What We Really Mean When We Call People Fat

Why are Americans so obsessed with weight and—worse—so mean to those who don't meet the healthy-weight requirements? This three-letter word is a loaded term.

There are a lot of insults you can throw at someone. But the one many women would probably agree burns the most is "fat."

It's also incredibly common. Roughly 40 percent of overweight people experience judgment, criticism, or humiliation at least once a week, according to a 2015 survey of over 2,500 people by Slimming World, a science-based weight-loss program based in the U.K. (akin to our Weight Watchers). That includes everything from having strangers hurl insults at them to not being able to get served at a bar. What's more, formerly overweight folks reported that with their slimmer figure, strangers were more likely to make eye contact, smile, and say hello.

Sadly, we didn't really need a survey to tell us this. Anyone who has set foot on a playground or who has been on the Internet knows the word "fat" is the go-to insult-regardless of how much someone actually weighs. Twitter trolls throw the term around like P. Diddy threw parties in the '90s. And even if you're a non-bully and good social media citizen, have you ever gotten a slight sense of satisfaction when your ex or high school nemesis put on a few pounds?

We may tell ourselves that fat stigma is concern over people's health, but let's not kid ourselves. Do bullies really care about health when they're insulting people because of their weight? (Bullying has harmful effects on health, so definitely not.) And if that were the case, wouldn't smokers be shunned the same way? Smoking is bad for your health, right?

Some might argue that it all comes down to our standard of beauty. But America's problem with those who are overweight goes much, much deeper than that. After all, if it were all just about what society deems beautiful, why not hate on people for breakouts or wrinkles just as much? Of course, we shouldn't insult people at all, but the point is, this is more than just pounds.

"Fat is the ultimate insult because of the assumptions it carries," says Samantha Kwan, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston and co-author of Framing Fat: Competing Constructions in Contemporary Culture. With just a glance at someone's silhouette, we make assumptions about her status, motivation level, emotional balance, and general worth as a human. And it goes wayyy deeper than simply the cultural norms of beauty. Here are four common assumptions-plus why they're just that. Because understanding the problem is the first step in fixing it.

Myth #1: Being thin = status and wealth.

For a long period in history, plumpness was a sign of being wealthy and well-fed. But in the mid 19th century, that started to change. Work became more mechanized and more sedentary, and railroads were built, making food more accessible for everyone, explains Amy Farrell, Ph.D., professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Dickinson College and author of Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. "As waistlines increased across the country, a thinner body became a sign of being civilized, and those ideas have stayed with us," she says.

Reality: Weight is so much more than money.

"There's a deeply rooted idea that in order to be respectable or civilized, you can't have fat," says Farrell. We equate the ability to afford healthy food as a luxury for the wealthy, and thinness has become even more of a status symbol because you need time and money to go to the gym and cook from scratch. We know weight is so much more than money-there's genetics, hormones, biology, psychology. But praising thinness because someone has overcome all these things is really praising someone for having spare time to devote to body management, Farrell says.

A lot of this logic goes back to what we learned from bullies in childhood. "Making judgments works really well for consolidating power. When you're in grade school, if you're the elite kid in class, people pay attention to you while you mock kids with less social power. You point and say, 'Those are inferior people,' and other kids listen," Farrell adds.

Myth #2: Fat = lack of ambition or motivation.

We've all heard the idea that everyone could lose weight if they just tried harder-ate less, exercised more. "People assume that those who are fat don't have the strength of character to change their bodies," Kwan says. "Our cultural discourses reinforce stereotypes that fat individuals are lazy, don't exercise, and are preoccupied with food consumption. They are stereotyped as lacking in self-discipline, as greedy, selfish, and careless." Fat folks indulge in base desires-greed, envy, gluttony, and sloth-so says society.

The bigger storyline, though, is that being fat is a slight on everything Americans pride themselves on-striving and working for a better life. So even though being overweight is certainly American, carrying "extra" weight threatens the two most American ideals of all: that with enough hard work, anyone can improve their standing in life, and that all Americans have this unified American dream.

Reality: Goals are greater than the scale.

For starters, there's the assumption that everyone has the same goal-to be thin-when the smarter goal is really to be healthy. Obesity is the second leading cause of death in this country largely because it increases one's risk for other deadly diseases like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. But some research suggests it's not necessarily weight that increases this risk as much as inactivity, and there are certainly overweight people who are more physically fit than thin people.

Then there's the implication that your weight is entirely within your control, even though research shows that physiologically our bodies would rather hold onto fat than let go of it, Farrell points out. And this idea of fat folks lacking motivation also assumes overweight people have plenty of free time that they are choosing to spend on the couch. In reality, there are plenty of other reasons the weight just won't budge.

Myth #3: Fat women don't value themselves, so we shouldn't value them either.

"We live in a makeover society where individuals, but especially women, are expected to spend the time, money, and physical and emotional energy to make themselves 'beautiful,'" Kwan says. "This is our cultural script." Since the media has bombarded us for the past half-century with the idea that all it takes is eating less and exercising more, this must mean larger ladies just don't care enough to expend the energy and resources to lose weight, right?

Reality: Self-worth isn't measured in pounds.

While diet and exercise are certainly two factors that influence weight gain, so are a whole slew of things that are out of our immediate control: genetics, birth weight, childhood weight, ethnicity, age, medications, stress levels, and socioeconomic status, according to the Institute of Medicine. Researchers put the influence of genetics on weight anywhere from 20 to 70 percent, and a landmark study in the '80s found adopted children raised separately from their biological parents still ended up with a similar weight to them in adulthood, rather than having a weight similar to the adoptive parents who raised them and shaped their eating and exercise habits.

Most importantly, though, is that self-worth isn't tied to weight, and weight also doesn't automatically denote a high self-worth. Both Kwan and Farrell point out that thinness can sometimes be the result of unhealthy behaviors, like crash dieting and taking pharmaceuticals. Someone who is nourishing her body and mind with food is probably more in tune with her own happiness and satisfaction than someone who is starving herself for weight loss.

Myth #4: Fat people are unhappy.

"We look at someone who's fat and see someone who doesn't take care of herself, and is therefore emotionally unbalanced and unwell," Farrell says.

Classic research shows we associate positive characteristics with those who meet our culture's beauty standards. "We tend to think of someone who is thin and beautiful as having a more successful and happier life (regardless of whether this is true) than someone who is less traditionally attractive," Kwan explains. It's called the halo and horns effect-the idea that you can assume intangible characteristics based solely on someone's appearance. In fact, a landmark study in the journal Sex Roles found that thinner white women were perceived as not only having more successful lives, but also better personalities than heavier white women.

Reality: Weight says nothing about well-being.

First off, there are plenty of women who are totally happy with how they look, but less than pleased with how they're treated because of how they look-which is why speaking out against fat-shaming is so important to set the record straight. And while some people do gain weight as a result of stress or depression, people also lose weight because they're unhappy and gain weight when they're most satisfied. For example, a study in Health Psychology found happily married couples gained more weight than spouses who weren't as satisfied with their relationships.

And again, activity might go further than weight. People who exercise on the reg are less stressed and anxious, more confident, more creative, and generally happier than people who don't move much. As far as physical health goes, a study in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases found that fit people had comparable rates of death regardless of whether they were a "healthy" weight or overweight. A study in the American Journal of Cardiology looked at muscle mass, body fat, and people's risk of heart disease and death. They found that while high muscle/low fat group was the healthiest, the "fit and fat" group (high fat but also high muscle) came in second, ahead of the group with low body fat but no muscle (aka those who were thinner but inactive).

Here's how we can change.

It's painful and embarrassing to realize these deeply embedded assumptions we have as a culture. But it's really important to acknowledge them: "These ideas are dangerous because they legitimize discrimination," Farrell says.

The good news? A lot of this is changing. Fat activists like yogi Jessamyn Stanley and nude photographer Substantia Jones are changing the way we view active and beautiful bodies. Ashley Graham, Robyn Lawley, Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine, Iskra Lawrence, Tess Holliday, and Olivia Campbell are the tip of the iceberg of women shaking up the standards of the modeling industry and reminding us all that 'skinny' shouldn't be the ultimate compliment-and showing off a fuller figure isn't 'brave'. Melissa McCarthy, Gabourey Sidibe, and Chrissy Metz are just a few of the stars headlining the same idea over in Hollywood.

And the exposure is working: A new study from Florida State University found that women are more likely to pay attention to and remember average and plus-size models compared to thin models. And when larger ladies were on screen, women in the study made fewer comparisons and had higher levels of body satisfaction within themselves. Magazines, including Shape, are putting forth more effort than ever before to consider the message we're projecting about what "healthy" really means. And good thing, considering a study in the International Journal of Obesity found people's belief that weight is controllable, ideas around the real health risks of being fat, and their tendency to weight discriminate was directly related to whether they read and watched media that was either fat positive or fat negative.

Plus, the more popular the body positivity movement becomes, particularly on social media, the more the world is exposed to how real women of every shape and size eat and exercise in order to maintain their definition of beauty. Day after day, this normalization of what is truly normal helps take back the power that bullies thought a three-letter word should hold.

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