Trigger warning: discussion of fatphobia & body shaming
The word ‘fat’ is often used as an insult and seen as politically incorrect. In this post, I will be openly using it because I do not think it should be a shameful word. The avoidance of the word is an example of what I’ll be talking about – fatphobia: society’s fear of fat and fat people. I’ll mainly be discussing how it affects women, but that is not to say it doesn’t affect men too.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Society is obsessed with women’s weight. I can’t buy most magazines any more because they hype up women’s weight as if it is something to always be concerned about. “Slim down”,”Easy ways to get a flat tummy”, “Juice it to lose it”, “Celebrate without gaining weight” (examples taken from a quick Facebook search of 3 different South African magazines). It’s so difficult to avoid these messages. And all of them are saying the same thing: you need to be thin. How refreshing would it be to have them, instead, say, “There is nothing wrong with your body”, “3 ways to be happier” or “Worry less about what you look like”?
The message manifests in different forms. The “attractive” woman on the magazine cover is never a fat woman. The lead in your favourite romantic movie is never a fat woman. If aliens were studying us based on mainstream media representation, they would conclude that there are no fat people here. But there are and they matter just as much as everyone else.
Because no issue is black and white, I’ve tried to consider this topic in an African context. As far as I can tell, being a larger woman is sometimes appreciated more amongst black people. Being an ‘African woman’ is often associated with having larger hips, thighs and a bigger butt. There is a counter narrative to the Western ideal. However, I am not convinced that it is prevalent enough to counter fatphobia in our communities.
This is why: In a conversation about the appropriateness of my short shorts the other day, one of my older family members defended me, saying it was okay for me to wear shorts in public because I am thin. This is not the first time I’ve come across this type of thinking. I’ve noticed people have different reactions to fat women’s clothing choices. If you are fat, more things are deemed inappropriate. Society silently encourages you to hide your body and dress to look smaller. Usually, thin women don’t get questioned about what they wear but this is not a privilege fat women are granted.
Thin privilege and fat shaming are two sides of the same coin. Whenever someone compliments me about being thin, I know there is a fat woman somewhere being told something negative about her body. That her clothes are unflattering, she should ‘dress for her shape’, that she shouldn’t eat that, that she should exercise…
Once, on my way to the gym, I ran into a perplexed friend who asked me why I was going. After all, why would thin people need to go to the gym? What is implied is that I don’t have to go to the gym because being thin automatically means you are healthy and also, that your body is socially acceptable so you don’t have to modify it. On the flipside, fat people are getting subtle hints about ‘getting healthier’. However, there are plenty of thin people who are terrible at taking care of their bodies. Thinness is not an automatic sign of health and it’s not possible to make conclusions about people’s weight based on observing their body size.
One of the worst things I ever read was on a forum where someone who had gained weight and was struggling with depression had asked for help. Someone replied saying,
Next time u think of ordering takeaways, stand in front of the mirror with ur shirt up & dare to place that order!
The person might as well have just said “Shame yourself into changing your body”, because that’s the message behind the ‘advice’. Being fat is never something people are allowed to be okay with. Often, people feel justified giving fat people unwarranted weight loss ‘advice’ because it comes from a place of ‘concern’. However, fat shaming has been shown to make people gain more weight. It’s probably because making someone feel bad about their body does not help them in any way . How can you feel better about yourself when you are told that you should feel bad about yourself?
When capitalism rears its ugly head in this matter, things only gets worse. There are numerous groups profiting off the system of making people feel terrible about themselves. The advertisers of weight loss/dieting products attract people by equating thinness with being beautiful and happy. They sell the lie that the only way you’ll be happy is if you are thin (and buy their product). That’s why we get incredibly harmful messages like “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” marketed as ‘motivation’. And that’s why magazines have new diets for you to try in almost every issue. This is not even about health most of the time; it’s more about fitting the impossible beauty ideal.
Being a thin person is generally not an achievement. Hopefully, some day, “You look so skinny” will not be a compliment and thinness will not be glorified. After all, we did not choose the bodies we came in.
Recently, I was inspired by one of my facebook friends, who reflected on her transition to be healthier, saying
“During my journey, I realised that thin doesn’t mean beautiful…Don’t destroy your body and your self-esteem in order to reach the goal of “skinny'”
I empathize with how difficult it is to block out the negative body messages. I hope that we can build a society where being fat is not something we obsessively fear being.