Society's dislike of overweight women goes wayyy beyond health concerns
"Gosh, researching this article is depressing!" It's 6:30pm on a Thursday night and I'm on the phone with Abigail Saguy, Ph.D. professor of Sociology at UCLA and author of What's Wrong with Fat, discussing why America as a society hates fat women with a seemingly endless fiery passion. Saguy has been studying this topic for years, so I'm preaching to the choir. She chuckles sympathetically.
I've gotten similar reactions from every female friend to whom I've mentioned this article topic. A nod, an eye roll, a groan of recognition. Not a single person has contested the statement. Rather, they all seem kind of sorry for me that I've chosen to delve into this subject. But as a fat woman whose weight and self-esteem have both fluctuated wildly throughout my lifetime, as a feminist who realizes that my issues as a privileged white woman are merely the tip of the problematic iceberg, and as an optimistic human who hopes we can one day treat each other and ourselves with kindness, I am deeply invested in talking about American society's problem with fat women. Because yes, it's depressing.
If you need proof that this is an issue worth taking seriously, ask any woman you know how she feels about her body, and who taught her to feel that way. If you need more proof, creep into the comment section on any platform on the internet. Examine the language commenters use when insulting women, specifically. And if you need even more proof, consider that overweight women earn less money than thinner women and—wait for it—all men, according to a Vanderbilt study. The proof is in the fat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free pudding: America hates fat women.
Fatphobia does not stem from health concerns.
First off, more and more research suggests you can be overweight and healthy, including this new study finding "fat but fit" women to be healthier than thin women who don't work out. Still, people love to hide behind the health argument when throwing fat insults around (see: when Cheryl Tiegs slammed Ashley Graham in the name of health). However, even if America's hatred of fat women is truly 100 percent health related, then why aren't we using "smoker" as an equally offensive insult? Just imagine Internet trolls saying "stupid smoker!" in lieu of "fat b^&%." Hard to picture, right?
"From TV to magazines to the internet, you would think being fat in America is the worst thing you can be," says Jenny Bruso, a Portland-based fat queer woman who writes I Take The Long Way, a nature blog that gets personal from the perspective of an "unlikely hiker." "Whether or not you feel that being fat is unhealthy, we have to take a step back and question this hostility."
So why so much hate?
Society demands that women present themselves in slim packages (don't take up too much space!), and nothing hurts the Patriarchy's feelings more than a woman who doesn't acquiesce to its demands. Society wants you to be thin, and if you're not, you will deal with the consequences.
"America has a big honking problem with fat women," says Nikki Padula, a Brooklyn-based fat queer femme blogger who writes The Ample. "Even women with the utmost privilege, women who have the most permission from society at large to take up space are constantly told that they're still taking up too much space."
Thing is, a fat body does not apologize for taking up space. A fat body is one that will not disappear. A fat body demands to be seen. To be unapologetically fat in America in 2016 is to tell society (and the patriarchy): No. No, you can't dictate how should I look. And no, you can't take away the space that I deserve.
And yes, fat men experience discrimination too, but "women are judged much more," Saguy says. "Despite all of our achievements and all of our gains, America is still a gender unequal society, and women are still judged more in terms of their value for men." Meaning, "are they valuable as sexual objects, are they valuable as mothers?" she says.
While a major think-piece subject of our time seems to be "can women really have it all," implying that we've moved entirely away from the sexist notions that women only have value inside of the domestic sphere, the truth is that there are just a whole host of ways in which men can decide if women have value or not. Yes, we can go to the office, but we better have a slim body under that perfectly pressed designer suit.
It's not just about how you look.
Check out any internet comment section, and you'll notice that the word "fat" often becomes a weapon completely divorced from its definition. Oftentimes, when women are policed for the way they look, they're not even particularly large. The word and the concept of fat are used as a threat. It's coded language used to keep women in line, remind them not to take up space, not to be too loud, not to enjoy themselves too much, not to have too much sex, and not to make too much money.
While obviously women who are actually fat receive the brunt of fat-shaming and fatphobia, this kind of body policing ultimately renders all women a target. Just look at talented movie stars such as Kate Winslet and Renee Zellweger. Neither woman is fat, but speculation about their weight and appearances have followed them incessantly throughout the courses of their careers. (Yet, when Leonardo DiCaprio gains weight, he has a super cool "dad bod.") If gorgeous, accomplished, A-list female celebs need to deal with it, it really starts to feel as though no one is immune to society's judgment. More than anything, this proves that the end goal should not be weight loss but rather the turning over of a system that harms all women, no matter what kind of body you have.
Uh, great. Now what?
Depressing as the subject matter may be, I do feel hopeful about the future for fat women in America, and I personally could never write 1000+ words addressing why our society hates fat women without offering some thoughts about how we can deal with this bummer of a truth bomb.
My personal coping mechanisms include: standing in front of the mirror and praising myself out loud on my appearance (hey, I give amazing compliments, may as well throw some my own way, right?!), surrounding myself with hot fat babes and basking in our collective hotness (this can also be achieved via online body positive communities—like the #LoveMyShape movement—if you do not have a ton of fat babes in your day-to-day real life), and reading everything Lindy West writes because she is a genius, a self-proclaimed loud fat woman, and a very smart, very funny powerhouse (Cosmo once called her the Ultimate Internet Troll Slayer). Bonus: She just published a new book, so there's brand new Lindy brilliance to read right this very moment!
I asked all three women I interviewed to contribute some of their tricks to unlearning fat-hate and self-hate, and they had so many good ideas. "Surround yourself with people who affirm you and believe your body is worthy of respect exactly as it is," says Padula. "Retrain your brain, aggressively. Look up HAES, Health At Every Size, and consider going to a doctor that practices it."
Saguy pointed to the body-positivity movement that is both inviting and accessible through social media, and also stressed the importance of finding like-minded people to communicate with. She also urged women who are not fat to consider their roles in the societal unlearning of fatphobia. "I think we need to be aware that this is a form of bigotry, very much like other forms of bigotry," she says. "We need to call it out for what it is... and it can't only be the job of people of size to call out fatphobia." She emphasizes that many of us partake in negative body talk without even realizing it, but she hopes this kind of behavior will become less socially acceptable as people realize the effect of their negative words.
Bruso echoed similar sentiments: "Interrupt diet talk when it happens, but resist making others feel bad about their negative feelings about their own bodies." And in typical #unlikelyhiker form, she encouraged "exercise, whatever that looks like for you, for no other reason than it feels good."
How will you take up space in this world today? What will you focus on that has nothing to do with your body conforming to sexist beauty standards? Your body is the vehicle that allows you the freedom to move through this world and it should take up as much space as it needs to in order to give you that mobility.