Fat-shaming is everywhere. In comedy routines, fashion magazines, even presidential campaigns, the United States is saturated with the idea – to quote this week’s author, Day Hefner – that “fat is the worst thing you could possibly be.” Day makes a painstakingly passionate case for raising awareness of and abolishing fat-shaming, decrying it as the soul-crushing tool of evil and capitalism that it is. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
During the first evening of a constructive theology class I’m taking this semester, our professor invited us into a discussion about “single narratives” – stories told from a single point of view that become the only story for a place or a people. She then asked us to reflect on the single narratives that each of us has lived out in our own lives.
This is my story.
As a woman, according to the dominant culture, my primary value as a person is determined by what I look like. As a fat woman, that means that I have no value. I am worthless, lazy and undisciplined, uneducated, irresponsible, and unworthy of love.
There are noble, caring people in my life who do their best to reassure me that I’m not really that fat, that I’m still close to a ‘socially acceptable’ range.
Because it goes without question that fat is the worst thing you could possibly be.
There are well-meaning family members who take it upon themselves to ‘encourage’ me every time they see me. They also update me about all about the latest diet trends. Consistently, they carefully walk me through how to use their favorite fitness app, because maybe the reason I’ve declined to use it the last dozen times they showed it to me was just that I didn’t understand it. I have “such a pretty face,” they say. But my fat body can’t be beautiful. My family worries because fat is the worst thing you could possibly be.
My doctor prescribes diet and exercise for everything from my joint pain to the skin condition on my feet, because fat is the root of all malady. She knows that the healthiest thing to tell me is that I take up too much space, that I need to shrink myself in order to be acceptable, no matter how positive other indicators of my health may be. Because it goes without question that fat is the worst thing you could possibly be.
The places I shop for my clothes – all online, of course, because nobody wants fat people or fat people clothes in their stores – promise to provide me with clothing that is “slimming,” that will “control” my “tummy” and hide my body, so that no one else has to see it. Because everyone knows that fat is the worst thing you could possibly be.
The dating websites I frequent now after the recent end of a two year relationship have thoughtful and discreet euphemisms for bodies that look like mine, ranging from “curvy” to “full-figured.” And many of the people looking to get matched up on these sites have found a number of creative and socially acceptable ways to signal their one cardinal rule: No fat chicks. Because, when selecting a partner, being fat is the worst thing you could possibly be.
On the rare occasion I see bodies like mine represented in the media, our size and body shapes are often referred to as an “epidemic,” a disgusting plague that is sweeping the nation. In street footage, our soft, overflowing bodies are displayed from the neck down like attractions at a carnival sideshow. In romantic comedies, we fat women are the zany punishment for men who lose bets. On TV, only “good fatties” are even allowed to show their faces – those who exercise religiously and eat only salads and show appropriately remorseful self-loathing for the size and shape of their body.
We are never allowed to forget that being fat is the worst thing you could possibly be.
This is the narrative that I have steadily absorbed over my 3+ decades of living on this planet, in this country. Over the course of my life, from being relentlessly bullied as a child to being “fatcalled” on the street as a thirty-something adult, each act of aggression, however minor, has sought to erase my identity apart from my fatness, erode my sense of self worth, and literally make me smaller and smaller until I virtually disappear. NONE of those aggressions ever made me better or healthier; instead, this lifelong assault has left me with deep scars that have permanently shaped who I am as a human being.
It’s time for this narrative to stop.
The fact is, being fat is NOT the worst thing you could possibly be.
Fat is not the problem.
The problem is the IDEA that fat is the worst thing that you could possibly be. This idea is called fatphobia, and it is a pathology of our culture. It often hides behind the guise of concern for one’s health – though I’ve yet to see a similar stigma crop up around anyone with broken bones or cancer or diabetes – and it manifests itself as straight up body shaming.
Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: NO ONE deserves to be shamed for what her or his their body looks like. Full stop. It doesn’t matter who you are. Each and every body is a miracle, knit together with atoms and elements forged in the hearts of stars and filled with the spark of life. All bodies are good bodies, fashioned lovingly by a Creator who deemed their creation very good. And all bodies are expressions of who we are – the scars, the fat rolls, the wrinkles, the tattoos, the stretch marks, the achy joints – all these bear witness to the lives we have lived and the people we have become. The stories of our lives have been written on our bodies; every inch of them is rich with meaning. Every inch is a testament to our bodies’ incredible capacity to heal, to move, to create, to endure, to love.
But fat bodies, much like bodies of color and disabled bodies, are all too often treated like public property to be evaluated, commented upon, and even targeted for violence. The rich stories they tell are ignored or reduced to a single word. Some of this may be done with good intentions. But regardless of whether someone genuinely thinks they are trying to “help” – by offering unsolicited dieting advice or criticism, or whatever – by singling out and assigning judgment to one particular physical attribute of a person’s body, they are actively contributing to the harm perpetuated upon bodies perceived as “nonconforming.”
At heart, fatphobia is not a medical issue – nor even really a social one – it is an economic issue. The $60 billion dollar a year diet industry is capitalism at its finest, part of an entire complex of industries aimed particularly at women, to undermine our self-value and turn a profit on propping up our deliberately eroded self-confidence. It broke my heart recently when an “average” sized friend of mine confessed that gaining a mere ten pounds had unexpectedly set off fears that her husband would leave her because she was now so “unlovable.” This is precisely the vulnerability that such a system is designed to create and perpetuate.
However, dear readers, we can stop this. We can literally stop buying into the idea that fat is inherently bad, and start telling a different story about fat bodies. I know it will probably take a lot more than a single article to unlearn such a deeply internalized narrative, and in that interest, I strongly urge you to check out the work of body positivity activists like Virgie Tovar, Jes Baker, Gabi Fresh, Your Fat Friend, Allison Epstein, and many others. We can take action to change the economic systems that perpetuate fatphobia and we can also begin to make life-altering changes for ourselves and for our fat friends in our own lives right now. We can counteract the never-ending onslaught of negativity toward fatness by emphasizing the whole, beautiful personhood of fat people, just as they are. We can support and love those who have been most directly harmed by fatphobia, and work to educate those who perpetuate it.
Above all, we can learn to love ourselves – RIGHT. NOW. – no matter what we weigh or what we look like, where we come from, what color our skin is, or what our bodies can do. In the face of everything that conspires to teach us what to hate about ourselves – our culture, our media, the diet/pharmaceutical/beauty/fitness industry – it is a profoundly radical act of resistance simply to love ourselves, exactly as we are.
Day Hefner’s own blog, “This Is the Day,” a collection of reflections, sermons, and poetry.
Fat Fashionista and blogger, Gabi Fresh
A wonderful Facebook group called Your Fat Friend
Day Hefner is a seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, studying for ordination as a pastor in the ELCA. She is a Nebraska native and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer with a particular interest in ministry with Latinx and immigrant communities. She is fluent in Spanish, loves cats, and is an avid crafter.