Fatphobia and Body Dissatisfaction: Different Conversations
Author’s note: when I mention thin people speaking about weight stigma, I am not referring to thin people butting in to a conversation among and between fat people about their experiences of being fat. I am referring to someone telling their own story in their own context about their relationship with their body.
In most social justice circles the common wisdom is that if you are not part of the group that is affected by a certain kind of stigma or oppression, then you should probably let your voice take a backseat to those who are affected. White people should probably get off the stage when we’re talking about race issues. This makes lots of sense. We hear the voice of the privileged all the time, and their perspective doesn’t give us a whole lot of insight into the issue.
However there is one social justice topic that seems to be an exception to this rule: weight stigma.Now before everyone who is fat jumps on me for saying that, I want to explain what I mean. Weight stigma, from where I stand, actually encompasses two very different things, both of which are harmful and both of which are oppressive. One of these things can be summed up as fatphobia: the attitudes, behaviors, and societal structures that prioritize thinness over fatness and make life easier for thin people. When it comes to fatphobia, it seems clear that once again the privileged should learn how to shut up and listen.
But there is another element of weight stigma that affects everyone, that does not discriminate between fat and skinny, that has real and serious consequences, and that is deeply wrapped up in sexism. And that element is internalized body dissatisfaction. It’s that driving knowledge that your body is not appropriate and never will be, that you’re fat and ugly and will never be pretty (unless you starve yourself), and that causes you to treat your body in horrific ways. While this type of body shame does apply to men as well, in many ways it’s wrapped up in the conviction that women’s appearance is the most important thing about them, the idea that women’s bodies don’t belong to themselves, and the underlying message that women should always be taking up less space. These toxic ideas have serious effects on women’s mental health, and can affect their behavior to such an extent that they have physical repercussions as well.
Both of these issues are real and need to be discussed, however they’re often subsumed into one discussion that gets the two sides confused. This leads to real frustration on both sides because the skinny among us rightly feel that we have also had our lives impacted by this crap and the fat people are exasperated that they have to explain once again that their lives really are harder.
Disclosure time: I’m skinny. I always have been. I’m the kind of person that gets ridiculed if they try to make comments about feeling ugly because “you don’t get it, you’re skinny”. And I understand that in many contexts that’s true. I will never understand what it’s like to have seats that aren’t made to fit my body, to have to shop in special stores, to be publicly shamed for my weight, to lose out on job and promotional opportunities because of my size. When people tell me that my opinion isn’t all that important in those realms, I wholly agree. However when I feel that I can’t speak up about my own body image, my struggle with expectations of thinness, my feelings that my body is not my own…that seems inappropriate. These things do affect me, at least as much as they do any other person.
I have an extremely complicated relationship with fat. I have a great deal of internalized fatphobia which mostly expresses itself in self-hatred. I’ve had an eating disorder for nearly five years now and so I have thought a great deal about weight and food, I have beat myself up over my food intake and size more than most people, and I have a firm grasp on what it means to hate yourself deeply and intensely for your weight. Weight stigma, diet culture, and self-image have ruled my life for years.
When someone tries to begin the conversation about internalized weight stigma, they are often mistaken as talking about societal weight stigma. As an example, when I have tried to talk about feeling uncomfortable with my body in the past, many people laugh at me or tell me that I should shut up because I’m skinny and I don’t know what I’m talking about. In reality, there are many elements of the struggle with body image that all sizes of people can understand and elucidate.
I know what it’s like to be embarrassed by my body. I know what it’s like to stare at myself in the mirror and feel disgusted. I know what it’s like to hurt myself because of how I look. I know what it’s like to diet and exercise until I feel I no longer can. I know what it’s like to wonder who will take me seriously because of how I look. I know what it’s like to fall into a deep depression over how I look and to tie my self-esteem and worth intimately up in my body.
Unfortunately, because I am skinny these experiences are ignored. I’ve had people tell me to shut up about my weight, and to have people tell me that I don’t get to feel bad about myself because I’m already skinny. I’ve had people tell me I just need to eat a hamburger. I’ve had people tell me that they’re sure I would be able to eat just fine if I just worked out. The responses that hurt the most though are from those who are fat and have experienced real stigma for their weight, who tell me that I “just don’t understand” and haven’t checked my privilege appropriately. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling that over and trying in good faith to check my privilege. But I can’t accept that I know nothing about weight stigma or body image issues. I can’t accept that I am not allowed to be open and honest about things that hurt me. I can’t accept that I’m speaking over people when I talk about the very real pain that body expectations in this society have caused me.
There seems to be an expectation among many fat people that if someone is thin they have no right to be self-conscious or have bad body image. That it’s just a ploy for attention, or that it’s not fair because they’re thin and somehow “objectively” pretty. It plays once again into the stereotype of the rich, thin, white, anorexic girl who makes up problems because she doesn’t have any real ones. It is intensely invalidating, and ignores the very real pressure that people feel to be as skinny as possible, no matter where their weight starts. It also ignores the intersections of weight and mental health (particularly eating disorders) and the ways in which people use food to control and manage emotions. These things need to be a part of the conversation about weight stigma.
In addition, this attitude harms the struggle for fat acceptance, because it implies that if you’re skinny, then you’re ok. The connection between skinny and ok needs to be broken. When we reinforce this connection, we tell people that fat people must not be ok. When we break apart that connection, we open up the possibility that some people (of all kinds of weights) struggle with their bodies and some people (of all kinds of weights) feel good about their bodies and some people (of all kinds of weights) are somewhere in the middle. This creates the possibility for more narratives, for changing the “I got skinny and then I felt happy” narrative. And when skinny people come clean about the struggles they have with body image, they validate that those struggles are a part of being alive in this society, that those feelings are real, but that the underlying conviction that we need to be skinnier is not true.
Each time one of us talks about the struggles we have, we make it a more acceptable thing to do, and we add more possibilities into the pool of existing narratives. That makes it easier for everyone else. Every time someone says “living in this society makes me hate myself and the way I look”, they are calling out structures that are oppressive and harmful. And if your response to someone being that vulnerable is to tell them that they’re wrong, they don’t understand, they diet anyway so they must be stupid, skinny people have it easier, they’ve bought into the myths because their body fits the ideal, then you are not helping to dismantle those myths. You are perpetuating them by saying that the internalized hate doesn’t count. All of us have internalized myths about appropriate bodies and appropriate food behaviors, and all of us need to work to challenge those myths. Someone’s size doesn’t change that.
Again, this is not to say that when a thin person jumps into a conversation about fatphobia or outward stigma it isn’t appropriate to tell them to piss off, but rather when we talk about internalized attitudes towards our own bodies.
Body image is hard and sucky for almost everyone. While I fully support fat focused conversations about bodies and weight stigma, I also have to promote the idea of conversations about the issues that affect all of us. Despite what some may think, I probably understand better than most the struggles someone feels when they’re feeling bad about their body. Yes, even better than some fat women. Thin people are capable of experiencing those emotions and having intense, life-changing experiences around weight and weight stigma. All of us are individuals in a society that glorifies skinny fight out the battle against myths on the playing field of our own bodies. Each of us has a perspective about this fight. Each of these is important.I hope we can create more conversations and allow space for both perspectives about fatphobia and about internalized body image and weight stigma.
But more than that, I hope we can pull apart the questions of how others treat us and how we treat ourselves, because one of the first steps to opening up a conversation about mental and physical health is being willing to discuss our own feelings and attitudes about ourselves without judgment. If we want to continue to dismantle patriarchy, we need to be able to speak about the way patriarchy wiggles into all of our minds and distorts our perceptions, judgments, values, and priorities. That is the conversation that I want to have.