Your guide to understanding and combating fatphobia

An illustration of obese people trying methods of combating fatphobia

What is fatphobia?

‘Fatphobia’ is the “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against obesity or people with obesity” (Macmillan Dictionary). Fatphobia, while not always resulting in verbal or other criticisms, still involves an abnormal phobia of fat people and / or a general fear of fat. To combat fatphobia, we must unpack bias and stigma issues around obesity, with an eye to understanding.

The main difference between fatphobia and fat shaming? Shaming fat people is more overt – think bullying and harassment, where the intent is to shame a person into silence and submission. However, fatphobia can still cause body shaming because of the widespread stigma that exists around size today. These days, all you need is an Instagram account to see how diet and weight loss culture push the message that fat is a fault and needs fixing; that existing isn’t enough. This anti-fat bias and bombardment of messages feeds the cycle of negative sentiment and discrimination – even hatred – that sadly, those living with obesity can experience.

Common expressions of fatphobia

So what does fatphobia look like? Here are the most common ways a phobia against fat people can manifest:

    • Personal lives: A fatphobia in our personal interactions can be judgmental – even derogatory – labels or comments, relegating body size to polarised views of thin vs. fat as good vs. bad. These remarks can reinforce the notion of fat not being good enough, and have consequences for feelings of self-esteem, self-love and self-worth. Examples include:
      • Food surveillance
      • Judging and commenting on other peoples’ bodies
      • Weight loss compliments, as if fatness is inherently bad
      • Patronising explanations of benefits for losing weight
      • Unsolicited advice
    • Media: A sizable chunk of the blame for negative body image and a lack of positive curvy representation is aimed squarely at the media, and for good reason. Although the fat acceptance movement is gaining traction, a fear of fat is still clear in everything from size zero models to the way thin people are portrayed as beautiful, popular and living their best lives in advertising – making it hard to disengage from the cultural narrative, which idolises thinness (alongside youth and wealth). As a result, this unrealistic norm defaults body types outside the prescribed ideal to undesirable and ‘other’.
    • Relationships: Dating and relationships can be a minefield of triggers, depending on the extent to which a partner’s potential fear of fat people is internalised or externalised. That said, weight discrimination exists; fatness is often viewed as unattractive or unacceptable – unless someone has a ‘fat fetish’, which conjures freaky notions of deviation and fixation. Alternatively, someone with an obese partner may be perceived as settling or unable to do better, with all of the above rewarding the devaluation of fat bodies.
    • Work: When it comes to employment, a fat person is more likely to face not just stigmatisation but discrimination – people living with obesity are paid less, promoted less and can be viewed as lazy or not as conscientious. In Rudolph, Wells, Weller and Baltes’ (2009) meta-analytic study, they found significant negative effects for overweight individuals being disadvantaged at work, with weight-based bias strongest for hiring outcomes, medium-level for evaluative workplace outcomes and smaller for performance outcomes.
    • Education: School is another environment where fat-people phobia arises, from primary school through higher education, which can lead to bullying and potentially less favourable treatment by teachers. Considering 10% of children in the UK are estimated to be living with obesity, the impacts of social rejection should be taken seriously, as they further compound issues of emotional well-being, particularly self-esteem during formative years. If that isn’t sobering enough, Sahoo et al. (2015) state “childhood obesity … is also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child”.
    • Fashion: Like the media, fashion is an industry that consistently fails to accommodate the full spectrum of body types, with designer sample sizes benchmarking a size zero to four at most – despite the average UK woman being a size 16. Worse still, 75% of women size 16 and above ‘hate’ high-street shopping, while 67% are deterred because shopping for clothes size 16+ is fraught with difficulty. In terms of size availability, Cosmopolitan UK cites 13/25 shops on Oxford Street as stocking over a size 16, with only eight including a plus-size range. By not catering to bigger shapes and sizes, clothing brands implicitly reject these buyer segments altogether.
    • Medical: According to a study by Phelan et al. (2015), “Many healthcare providers hold strong negative attitudes and stereotypes about people with obesity. There is considerable evidence that such attitudes influence person-perceptions, judgment, interpersonal behaviour and decision-making”. This makes high-BMI individuals more susceptible to lower-quality care, based on health care professionals stereotyping them as lazy, greedy or lacking discipline, with an assumption of indifference – rather than seeing obesity as the health condition it is. Such prejudice can result in misdiagnosis and mistreatment, even the potential for refusal as a patient.

The complex effects of fatphobia

Now that we’ve examined what fatphobia can look like, let’s discuss what it could mean for outcomes.

Effects on overweight people themselves

Fatphobia, as we’ve seen, can manifest not just within our personal lives, but across the full spectrum of work, school, even when seeking medical aid – all the way through to media content we consume daily. As a result, the effects on people living with obesity can be just as far-reaching, adversely impacting:

Career prospects

  • Fatphobia and weight-related discrimination can negatively impact job opportunities e.g. hiring and promotions.
  • Once hired, it may still lead to less respect from workplace and industry leaders and peers.

Mental health

    • According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), obesity bias and stigma are related to:
      • Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions
      • Poor self-esteem and self-worth
      • Feelings of loneliness
      • Poor body image and satisfaction
      • Stress-induced health problems
      • Maladaptive eating
      • Avoiding physical activity
      • The possibility of suicidal thoughts or acts
      • Avoiding medical care

Well-being (difficulty socially and emotionally)

  • The focus on appearance can impact dating and relationship opportunities, with potential for social anxiety.
  • Effects can be compounded by the lack of fashion options for plus size bodies, particularly around work outfits and formalwear.
  • Seating on public transport e.g. aeroplanes, or even social settings like restaurants and cinemas can bring embarrassment or stress.

Physical health

    • As we saw above, disordered eating (for example, binge eating) and lower physical activity can be a key consequence, particularly from fat shaming.
    • Some healthcare professionals not taking obese patients seriously means diagnoses and treatment can be delayed, directly impacting health outcomes by assuming weight loss will cure all – with a higher risk of mortality.
      • From the American Journal of Public Health: “weight stigma is not a beneficial public health tool for reducing obesity. Rather, stigmatization of people living with obesity, threatens health, generates health disparities, and interferes with effective obesity intervention efforts”.
    • That said, there can also be a lack of participation in preventative healthcare programmes for higher-BMI patients.

Effects on thin people

Not only does fatphobia promote discriminatory stereotypes – it also impacts thin people, serving to further reinforce negative beliefs. Because if fatness is unacceptable, then the priority becomes avoidance at any cost, which can lead to:

  • Eating disorders
  • Exercise-based injury
  • And other mental and physical health issues

5 ways to combat fatphobia

It’s hard not to feel a fear of fatphobia, given the above and its effects on people, regardless of body size or shape. But as this article states, there are ways to combat fatphobia that empower with body positivity. Here are five of the best.

  • First, ditch the weight-based language
    The reality is, people’s private lives are just that. We don’t know what others may be going through; they may be experiencing hard times, they may have a health condition or they may just be trying to heal their mental state. Whatever the reason, the upshot is: everyone deserves kindness and empathy – not size policing – from strangers and family / friends. If we can let go of weight descriptors, we give people back the freedom to just be, exactly as they are, without assumptions, prescriptions or judgement.
  • Set boundaries and call bad behaviour out
    It’s often easier to defend a fat friend than to defend ourselves, but we must remember – every human being has the right to mental and physical well-being, as well as being treated with dignity and respect. So if someone you know is demonstrating weight bias or stigma-based behaviour, call it out (respectfully): tell them it makes you uncomfortable and politely ask them to stop. If it continues, keep repeating your request. And if they’re determined not to listen to you, walk away. Permanently or otherwise – the choice is entirely up to you.
  • …Including yourself (i.e. challenge your fatphobia)
    Look, we all have negative self-talk – but if your negative self-talk is spilling onto strangers, with a running commentary on how people look, it’s time to challenge your own thinking. What are you getting out of judging that random passer-by? What’s in it for you? Think about it: you’re not an object for visual consumption, and neither is anybody else. It’s the whole ‘treat others how you’d like to be treated’ thing. And this is your opportunity to lead by example.
  • Learn to like, then love, your body
    Always a tough one, especially if you’ve spent years hating how you look and criticising yourself at every turn. But by all accounts, it’s one of the most important things you can ever do. Start by acknowledging something small, small enough that your inner critic won’t immediately pick a fight with you (think eyes, and the way they sparkle when you laugh; why you like a body part helps). These small steps will sometimes feel like big adjustments, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you adapt. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with smaller steps, it’s time to take a few bigger ones, like the parts of your body you try to hide. These might take longer, but stick with it. Part of combating fatphobia is breaking its hold over your thoughts, by growing to like then love yourself – and that includes the body you inhabit in this world.
  • Share your fatphobia learnings with others
    Fatphobia, being a type of bias, happens first in people’s minds. And we’re not born with it. So there’s a case for attempting to turn those thoughts around. One way to do that is by sharing resources, like this blog, to help people understand – not only that fatphobia exists, but what the repercussions can be, for everyone. We’ve come so far in areas like gender and race-based bias; weight shouldn’t get left behind. The more we raise awareness, the better chance we have of tackling fatphobia head on, reducing dehumanisation and helping others confront fear with understanding.Because the honest truth is – when we engage with kindness, empathy, compassion and understanding, no matter who we are or what we look like… Everybody wins.

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