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What is fatphobia?

In a world that's long been deeply influenced by the ideals of diet culture, people with certain body shapes, weights, and sizes experience all manner of shaming, bias, and discrimination. And fatphobia is another expression of these harmful attitudes and behaviors.

Fatphobia can present as humiliating or derogatory words, actions, or suggestions. But learning to recognize it in all of its forms is the first step toward combating fatphobia and teaching fatphobic people how to better treat others.

7
 minute read
Last updated on 
December 26, 2023
Fatphobia
In this article

Fatphobia definition

"Phobia" is often associated with "fear," and that is one way the term can be understood, including in its use in fatphobia. The classic understanding of fatphobia involves the pathological fear of fatness.1

But phobia can also mean an extreme aversion to something, and it's this broader context that has been adopted over the years when it comes to the definition of fatphobia.

The term is sometimes described as anti-fat bias or weight stigma. It refers to an implicit bias of overweight individuals, and this is often rooted in the misguided idea that attaining a thin or fit body type is the ultimate life goal, and presenting as overweight is a sign of moral failing.2

Where is fatphobia exhibited?

The negative bias toward people living in larger bodies can be expressed in a number of ways and in a number of environments, including:3
  • Healthcare settings
  • Work settings
  • Online and social media
  • School

Many people may also face fatphobia at the gym or restaurants. And sadly, people even report experiencing weight-based comments that are hurtful or negative from friends and family.3

What is the prevalence of fatphobia?

In recent years, battling "obesity" has become an increasingly popular public health initiative. But with it has come the rise of fatphobia and fatphobic attitudes.4

One study found that weight discrimination of all types rose by 66% over the course of a decade, calling it one of the only types of discrimination that is "actively condoned" by society.4

Other studies, conducted in Europe, reported that anywhere from 18.7% to 38% of people considered "obese" experienced weight stigma or fat shaming, while school-aged children considered "obese" were up to 63% more likely to experience bullying.3

What are the effects of fatphobia?

Sadly, fatphobia is more than just emotionally hurtful. Studies show being on the receiving end of this type of bias can have a detrimental effect on mental and physical health.

Issues like heart disease, diabetes, eating disorders, lifelong discomfort in one's body, and even early death have all been tied to the experience of fat shaming and stigma.4 Weight bias can also cause or contribute to:4,5,6

What is fatphobia?

Common examples of fatphobia in everyday life

Fatphobic behaviors can be direct or more subtle, from bullying and taunting to misguided suggestions that one should consider losing weight. They can also be the result of individuals or more systemic issues perpetuated by society at large.

One of the best ways to address fatphobia is to understand where it comes from, all the forms it can take, and what these types of weight discrimination can look like.

Lack of accessibility
Fatphobia in healthcare settings

Common fatphobic phrases we all need to avoid

Many of us may partake in and perpetuate fatphobia without even realizing it. But the good news is, there is always room to learn and grow. As a society, certain fatphobic phrases have been programmed into us, but we can do the work to stop using them.

Some common phrases that have been flagged by the "fat acceptance movement" and other similarly-minded individuals include:

  • Incessant commenting on body weight, e.g., “I feel so fat”
  • Complimenting others on their bodies or weight loss
  • Talking about having a “beach body” or using body image as a measure of self-worth
  • Anything related to weight loss as self-improvement
  • Anything that equates thinness with superiority or virtue
  • “I’m being so bad” when referring to eating certain foods
  • Commenting on how much someone else is eating
  • “Do I look fat in this?”
  • Anything assuming that people of certain body shapes or sizes aren't athletic or can’t partake in physical activity

How fatphobia is a part of harmful diet culture

Diet culture is a group of ideas and beliefs that promote a thin, fit body as the only acceptable body type, and the attainment of such a body as the "ultimate goal" in life. With this mindset, diet culture heavily implies that body weight, shape, and size are directly tied to goodness and badness, with a larger body indicating a fundamental moral failing.

There's a short leap between the idea of "bad" people having larger bodies and fatphobia, and diet culture has likely contributed heavily to the perpetuation of fatphobic ideas. Diet culture-related marketing, such as fat-free, guilt-free, or weight loss ads, shame people living in larger bodies and encourage these individuals to lose weight, even if they are living at a healthy weight for their body. 

This black and white type of thinking extends to food as well, painting some foods as "good" and others as "bad." And these concepts can lay dangerous groundwork for the development of disordered eating habits, including binge eating disorder, which has long been linked to frequent dieting.10

Virtual treatment for eating disorders is available.
Learn more >

Combating fatphobia

Fatphobia and fatphobic messaging is powerful, but we also hold the power to change the narrative.

Groups like Health at Every Size (HAES) have long been blazing the trail for a more kind and equal world. The group supports the concept that health is a continuum which changes over time and exists independently of weight alone, and promotes ideas like access to high-quality healthcare for all, without the risk of being judged.11

HAES also has a number of resources and suggestions for confronting and stopping fatphobia in everyday life, including learning how to recognize these issues and correct these thoughts in others and ourselves.

Rather than judging our worth on our weight or appearance, we can celebrate our differences, and think of food and bodily movement as blessings and joyful experiences. And, most importantly of all, we can learn to love ourselves. Confidence and self-love is something no bully can ever take away.

Help is just a call away

If you or a loved one are experiencing fatphobic behavior or struggling with disordered eating behaviors, we at Within would love to help.

We understand that health is a spectrum and should be judged on more than weight alone, but also know that experiencing fatphobia can cause physical and mental health problems that can be addressed with further treatment. Call us today to see how our team of caring experts can help.

Get help today

If you or a loved one are experiencing fatphobic behavior or struggling with disordered eating behaviors, we at Within would love to help. 

We understand that health is a spectrum and should be judged on more than weight alone, but also know that experiencing fatphobia can cause physical and mental health problems that can be addressed with further treatment. Call us today to see how our team of caring experts can help.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Robinson, B. E., Bacon, J. G., & O'Reilly, J. (1993). Fat phobia: measuring, understanding, and changing anti-fat attitudes. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 14(4), 467-480.
  2. Fatphobia. (n.d.). Boston Center Medical. Accessed October 2023. 
  3. Weight bias and obesity stigma: considerations for the WHO European Region. (2017). World Health Organization. Accessed October 2023. 
  4. Addressing weight stigma and fatphobia in public health. (n.d.). School of Public Health, University of Illinois Chicago. Accessed October 2023.
  5. Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2010). Obesity stigma: Important considerations for public health. American Journal of Public Health, 100(6), 1019-1028.
  6. Tomiyama, A. J., Carr, D., Granberg, E. M., Major, B., Robinson, E., Sutin, A. R., & Brewis, A. (2018). How and why weight stigma drives the obesity ‘epidemic’ and harms health. BMC Medicine, 16(1). 
  7. Schvey, N. (2010). Weight bias in health care. AMA Journal of Ethics. Accessed October 2023.
  8. Fruh, S. M., Nadglowski, J., Hall, H. R., Davis, S. L., Crook, E. D., & Zlomke, K. (2016). Obesity Stigma and Bias. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 12(7), 425–432.
  9. Nuttall F. Q. (2015). Body Mass Index: Obesity, BMI, and Health: A Critical Review. Nutrition Today, 50(3), 117–128. 
  10. Howard, C. E., & Porzelius, L. K. (1999). The role of dieting in binge eating disorder: etiology and treatment implications. Clinical Psychology Review, 19(1), 25–44.
  11. The health at every size® (HAES®) principles. (2022). ASDAH. Accessed October 2023.

FAQs

What does fatphobia mean?

Fatphobia is another term for anti-fatness or weight bias, in which people and systems discriminate against and stigmatize people living in higher-weight bodies.

Is fatphobia real?

Yes, fatphobia is real. Many people have strongly negative feelings about people in larger bodies and actively or subconsciously discriminate against them.

Still, the term fatphobia can be misleading since it is commonly used to describe much more than a fear of fat people. That's why many activists are moving away from this terminology, opting for phrases like anti-fatness instead.

Is fatphobia rooted in racism? 

Yes, fatphobia has a racist and anti-Black history, dating back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.2

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Further reading

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