, ages, genders and ethnicities, and unlike our narrowly received ideas about body inclusivity, eating disorders do not discriminate. The commonly conceived image of the emaciated young white woman serves no more purpose than to romanticise the grim realities of fatal and isolating psychiatric conditions, while preventing people with body types and demographics from seeking the help they deserve. It may shock you, but only 6% of people with eating disorders are actually underweight. While the first port of call for someone reaching out with an eating disorder should be their GP, with insufficient training and a healthcare system rooted in discriminatory logic, many will find themselves invalidated and turned away on the premise that they simply are not thin enough. This is exactly what I was told at the age of 18 when I first sought help, the effect of which I need not describe. Imagine a doctor reinforcing the bias of an alcoholic by telling them they don’t have a problem…

So it seems there are conversations to be had. Conversations with your nagging Mother, Aunt and Grandmother, with your medical practitioner and with yourself. Conversations that most importantly work to deconstruct the demonisation of the word fat and the people that it describes. Fat people deserve the dignity to exist in peace and do not owe you, or anyone else, thinness or health (not even your mother or your aunt). Conversations around fatphobia are not just about the liberation of fat people, but about the liberation of all of us, so that we can collectively reclaim our lives from the authoritarian logic underpinning a diet-obsessed culture, and begin to invest fully in inclusivity and the enjoyment of our time shared together on this planet. Fat is not a dirty word, it is an objective term, an adjective that has been slandered by a discriminatory and derisive body politic. Fat is just a word, and those signified by it deserve the dignity of having it returned to that alone.

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