As I’ve involved myself in the body image positivity movement, I’m grateful to have become more exposed to, educated about, and well-versed in the concepts of diet culture, fat shaming, and thin privilege.
As fat women speak up about the above concepts and step forward to advocate on their own behalf, they expose themselves to all kinds of criticism, judgment, and hatred.
It’s shocking (to me) to read in the comment sections of some articles statements like, “being obese is a choice,” (it can be, but not always!) and “thin-ness is available to everybody if they just follow the calories in/calories out rule and move enough!” (just not true)
Arguments like these are particularly frightening because they rely on morals and science to validate them.
If you’re fat it’s your fault: you’re choosing it!
Science shows that anyone who eats 1500 calories a day and gets enough exercise will lose weight!
These two ideas go hand in hand, and couple morals with science in a way that seems unassailable.
It’s bad for your health to be obese.
It’s a burden on society to take care of you when you, fat person, inevitably develop diabetes or need a knee replacement.
And these ideas echo other arguments about people who are disadvantaged in ways that don’t acknowledge a larger and more complex series of cause and effect. For instance, some argue that poor people are thus because they are lazy. If they would just work harder, they would make more money and no longer be poor.
This reasoning disregards completely socio-economic factors that are real and evident.
Moreover, we tend to view body size outside of the arc of historical context: it’s not that long ago that—at least for women—being too thin was cause for ridicule, shaming, and pervasive notion that your life would get better once you gained some weight.
While it is true that now about 70 percent of the American population is overweight, and there are potential health ramifications associated with being overweight, the people who say things like “if you’re fat, you’re choosing it” place burden of responsibility squarely on the individual without taking into consideration a web of social, economic, historic, and biological influences in which so many people are caught.
One might just as easily argue society makes people fat.
Anyway, what does it matter to us if someone else is fat? It’s their life!
What I’ve learned about people who make reductive arguments is this: the line of reasoning reveals more about that person than it does about the validity of the argument itself.
What does it reveal?
- A thought pattern.
- A hidden, and unprocessed experience.
- A self-loathing.
- The desire to control another through body shaming another.
- The desire to feel better about yourself through body shaming another
Negative thought-patterns about “fatness” are deeply, socially entrenched at this point—even if the tides ARE turning—and I think it’s worth excavating why. This both from a historical and social context, and also from a personal, psychological context.
More often than not, folks who respond to articles about fat shaming appear to feel stridently righteous in their claims about the moral and social wrongness of being fat.
And I’m left to wonder: why does it matter so much to you?
After observing these sorts of arguments for a while, I’ve noticed that there are a few possibilities for why a person would fall back on the intersection of choice and calories in/calories out to place the responsibility for obesity squarely on the shoulders of the fat person.
The first reveal:
Perhaps that judgy person doesn’t actually know any fat people intimately, and so has the ability to dehumanize them. It’s far easier to say cruel things about a group of people if you have no first-hand experience with someone you know and love who falls into that group.
The second reveal:
Suppose the judgmental person perhaps does know a fat person, and that fat person has affected their life negatively. As a result, they develop a judgment. I have someone in my life whose mother was fat. The mother was a perpetrator, and when that happens it is difficult to disentangle the person from what they look like. The mother’s horrific behavior was inextricably connected to her body. She chose to be a bad person. Fat people are bad. Therefore she made a bad choice: She chose to be fat.
This logic is faulty of course, because it is based mostly on an emotion. Yet, I can feel into how a person might arrive at the conclusion.
The third reveal:
Perhaps the judgmental person does know a fat person, like in the circumstance I described above. Somewhere deep inside, a person can fear being like that fat person. So they transfer that fear into hatred for fat people.
When they say mean things about fat people, they’re essentially saying, “I would hate myself if I was fat.”
Building on this “I would hate myself if…” logic, it could also be that the judgy person has simply thoroughly and completely absorbed the message our society beats us with relentlessly which is that beautiful, thin people are more valuable than people who are not. When a judgy person is mean or bigoted about fat people, he or she is placing themselves in the “winning” camp. But, still revealing the potential that he or she might hate themselves if ever they became fat.
The fourth reveal:
I’ve been on the receiving end of body shaming from body men and women. I believe that when people shame a person of the opposite sex it’s a form of “negging” which is a strategy to obtain control over that person. When women put me down, I understand that it’s because they feel bad about themselves, and something about me triggers that feeling in themselves.
As my boyfriend says, “people are dying to tell you about themselves.” What you learn has to do as much with what they don’t say, and tracking the thought patterns that underlie what a person does say.
It is wrong to assume to know why another person is fat, and subject them to criticism and judgment without exercising curiosity or compassion. Who knows what that person’s life has been like? And, even more importantly, everyone’s body is theirs and theirs alone. In the end, what it looks like should be of no consequence to you or I. It is not ours to judge, and the impulse to do so ought to get us curious about why we care so much about someone else and their body.
As a person who has struggled with weight issues (who hasn’t?) both real and in my mind, I’ve observed some of these “reveals” in myself. I’ve examined them and where they’ve come from, and made conscious choices about what I choose to believe, not just what I’ve inherited from society or from my family.
As yoga teacher with students of all body types, I can say with confidence that exercising and eating well alone will not ensure that a person will be thin. I have fat people in my family, and I’ve watched them struggle and suffer with their own bodies and the opinions of others. Some of my family members are among the most active and energetic people I know.
After studying my own eating and exercise habits carefully, I can also say with confidence that eating 1500 calories and moving “enough” are not always a recipe for thin-ness, not that I am endorsing the pursuit of thin-ness as a virtue. It’s not. Thinness as a virtue is a product of a historical moment within American society, not a fixed truth.
The twin pillars of calories in/calories out and “choice” in the matter I believe to be dubious, as I will discuss in my next article.
Author: Erica Mather
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: ashleyrosex at Flickr