Picture of my cousin Lee and I. I am 2 years old in this photo.
Body hatred killed my cousin. I had a dream about it before it even happened. I felt it deep in my bones that something bad was going to happen. The last time I saw my cousin Lee, we hugged one another longer than normally. A long good bye hug that lingered even after it was over. In that moment, something felt off and different. Looking back now, I knew it was his way of saying good bye. You see, my cousin Lee was not only one of the most creative and sensitive souls I ever knew, he was also fat. Born fat. Struggled with his weight his entire life. Teased as a child for being fat. Put on a diet for being fat. Well intentioned doctors and family members encouraged him to eat less and move more. They meant well. Their concerns seemed to be all in the name of “health.”
The messages are everywhere: having a fat body is not okay. And, if you are born fat, you better do something about it.
Those were the messages he absorbed unchecked and unchallenged for fifty years of his life. He longed for acceptance and to ‘fit in,’ so he joined Weight Watchers. He was “successful” but only in the short term. He lost a bunch of weight, and then inevitably re-gained the weight back, adding even more weight with each demoralizing cycle. This cycle repeated for years. And, this cycle caused his decent into bulimia, drug addiction, and binge eating disorder. Body hatred fueled everything. He never questioned these messages. Never thought that culture and society might be wrong. He never thought to question that maybe nothing was inherently wrong with his fat body. That being born into a larger body, a fat body was not bad, was not actually a choice under his direct control.
We don’t choose our height or eye color, and we don’t choose our body size and shape. (Set-point weight theory purports that genetics accounts for about 80 percent of body size and shape). He was told to fight his biology his entire life. This is why the definition of dieting is insanity. Trying to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Dieting is the biggest predictor of weight gain. Dieting causes weight cycling: the constant losing and gaining of weight leads to adverse health outcomes. It’s estimated that 80 percent of people who lose weight will gradually regain it and end up at the same weight or even heavier than they were before they went on a diet. (More research on this here: https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0517p18.shtml)
So, one day right before his fiftieth birthday, he shot himself. He could not keep fighting. The only was out of his suffering was to end this life.
Maybe you know someone who is fat. Maybe you have known them a long time, and for as long as you have know them, they have been fat. Maybe some of your fat friends or loved ones are always on some kind of weight loss diet. Maybe some aren’t. Everyone however has some degree of internalized fat phobia and the belief that thinner bodies are healthier, more in control, more attractive, etc. The problem with the internalization of fat phobia is that it leads to weight stigma. Weight stigma refers to the discriminatory acts and ideologies targeted towards individuals because of their weight and size. Weight stigma is a result of weight bias. Weight bias refers to the negative beliefs and ideologies associated with people in larger bodies, or those who self-identify as fat.
We tend to hold negative stereotypes of fatness. Some of this anti-fat bias is conscious (explicit bias), and some of this anti-fat bias is implicit or unconscious. We may not even know or admit to ourselves that we hold these negative stereotypes. We may laugh at fat jokes, we may use the word “obese” with a derogatory tone.
We consciously and unconsciously believe: fat people choose to be fat, fat people are lazy, fat people are unhappy, fat people are emotional eaters or eat junk food all day, fat people are all unhealthy and the list go on and on.
For folks who are born in larger bodies, they are told their entire lives that it’s not okay to exist. It’s not okay to be in a larger Earth Suit (aka body). Culture reinforces these messages and so anti-fatness becomes internalized. Folks in larger bodies often internalize these negative stereotypes and this lends itself to body hatred. And, body hatred is what fuels the 70 Billion dollar diet industry. And, as you know by now if you have been reading my previous blogs, dieting causes weight gain and it a risk factor for the development of eating disorders. My dear cousin was one of the unlucky ones that didn’t get the treatment he needed to fight against these oppressive belief systems.
*Caveat: some folks in fat bodies do not hate themselves and do not buy into the system of body hatred = dieting. There are always exceptions and everyone has a different story. Sadly, my cousin was not one of these folks.
All of us independent of our actual body size/shape have absorbed some degree of fat phobia. We have unconscious and conscious beliefs that reinforce anti-fatness. If you are unsure, google the Harvard implicit bias test on body image.
We have a lot of work to do. Diet culture wants everyone to feel dissatisfied and even hate their bodies.
Hate is a strong word, but think about it. Diet culture is over 70 Billion dollars strong. If we loved and accepted our bodies just as they are, we wouldn’t need to keep buying into another diet program. Dieting is predicated on not liking the size/shape of one’s Earth Suit.
Let’s remember that being fat is not a choice. And, one can be FAT and HEALTHY. Just as one can be thin and unhealthy.
How to be a Fat Ally:
Check yourself and your own internalized fat phobia. Not gonna lie here. This work is hard. This work won’t feel good. But we must go inward and have a look at the ways we perpetuate weight stigma, fat phobia and the obsession with thinness. Do your part to pay attention to the words you use when you describe your body. Look at the fat parts and pay attention to the tone of the language you use. Is it neutral? Is it positive? Is it mean? Is it disembodied? Do you check out? The best way to be an ally is by first dismantling fat phobia within yourself.
Watch your language and call yourself and others out. If you are dieting to lose weight, be mindful of the language you use. Are you telling yourself, “It’s my cheat day. Or, I feel fat in these pants…” Pay attention to how you talk to others about your body and any morality linked with your foods and body. Assigning moral values to foods and our bodies harms everyone. We need to stop assigned morals with what we eat and with how large/small our bodies are. Challenge others when you hear diet talk that feels fat phobic. When someone says, “I feel fat. Or I was so bad, I ate the whole bar of chocolate.” Ask them: What does it mean to be good? Is fat a feeling? What does ‘being fat’ represent? Dig a bit deeper and have the courage to really talk about the layers underneath what is being said on the surface. In other words, let’s get real ya’ll!
Educate yourself. Look into the harmful effects of diet culture. Read the Obesity Myth by Paul Campos. Read Health at Every Size. Read, Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings. Read, The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor. Fat phobia itself is driven from racism, dating far back to the days of slavery when the Black body was ridiculed, yet over-sexualized in closed corners by powerful white men. The reason why we look at bodies the way that we do is because racism, anti-fatness, and ableism. The issues with your body are predicated on having issues with being Black, being disfigured, being fat or being disabled (Sabrina Strings). This is why we need to eradicate and replace our internalization of acceptable bodies to be more diverse and inclusive.
Embrace and uplift your fat friends. To be a fat ally, it’s critical to center their experience. Especially if you have thin privilege (you are in a smaller body and do not experience weight/size discrimination such as I do), you need to amplify and lift up your fat friends. We need to elevate marginalized voices and bodies. Fill your Instagram feed with amazing larger-than-your own, and fat bodies and bodies wearing larger sized fashion. By seeing a wider range of bodies- larger bodies and fat bodies, you will start to shift your brain schema towards believing and internalizing that larger bodies are acceptable, beautiful and worthy. You will start to become more comfortable with the physicality and complexities of a wider range of body sizes. This really works. This is why we are starting to see larger bodied mannequins and plus sized models. Please unsubscribe from only seeing thin white women who look like 10 year old boys. Challenge the idea that women need to be “lean” and “cut” and thinner. Who the F says so? Women naturally have curves and fat on their bodies. Embrace this fact even if you feel uncomfortable. I told you this work wouldn’t be easy.
Follow and reach out to these lovely folks: Sonya Renee Taylor, Virgie Tovar, Roxane Gay, Lindy West, Bethany Rutter, Sofie Hagen, Lindley Ashline… There are many more!
What did I miss? How can I do better? Who can I support and follow?
Please comment below.
Healthy, Respect and Dignity for all bodies, but especially the larger ones!