What is fat phobia? Is it a real thing? Why does it matter? What can we do about it?
Where the flippin’ ‘eck do I start… ?
Let’s start with the word ‘phobia’. What is a phobia? According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), ‘a phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation. In most cases the phobia involves a sense of endangerment or a fear of harm.’ Medical News Today adds, ‘when a person has a phobia, they will often shape their lives to avoid what they consider to be dangerous. The imagined threat is greater than any actual threat posed by the cause of terror.’ There are three types of phobia identified by the APA and with social phobias there is ‘a profound fear of public humiliation or being singled out or judged by others in a social situation.’ Phobic symptoms can include, amongst other things, breathlessness, increased heart rate, a sense of unreality and a preoccupation with the feared object or situation.
Got it? Good. Let’s move on.
Fat. What is fat? According to the National Health Service UK, ‘As one of the three main macronutrients, fat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. It is a vital foodstuff serving both structural and metabolic functions and a source of essential fatty acids that the body cannot make itself. Fats help the body absorb vitamins A, D and E and keep the skin healthy and they are the most efficient form of energy storage.’
But that’s not the kind of fat we’re talking about is it? When someone slings ‘fat’ at someone else as an insult, they’re not saying, ‘Hey, you with the plentiful stores of energy necessary for absorbing essential vitamins and serving structural and metabolic functions! Who do you think you are?’ Are they? No. No they’re not. They’re referring to the other derogatory meaning of fat, the one that has become the most brutal, cruel and barbed twisting of a word into a weapon. They mean, ‘your bigger body is worth nothing, it’s a disgusting joke, you are ugly, lazy, greasy, oily, self-indulgent, indolent, flabby, sagging, stupid and insignificant and no one likes you or cares about you. And, you stink.’
When did that happen? How did one word become synonymous with all of those other things? When did our common understanding of that word become set? When did ‘fat’ change from a regular, neutral noun or adjective into a vicious slur-bomb with the potential to explode a person into a gazillion pieces? And how, when and why did we give it that much power? What does it say about a culture that can use words that pertain specifically to superficial looks and appearance as their greatest insults? Might it suggest a superficial culture, society, people? Well, call me cynical but…
So, I can hear some dissent stirring and some chuntering going on in the back row. Something about the fear of being fat is perfectly rational because medical professionals say that fat people get sick and die in much larger numbers than thin people. Thin equals healthy and fat equals unhealthy. So, our fat phobia isn’t just superficial, it comes from a place of wanting to stay well and live long and happy lives. Well, sorry, but that is a myth. Actually, no clear link exists between weight and health. Being thin doesn’t bring wellbeing any more than having red hair does. And, there’s definitely no link between weight and long and happy lives. Being thin is no guarantee of longevity nor happiness. Long-term studies show that underweight women die younger and that carrying extra weight may actually benefit women by reducing the risk of certain illnesses. As for happiness, if you’re living in fear of being fat and you’re organising your life around that fear, restricting, omitting foods, adhering to strict diets, exercising obsessively, weighing yourself compulsively , feeling anxious, sad, depressed, weighing and measuring food, scrutinising labels, purging, popping pills, using alcohol to cope, mirror watching and comparing yourself to other people constantly, I might wonder where the happiness is in any of that. I might point out the toll that’s got to take on your mental health.
The juggernaut diet and fitness industry, now cannily rebranded as the health and wellbeing industry, that industry that’s worth around $60 billion a year, needs you to believe that thin is good and fat is bad. It needs you to believe all the myths about weight and health and it really, really needs you to believe that thin is beautiful and fat is ugly. It needs you to be fat phobic because it knows how you’ll behave when you are. When you’re fat phobic, not only will you police your own weight and appearance but you’ll police other people’s too. You’ll make judgments, you’ll draw comparisons, you’ll compete, you’ll feel more insecure and less confident, you’ll score points off belittling other people to bolster your shrinking self-esteem and then, to make yourself feel better, you’ll buy products and services that promise a ‘new you’, a ‘new, thinner, happier, healthier you’.
But, this industry cares nothing about your mental or physical health. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s in its best interests to keep you unhealthy and unbalanced because if you were in your right mind, you’d see through the whole charade. You can’t sell self-improvement to someone who realises they’re authenticity can’t be improved upon. Think about that.
Fat phobia is real. When you see it, whether in yourself, in others or online, don’t perpetuate it. Confront it. Challenge it. Talk to your friends about it. Confront it together. The longer we allow these things to go on, the more people are dragged into the dark and shadowy world of eating disorders and diet culture and anxiety and depression and diminishing mental health.
Support one another and be kind. Fat is fat and that is that. Thin is in but it’s not a win.