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It’s time to talk about fatphobia

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Fat-shaming is sewn into the fabric of our culture and has embedded itself in our everyday lives to the point where we don’t often recognize when we’re perpetuating fatphobia, or the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies. “It’s a disdain, a hate, a fear of fat bodies, becoming fat and a lot of stereotypical misconceptions about fatness that people continue to perpetuate and believe,” said Simone Mariposa, a Los Angeles-based plus-size blogger, actor, model, and inspirational speaker.

“It’s also a method of oppression in terms of beauty standards and expecting people to live a certain lifestyle. And knowing that there aren’t certain resources in different areas, it’s a level of discrimination as well.”

Most people are probably aware of the fact that being in a fat body comes with a certain stigma, but what people might not be aware of is the fact these negative attitudes or thoughts are deeply rooted in racism, starting with Sarah Baartman, also known as Sara or Saartjie. In an article written by Justin Parkinson for BBC News, it’s said that Baartman was brought to Europe under false pretences by a British doctor. She had what was called “steatopygia,” which resulted in extremely prominent buttocks due to a build-up of fat. She was paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. Baartman’s promoters gave her the stage name, the “Hottentot Venus,” and allowed wealthy customers to pay for private shows in their homes, their guests granted access to touch her.

Parkinson wrote that The British Empire had abolished the slave trade in 1807, but not slavery itself. However, many were appalled by Baartman’s treatment in London. Her employers were prosecuted for holding her against her will but were never convicted as Baartman testified in their favour. It’s believed by abolitionists and humanitarians that Baartman was coerced, according to Parkinson.

“We know that anti-Blackness is prevalent and rampant in Western society,” said Mariposa. “Anything that is against Blackness is going to be normalized. When I talk about (racism and fatphobia) online, people find that confusing because there are non-Black people who experience fatphobia. They assume that because of that, there’s no link to it. But if you’re looking at how Eurocentric standards have overrun our society, that’s when we see that fatphobia is built into that (racism).”

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding fat people: They don’t care about their health, they’re lazy and that they aren’t successful in life because it’s part of their nature. “They’re considered to be people who have less self-control and are insecure and self-conscious,” said Mariposa. “In the workforce, for example, people are discriminating fat folks based on those misconceptions and because of them, a lot of fat people aren’t given the same opportunities as those with smaller bodies.”

In a study of the U.S. from 2015 called “The affective and interpersonal consequences of obesity,” it was found that 45 per cent of employers were less inclined to recruit a candidate they considered fat or obese. Researchers also found fat people are less likely to be regarded as able leaders and had lower starting salaries. In 2019, Edith Bernier from Montreal started a petition asking the National Assembly to amend article 10 of Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and acknowledge discrimination based on a person’s physical appearance, including their weight and size. The petition ended on Feb. 25, 2020 and received a total of 1,114 signatures.

On the other side of these misconceptions, a lot of them result in fat women being hyper-sexualized. Mariposa uses the term BBW — a pop culture acronym for a plus-size woman, originating from the porn industry, meaning “big beautiful woman” — as an example, stating that terms like these are detrimental to fat activism.

“People have found empowerment in (BBW) and that’s amazing, I don’t want to discredit that. But from my perspective, BBW is fetishizing and objectifying. To reference a woman based on the porn category that her body would belong to is very telling of how people perceive fat bodies. In my opinion, when a (cisgender, heterosexual) man uses BBW to describe a plus-size woman, my first assumption — which I’m usually correct about — is that they usually come with the ideology that fat women are eager to please (men), big girls are made for cuddling, etc. As a fat activist, one of my goals is to humanize fat people, especially fat women, and because that term does the opposite of that, I feel like it’s contrary to what the movement is about.”

Mariposa notes that one of the main reasons fatphobia is something that is still widely accepted because the media perpetuates it. “(Media) is one of the first ways people are exposed to things outside of themselves,” she said.

“The common fat character in a lot of TV shows is the comic relief, the desperate best friend. With Black women, she’s the sassy Black woman who doesn’t need a man. These caricatures surrounding fat people make them into an idea and not necessarily a realistic person. A lot of people see a fat person at a table and expect them to be jolly and funny and over-compensating for their size because that’s what’s seen on TV. The idea that fat people live regular lives just like everyone else is not normalized.”

Through the media, Western society has integrated fatphobia into our beauty standards, the corporate sector, and especially in the medical field. The way many doctors treat and speak to patients is a big problem. Certified personal trainer and wellness coach Kelly Coffey, who was once a size 26/28 and now a size 6/8, detailed her experience with fatphobia at 17 at the doctor’s office in an article written for Self magazine.

“I weighed over 300 pounds,” wrote Coffey. “I was nervous walking into the gynecologist’s office. It was my first visit. She asked me if I was sexually active — I wasn’t — and then asked me why I was there. ‘My cramps are so bad that I cry and get sick to my stomach. I need help.’ She just looked me up and down. ‘Lose weight,’ she said. ‘How,’ I asked. ‘It doesn’t matter how, but you need to lose 100 pounds and you need to do it fast. Any weight loss method would be healthier than being that big.’ She walked out of the room. She hadn’t even touched me. For years after that, I rarely went to a doctor.”

Coffey also detailed a review of studies published in the journal Obesity Reviews in 2015 which surveyed empirical evidence across multiple disciplines showed that health care professionals’ negative feelings about fat bodies can lead to misdiagnosis and late or missed diagnoses, negatively impacting patient outcomes.

“Some doctors are nasty and inappropriate with their larger patients,” said Scott Kahan, M.D., a physician on faculty at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with Coffey. “A patient of mine once went to urgent care short of breath only to be told that it was because she had ‘too much fat on her chest.’ Later, at the emergency room, they discovered she had a pulmonary embolism and needed anticoagulants. She’s lucky to be alive. Medical professionals’ underlying belief systems, driven by our thin-obsessed, anti-fat culture, can and does make their interactions with patients with obesity less productive.”

Obesity. It’s a medical term used to diagnose fat people with what’s deemed as a “disease,” according to the Mayo Clinic. However, with the anti-fat movement, many believe this to be an outdated word because of the weight and health stigma it upholds. Mariposa calls it a “weight-word.”

“It has such a negative connotation that even if someone is using it clinically without attempting to insult anyone, it’s a one-sided word that only points to the assumed negative health effects that fat people are assumed to have,” said Mariposa.

In an article for Forbes, Geoffrey Kabat, a former contributor for the magazine’s science and technology section, wrote that labeling obesity as a disease is a “mistake.”

“Defining obesity as a disease makes little medical sense,” wrote Kabat. “Labeling something as a disease is a way of excluding it from normal, everyday life. But the point is that obesity is totally normal and totally integrated into our way of life. Classifying obesity as a disease in a blanket fashion will stigmatize those labeled and in some cases will add to the sense of lack of control over their health and to an attitude of fatalism.”

What’s known as the Fat Acceptance Movement (FAM) is something that’s commonly mistaken as “promoting obesity.” Back in January, during an appearance on BuzzFeed News’s AM2DM show, fitness celebrity Jillian Michaels challenged co-host Alex Berg’s praise for celebrities like Lizzo and plus-size model Ashley Graham, two big names in the body-acceptance movement.

“Why are we celebrating her (Lizzo’s) body? Why does it matter? ” Michaels responded. “Why aren’t we celebrating her music? ‘Cause it isn’t going to be awesome if she gets diabetes. I’m just being honest.”

The argument that these movements are promoting obesity is something that frustrates Mariposa because it assumes that fat people who publicly share their lives is a negative representation. “Some people believe that it’s encouraging people to be fat when that’s the last thing it is. Fat people who are loving themselves publicly and unapologetically aren’t encouraging people to be fat. We’re explaining that we’re regular people and we’re not letting society, insecurities or misconceptions run our lives.”

Owning up to holding fatphobic beliefs and tendencies is something many people find hard to do mainly because, again, it’s something that is widely accepted, perpetuated and also because some still don’t believe it to be a real existing issue. But it is. In a November 2018 article for Vogue, Victoria’s Secret chief marketing officer Ed Razek was asked to explain why the annual show doesn’t include transgender or plus-size models.

Razek included the use of the word “transsexual” in his response, which is an outdated and offensive term. He said that trans and plus-size women don’t exemplify the “fantasy” that Victoria’s Secret tries to sell. Mariposa believes that after Victoria’s Secret started receiving backlash for Razek’s comments, the fat part was left out. “I think that’s because people still have these assumptions that fatness is unacceptable,” said Mariposa. “Because of that, people are less likely to be open and accepting that a lot of their talk is problematic.”

These examples paint a clear picture of the ways in which fat people are mistreated, but it shouldn’t take these examples for people to believe that fatphobia exists and is thriving in our society. The best way to support the cause is for people, especially thin people, to do their research. Thin bodies, no matter their degree of health, have a level of thin privilege that cannot go ignored. Thin privilege is the lack of discrimination that comes with a thin body, in the job market, in retail stores, in the doctor’s office, and in the day-to-day. Going shopping and not worrying about seeing clothes in your size is one example.

So do your research, call out fatphobia when you see it and surround yourself with people who are doing the work to help. After all, fat acceptance isn’t a desperate attempt to promote unhealthy habits. It’s what the title says: normalizing and accepting the existence of fat bodies.

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