Anti-Fatness & Fat Liberation
The month of January is particularly filled with the toxic discourse revolving around the new year’s resolution and weight loss. Every second ad is for gym memberships, superfoods, dieting plans, weight loss pills, and so on. In that sense, there is no better time to tackle anti-fatness and fat liberation. It is also essential to reflect on the systemic influence that academic institutions like Rijkuniversiteit Groningen (RUG) and Hanze University have on exacerbating these issues. Such an analysis can range from the (non-)existence of inclusive policies, and hiring biases to the interconnectedness of ableism and architecture of academic spaces.
Let’s start with terminology.
Before we dive into the details and nuances of anti-fatness, thin-privilege, and fat liberation, it is best to establish ground knowledge on fatness and thinness. Amlund (2020) writes the following: “Fat is a neutral word. There is nothing wrong with the word fat because there is nothing wrong with being fat. It is a neutral state of being. The word “overweight” on the other hand is not a neutral word for the same reason “normal weight” is not a neutral term. Slender, slim, fit and so on are also very loaded words. Thin is a neutral word. There is nothing wrong with being thin. Being thin means a person has thin-privilege because our world favors thin over fat. [...] Fat and fatness are the neutral words when talking about fat people.” (p. 3-4).
Moving onto fatphobia, as it is most commonly referred to, is the implicit and explicit bias against and irrational fear of fat individuals that is rooted in a sense of blame, superiority, and presumed moral failure. Being overweight and/or fat is highly stigmatized in Western Culture. Fat stigma or weight stigma creates a societal norm that it is acceptable or even expected for fat (or overweight) people to be stigmatized. Alternatively, some people use the term fatmisia, which includes ‘miso-’ meaning hatred, and etymologically it is similar to misogyny. It means fat hatred and is more focused on the bigotry of anti-fat attitudes. Fatmisic microaggressions are hostile, derogatory, or unpleasant slights and insults in relation to size or fatness. It is irrelevant whether such comments were with good or bad intentions since they are based on oppressive systems of size hierarchy. Finally, the most well-rounded terms are fat oppression, anti-fatness, and anti-fat bias. They are defined as the structures and social systems that specifically oppress, exclude, and marginalize people with fat bodies. They refer to institutional policies as well as individual attitudes, biases, and interpersonal discrimination.
One of the ways fatphobia can be expressed is fat-shaming or body-shaming, which is the action or practice of humiliating someone through mocking or judgemental comments about their size. These comments or micro-aggressions may come from family, friends, healthcare providers, or even strangers. Fat shaming is a type of bullying and it is very hurtful. However, talking about anti-fat bias only in relation to fat-shaming reduces a complex oppressive system to individual acts of aggression or to interpersonal conflict. It also frequently derails the conversation by inviting arguments about skinny shaming.
The opposite of fat oppression is thin-privilege. In many societies through mass media, people, and especially women, are bombarded with messages that the “normal” size is actually thin. In many contemporary societies, being thin is constructed as culturally normative weight, which is ironic considering the population weight averages. On the contrary, fatness is "othered" and seen as "abnormal". Thinness is viewed as reflective of enhanced self-control, willpower, intelligence, and superiority, whereas fatness is considered inferior and indicative of personal moral failings. Thin privilege refers to the social, economical, and practical benefits conferred to people who are thin or in a relatively smaller body. It is a key path-way through which fat oppression is maintained (Bacon, O’Reilly & Aphramor, 2016). Like all forms of privilege, a privileged individual may not realize they have any advantage. It would be simply normal for them to, for example, not have to think about whether they can fit between tables in a tiny bistro, whether their size clothing will be readily and cheaply available, or whether they can eat in public without random strangers staring at them (Jackson-Gibson, 2021).
Fatphobia and thin privilege are further exemplified by diet culture. Diet culture is a set of beliefs that glorifies thinness and equates it with health and moral virtue. It places thinness as the pinnacle of success, beauty, health, determination, and higher status. It assumes that eating in a certain way will result in the ‘correct’ body size, and it compels people to spend a huge amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink their bodies (Harrison, 2018; Teich, 2021).
These can all be understood under the overarching concepts of sizeism, size discrimination, or lookism. Sizeism is defined as discrimination or prejudice directed against people due to their size, especially their weight. Lookism is a discriminatory treatment based on physical appearance and especially physical appearance is believed to fall short of societal notions of beauty and attractiveness. However, these terms are insufficient to elucidate that fat people bear the biggest burden of discrimination based on size and looks. This ambiguity gives permission to those with the greatest privilege, thin people in this instance, to recenter themselves as the primary victims of a system designed to underserve and exclude fat people.
In mainstream discussions relating to fatness, discourse on positive body image or body positivity has been gaining some visibility. However, fat liberation activists take this discourse with a grain of salt. Body positivity means acceptance, respect, and appreciation for all body types and shapes just as they are. It might be a good starting point for gaining self-acceptance. One big example of this movement has been #LoveYourBody. In industrial and post-industrial societies, fat people constantly face hatred, and they are told to hate their bodies. Therefore, it is important to reiterate that fat people are beautiful and deserving of love. Yet, this movement fails to meet the systemic issues because one cannot love themself out of oppression. Also, body positivity seems to be hijacked by many thin-bodied people and the discussion has been drifting away from the anti-fat stigma. While recognizing the internal issues of body image and self-love, fat activism should focus on the collective biases against fat people.
Which aspects of life do anti-fatness impact?
Well, shortly, it impacts all aspects of life. In recent decades there has been mounting social pressure for individuals to achieve or maintain thin bodies (O’Hara & Gregg, 2010; Bacon, O’Reilly & Aphramor, 2016). Fatphobia makes sure that fat people are not able to participate in everyday life the same way that thinner people are. But certain boundaries that anti-fatness creates and maintains are more prominent than others. These boundaries can cause severe consequences for access to medicine, education, employment, and interpersonal relationships.
Firstly, fat people experience stark barriers to health and medicine. At the very core of the problem lies the assumption a fat person cannot be healthy. Lee and Pause (2016) remark that fat stigma, anti-fat attitudes, and confirmation bias of the healthcare providers and “obesity” researchers play a big role in the failure to provide evidence-based healthcare to fat patients. It means fat people are less likely to receive evidence-based and bias-free healthcare. The authors give the following example: fat ciswomen are less likely to receive cervical, breast, and colorectal cancer screening than non-fat ciswomen. As a result, fat ciswomen with breast and cervical cancers are more likely to die from these cancers than non-fat ciswomen. This kind of health provider bias leads to fat patients avoiding or delaying health care, eating disorders, and poorer mental health (Alberga et al, 2019). In conclusion, anti-fat bias does pose not only serious risks to physical health but also to psychological health, worsening, even more, the existing health inequities.
Secondly, not only do educational institutions fail to educate students about fatphobia and fat acceptance, a lot of fat people experience anti-fatness at school from their peers as well as their teachers. It materializes as bullying, bias, stigma, invisibility, and hypervisibility. In primary and secondary education, for example, teachers believe that fat students are less likely to succeed, more untidy, and more likely to suffer from family problems. (U.S. National Education Association, 2010).
Thinness is often equated with wealth, motivation, and discipline, which can open up opportunities for employment. Fat people do not have these opportunities as often as thinner people. In fact, they are less likely to be hired, are more likely to be paid less, and are promoted less often. The reason for weight discrimination in the workplace is that fat people are perceived as having less leadership potential and are expected to be less successful (Roehling, Roehling & Pichler, 2007; Flint et al, 2016).
Another area where fat stigma is frequently observed is online harassment, especially aimed at children and teenagers. Even when made with good intentions, unsolicited advice and comments on one’s body are very harmful. Such comments do not exist in a vacuum and they are informed by existing collective beliefs. Tired jokes around fatness, so-called “fat suits” (a type of costume worn to look fat), and the sheer abundance of before/after photos also follow the same pattern of such beliefs.
How fatphobia is experienced and indoctrinated in the euro-colonialist world is not very different from how it is in the Netherlands either. “Fat bodies are simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible in the Netherlands. [...] most public spaces are not made to accommodate fat bodies and clothing is difficult to find.” (Ochterski, 2013, p. 24).
How does Anti-Fatness impact Higher Education?
Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor, recounts the following anecdote. She was on a hiring committee for a nutrition professorship. There was only one fat candidate. When discussing this candidate, one committee member dismissed her by saying, "well, she really isn't the role model for someone who eats nutritiously, is she?" This assumption was based solely on the candidate's appearance. In the end, a thinner candidate got the job - just by virtue of what she weighed. (Bacon, O’Reilly & Aphramor, 2016, p. 44). That is one of the ways in which anti-fat bias and thin privilege can play out within the Higher Education context.
We do not have any evidence on fatphobic hiring, firing, and promoting practices at RUG and Hanze University, but the lack of teaching staff training on the issue is staggering. The architecture and design at these universities can be starkly criticized as well. Tables and chairs in Hanze lecture halls and bathrooms are evidently designed and built for thin-bodied and able-bodied people.
Fatphobia and other oppressive systems
Fatphobia intersects with many oppressive systems; sexism, ableism, racism, and capitalism to name a few. Starting with gender inequities, the standard of attractiveness portrayed on television and in magazines is slimmer for women than for men, slimmer than in the past, and thinner than the average weight of the actual female population, at least in the Western world. The society holds very different body standards for men and women*. In the employment context, the relationship between weight and income and the degree to which it correlates to gender. For women, a negative weight–income correlation is seen. For men, a positive weight–income relationship up to the point of above-average levels of weight, where weight–income correlation becomes negative (Judge & Cable, 2011).
Fatphobia especially goes hand in hand with ableism. Ableism is structural, institutional, and interpersonal discrimination against people with disabilities. “In the fatphobic cultural imaginary, fatness is inseparable from disability. [...] The modes by which fat people are oppressed are indistinguishable from ableism: architectural barriers, discrimination, pathologization, pity, and starring are common social responses to both fatness and disability. Also, “fat people” and “disabled people” are not two distinct groups” (Mollow, 2015). All in all, our institutions are designed to accommodate a certain group of people: abled people who are also thin.
Anti-fatness is intrinsically linked to anti-blackness, racism, classism, misogyny, and many other systems of oppression. An expert on the topic, Dr. Sabrina Strings says fatphobia is not primarily about health, but rather a means of using the body to validate race, class, and gender prejudice. In her book Fearing the Black Body, she traces the origins of anti-fatness in the Western world to the time of slavery, when African women were deemed excessively corpulent and were positioned as inferior to middle-class and upper-class white/European women. It was indoctrinated that white women ate as little as possible to showcase their racial superiority. The reason for that was that colonizers needed a mechanism for ensuring distinctions between “races”. Eating and body size became two of the characteristics that were used. These Enlightenment-era beliefs that overfeeding and fatness were shown evidence of “savagery”. Africans were sensuous. Europeans, on the other hand, had rational self-control. This was what made them the superior race and above the “savages”. Colonizers, enslavers, and so-called race scientists constructed a eugenist ideology where “deviant bodies” (bodies that are fat, Black, Brown, Native, disabled, trans, queer, old, etc.) were considered disposable and not fully human or deserving of life, freedom, and equality. Today, the narrative that weight, especially that of black people, is the main cause of illness and death has long served as a dangerous distraction from the real problem: inequality (Strings, 2020).
Fat Liberation Values, Fat Activism & Fat Acceptance
There is a critical mass of people realizing that the discourse surrounding fatness is baseless, unscientific, racist, ableist, and capitalist (Brown, 2013; Strings, 2019). Felkins (2019) emphasizes the connection between capitalism and fatness showing arguments that being a good citizen in the Western world requires full participation in the capitalist economy. Therefore, an impossible balance of continuous consumption while still staying thin is expected. On one hand, buying and eating as good consumers would do are encouraged. On the other hand “deservingness” is performed by being thin and slender. Simply put, the good subject buys more and weighs less. It is further exemplified by that weight loss and dieting is a huge industry profiting off of people’s insecurities and self-loathing. It is time to think about a new way of having a positive relationship with their bodies and cultivating health that does not rely on fat stigma. There is an urgent need to replace fatphobia with fat liberation, and body positivity alone is not enough to combat a system of oppression. Loving and accepting your body is one small piece of the puzzle, but we need to dismantle discrimination in urban planning and architecture, the job market, education, media, and medicine.
Want to know more?
Here are some content creators, organizations, authors & other sources.
On social media: @hannahtalksbodies @fatfabfeminist @carbae_diem @jaimmykoroma @mynameisjessamym @blairimani
Educators: Sabrina Strings, https://www.sabrinastrings.com/
Jen Deerinwater https://www.jdeerinwater.com/
Books: Thickening Fat: Fat Bodies, Intersectionality, and Social Justice by May Friedman, Carla Rice and Jen Rinaldi; Fat Activism by Charlotte Cooper; Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression by Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco; Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity by Kathleen Lebesco; The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf; Fat Is A Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach; The Fat Studies Reader by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay; Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins Of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings.
* Gender is not binary and all gender identities are valid. The research we use here; however, does not mention how the situation is for non-binary and genderfluid individuals. Therefore we also refer only to men and women.
Author/Project Lead: Ekin Yıldıran-Schoepe
Co-editors: Siri Maringanti, Francis Urciullo & Alex Alexandrova
- Alberga, A. S., Edache, I. Y., Forhan, M., & Russell-Mayhew, S. (2019). Weight bias and health care utilization: a scoping review. Primary health care research & development, 20, e116. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1463423619000227
- Amlund, D. (2020). Everyone Should Be Fatactivists or Fat-Allies. Conjunctions: Transdisciplinary Journal Of Cultural Participation. Vol. 7, No. 1. https://sciendo.com/pdf/10.7146/tjcp.v7i1.119859
- Bacon, L., O’Reilly, C., & Aphramor, L. (2016). Four: Reflections on Thin Privilege and Responsibility. Counterpoints, 467, 41–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45157128
- Brown, Andrew (2013). The elephant in the room: fatphobia & oppression in the time of obesity. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
- Felkins, S. (2019). The Weight I Carry: Intersections of Fatphobia, Gender, and Capitalism. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 40(3), 180-185. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/747123.
- Flint, S. W., Čadek, M., Codreanu, S. C., Ivić, V., Zomer, C., & Gomoiu, A. (2016). Obesity Discrimination in the Recruitment Process: "You're Not Hired!". Frontiers in psychology, 7, 647. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00647
- Harrison, C. (2018). What is Diet Culture. https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-diet-culture
- Jackson-Gibson, A. (2021). What is Thin Privilege?. Good Housekeeping. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a35047908/what-is-thin-privilege/
- Judge, T. A., & Cable, D. M. (2011). When it comes to pay, do the thin win? The effect of weight on pay for men and women. The Journal of applied psychology, 96(1), 95–112. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020860
- Lee, J. A., & Pausé, C. J. (2016). Stigma in Practice: Barriers to Health for Fat Women. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 2063. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02063
- Mollow, A. (2015). Disability studies gets fat. Hypatia, 30(1), 199–216. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12126.
- Ochterski, J. (2013). There Are No Fat People in The Netherlands: Embodied Identities, Hypervisibility, and the Contextual Relevancy of Fatness. Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 1664. https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1664
- O'Hara, L., & Gregg, J. (2010). Don't diet: Adverse effects of the weight centered health paradigm. In F. De-Meester, S. Zibadi, & R. R. Watson (Eds.), Modern dietary fat intakes in disease promotion, nutrition and health(pp. 431-441). New York, NY: Springer.
- Roehling, M. V., Roehling, P. V., & Pichler, S. (2007). The relationship between body weight and perceived weight-related employment discrimination: The role of sex and race. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 71(2), 300–318. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2007.04.008
- Strings S. (2019). Fearing the black body: the racial origins of fat phobia. New York University Press.
- Strings, S. (2020). It’s Not Obesity. It’s Slavery. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/25/opinion/coronavirus-race-obesity.html
- Teich, J. (2021). The Unbearable Weight of Diet Culture. Good Housekeeping. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a35036808/what-is-diet-culture/
- U.S. National Education Association. (2010). Report on discrimination due to physical size.