A Look at 'Accidental' Fatphobia
If you dipped your toes into the body positivity waters, you may know a little bit about it but I wanted to take time to talk about the movement that was absolutely essential to where I am today. The body positive movement is an amazing community of empowered and inspiring women and men who work tirelessly towards acceptance of all bodies. But as body positivity becomes more mainstream, some of the message starts to get muddled. And one of the most important things that can’t be left out of the discussion is the fact that it is a movement that was built on the back of fat acceptance. Long before body positivity was popular, fat activists were working to change the inherent anti-fat bias of our culture. They were working to stop the discrimination against fat bodies that happens in the workplace, healthcare, society at large…pretty much everywhere.
One of the problems that I see with mainstream body positivity is the idea that it’s only good “up until a point”. Body positivity is fine “as long as you’re healthy”. It’s helpful “as long as you’re not tooo big”. It’s great “as long as you’re not ‘endangering’ your health”. No. No no no no. Body positivity is unconditional acceptance of all bodies. There are no upper limits. To confine body positivity to a narrow range of sizes would be to contradict the very idea it was built on.
So where do these ideas come from? Where was the idea that body positivity has a size limit born?
To put it simply: fatphobia.
Fatphobia is the dislike/prejudice against fat people. And if you asked most people if they were fatphobic, my guess is that (hopefully) they would say no. Of course, there are people who are blatantly fatphobic. People who trolls fat positive Instagram accounts and leave scathing comments on body positive blogs. But there is another group of fatphobic people- those who aren’t commenting with hate on social media and are much more subtle…almost accidentally fatphobic. Let me explain.
Fatphobia runs deep in our culture. Growing up, you learn from classmates and family members and society that it’s normal…that it’s okay even…to comment on larger bodies. You might be told all sorts of other damaging messages- that they are lazy, that they don’t take care of themselves, that they just eat “too much”. You might learn to make all sorts of assumptions about them based on one very simplistic view without considering how complex and nuanced each human is, how individual health is and how body type is largely determined by genetics and not behaviors. And when you grow up hearing that, you start to absorb and internalize pieces of it.
One of the ways we internalize this fatphobia is by thinking that fat is the worst thing that we can be. We learn to fear fat and thus, fear weight gain. And that’s something that comes into play especially when we talk about eating disorder/chronic dieting recovery. After the emotional pieces have begun to be worked through (because eating disorders aren’t about the food), one of the most difficult pieces is gaining weight. Why? Because it’s scary. It’s scary to let go of the perceived control we had over our bodies and possibly gain weight.
I hear from so many people that they are so scared to gain weight. And I get it, I really do. Like everyone else, I grew up in our fatphobic culture and I internalized pieces of it like anyone. I was never trolling fat people or shouting cruelties at them on the street, but as I went through my own recovery and expanded my knowledge as a Health at Every Size dietitian, it took a lot of unlearning. Unlearning all the bias, the stigma, the assumptions made. I understand what it’s like to fear gaining weight; but I also know that it’s possible to unlearn fatphobic beliefs and grow into unconditional body acceptance, whether it’s my body or someone else’s. And that’s the true goal of body positivity.
I don’t believe that people in recovery who are scared of weight gain are intentionally fatphobic. But I think it’s often a reflection of a culture that teaches us body dissatisfaction and to fear fat. It's worth evaluating what assumptions you hold about people in larger bodies- how much of society's fatphobic message have you internalized? Are you carrying around weight stigma without realizing it? I don't blame anyone for absorbing pieces of the diet culture we are raised in. It would be nearly impossible not to. But it is our responsibility to critically look at those beliefs and challenge them when we can.
One of the remedies to that mindset is to expose ourselves to diverse bodies- and to recognize that we are all worthy, lovable, powerful and overwhelmingly enough regardless of the shape or size of our bodies. How do we unlearn? One of the things that I find most helpful for people is to diversify their social media feeds- and unfollow anyone who promotes one narrow view of beauty. Jes Baker (@themilitantbaker) has an amazing list of accounts to follow on all the platforms that show diverse bodies. Exposing yourself to different bodies and women who love themselves unapologetically is far more powerful than we even realize. Jes also has a fantastic book called Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls that is worth the read- and if you check out the link above, there are a ton of other great book recommendations as well. Start following and reading diverse accounts and start challenging your assumptions. Really analyze what your beliefs are and why. Start thinking about the value you have- the value that we all have- that has nothing to do with our bodies. It’s not our fault for growing up in a world that’s fatphobic, but it is our responsibility to challenge those ideas and unlearn our harmful beliefs.
If you want to see more about body acceptance, you can follow me on social media here and here. You can also join the Fall Into Freedom series and get daily challenges/prompts related to intuitive eating and body acceptance.
Until next time,