How society has stigmatized the word fat and oppressed fat people
We are constantly bombarded with messaging across all media about the “ideal” body and unrealistic standards of beauty—thinness for women and lean, muscular bodies for men. From TV shows and movies to Instagram and Tik Tok, we are constantly told we should want to achieve these body types. We receive these messages when we wait in line at the grocery store and see all the magazines touting celebrity diets and how to get a beach body and how to lose X number of pounds in X days and how to keep New Year’s resolutions related to exercise and weight–because we equate losing weight with self-improvement, better health, and moral superiority. Despite knowing body weight isn’t an indicator of health, these messages can be difficult to ignore.
We are told there is an ideal body type everyone should want to achieve, and fat couldn’t be further from it. We are told that fatness is synonymous with so many undesirable traits, that fat people are undisciplined, unmotivated, unhealthy, lazy, slovenly, ugly, and stupid and so many more derogatory labels that are incredibly damaging and hurtful. And we perpetuate these fatphobic attitudes every day. If you’ve ever asked if a certain pair of pants make you look fat or said that you feel fat after eating a large meal, you’ve participated in stigmatizing the word fat.
The same can be said if someone has ever referred to themself as fat and you’ve assured them, “No, you aren’t fat!” You are communicating that fatness is bad, unworthy even. And this is especially true for people who have reclaimed the word fat and use it to describe themselves and their bodies. Your knee jerk reaction to reassure them can have the opposite effect and wind up invalidating,alienating, and shaming them.
Fatphobia, or the fear and hatred of fat bodies, is not only present in our culture’s attitudes, it’s also prevalent in our society’s practices. We exclude fat bodies from everyday living activities. How? By creating chairs, turnstyles, doorways, aisles, medical equipment, and public spaces that are too small to accommodate larger, heavier bodies. And making the majority of clothing in “standard” clothing sizes that only go up to a certain size and are labeled as such, leaving a smaller variety of clothing styles for a larger-bodied population. These are just a few examples of how fat bodies are oppressed and stigmatized.
Fat people are also discriminated against and treated poorly in healthcare, where fat phobia and weight stigma are also rampant, masquerading as concern for “health.”
Fat is a descriptor
The word fat is nothing more than a neutral descriptor. It’s not a bad word. And it doesn’t indicate a person’s health, beauty, or value. Fat is a descriptor just like the word queer is a descriptor. Neither one has an inherent negative meaning, but society is responsible for stigmatizing these words.
But it’s time we as a society normalize and neutralize the word fat. In fact, it’s well past time. Fat people have been reclaiming the word fat for over fifty years. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded in 1969.
Countless books, blogs, and articles have been written by and for fat people, reclaiming the word. There are some good podcasts out there, too. And more cable, streaming, and mainstream TV shows have been including fat people as main characters to shatter stereotypes and inform audiences about the harm society has inflicted on fat people.
Yet people of “average” or “below-average” weight haven’t caught up yet, even going so far as to correct fat people when they use the word to describe themselves or as an identity. And that’s because we still associate fatness with undesirable qualities.
It’s on us to change our outlook and to challenge our biases.
We see how society treats fat people—from staring at strangers and making rude remarks to doctors ignoring the complaints of fat patients and prescribing weight loss as the cure to every ailment under the sun. So it’s understandable that you may have removed the word fat from your vocabulary in order to avoid inflicting more harm on others.
But, by refusing to use the word, you are inadvertently giving it power and reaffirming all the negative connotations attached to it, as well as denying the lived experience of fat folks.
Change how you view the word fat and fat people
If you’ve begun to recognize some of your discomfort and deeply internalized bias related to the word fat, and, by association, fat people, there are several things you can do to expand your awareness about the damage this stigma does to fat people, unlearn previously held beliefs about the word fat and fat people, center the needs of fat people, and work toward making the world a safer, more inclusive place for fat people.
Here are some ways you can be more aware of, inform yourself about, and change how you view the word fat and fat people:
- Stop avoiding using the word or using it in a derogatory manner.
- Confront your discomfort related to the word fat by saying it repeatedly, over and over, until it sounds neutral and normal
- Consider it like descriptors you already treat neutrally, such as tall or short
- Challenge your fatphobia by acknowledging your biases, educating yourself, unlearning harmful attitudes or assumptions
- Note how and where your fatphobia arises and explore why
- Learn about the lived experiences of fat people
- Listen to podcasts, read books, watch TV shows, movies, and documentaries, view artwork, and follow social media accounts by and for fat people that share their stories and experiences
- Pay attention to the words people use for themselves and use them, too
- Ask people what words they’d like you to use, respectfully, if you’re not sure,
- Speak out against fatphobia when you see it in action and when opportunities present themselves
- Donate to fat liberation causes, such as the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), The Body is Not an Apology, and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA)
- Donate directly to crowdfunding campaigns for fat people, especially fat people who sit at the intersections of race, gender, and ability
Explore how you view health and weight
Another thing you can do is explore how you view health and weight and educate yourself about why these beliefs may be wrong and can do harm.
For example, a common misconception is that fat people are unhealthy and thin people are healthy. But this is fundamentally untrue. You can’t judge a person’s health by their appearance. And healthy bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and weights.
These beliefs go much deeper and are supported by other widely held and well-intentioned but equally uninformed and harmful cultural and societal norms and biases about health.
But unlearning your associations between health and weight is a great place to start and challenging your weight bias and stigma will, ultimately, better equip you to meet fat people where they are at and undo the damage our society and our culture is doing.