Fat Phobia and Thin Privilege

“Fat phobia,” “thin privilege,” and “fat-shaming” are phrases that have started to enter mainstream discourses on body image and healthy eating, yet they remain contentious. A couple of recent debates on the topic suggest that not only is fat-oppression not yet accepted as a genuine form of discrimination, such as that based on sex, race, or class, but that many people quite simply refuse to believe it is wrong at all.
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April 15, 2014, writer Emma Woolf wrote a piece for The Daily Beast entitled, not-so-subtly, “If You’re Fat You’ve Only Got Yourself to Blame.” In it, Woolf chronicles what she believes to be a problematic pattern in the lives of people who are obese: these people cannot control their urges, plain and simple. The subheading to her article sums it up neatly: “just use your willpower.” Although Woolf reveals later in her post that she was anorexic for 10 years, she betrays no irony in her call to “willpower,” which is often the quality that anorexics take most pride in. Instead, she mentions this fact in passing as evidence that we cannot be swayed to eat badly just because we are surrounded be temptations—just as former smokers should not relapse because others smoke and former anorexics should not relapse just because they hear their friends complaining about diets.

Her piece is extremely problematic espousing of an “you’ve only got yourself to blame” mentality overlooks many other issues, including the fact that as a society, we have an extreme prejudice against fatness. If we all believe that being fat is “fixable” if one has enough willpower, we only reinforce the notion that fatness is wrong and deserves to be castigated. Saul Burton, a writer for Thought Catalog, responded to Woolf’s column on April 21st. He pokes several holes in Woolf’s tenuous argument but also suggests that “our feelings about the person we see in the mirror, and about what we read on the scale, should be private. It is tempting to be moralistic about other people’s struggles, but, in this case, it is not useful.” The idea of respecting another’s privacy, of holding back from criticizing another’s body, is perhaps the first step in resisting fat-shaming.

Fat-shaming is a rather common practice in which non-fat individuals shame those they perceive as “fat” just for being themselves. Overweight and obese individuals often cite how they are criticized by family, friends, and even strangers for eating certain foods, dressing certain ways, or even, simply, appearing in public. A recent and noteworthy example in the news has been the debate over opera critics who have criticized the weight and body of Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught.

Kitty Stryker recently published on this topic in the HuffPost blog: “Fatphobia: A Guide for the Disbeliever.” Her post was written in direct response to another article from Though Catalog by Carolyn Hall, entitled “6 Things I Don’t Understand About the Fat Acceptance Movement.” Hall’s article argues that we cannot and should not accept fat as normal because it is unhealthy and, implicitly, because it is unattractive. Stryker responds to Hall by detailing the many ways that she and others like her have been discriminated against by other people, companies, and the media, citing, among other examples, the recent controversies at Abercrombie and Fitch and Lululemon about who should or should nor get to wear their clothes.

Stryker makes a clear and lucid argument for the existence of fat phobia and, more generally, the discrimination on a wide scale in this country against those perceived as “fat.” But even Stryker cannot resist including in her article some qualifying caveats: “I am a size 24 US, size 22 UK. I eat about 1800 calories a day, snack on nuts and rice cakes, have a green smoothie a day, work out twice a week, and am reasonably active. I have mostly cut dairy out of my diet, never eat beef, and am about 50 percent gluten free.”

What Stryker seems to be demonstrating here is that she does indeed have will power and self control, and yet being fat is out of her control—it is simply “who she is.” While this evidence helps dismantle the arguments of those like Woolf, it is unfortunate that she feels she must include it to make her argument valid. We apparently can’t have a discussion about food and eating without having to cite our own body size and eating habits as exemplars or excuses.

If these ongoing online debates demonstrate anything, it is how contentious a topic fat-shaming is. A couple of weeks ago at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Joel McHale found it perfectly befitting to make jests out of NJ Gov. Chris Christie’s size—a stale joke if there ever was one. While we as a society now only find it acceptable for people of a certain group to joke about that group (consider the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry believes that his dentist converted to Judaisim just so he could joke about it), being able to make fun of fat people for their fatness with no negative repercussions is undoubtedly another sign of “thin privilege.”

The definition for “thin privilege” on the online Urban Dictionary site reads:

“The concept where overweight and obese Tumblr users…whine about how being fat is equal to the years of oppression similar to racism. More accurately, an ongoing game of sour grapes, wherein those too lazy to change themselves will instead blame society for the fact that they’re missing out on all the best parts of life.”

In fact, the Tumblr page “Thin Privilege” allows online users to document the kinds of fat shaming they have encountered in their lives in a project that reveals how prevalent these shaming behaviors are in people’s daily lives. The malevolency with which fat people (who could also be categorized simply as the “not-thin”) face discrimination is painfully obvious in the Urban Dictionary definition of “thin privilege.”

Fat shaming, thin privilege and fat phobia are so accepted in our society that they are, perversely, almost invisible as issues. The belief that fatness equals unhealthiness fosters a sense of moral superiority for those who are not-fat. After all, commentators like Emma Woolf tell us routinely that overweight and obese people are “doing it to themselves.” Our complaisance as a society in the face of fat shaming and fat phobia are, in fact, quite alarming symptoms of unhealthy attitudes towards food and body image we have as a nation and as individuals.

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4 Responses to Fat Phobia and Thin Privilege

  1. Alison Reiheld Alison Reiheld says:

    Seconded. Readers would go awry if they missed the aspects of Ula’s piece in which she points out that these attitudes toward fat–these myths about fatness and fat people–are themselves reflective of misapprehensions about healthy eating, and are themselves unhealthy.

  2. Patrick J. Welsh Patrick J. Welsh says:

    As another piece of evidence for just how deeply ingrained it is in our society that being fat is something to be ashamed of: while browsing the links Ula included for an image to jazz up the post, I passed over images of Kitty Stryker from her post “Fatphobia: A Guide for the Disbeliever” without hardly considering them–just because it pre-reflectively registered as wrong to hold up any individual person as an exemplar of fatness. Yet, in this context, Stryker is publicly writing about being fat and posts several images of herself with obvious pride in her body. Furthermore, Ula explicitly endorses and builds upon her message!

  3. Patrick J. Welsh Patrick J. Welsh says:

    Also, on something of a tangent from Ula’s piece, see this from Mark Bittman, on “What Causes Weight Gain”: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/opinion/what-causes-weight-gain.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=OP_WCW_20140611&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=2.

    His claims sync up with what I’ve also read and heard from health journalist Gary Taubes and physician Robert Lustig.

    Taubes’s book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, was most interesting to me in its reconstruction of the completely irrational way in which the U.S. has arrived at its official dietary guidelines. He also makes a useful distinction, not only between good and bad calories, but also between healthy and unhealthy fat. Excess belly fat, apparently, is highly correlated with metabolic syndrome and diabetes. A little “extra” in the butt or thighs, by contrast, might actually be good for your overall health.

    Lustig doubles-down on Taubes’s claims about the health dangers of over-processed carbs, most especially sugar, which he argues ought to be classified as a toxin. You can find a video lecture here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM.

    I am blessed with a fantastic metabolism, and am also a devoted baker, and so have by no means followed Taubes in adopting an Adkins diet. But in view of their research, I have definitely have cut back on refined carbs. Besides, unprocessed grains have way more character! I hardly enjoy most white bread or polished rice any more. (A good French baguette being among the various exceptions!)

  4. Patrick J. Welsh Patrick J. Welsh says:

    Two more, because I can’t resist:

    “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=all

    It includes a Kraft VP admitting that their current produces are basically equivalent to cigarettes.

    “Forget Calories: Counting calories is misguided. The focus belongs on real food”: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/calories-are-out/372690/

    This one includes useful interview excerpts from Lustig most succinctly summarized: “refined carbs make us eat more, which makes us fat, which makes us eat more, and so on.” It is precisely such refined foods that are most profitable for industry (they’re both cheap and addictive) and so, of course, the foods they invest their ample budgets to produce, promote, and lobby to protect.

    Both of these articles supply further evidence that America’s obesity epidemic is not the result of individual laziness. It’s the result of unethical industry practices and poorly structured nutritional recommendations. This is an institutional problem, and it is the institutions on which we need to place pressure to reform (okay to say “shame”?–I think it might be), not the individual victims.

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