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The evidence for fat phobia

October 29, 2010
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In a predictably good post at Jezebel, Dodai Stewart lays it all on the table:

If you think that watching a fat person walk across the room is “gross,” and if you think not allowing readers to comment on a woman’s weight is “glorifying” obesity, you are a bigot. You are treating a group — people who weigh more than “normal” (whatever that is) — with hatred and intolerance.

Awesome. And, as a side note, agreeing with several of the commenters on that thread, it’s been really exciting to see how Jezebel has evolved with regard to body snark. It’s an entertainment site; it’ll probably never be perfect. And, of course, there are always ways to be more body positive, or body positive in new ways. But it’s exciting.

However, it’s another comment I want to respond to at the moment. Commenter barmishar writes:

I’m going to go ahead and put it out there that I’m not a big fan of the word fat-phobic, which would tend to suggest there are people with actual irrational fear towards overweight people.

Leaving aside the colloquial usage of “-phobia” as a way of talking about bigoted “distaste,” shall we say, of certain people based on the groups they are identified as belonging to, it’s actually quite apt in its strict definition to discussions of public disdain for, maltreatment of, and anxiety about people who are fat.

There is a pervasive assumption in our culture of moral fault for certain illnesses (and other states of duress–like poverty, homelessness, underinsurance and not having insurance, etc.). We have a sense that people who get STDs, or lung cancer, or some mental illnesses are somehow defective people–the reason they are siack and I am not is because they are bad and I am not, and is absolutely not due to any structural factors or elements of (bad) luck. One of my more interesting findings in my Master’s thesis on teen pregnancy was that many teen moms talked about getting pregnant–also something that’s pretty stigmatized–as a painful rupture with a self that they had viewed as good. They say, “I was a good student, I didn’t go around with a bunch of guys, I carried myself honorably, but I still got pregnant. I thought I was a good person, but I still got pregnant.” And they talked at length about how disappointing and horribly painful it was to feel that they had to think of themselves in this new, negative light. Of course, it’s not like eggs put up a purity shield or something, just like you don’t develop a Slut Chute that works extra-hard to harbor infections if you have sex with someone you’re not married to. But we think these things are true, on an emotional level that often bleeds into our beliefs about medicine and the body.

So there’s the comfort in viewing these stigmatized sorts of body experiences as intimately related to moral value, because, on the one hand, your lack of these characteristics reifies your goodness, and because, on the other hand,it becomes easy to soothe yourself that since you are good, you don’t have to worry about it. One study actually found that greater anti-fat bias was associated with greater adherence to just-world beliefs, the idea that the world is fundamentally just and people get what they deserve. Bad things only happen to bad people. Another study found that the fear of getting fat significantly predicted bias against fat people.

All of the ways fatness and overweight and obesity are talked about in the U.S. reflect this deep sense of fear that we, too, will be discovered to be bad. The adamant insistence that weight is the direct result of controllable behavior, the depiction of fat people as lazy, gluttonous and selfish, the construction of obesity as an epidemic and a profound threat to us, and even the Fantasy of Being Thin, all create this context in which fat is implicitly (and sometimes quite explicitly) connected with unworthiness, moral deficiency, being bad. Hating fat, and fat people, is a daily affirmation that you are okay. Even if you’re fat, demonstrating your willingness to buy in to the message wins you some points. (This is what Foucault talks about in his arguments about the care of the self–admitting your sins is soldering the order that made them sins in the first place.) Fat phobia is not strictly the fear of fat people, like I am afraid of fish (this is true); it’s the fear of being not-what-you’re-supposed to be. And, maybe more incisively, the fear that you are not what you think you are.

“Fat-phobia” is quite apt, I think, for describing what is happening here.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2010 3:58 PM

    Perceptive and 100% accurate. That was me before I found fat acceptance. I never hated or discriminated against fat people, but boy oh boy did I do it to myself. I also did a lot of body comparisons. Is that girl fatter than me? What section of the store did she shop in? I hated it, was ashamed of it, but I did it anyway.

    I didn’t compare because I thought I was better than them. It was because I was afraid that I *was* them.

    Now I know better, of course.:)

  2. October 31, 2010 6:41 PM

    Fantastic post on an issue that has garnered some well-meaning but somewhat meaningless responses. While “phobia” does of course tend to imply something pathological, we could almost go as far to say that our culture does promote a pathological fear of gaining weight.

  3. January 14, 2011 8:46 PM

    you wouldnt believe the sick things i heard from big women when i worked at lane bryant. it was like everybody had to admit there was something wrong with them when they walked in the door. this isnt an AA meeting, this is a clothing store! you dont have to feel bad about buying plus size clothes. in fact, it often offended and angered me because it seemed like they wanted me to agree, “yes, my fat arms are horrible too, we have to cover them up.” hello internalized oppression! it was really, really sick.
    random fact: im also afraid of fish. fish are scary, fat people are not.

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