From a linguistic perspective I sometimes long for the brief period in the 90s where phat was A Thing. Or should I say, a thang.
For the uninitiated, it meant ‘cool’ or ‘Pretty Hot And Tempting’, but you wouldn’t use it nowadays unless deliberately uttering a slang faux pas.
Because fat people are GROSS. Didn’t you know?
These days, I struggle to think of an instance in which a bigger is better – at least when we’re talking about ladies.
Fat phobia freely abounds in the media. Chic mags occasionally do this thing where they pretend to celebrate ‘curves’, usually by juxtaposing pictures of hospitalisation-worthy underweight celebrities with Kardashians, but it’s pretty hard to swallow when the next page contains ‘5 ways to lose those last five pounds’. Pun intended.
I am not overweight by medical standards. I also not thin. My belly and thighs wobble when I move about and you can grasp a handful of flesh at my middle if I fold my body in any way. I have muscle tone, and proportionately very slim ankles. I don’t think I’m fat, and I don’t believe any of my friends do either.
There are stores in my city where clothes ‘don’t come in my size’.
Other women speak to me about weight as if they assume that I wish to lose it.
I frequently hear people criticise the appearance of other women who are a similar weight to myself.
I constantly (constantly!) criticise my own appearance. Obsessively even. I can’t even watch television any more without wishing (a touch desperately sometimes) that I could rip out their spines and move into their bodies.*
But enough about me.
I have mature lady in my life who is overweight by medical standards. She is obese actually. And she faces so many obstacles because of this, in every single aspect of her life. For an introduction to just one way in which she is discriminated against because of her weight, here is an article on how fat-bias affects the level of medical care given to overweight individuals. Here is another one.
The thing is, people assume that overweight people have made a choice to be overweight.
As raised in stories of the above articles, no-one ever asks them what kind of journey they have had with their health and weight loss efforts. They see fat people as actively lazy and deliberately neglectful and don’t ever consider that there might factors in play other than desire or self-control.
They don’t consider how being overweight affects that person’s ability to lose weight. They don’t realise that overweight people are often ashamed to exercise in public. They don’t realise that many overweight people are not educated about nutrition. They don’t realise that overweight people may be suffering from eating disorders and mental health problems which compromise their ability to lose weight. They don’t realise that overweight people often have ingrained habits of years, or decades that are Really Rather Difficult to break.
They don’t realise that most overweight people are constantly and desperately trying to lose weight. If it were easy, we would all be our ideal weight.
Most importantly, they don’t seem to have any grasp of the scale of social discrimination which overweight people face. This overweight, mature lady that I know has confided to me that she repulses herself, and that she feels judged and shamed by literally every set of eyes upon her. And because of the relentlessness with which the media equates women’s value with women’s physical beauty, she does not see herself as a worthwhile or valuable person.
Even without being ‘overweight’, I can testify to the immense power of accumulative judgement, whether real or imagined, and it’s ability to induce a demotivating despair. It is difficult to foster and embrace a healthy respect for your body and to learn to care for it, when immersed in a culture of such hatred and repulsion.
Much of this judgement is not imagined. As mentioned in the articles above, complete strangers often feel entitled to comment on overweight women’s appearance. You know what guys? They FUCKING KNOW. They are aware, because they live their life in their own bodies, surrounded by your constant judgement. They Do Not Need To Be Told.
When someone critiques an overweight person’s appearance, they are Not Helping. “Tough Love” and/or negative motivation are not effective tools for weight loss. All they do is reaffirm that person’s view of themself as ugly, worthless and incapable of success.
It would be instead helpful, if we could work towards creating a positive environment in which women are taught to love and respect their bodies. In which women are taught from a young age to value their health and well-being above ridiculous fashion standards.
In which health professionals want to hold conversations with their patients about their history, their mental health and practical advice for achieving not just a healthy weight, but a healthy body image.
You can contribute to this by not shaming overweight people – whether or not you think they can hear you. Do not make comments about how amusing you find their attempts to work out. Do not laughingly express your revulsion at the possibility that fat people might have sex. But most of all, do not disregard their capacity to feel hurt or despair and assume that the only reason they are not thinner is because they are stubborn, lazy or unconcerned.
*Please do not be alarmed, it’s a Dylan Moran reference.
+ My friend canbebitter wrote a post this week about Hairspray and ‘fat’ as a feminist issue, which in addition to the other three linked articles above provided the inspiration for this post.
++ Please don’t assume that because I did not directly address the fact that women can and should be perceived as beautiful at any weight, or that fat people can be healthy, that I do not believe it. I just didn’t choose to focus on that aspect this time.