Fat shaming and obsessing over womens’ bodies is a longstanding problem. Toxic internet commentary, unattainable societal weight expectations, and misinformation surrounding obesity have only exacerbated the problem. Fat shaming often stems from “fatphobia,” an aversion to people who are in a heavier weight group for whatever reason and don’t adhere to society’s standards of what an “attractive” body should look like.
Almost half of Americans stress about their weight. A government survey found that roughly 40% of U.S. adults are classified as obese, and women are more likely to be obese than men. As weight gain and obesity rise, so do the attacks on those who live with it. These weight criticisms are largely due to a society that too often views being heavy as a character flaw.
“Fat shaming is a direct result of our society’s irrational fear of being fat, and subsequent diet and wellness culture,” said Chevese Turner, the chief policy and strategy officer of the Binge Eating Disorder Association. “Individuals experience fat shaming through overt comments or micro-aggressions from family, friends, healthcare providers, and strangers.”
Fatphobia is considered by some as a socially acceptable form of bias. Women are judged largely on appearance, and value is often assigned to them based on “attractiveness” and body type. World views like this can lead to disordered eating and harmful pressures. People of all genders and ethnicities are fat shamed, but women and people of color are more likely to experience weight-related attacks since they’re more likely to be heavier. But why does weight stigma exist? What is it about the mere existence of a heavy person that offends people so much?
“We are socialized to believe that fat is a negative and that fat people are lazy, dirty, and less than hard-working,” Turner said. “We believe thin is better and desirable, and have created an entire culture—diet and wellness culture—around these beliefs. We are taught from the moment we are born that fat is bad and we should, at any cost, not be fat. Some people are more fat-adverse than others and this may be because of the degree to which they have internalized fatphobia and just how much value thinness held in their families of origin or amongst their friend groups.”
Today, weight is largely seen as a reflection of a person’s race and class. People who are heavy have become part of an oppressed group. Thinness is often equated with health, wealth, motivation, and discipline, which can open up additional opportunities for things like employment and housing. These opportunities don’t present themselves as often to people who are heavy. In fact, people who are heavier are less likely to be hired, have a greater chance of being paid less, and are promoted less often than people who are thin. When you add race into the mix, women of color—who are already more likely to earn less money—must overcome additional hurdles if they’re heavy.
“Thin people have a variety of privileges,” said Sabrina Strings, author of the book Fearing the Black Body, the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. “However, for women, and especially women of color, it’s critical to remember that [thickness] often trumps thinness. I have seen a growing number of videos with young women trying to teach one another how to gain weight.”
Fatphobia, white supremacy, and religion
Fatphobia has deep ties to religion and white supremacy, and the mere idea of slenderness has racist roots that were formed during colonialism. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonists associated heaviness with racial inferiority and immorality. They believed heaviness was a result of Africans not having the intellectual capacity to self-discipline. Strings said that race science was also used to inform white people, especially white women, about how not to appear in public.
“Since at least the dawn of race science in the 17th century, bodies have communicated a place in the social hierarchy. White skin at the top, Black skin at the bottom, with other races slotted in between,” Strings said. “But by the 18th century, race science was built out, expanded to include additional physical characteristics. To the extent that people were linking indulgence in the oral appetite to an animalistic inability to control oneself, fatness became linked to the racial group adjudged to lack the capacity for self-government: Black people.”
Fatphobia also has ties to Protestantism, which encouraged people to practice self-discipline, including with food, in order to find salvation. To this day, body size is typically associated with a person’s level of commitment and self-discipline.
The “body positivity” movement
Body positivity is an increasingly popular concept that encourages people to love the body they’re in, regardless of size. There is a common misconception, however, that teaching people to be body positive can promote an unhealthy lifestyle. Grammy-winning singer Lizzo has been fending off weight shamers since she became mainstream, with many critics accusing her of “glorifying” unhealthy bodies.
“Why are we celebrating Lizzo’s body? Why does it matter? Why aren’t we celebrating her music? Cause it isn’t gonna be awesome if she gets diabetes,” said celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michaels earlier this year. Michaels was widely criticized for her comments and was later forced to apologize.
Teaching people to love the body they’re in isn’t promoting obesity or an unhealthy lifestyle. It means letting people know that life doesn’t begin when you’re thin, that people of all weights and sizes can live a happy, fulfilling life, and that people don’t have to hate themselves or the way they look simply because they’re heavier.
Different cultures also have different ideas of what “attractive” means. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation study found that even though Black women tend to be heavier than their white counterparts and are at higher risk for obesity, they’re also more satisfied with their bodies. Nutritionists have revealed that Black women are more likely to have a goal weight somewhere between a size six and size 12, while white women typically want to be much thinner, around 120 pounds.
Regardless of its origins, white people aren’t the only ones guilty of being fatphobic. However, Strings said “there has historically been less pressure to maintain a slim figure in the Black community.”
Hollywood isn’t helping
Celebrity weight shaming might be brushed off as being part of the territory, but it has a ripple effect on other women, leading to eating disorders and potential mental health problems. The most recent example of celebrity fat shaming involved Grammy Award-winning singer Adele after she posted a photo in May revealing her dramatic weight loss. The photo went viral, with many people on social media praising Adele for “getting healthy and looking good” and shedding “extra pounds.” On Twitter, users got into heated debates over Adele’s weight: how she lost the weight, whether or not her diet was healthy, whether she should have lost weight in the first place, whether the weight she lost was too much, and so on.
“There is a harmful cultural idea that weight loss is to be applauded and weight gain is to be feared. It is damaging to all of us when we assign these values,” Turner said.
Though congratulating someone on achieving their weight loss goals can be well-intentioned, the overwhelming commentary on social media surrounding Adele’s transformation revealed a deep, underlying societal problem: Women who are heavier are often viewed as less-than, and value is only truly reached when they’re thin enough.
“Objectification is objectification,” Strings said. “If we have body size hierarchies, some people—usually women—will be devalued because their compilation of body parts doesn’t measure up.”
The health factor
Fat shaming can present itself in different forms, perhaps most commonly by people feigning concern about other peoples’ health. Using “health concerns” as an excuse to comment on another person’s weight doesn’t actually motivate people to exercise more and eat less. Instead, studies have found that those comments actually cause people to eat more due to stress and shame, or potentially lead to disordered eating. Even a term like “obese” can be stigmatizing unless referring to an actual medical condition since not everyone in a higher weight group struggles with obesity or has underlying health problems.
“There are plenty of folks with normal weight obesity … as well as folks who are overweight or obese, but carry it in their hips (pears) instead of abdomen (apples). Their bloodwork is perfect,” said Dr. Wendy Scinta, the past president of the Obesity Medicine Association.“I find people who feel the need to make fun of an obese individual tend to be completely ignorant and show their ignorance every time they open their mouths to bully someone struggling with obesity.”
Thyroid disorders, medication, depression, insomnia, eating disorders, financial limitations, and low metabolism can all be contributing factors to weight gain. Scinta said she hopes that by learning more about the factors that can lead to weight gain, it will make people “take a step back and really think before they ostracize someone with a weight issue. More often than not, there are underlying issues contributing to obesity that have nothing to do with movement or food intake.”
Regardless of whether someone’s weight is determined by underlying issues, there is no legitimate excuse to ostracize a person for their body size, health professionals say. As for whether people will begin to transition to a different mindset and start to judge people less on appearance and body type, Strings said she isn’t holding her breath.
“It’s hard to envision a time in which we were not focused on other people’s appearances,” she said. “Keep in mind that we don’t just hate on folks based on their looks, we celebrate people when we find them attractive. There is no ‘attractive’ without an unattractive—it’s a comparative designation.”