Let's Talk about Fatphobia

Culture tells us that thin bodies are the most attractive bodies. It also tells us that the best way to get a thin body is to consume fewer calories than what our bodies use up – the old “eat less, move more" advice.

There’s an interesting subtext lurking behind the statements above. When we convey these messages, we’re also propagating the idea that bodies that aren’t thin belong to people who are morally deficient in some way. We assume that thinness in every case can be simply achieved through disciplined diet and exercise and that a lack of discipline is what’s responsible for extra weight. Ergo, people who are not thin are lazy, indolent, and lacking in self-control. 

The reality is that diet and exercise are two in an assortment of factors that contribute to body composition, which have different proportional effects from individual to individual. But, this is a complex idea that has yet to take hold. At present, overweight people are far too often subjected to abuse stemming from our culture’s obsession with thinness. A study in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Health Psychology found that obese women experience up to three incidents a day of stigmatization based on their weight, not just from strangers, but also the people who are supposed to love and care about them the most. From a MinnPost article on the study:

“The most common experiences involved ‘physical barriers’ (84%), ‘nasty comments from others’ (74%), ‘being stared at’ (72%) and ‘others making negative assumptions’ (72%)…The most frequent sources of the nasty comments, by the way, were spouses, friends and family members.”

Our society seems to think it’s okay to level an overwhelming amount of abuse at overweight people, which is bizarre at best and sociopathic at worst. It seems as a group, we’ve come to believe that socially ostracizing these people is the key to making them change. 

This is not only a deeply un-generous behavior, it’s also ineffective. It should come as no surprise that this incessant shaming does not in fact encourage people to adopt healthier habits – on the contrary, if people who are overweight are already engaging in unhealthy behaviors, further stigmatization only makes these habits harder to break. People who have experienced fat-shaming have also been found to be more likely to binge eat and engage in other unhealthy behaviors. Again from the MinnPost:

“Healthful behaviors were less common among the women who reported higher numbers of stigmatizing events, a finding that is consistent with other evidence linking weight-related stigmatization to avoidance of exercise and to unhealthful eating habits. 

‘Healthful activities such as maintaining a diet and exercise regimen are already challenging for most individuals, but when the additional burden of weight stigmatization is added to daily life, these goals may become unattainable,’ write the authors.”

This sociological problem is at the heart of our obesity epidemic. Conquering it doesn’t start with callously spouting “eat less, move more” at people; it starts with cultivating a healthy sense of self-image so we can be kinder to ourselves, and most importantly, others – especially the people who are struggling the most.