The idea that obesity rates have been skyrocketing is a myth. Overall the average weight gain is 15 pounds more than it was 30 years ago. So this “obesity epidemic” that you’ve been hearing about from public health officials and Michelle Obama is just another way of saying there is a war on fat people.
As a fat person (yes, we in the fat-positive community prefer the term fat to describe ourselves because there is nothing wrong with the word or with being fat) it is hard not to see that the war on fatness is sending a message loud and clear: fat people shouldn’t exist. This message is getting through to children as young as 5-years-old, who are going on self-imposed diets that sometimes lead to eating disorders. It’s a message that damages self-worth, creates shame, and makes people feel like they don’t belong. And it’s a message that has led to 60 billion dollars a year in profits for the fitness, fashion, health magazine, beauty product, plastic surgery, and pharmaceutical industries, which purport to want to “help” people appear “more attractive” by Western standards or become “more healthy” (read: thin).
This large profit-motive incentivizes a non-stop propaganda campaign to convince people that they need to lose weight. As a socialist and a fat person, I know that the success of capitalist fat propaganda relies on how “well” it makes people feel bad about themselves – and how well it gets the masses to internalize and then promote its message.
By the stigmatizing of fatness, fat people have become easy targets of discrimination and bullying. People are socialized to want to avoid becoming what is seen as one of the worst things on earth to be – fat. It makes bullying fat children acceptable, whether it comes from other children, adults, doctors, or their parents. It allows for ridiculous stereotypes that associate fatness with unattractiveness, laziness, and stupidity to remain unchallenged. And it places the blame on fat people.
Discrimination and bullying create a lot of suffering for fat people. The consequences can manifest as employment discrimination and lost wages and the lack of proper healthcare. Fat discrimination also leads to mental-health consequences such as depression and anxiety, not to mention the health impact of constant dieting, which most fat people feel pressured to do despite the fact that it’s unhealthy.
The acceptance of fat shaming blinds people to the fact that fat is not black and white. It is actually quite complex, and scientists are still trying to figure it out.
Fat is mostly genetic. It’s also partly environmental. There are environmental factors that contribute to fatness including chemicals, toxins, stress, poverty, hunger, and lack of access to healthy food. In fact, the majority of Americans eat genetically modified and processed foods because that is what most grocery stores sell. These food products have become more affordable because the government gives corporations subsidies for them.
Moreover, we do not yet know the full impact of genetically modified foods or some of the chemical processes on our health, bodies, and well being. What we do know is processed food products tend to be high in fat, sugar, and salt and are made with chemicals and artificial ingredients, which may contribute to weight gain. Most of our meat comes from factory farms that pump animals full of chemicals and antibiotics. Our fish comes from chemical-laden waters that are being destroyed and polluted by mega corporations. These chemicals are often hormone disruptors, which impact our bodies in ways that scientists are still trying to figure out. The food system is a social problem that demands social solutions.
Indoctrination against fat also ignores the economic reality of poor people. If you are poor, you are more likely to live in a food desert, where there is limited to no access to fresh produce. Forget about something like a farmer’s market; low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have a liquor store than a grocery store. This kind of food scarcity creates hunger, which contributes to changes in health and weight. People who live in low-income areas tend to breathe in more chemicals in the air from factories, plants, and refineries, car smog, and congestion than those who do not. These chemicals impact the human body in ways that scientists are still trying to uncover.
Poverty and its connection to ill health calls for us to create community based social change, not shame. What you also won’t hear from fat bias is that blaming and shaming people for being fat is not only futile, it’s counter-productive. Shame is not a motivator. Shame is what drives people into the darkness. Some fat people don’t even want to be seen because they are afraid to be judged, ridiculed, and rejected.
Because of the stigma, fat people are less likely to seek medical care or take care of themselves. There have been countless times that doctors have lectured me about my weight in ways that don’t inspire me to want to visit the doctor. Numerous doctors have recommended stomach-stapling surgery to me, even though this procedure is known to be extremely dangerous, often leading to starvation and malnutrition. But fat propaganda teaches us that these money-making surgeries and health risks are worth it.
I’ve even been denied medical care because dental offices didn’t have blood pressure cuffs that fit me and they were afraid I would die and sue them if they treated me because I have high blood pressure, which is being treated with medication. Reasonable accommodations, like blood pressure cuffs that fit and chairs with no arms should be made available for people with larger bodies, but fat people are seen as a nuisance and treated like burdens.
When fat people avoid health professionals it has adverse consequences on our health and well-being. The improper treatment and discrimination by health professionals of fat people is unethical. It is unacceptable that fat people are being systematically harmed by the very people who are supposed to protect us.
Fat propaganda doesn’t want you to know that fat is not a choice and there is very little that can actually be done to control weight in the long-term. Studies show that 95 percent of people who lose weight gain it back. But the propaganda, combined with the shame and humiliation, induce fat people – and people who are afraid of becoming fat – to engage in yo-yo dieting, which is bad for your health.
The source of fat is most likely some interplay between various factors, and those factors impact different people in different ways. Causation isn’t always correlation. While we know that as a society we are fatter, but we are also living longer. We evolved to maintain body weight as a way to survive. And it worked. Our nutrition, though not the best, is still better than it has ever been throughout history, and it’s helping us to live longer lives. Our goal should be to live more healthy lives, but our society makes it hard to do that. Anti-fat hype and the capitalist machine behind it don’t want you to think about that.
Between the scare tactics, the blame, and the stigma, it’s no wonder that many fat people are anxious, self-conscious, and stressed. This shame and humiliation is repeated in social settings, in school, in workplaces, in the dating scene, and even in our families, where we’re constantly nagged to lose weight. When treated like this, some fat people become depressed and withdrawn. They isolate in order to protect themselves from being hurt. The resulting health consequences, both physical and mental, can be devastating.
The Intersections of Fatness
Recently, I read all of my childhood and young adulthood journals and diaries and noticed one common theme: I was desperately trying to lose weight so I would be loved. For a long time, I believed the message that fat people are unlovable and undesirable. And thus I carried a deep-seated belief that I could never have a romantic relationship; that no one could actually be attracted to me while I was fat. Over time I came to understand that this was simply untrue. When I realized this, I became a much happier person and truly respected myself more. That is when I found love.
I also used to believe that I could never be healthy and fat, but I came to see that this is not true either. Letting go of resistance to fatness is truly liberating and freeing. We all deserve nothing less than fat liberation.
In this way, fat liberation intersects with queer liberation. There are a lot of similarities between the struggle of queer people and fat people. A brilliant piece was recently written in Bitch magazine about this: “Sized Up: Why fat is a queer and feminist issue” by Anna Mollow. This article highlights how both communities face stigma, discrimination, shame, and that being fat/queer is unhealthy, a choice, and a disease. The article addresses how there is an effort underway to eradicate fatness the way that gayness has been systematically attacked.
For me, fat phobia within the gay community is personally very hard to accept. Gay men, in particular, are increasingly harsh towards each other. The pressure to be thin and muscular is very high, and the social rejection is very painful for those who don’t make the mark. Dealing with the ostracism that gay people face is hard enough; to be told you aren’t datable or worthy of a life-partner because you’re considered out of shape and “ugly” compounds the struggle. I feel the queer community should reject such limiting ideas and contractions about looks and attractiveness.
Fatness also intersects with race. According to the CDC, Blacks and Latinos weigh more on average, by 47.8 and 42.5 percent respectively. People of color are more likely to suffer from environmental racism, where their communities are devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables or safe spaces in which to exercise. People of color experience high levels of stress, particularly the poorer they are, and disproportionately lack access to healthcare compared to Euro-Americans.
Fatness is also a feminist issue. Women, in particular, are fighting extreme societal pressure to be thin. These expectations are unrealistic and unreasonable, and quite unattainable, but that’s the point. As women struggle for the socio-cultural constructions of physical perfection, it keeps us inextricably locked into oppression. It’s a false paradigm, but it’s reinforced everywhere we turn by the mechanisms of capital – particularly advertising, media, and entertainment. And because women are made to feel insecure on such a massive scale, they buy into fat hysteria, investing enormous amounts of time, energy, and money “fixing” themselves and seeking validation.
This constant search for external validation is fruitless, though. The products being sold through fat propaganda aren’t designed to make women feel good; they rely on women feeling bad to turn a profit. And they’re winning. There is also more discrimination against fat women than fat men, because women are held to a higher social standard of “beauty” (thinness).
The more shame and less empowered people feel, the less likely they are to think enough of themselves to want a better life, a better society, and a better world. This means they are less likely to resist the oppressive social and economic structures that control their lives.
Capitalism is built this way on purpose — to lock people into it. And capitalism props up patriarchy, which keeps men in power and in control over women. Fat oppression is just another medium by which this system operates and hurts us all.
Why We Should Reject Fat Hysteria
As Socialists we should reject fat hysteria because above all else we believe in the dignity and self-worth of all people and the right to self-determination and individual liberty. Socialists believe we need to rid our society of hierarchies and instead create an egalitarian society where fundamentally no one is seen or treated as better than anyone. We need to stop making people feel that they are the “other” just because they are different from what mainstream society thinks is the “norm.”
Socialists question where social norms come from and resist social control. Socialists believe that no corporation should have the right to make a profit at the cost of hurting human lives. Socialists believe that people should not feel ashamed of who they are and that they should not feel pressured to become something considered by society to be “more desirable” in order to fit into some arbitrary category. We realize that fat people have an identity, which should be preserved and respected. Socialists honor that fat people are not thin people trapped inside fat bodies screaming to get out. Fat people are who they are — fat people.
As Socialists and as feminists, we need to release ourselves from the fat stigma and internalized oppression that feed the profits of shame- and blame-based industries. We need to make it clear that we all deserve to be treated equally regardless of any difference, including size. We can free people from fat anxiety, weight panic, and size obsession by creating a society where all people can attain healthy lives and bodies — and by shutting down fat hate mongers. Socialists know that fat should not be seen as an individual issue but as a social issue. We know that to help people achieve healthfulness our society must undergo a radical and fundamental shift towards socialism.
As Socialists it’s important to recognize that our support of socialized medicine, a universal health care system that is publicly owned and controlled, is also a rejection of fat propaganda and hysteria. Rather than buying into the pathology of fat propaganda, we should consider supporting inclusive and accepting ways of achieving a healthy body, such as Health At Every Size (HAES), a method developed by Dr. Linda Bacon, a researcher who herself survived weight obsession. Dr. Bacon’s HAES method is a movement that believes people can strive for health no matter what their size and that people can improve their health without weight loss as a goal.
The truth is there is nothing wrong with being fat. Fat is not a disease, despite what many say. Fat is not something to be feared or despised. Fat people are not something to be controlled or constrained, nor to be extinguished by some kind of fat genocide. Fat people are just people like anyone else.
Personally, I am proud to be who I am, and I accept, embrace, and love myself the way I am — fat. I am fat-positive and reject fatphobia and sizeism. I believe strongly in fat acceptance. Courageously, many fat people are coming to the same conclusion and are organizing for their right to be themselves, to love themselves and each other, and to fight against discrimination and fat prejudice. Let’s join them.