You might have heard the terms fat-hate or fatphobia used to describe your words or what sounded to you like the reasonable words of others. Maybe you don’t hate fat people. Maybe you aren’t afraid of fat people. Maybe you aren’t less likely to hire fat people or otherwise oppress them. Maybe you have lots of fat friends.
Maybe you are fat yourself.
You might still be in the habit of saying things that contribute to the very real abuse of and discrimination against fat people. In case you’re a good person who wants to stop doing those things, I’ve tried to put together an inventory of ideas that contribute to the oppression of fat people. Some of these are big, some are small, but they all add up to a serious web of stigma that affects the quality of life for fat people.
Things to stop doing in conversations unless you want to contribute to the hatred of fat people:
1. Stating a specific size, shape, or weight that’s less okay.
- Example: “Women who are a little bigger are more attractive, but 400 pounds? No.”
- Example: “It’s okay to be plus-size as long as you don’t have fat rolls.”
Fat acceptance is for all fat people. If you draw a line – 400 lbs, 500 lbs, “apple”-shaped, people with mobility issues, etc – and say that people on one side of the line are okay and people on the other side aren’t, you are part of the problem.
2. Acting like a food coach whenever a fat person is eating “healthy” foods.
- Example: (When ordering a salad): “Good for you! You’re making such a healthy choice!”
How fucking condescending can you get? You don’t know anything about that person’s regular food choices or why they’ve chosen this particular item. Even if you did, how weird is it to make this kind of judgmental comment. Keep it to yourself!
3. Talking about food in moralistic terms.
- Example: Reader AmandaLP suggested, “The one that bugs me the most is ‘diet talk,’ or the constant justifying of food choices. ‘oh, I can have this cupcake, I deserve it, I worked out,’ as if people who don’t work out don’t ‘deserve’ tasty treats. Or the ‘No, I was bad for lunch so I’m having a salad,’ as if they have to punish themselves for eating tasty food.”
Food is lots of things. It’s comfort, it’s calories, it’s communion, it’s history and tradition, and it’s fucking yummy. Two things that it isn’t is GOOD or BAD (unless, you know, e coli). And you are not a good or bad person for eating.
4. Casually mentioning Cheetos, donuts, bonbons, or McDonalds in relation to a fat person.
- Example: “That guy must own stock in Cheetos,” as a way to jokingly say, “That guy is fat.”
Thin people also eat these foods. Gratuitously bringing them up in the context of fat people is making an inappropriate correlation between weight and certain foods.
- Example: My friend Kitty said, “[S]ometimes I get a shocked look and someone says, ‘wow, you are a good dancer’ like for some reason they had thought about me dancing before and decided it was unlikely that I would be able to.”
- Example: “She’s a really fast runner for her size!”
This kind of shock at fat people being active spans a wide spectrum. At one end, you have assholes leaning out of cars to ridicule fat people who are running or riding bikes. At the other end you have people who think they’re being encouraging with a condescending “good for you!” bestowed upon the exercising person.
If it doesn’t work for you to just stop being either condescending or an asshole (or both), consider this: one of the greatest human drives is the drive to fit in. When you call out someone for doing something weird or exceptional, even just by pointing it out, you are very likely to decrease their desire to continue with that activity.
Whatever motivation works for you fat people doing things isn’t weird, so just shut up.
Book Break! Want something fantastically ferocious to read? How about Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion by fat activist and sex educator Virgie Tovar. Read about the lives of fat, fabulous women in their own words as they celebrate the awesomeness of being fat. Writers include activists and artist like April Flores, Alysia Angel, Charlotte Cooper, Jessica Judd, Emily Anderson, Genne Murphy, and Tigress Osborn. Go-go dancing, queer dating, urban gardening? It’s amazing what makes up the fat life when you don’t shy away from the idea of fat.
6. Literally anything about dieting, eating less, or exercising more in the context of fatness.
You have the whole rest of the world to talk about dieting. 99% of the spaces in the world are perfectly welcoming to all kinds of speech about dieting and exercising. When you bring these things up in fat-positive conversations:
- You are stealing away the small amount of space we have carved out for ourselves.
- You are possibly triggering to fat people who are desperately trying to heal their relationships with food.
- You are probably jumping to conclusions, because you don’t have any idea what the eating and exercise habits are of the fat people in question.
- And you’re boring. There is nothing you can say about food and exercise that fat people haven’t heard over and over and over again.
7. Compulsively interjecting health into any conversation about fatness.
It has become nearly impossible to talk about fatness without talking about health, because there’s always someone on hand to bring it up. But as difficult as it may be, it’s important to separate these two ideas. Fatness is a body type. It’s a shape or a size. That’s IT.
We’ve all heard that fat people are at increased risk for certain diseases (diabetes is the popular one to joke about), and then our moral panic has taken that association and run with it. People with pale skin are at increased risk for skin cancer, but skin cancer isn’t casually tossed into conversations about them. There is simply no reason to bring up health every time the topic of fatness comes up.
8. Equating fat with health.
- Example: “I don’t understand this fat acceptance. Just because some people are fat and okay with it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be encouraging people to improve their health.”
- Example: “My mom has diabetes, doesn’t exercise, doesn’t eat healthy, and isn’t happy at her weight. I’m concerned about her health, so how can I be fat accepting?”
- Example: A recent cover of People magazine showed Jennie Garth and stated, “How I lost 30 lbs… The 90210 star opens up about getting healthy.”
See what’s happening there? Fat and health are two different things. You can be fat and healthy. You can be thin and unhealthy. You can be signing the praises of fat from the rooftops AND ALSO be promoting healthy lifestyle choices. You can “get healthy”, but it won’t lead to weight loss for most people. Weight and health are simply two different topics entirely.
Book Break! Want to read something just as mad about the obeeeeesity epidemic as I am? The Obesity Myth from Paul Campos bring you such biting commentary as “From the perspective of a profit-maximizing medical and pharmaceutical industry, then, the ideal disease would be one that never killed those who suffered from it, that could not be treated effectively, and that doctors and their patients would nevertheless insist on treating anyway. Luckily for it, the American health-care industry has discovered (or rather invented) just such a disease. It’s called ‘obesity’.”
9. Equating fat with anything other than fat.
- Example: In the previous example with the Jennie Garth magazine cover, “How I lost 30 lbs” was followed parenthetically by “(And got my life back)”.
- Example: An interactive graph at Scientific American (edit: removed broken link) is on a page titled “Bad Health Habits are on the Rise”. The items graphed are heavy drinking, binge drinking, tobacco use, obesity, and exercise.
Along with fat not being the same thing as health, fat isn’t the same thing as anything else, either. It certainly isn’t “your life”. It isn’t a “habit”, either. Also, have you noticed how many movie villains are fat? Or how many fictional fat characters are also slobs? Fat doesn’t mean evil or lazy or dirty or messy or anything other than fat. It’s just a body type. Don’t use it as a stand-in for other goals or characteristics.
10. Recommending weight loss as a treatment or solution to anything, even if you are a doctor.
- Example: “If you lost a few pounds, your acne would clear up, too” or “Once I lost weight, my allergies got a lot better.”
Since permanent, significant weight loss is not possible for most people, and since intentional weight loss itself may have negative health effects, recommending weight loss is cruel and unethical. Also, prescribing weight loss displaces real, working treatments. Everyone deserves to have their conditions taken seriously and treated with effective care, regardless of their size.
11. Storytelling about you or your fat relative who was/is fat and unhealthy.
- Example: You had an aunt who was fat and her knees hurt; or a brother who is really fat, hides food, and can’t walk very well; or your mom lost a bunch of weight and then she felt so much better, and you want to use those examples or tell their stories whenever weight comes up.
Here’s the thing: most people are not very good scientists. Just because you or your relative is fat and has bad knees doesn’t mean the two things are related. Just because you know someone who lost weight and then felt better doesn’t mean the “felt better” came from the weight loss and not, say, the daily yoga routine that person started. And even if you have a rock solid case for a connection between weight and some health thing, it definitely doesn’t mean that you telling your story will magically help some other fat person see the light. Fat people spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating that light. It’s not like we’re all just one inspirational/threatening story away from finally turning into thin people. These stories aren’t helpful.
12. Using the words overweight, obese, morbidly obese, unless you are specifically referencing medicine and medical literature.
A lot of people won’t agree with me on this one. Most people would say that these words are just categories with definitions. They are “factual”; they are science. But it’s incorrect to assume that the words of science don’t also convey morals and meaning. Overweight implies that there is a correct weight. The word obese has its roots in the idea of eating too much. Morbidly means sickly. All of these are medical terms, and using them conveys that fatness is a medical problem. This pathologizing of our bodies is harmful.
I sometimes use these terms when I am talking about the results of research, but as much as possible, I leave these terms out of my language.
13. Gratuitous mentions of food, inactivity, bodily processes, etc when discussing fat people.
Fat people have a certain image in our culture, as overeating, lazy slobs who sweat a lot and smell. If there’s a conversation going on about a person who is fat or about fat issues and you gratuitously insert a mention of someone’s food, how much they don’t exercise, their sweat or farts or thighs that touch, etc, you are building up that negative image. That image is harmful to ALL fat people, whether they fit the stereotype or not.
14. Mentioning your tax dollars when talking about size, weight, or health.
- Example: “Fat people’s health is my business as long as my tax dollars go to cover their care.”
Our tax dollars go to support all kinds of programs and people. We don’t get to pick and choose. People are allowed to take risks with their health, even if we are collectively on the hook for the costs of that health.
That being said, fat people don’t really affect our health care costs very much. Any reporting you see to the contrary is simply sensationalism. Check out Obesity and Health Care Costs from Ragen at Dances With Fat for more information on the exaggerated costs of fat people. I also love this conclusion by Ragen in Your Money and My Fat Ass:
“Even if you could prove that being fat makes me unhealthy (which you can’t). And even if you had a method that was scientifically proven to lead to successful long term weight loss (which you don’t). And even if there was proof that losing weight would make me healthier (which there isn’t). And even if you were going to go around yelling at smokers, drinkers, jay walkers, and thin people who don’t exercise (which you aren’t) this slope is still too slippery.”
15. Refocusing a fat-related conversation on thin people.
- Example: Recently I posted to my Google+ an incredibly poignant story about a fat trans man coming to terms with his fat body and the body of his fat father. Among other obnoxious things, one of my commenters tried to turn the conversation towards stigma against thin people at another time in history. That might be an interesting conversation to have but not when it’s butting into meaningful conversations about the lives of currently living fat people.
Almost no conversations are pro-fat. Almost no conversations support fat people and their concerns. If one of those conversations is occurring and you bring up thin people, what you’ve done is called “derailing”. It sends a huge message that you don’t think fat people are important, and you don’t want to listen to what they have to say.
Book Break! Want to read something about being healthy and pursuing greater health without obsessing over your size or the number on the scale? Enter Linda Bacon, a pioneer in research that challenges the anti-fat status quo. Health At Every Size uses scientific research to point you towards a more intuitive relationship with food and movement. It’s possible to improve your health and your self-esteem without trying to make yourself smaller. Health At Every Size is kind of revolutionary while also being utterly simple.
16. Going on and on and on about your opinion.
This one applies to all kinds of conversations where you have a disagreement or where you’re the newcomer to the concepts. Asking, “But isn’t being fat bad for your health?” will bug me, but it’s a far cry better than going on for 20 minutes at me about how being fat is bad for your health and that’s why it’s okay you have these offensive, harmful views about fat people.
17. Making any statements about “childhood obesity”.
“Childhood obesity” is a political buzzword. When you say those two words it doesn’t just mean “fat kids”. (It does mean at least that. Every time you hear “childhood obesity” replace it in the sentence with “fat kids” and see what that reveals about the agenda.) “Childhood obesity” is a shorthand for a moral and political platform that spans food morality/policing, issues of class warfare, and pathologizing more bodies for profit.
Here’s the bottom line: we don’t know exactly what makes kids fat or whether it’s a problem that they are and we definitely don’t have any idea whatsoever how to make a fat kid into a thin kid. Anytime you hear people (that includes you!) blaming childhood obesity on something, they are talking out of their asses. What I can tell you is that turning on the news and hearing that there’s a war on your body type sucks for adults and double sucks for kids. Stop saying “childhood obesity” as if it has anything to do with caring about fat kids.
18. Focusing on (usually heterosexual) attractiveness in general.
- Example: “At least being bigger means you have bigger boobs, too!”
- Example: “It’s okay, honey, men like women with a few curves.”
These types of statements are ostensibly trying to be helpful, even complimentary. However, all they really do is reiterate that the important thing is being sexually attractive to men.
19. Suggesting that a fat person do something or not do something in order to look less fat or more flattering.
- Example: “I don’t think that’s the right style dress for you. Here, this cut would be more flattering to your shape,” or “This shape of glasses will work best with your round face.”
- Example: “Someone her size shouldn’t be wearing THAT!”
- Example: All clothing products that are advertised as “slimming”.
Whether or not a fat person should wear striped clothes, have a certain haircut, go out in a bikini, etc is entirely up to the fat person in question. “Flattering” is a system of control, trying to wedge us all into tiny boxes. Fuck flattering!
20. Referring to fatness as a thing that deservedly happens to bad people.
- Example: Pointing out your evil exboyfriend in the crowd and cooing gleefully, “Hahaha, he’s gotten so fat!”
If you are a nice, non-fat-hating person, maybe you’re thinking this one goes without saying. But I had the example situation happen right in front of me by a close friend. People’s bodies change over time, and that shouldn’t be much of a surprise except that our culture tries so hard to make us struggle to stay 23 years old. But listen: if it fills you with joy when fatness is inflicted on your enemies, that means you think fatness is a terrible thing. At least keep it to yourself.
21. Any statements that imply that it’s not okay to be fat, that people shouldn’t get fat, or that people should try to weigh less.
- Example: “I don’t understand why someone would let themselves get that fat.”
- Example: “I’m happy with my body the way it is, but I wouldn’t want to get any bigger.”
We don’t know how to make fat people into thin people or thin people into fat people. It’s okay for the people who are fat to be fat. Fat isn’t a horrible thing that we need to try desperately to avoid.The only horrible thing is the amount of abuse heaped onto the backs of fat people.
One more book for you. You know #21 there about how you shouldn’t imply that it’s not okay to be fat? Yeah. That’s because it is. If you need help with that idea, here’s FAT!SO? From Marilyn Wann, a brilliantly funny, sweetheart of a lady. A fat one! FAT!SO? is a mix of reporting, essays, true stories from real people, quizzes, illustrations, quotes, comeback lines, superhero trading cards, and a Venus of Willedorf dressup cutout. How’s that for a grab-bag of different ways to inspire you? Get inspired to be the fabulous, fantastic, fat person you are!
Edited conclusion: While originally I welcomed comments on this post, 4 days and 400 comments later I’m pretty much over it. Almost no comments are making it through moderation. Some positive comments will still trickle through, but if you are here to argue, explain, or even just take a tone I don’t like, I probably won’t approve your comment. You might think you have something useful to say, but trust me, I’ve heard it all before, explained myself till I’m blue in the face, and I just don’t care. There’s a whole wide world of fat acceptance writing on the internet for you if you really want answers to your arguments and questions.