I have a complicated relationship with my body. I would say that generally speaking, I am of an average size and shape, and I certainly would never call myself fat in the earshot of another. Nonetheless, every time I visit my family doctor and step on the scale, my doctor frowns, looks at me seriously, and asks if I am getting enough exercise and eating well. I calmly explain that yes, I maintain a pescatarian diet high in vegetables and protein, and I work out at the aerials studio about 10 hours a week. He looks at me dubiously, so I pull up my Instagram to show him the newest way I have figured out to haul my body through the air. After this, he usually looks confused and puzzled, shrugs, and recommends that I keep it up.
I can only imagine what that conversation might look like for someone who appeared larger than me, or who did not have the Instagram to back up their claims. This is because anyone who does not fit a stereotype of “beautiful” thinness, is in our society, expected to shoulder the burden of proof to show that they are healthy, whereas thin persons (with the sometimes exception of extremely thin persons suspected of having eating disorders) are not.
This is an injustice. It affects the ability of those who do not fit this stereotype to get real healthcare. It leads to conditions being overlooked because of attitudes towards obesity which makes healthcare practitioners assume that all health problems of the obese can be solved through dieting. It leads to a breakdown of the doctor-patient relationship. It leads to deaths.
I grew up a dancer, in dance culture, and I used to spend 20+hours a week in the studio during elementary and high school. Many of the girls I danced with did the same. Spending a significant portion of my week there, I saw way in which food was policed by parents, by teachers, and by the girls themselves. I saw the ways in which bodies were policed.
Now, as an adult, I see how this policing continues. Sometimes diets become about putting on muscle, or restricting certain “bad” foods. I see how this discourse is submerged in our collective consciousness, about how dessert at a fancy restaurant is always an indulgence, couched in the language of guilt.
I think about how we internalize those messages, about how my own eating disorder slowly dissapeared as I left dance culture and the constant normalization of disordered relationships towards food it supported. It makes me wonder how many eating disorders and mental health disorders start not because of internal chemical mental health struggles, but because of external narratives that become internalized, because of external actors and pressures from teachers, from parents, from doctors that all say that “fat” is the worst thing a person can be. Which then, of course, ends up saying that if you fail at dieting, at exercising, at performing thinness to the detriment of your mental health and happiness, that you are the worst kind of person, and so, a spiral begins.
The fact of the matter is, as I have tried to show in these two small stories that are a microcosm for conversations around fatness, and far, far, far, from the most extreme examples I have seen (again, people have literally actually died because doctors did not believe their health conditions were not weight-related, many people), anti-fat culture is dangerous. It is dangerous for fat people, it is dangerous for those of “average” weight (whatever that is), and it is even dangerous for skinny people, whose health conditions may also be overlooked because we have come to equate health with thinness, and therefore they perform health well.
So, if this culture is dangerous, the only thing we can do as ethical creatures, is to eradicate this culture. Here are some very preliminary recommendations for how we can start to make a dent.
1. Eliminate all conversation about dieting, food restrictions that are not allergies, and weight. This goes double if you are ever within earshot of anyone who is a child or who has had a past or present eating disorder (and, spoiler alert! you cannot know who those people are just by looking at them. According to BC’s CMHA up to 10% of Canadians experience eating disorders)
2. Believe fat people. Believe them when they say they are healthy. Believe them when they say they are sick. Believe them when they say they are happy.
3. Work to eradicate negative stereotypes of fat people in popular media. Avengers: Endgame, I’m looking at you. Include fatness as a diversity initiative. Fat representation is important.
4. Check your own thinking about fat people. When looking at or interacting with fat people, ask yourself if you are erroneously (and it is always erroneous) assuming that they are lazy, lesser, a poorer worker, without impulse control, etc. Ask yourself if your definition of fat is harmful.
5. Don’t expect fat people to perform health for you. Have the same expectations of fat people as you do of thin people. Fatness is not a personal choice.
6. Be cognizant of the way anti-fat attitudes, including your own, create real harm in the world around you. Like with any harms, it is your ethical duty to minimize or eliminate them.
7. Don’t comment on weight as an appearance feature. Weight loss or weight gain may be the result of many, many different factors, and you cannot simply assume that weight gain implies a person is becoming more unhealthy, or that weight loss means a person is becoming healthier. You also cannot guess at a person’s attitude towards their own weight and how the comment might affect them.
8. Be mindful that many spaces and types of transportation are not built for fat bodies. Be cognizant of that when you interact with your fat friends, and support venues that are fat friendly.
If others have any other thoughts about this list, please let me know and I will add to it! As stated above, my own experiences with fat-shaming have been mild compared to what I know can happen, but they are all I can speak from.