Why fatphobia remains acceptable in the world’s fattest country. 8 min read
There’s a war on fat people in this country. This isn’t a new thing, but the atmosphere of hate in recent years has elevated the mistreatment of others to new heights (or lows, if you prefer).
Time was, rude remarks were muttered under the breath or spoken low-pitched so that only the bullied could hear them. People still hated those different from them, but they mostly felt society’s pressure not to speak such sentiments aloud. Mostly, not completely, of course.
Now, however, not only has it become a regular practice to make our hatred known, but we feel no remorse about shouting it from the rooftops, and into the faces of those we despise. In fact, it’s become quite fashionable to be a hater.
There has been a concerted effort to push back against racial and sexual orientation slurs, both by the targeted groups and by those who support them. Many other recipients of hatred also have their defenders. But one group who seems to be excluded from protection is fat people.
Fatphobia seems to be the last acceptable prejudice in America.
This is odd since over sixty percent of Americans are clinically obese. We are, in fact, by far the fattest nation in the world.
And yet, our world isn’t made for bigger bodies. Everyone complains (and rightly so) about how small airplane seats are, but many other places give no thought to the needs of the majority of the populace. And when they do, they expect fat people to pay more for the privilege.
For example, the exact same blouse or leggings in a conforming size will cost anywhere from a few dollars to up to fifty percent more to purchase in a plus size. Yes, it does take more fabric to make those larger sizes, but not enough to justify such price gouging.
Movie theaters, sports arenas, and concert halls have rows of seats with fixed arms that can’t be moved to accommodate wider hips. Waiting rooms are notorious for narrow uncomfortable chairs with arms when armless chairs could easily be substituted instead. Even just a few armless or oversized chairs would make a world of difference.
Restaurants? I can’t tell you how many times a host has taken a look at me and automatically assumed I want a table rather than a booth. Tables, of course, are always right out in the middle of the floor where everyone can stare at you. Booths, however uncomfortable, at least have some privacy.
Those who should know better are often just as guilty of fat-bias as others. I once had a chiropractor I had never been to before look at me and tell me that I would “break” her exam table. I left in anger, without treatment, and looked up the specs for that exam table online: it was capable of supporting 500 pounds, and I weighed about half that. I left her a bad review.
I could list hundreds of examples of fat-bias and discrimination in America, but this isn’t a trauma-porn story. Instead, it’s about why fat-bias is acceptable in a country made up of fat people.
A Brief History of Fatness.
Historically, being overweight was a sign of wealth and privilege. In a starving world, the fat were envied for appearing well-fed, and fat women were desirable as mates both for the comfort of our softness and our ability to provide ample nourishment for babies.
Artists like Renoir and Rubens glorified plump bodies; Rubens’ name even became an alternate word for curvy: Rubenesque. This attitude didn’t change until the 20th-century arrival of the flapper.
“Flappers” (so named for the rows of fringe frequently featured on their dresses) presented an ideal that was in direct opposition to everything that had been established as innately feminine: instead of being plump, they were lean; instead of long dresses, they wore knee-length ones; instead of being demure and quiet, they were bawdy and boisterous. They smoked and drank openly, and danced with men they didn’t know in clubs with brassy music.
Their energy was contagious, and so was their defiance. It was during the flapper period that women’s suffrage was finally achieved after 100 years of trying. Women adopted the thin profile in droves, and their changing attitudes about their place in the world caused a male backlash.
After WWII, men returned from war overseas with an urge to reassert their masculinity at home. They pushed back strongly against the female freedom movement, booting women from the jobs they’d filled while men waged war, and forcing females back into the home and traditional family roles.
Along with this, men re-exerted a preference for feminine curviness, and stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor became the new icons. So it remained until the women’s liberation movement that began in the 1960s when the pendulum again swung in the direction of increasing thinness.
The misperception of strength.
There is a marked association of plumpness with weakness in the minds of both men and women. Clearly, this association is wrong: just look at Olympic powerlifters. They don’t look like former Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwartzenegger, they look more like former Snoop Dogg bodyguard Winston James Francis (Sons of Anarchy, Agents of Shield). Powerlifters are THICK. Strength comes from muscle density, not from sculptural shape.
So the thinness aesthetic in both women and in men is driven by our need to appear strong. Men have felt this pressure since the day dirt was invented, but for women it’s a new phenomenon. The 60s women’s lib zeal for extreme thinness was replaced in the 80s with a desire to display a “fit” physique — which, of course, has since evolved into our current search for washboard abs and sculpted thighs.
The tug of war between thin and fat continues today, but with a conscious denial of reality. As Americans grow fatter, so grows our unrealistic obsession with thinness. Despite increasing medical research which shows that diets have little effect on weight — and decades of our own experiences in being unable to keep off whatever weight we’ve lost — a great many people insist on believing that being fat is a matter of willpower.
Fatness is seen as a moral failing in America.
Even though two-thirds of our country is FAT by medical definition, fat people are not recognized as a majority. Americans are totally in denial about what constitutes “fat”, and regularly confront anyone they believe is fatter than they are (even if their perception is wrong). While the internet has made bullying and cruelty much easier, there has been an overall increase in physical, verbal, and emotional assaults on fat people in the US.
The assaults continue when other marginalized people — who again should know better! — write stupid statements such as these from an anonymous Reddit user:
Don’t ever compare the dtruggles [sic] of the LGTBQ [sic] community with the fat community. They’re not even in the same category. When has a fat person been brutally assaulted just because they’re fat? When has legislation been passed specifically to strip away the rights of fat people. You’re pissed ofd [sic] because some comedian made a joke about being fat? Get over it.
Attitudes like this are part of the reason why fatphobia is still allowed. Marginalized people from many different groups insist on decrying that their struggles are worse than everyone else's. Instead of banding together to fight prejudice in all its forms, disparate groups try to push their own agendas to the forefront of the national discussion.
As a result, things get slightly better for some people, and considerably worse for others. Try to find stats about the numbers of fat people being assaulted in the US, and you're likely to get links to videos of violent assaults instead. Fat men being beaten. Fat women being raped.
Never think for a moment that fat women are safe from sexual assault. How many times must it be said that RAPE IS ABOUT POWER, NOT ABOUT SEX.
This is the crux of why fatphobia is acceptable in America.
When people feel powerless they act to regain power in whatever manner they can without regard for who it harms. We have all been stripped of our power in this country over the last several decades. We’ve traded our precious freedoms for so-called “national security”, and locked ourselves in our homes with as many guns as possible. Fear is the rule of the day.
Every psychologist knows that fear leads to anger; our frightened egos muster rage in an attempt to regain control over the adrenaline running through our nervous systems. As children, we’re supposed to learn how to deal with fear, but instead many of us are traumatized by our childhoods. While not all anger stems from childhood, there is plenty of evidence that trauma in children leads to anger in the adults they become.
What can be done about fatphobia?
First, confronting prejudice — in ALL of its forms — has to become a national agenda. Right now, oppressed groups are pushing back only against their own oppressors and not all bullies in general. This has to stop.
Change happens when a sufficient number of people concentrate on the same issue (which is why not much gets done in our political system). Resources and numbers are being split between those who care about racism, those who care about sexual discrimination, and dozens of other special interests.
It’s natural to want to give our energy to our own particular concerns, but the result is simply a shifting of abuse from one group to another.
***If we care about one social justice issue, we should care about ALL of them.***
Second, there is a tremendous need for more education and research about the causes and mechanisms of the weight crisis in America. We’re still using research conducted in the 1950s as a basis for claims about why people are overweight and the effectiveness of dieting for weight loss.
Accomplishing these two objectives would go a very long way towards solving our national obesity crisis, and stopping fatphobia in the world’s fattest country.