Skepticism

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.

Olivia

Olivia

Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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16 Comments

  1. March 26, 2014 at 1:40 pm —

    One reason that fat women respond that way is that it pings their internalized body shame: “If she feels that way about herself looking like that, what must I look like to her?”

    This doesn’t excuse people being cruel or mean to you, but that’s what is frequently going on in the heads of many fat people.

    And while I would say that, yes, you do understand body-shaming and how that is, you don’t really get weight stigma, and don’t really experience it. Because you can just run out and pick a store at random to buy clothes, you do fit in seats, and your body is viewed as acceptable by most of society. What you do to yourself is not the same as what society does to me every day of my life. But for all that, I do not think your pain is any less than mine. And that is what people don’t really think about when your comments trigger them.

    So, yes, you get and understand body shaming. And the people who said things to you should have been kinder, but knowing how triggering hearing someone thin talk bad about their body can be to someone who is 2, 3, 5 times bigger than they are, I understand where it comes from. I think this is why the terms “Body Shaming” and “Body Acceptance” are a much better fit for a unified movement of women trying to battle the current societal standards of beauty together, whether they benefit from them or not.

    Also, it does not help that when most fat women (people) hit upon Body/Fat Acceptance they go through a larval skinny shaming stage that MOST of us outgrow rather quickly, because too many people think in terms of binaries, if their body is good the other kind of body must be bad. Like I said, most of us outgrow it, particularly once it’s pointed out how our comments hurt the skinny women who would ally with us. I really wish our education system taught critical thinking for this and sooooo many other reasons.

    • March 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm —

      You just told the author that you get where she’s coming from, but that she should still shut up. Congratulations on proving her point for her.

      • March 27, 2014 at 4:06 pm —

        Actually, if you could show me where I told her to shut up, that’d be great. I just told her why fat people react to her that way. And that she does not experience weight stigmatization.

  2. March 26, 2014 at 2:05 pm —

    Flipside of this coin: I am thin. Painfully thin. It’s a medical issue, the entire time I was growing up my doctor fought to get my weight up. They even monitored my eating, controlling what I ate and how much. My toilet was shut down and sealed off in plastic so I could only go to the bathroom under supervision to insure I was not secretly purging. This was done for two weeks, along with my eating a high calorie, high carb diet. At the end of those two weeks I’d lost almost a pound and a half.

    I bring this up only to point out that the public condemnation of people who are thin is as mean and vicious as what heavier people get. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the line “Go eat a cheeseburger!” thrown at me. Or going to the bathroom after eating out and being told I’d look a lot better if I quit throwing up my food.

    My point being it is time to stop judging people based on their physical appearance. You don’t know me and I don’t know you, and neither of us has any business judging the other on their weight. We simply don’t have the information to pass any kind of judgement on the other. As Olivia says we need to have these honest conversations about the way we feel or are made to feel. Do any of us have the ability to disregard the 1001 insideous ways society makes us feel? I doubt it. It seems that society has a body dismorphic view that is projected on all of us, and that has to change.

  3. March 26, 2014 at 8:26 pm —

    This seems analogous to men experiencing sexism when it comes to trying to get custody of their children in a divorce. It definitely is body shaming, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

    • March 27, 2014 at 4:10 pm —

      You do realize that in most cases when men bother to seek custody of their children they get it, right? http://amptoons.com/blog/files/Massachusetts_Gender_Bias_Study.htm

      • March 28, 2014 at 4:56 pm —

        I could help MRAs out here by pointing out Baby Veronica. (Basically the father was off on a snipe hunt in Iraq when the mother deliberately misspelled his name so the adoption agency wouldn’t find a match on the tribal rolls. Oh, and the adoption agency hired an attorney for her and gave her over $100k, which, you may note, is several times the legal limit for compensation to birth mothers in adoptions.)

        But that would mean helping MRAs look like fools for denying intersectionality, and they need no help doing that.

        • March 28, 2014 at 5:19 pm —

          Would you also bother mentioning that the reason it’s noteworthy is because this shit rarely happens, so they don’t get a (more) biased view of the system? Somehow, I think not.

        • March 28, 2014 at 6:10 pm —

          Seriously?! I’m with GeekGirlsRuel, here. You find one noteworthy exception and you claim it could “help MRA’s”?!

          *eye roll*

          Not okay.

      • March 29, 2014 at 6:45 am —

        The frequency of which it happens does not negate the comparison. Both are an example of how the privileged person can suffer even from their position of privilege.

  4. March 26, 2014 at 9:42 pm —

    Fatty here. I think thin girls who hate their bodies are sort of like collateral damage in the war against fat people. Either you are fat, and society hates you, or you’re thin and you’re afraid of becoming fat because society will hate you.

    The point is, all this “internalized” body hatred does not start internally. It comes from outside, and the target is fat people, mostly women. We’re the ones experiencing actual harm from it, while the thin girls are experiencing the fear of that harm possibly befalling them should they ever become fat.

    So if thin women want to lessen their own internalized body hatred that come from the fear of becoming fat, I think the best way to go about it is to join the fight against the externalized hatred of those who are already fat. Your internal feelings are caused by the same cultural norms that cause the external harm to actual fat people, so when looking for an action to take, a target to attack to actually make things better, it actually is not two different conversations. It is the same big bad causing both problems.

  5. March 27, 2014 at 10:35 am —

    This is such a disappointing article. Olivia manages to throw some of the most awful stereotypes about people who are fat and perpetuate them in this article. Eating disorders and self harm are not exclusive to thin women.

    I have unfortunately known a number of women who have or are still recovering from anorexia and / or bulimia. What is the common denominator? None of them want to be fat. That’s right, the very thought of being fat disgusts them to the point of self harm. Most of them are revolted by fat people too. A sister of one friend can’t even be in the same room as me because i am overweight. Sorry, Olivia you don’t have the market on body shaming. You will never know what it feels like to know that a woman self hams deliberately not to look like me. And by the way, the seat thing is a stereotype and your reference to ‘special stores’ is obnoxious. The conversation I want is not fat vs. Thin. Not I suffer more than anybody else because I’m thin vs. , you’re pathetic because you’re fat, I am offended by your comments that you fully support ‘fat focused conversations.’

    One of my closest friends fights ED everyday. Of course I can never understand her experience, and she can never understand mine. But because I’m fat and she’s thin, it doesn’t exclude our ability to feel empathy and show compassion to one another. She does not judge me. I do not judge her. We love each other just because.

    How about we drop the size discussion and focus on being healthy. Let’s celebrate all shapes and sizes. And guess what, in cultures where size isn’t important, eating disorders are almost non existent.

    I feel for your struggle with Ed and hope you eventually make it to the other side. I hope one day you will no longer feel the need to use terms like fat and thin as ways to categorize women and their inherent qualities. And perhaps you will learn that beauty is not about our size.

    • March 27, 2014 at 4:29 pm —

      As a fat woman in recovery for an ED, I have to say you’re right. At the height of my eating disorder, my weight never dropped below normal, yet my very perceptive doctor told me, “I can’t diagnose you as anorexic because your weight isn’t low enough, but you have malnutrition and you are constantly hurting yourself during your workouts. You need to start eating, move home so your family can make sure you eat, or I will hospitalize you.”

      I still relapse with the ED, the more stressed out I get, the more tempting it is to starve myself and re-start my old compulsive exercise habit. At the worst points in my old, super stressful job, I was not eating all day and would only eat dinner, because if my husband knew I wasn’t eating I knew there’d be a fight. He married me when I was still really eating disordered, and has told me multiple times he’d rather have me fat, healthy and sane, than thinner, sick and constantly melting down.

      With the new job has come less desire to restrict, and I’m grateful. But I still have bad days, where I have to call him or my girlfriend to tell them to tell me to eat, remind me why I should eat.

      And it sucks, because when you’re a size 22 (shit, this started at size 16, honestly) people are constantly judging the food you put in your mouth, the food in your grocery cart (oh, yes, I’ve been food-shamed in the grocery store while buying Halloween candy), going out to eat fucking sucks because strangers will feel free to tell you that you’re a “good girl” for choosing salad, or tsk-tsk over the burger you’re enjoying. I have walked into clothing stores and had the salesgirl just look at me and say, “We don’t have anything here that will fit you,” when I was trying to buy a gift for a friend. Or better yet, walking into a store and asking if they DID carry plus-sizes, only to be told I wasn’t their market. Because of the shitty way I’ve been treated by people selling concert merchandise, (called a whale, told the shirts don’t come in fat ass) I make my husband buy concert merchandise for me. I have gone to training courses at my job and not been able to comfortably fit into the desks. I have had people assume I don’t know what I’m doing in the gym when I used to be into body building in a big way (another of those ways we use “healthy” to disguise disordered behavior) just because I’m fat. I’ve had people assume I’m physically weak because I’m fat. I’ve had people assume I’m stupid, or lazy, or smell bad, because I’m fat. I have had complete strangers walk up to me at bus stops while I’m minding my own business to tell me I’m too fat to be fuckable. I’ve had women snicker over the size of my lunch bag because obviously it’s full of junk food, not the salad and pear that were in it that day. I have heard for the majority of my life, “You have such a pretty face, if you could just lose those extra pounds…” this, btw, started when I was 8, and directly led to years of using speed, dieting, food restrictions and over-exercising.

      I think at the height of my ED I got down to a size 8 for about five minutes. It took me YEARS to throw that dress away.

      I’ve been thin, I’ve been fat, and I was definitely treated far better by everyone when I was thin. No one shamed my eating, no one told me I wasn’t welcome in their store, no one assumed I was stinky, or lazy, or stupid.

      Yes, ALL body-shaming sucks. It sucks a lot, because it convinces girls who aren’t fat that they are, and it makes life hell for fat women. It leads to women being “too fat” until they’re “too skinny,” often within moments of each other. It’s all bullshit.

    • March 27, 2014 at 5:03 pm —

      I think this is a bit unfair. The whole point of the article was that people of different sizes can experience serious body shame issues, and Olivia is actually encouraging the conversation that you want. There is always a way to make an article better, but to write things like “you don’t have the market on body shaming” and “perhaps you will learn that beauty is not about size” are opposite to anything I saw in the article.

    • March 27, 2014 at 8:26 pm —

      “known a number of women who have or are still recovering from anorexia and / or bulimia. What is the common denominator? None of them want to be fat. That’s right, the very thought of being fat disgusts them to the point of self harm.”

      Hi Jennifer, I wanted to make a quick response to this statement. And that last sentence I don’t believe to be wholly true. Anorexia is a complex eating disorder whose origins which can include body image, come from a variety of factors. The causes of anorexia are not nailed down. Some environmental pressures, maybe control over something in a life that otherwise they have very little control over and abuse, and I think there was a discussion on Skepchick a little while ago suggesting genetics, and personality and there maybe other causes I am less familiar with. Or a combination of these things with other life events. While I don’t dispute that this may be a trigger for some women or in fact the cause of anorexia, I don’t believe this to be the one and only cause of it. If that makes sense.

  6. March 27, 2014 at 5:56 pm —

    I would like to apologize for my lengthy reply to Jennifer Mason’s comment, but I get a little het up when people assume Fat people in general (which feels personal) wouldn’t know what it’s like to have an eating disorder when I’m still fighting the damn thing. That coupled with being accused of telling you to shut up when I didn’t, just hit buttons and I should have calmed the hell down before I responded. So that is ENTIRELY on me.

    Now, let me respond gently again, as I did in my first response.

    Olivia, if you’re starting this conversation in your own space (not now, but those times when you’ve gotten pushback), then yes, those people were out of line. If you’re going into an existing fat person discussion, or fat-friendly space, then people are going to get angry, because that’s not your space, and emotions run high there.

    As I said before, I have no doubt you’ve experienced body shame, both internally and externally, and probably MASSIVE amounts of it, since most women in this society do, but you have not experienced weight stigmatization. That list of shit I posted in response to Jennifer Mason, that’s weight stigmatization. And I don’t get it near as bad as my size 28-30 girlfriend. I can shop Old Navy’s online plus clothing, and still wear a lot of their straight sized XXL stuff. I can hit Lane Bryant, Torrid, or Avenue and be relatively certain that I can find something that will fit. That I like, is another story entirely, but it’ll fit. She can’t. That desk I don’t really fit into, I can make it work if I have to, it’ll be uncomfortable as fuck, and requires some artful body part arranging, she can’t. Compared to her I have thin privilege. So, yeah, when I bitch about the level of body-shame, weight stigmatization I get, sometimes she rolls her eyes at me and tells me she wishes she were this small.

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