Fatness is universal. In some cultures, it symbolises wealth; in others, it’s a sign of greed. But unrelentingly in the US and the rest of the Western world, it’s a taboo—another F-word uttered in hushed tones and swept under the carpet. It’s applied needlessly often to those it doesn’t really fit and used to humiliate those it does. More than 1.9 billion of the world’s population is overweight. Up to 80 percent of Americans are obese or overweight, yet, in society, fat people are treated like a minority. Fat people are not protected by discrimination laws—in most countries, it is perfectly legal to fire or not hire someone on the basis of their weight. Fat people are 50 percent less likely to be hired than their ‘straight-size’ counterparts, and they receive a lower standard of medical care at the hands of doctors, who, according to a study appearing in Academic Medicine, hold “moderate to strong” biases towards them.
In an age when ‘body positivity’ has been co-opted as a mainstream marketing tool, the negativity that continues to surround fatness is not only unjust, but dangerous. It’s ‘Instagram vs. reality’ in reality, whereby online ads sell us one thing, while IRL attitudes and governmental policies tell us quite another story. It fails to understand the socio-economic and educational factors that influence fatness, that fatness is a class issue, that children living below the household poverty line are almost 30 percent more likely to become obese.
But thanks to internet activism and what advocates are calling ‘fat liberationism,’ the rhetoric is slowly beginning to change. Two key figures invested in shifting this dialogue are Evette Dionne, editor in chief of the feminist publication Bitch Media and author of Fat Girls Deserve Fairytales Too, and SELF Magazine columnist and anonymous writer Your Fat Friend, who are dismantling the stigma one essay at a time and fighting fatphobia for a more inclusive future.
Here, the two discuss personal experiences and the power of community.
Do you remember when you first heard the word ‘fat’?
ED: I was primarily raised in a family of fat black women and so I never understood fatness in the context of family trauma, but as soon as I stepped out the door, that bubble of protection quickly popped. The first time I understood that ‘fat’ had a negative connotation attached to it was on a crowded bus on the way home from school—I was standing up and suddenly the bus did this jerk and I accidentally fell on a student. He said something about my ‘fat butt’ and I realised that not only was my body viewed differently from other peoples’ bodies, but also that there was a stigma attached to it.
YFF: I grew up in a family with parents who were also fat, but the word was always spoken under our breath—it was a bad word, and treated very similarly to a curse word. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s at the peak of Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and all of these intense low fat diets which we now know were full of sugar. I spent a lot of time studiously avoiding the word, because I learned very early on from my parents, doctors and my teachers and my peers that my job was to always be trying to escape my own body, to shrink my own body, and always be apologising for it. You can’t say the word because you can’t be the thing—that was the message.
And when did you first heard the word being reclaimed in a positive context?
YFF: The first time was with my first girlfriend. I was around 17. There was a group of radical, fat eaters that would show up to stuff on my college campus and be like, ‘we are here, we’re fat, and we wear crop tops.’ I don’t know where the idea came from, but it made me supremely uncomfortable—it felt like such a threat. I never unpacked why that was, but now it seems clear that it was pretty much a direct confrontation with my world view at that time, like, ‘what are you doing? Your whole thing is just being fat? Get out of here! You know the rules, right? Don’t talk about it, and don’t be it.’ It took me a long time to actually get here from there.
ED: I would say similarly; the shift happened for me maybe even in graduate school. I was around 22. I was introduced to a fat-positive community through Gabi Fresh [now Gabi Gregg], who was a DJ for MTV and had just started blogging. She was the first fat person that I ever saw wearing a two-piece swimsuit at the beach. I was planning on my own vacation at the time, and I was struggling with what to wear. I had learned to be shrouded in shame about my body—in my own home, I was very free, but I was always the person at the pool with my shirt on. I remember coming across this picture of Gabi and thinking it was glorious. I couldn’t yet apply that kind of boldness to myself; I didn’t see how it would be possible for me, but that was the very first time that I realised there was a community of fat-positive people who were doing this kind of reclamation work.
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You mention this word ‘shame’, was that something that had defined much of your life—your teenage years before then?
YFF: Around 1999, during puberty and high school, I came out of the closet in a super small school where there were two other ‘out’ students. At the same time, I no longer fit into ‘straight-size’ clothing. I was queer. I was really mad at how homophobic my school was, so I was like, ‘screw it! I’m just going to wear men’s clothes all the time!’ I didn’t fit in anyway, so I just decided to wear a bunch of army surplus and a dog collar to school. I apologise to everyone for that teenage fashion moment.
Most of my time and energy around my body was spent hiding it. I understood that a body like mine no longer qualified to be a woman, or to be feminine. I took this approach and was like, ‘fine! Maybe I don’t want to be those things anyway.’ Now I present as a really femme person so it was really about saving face.
ED: I had a similar experience in some respects. I went through puberty much earlier than most girls. I was menstruating at the age of nine and had a full-on woman’s body by the time I was eleven—like C cup breasts. In the way that young people are, it became a point of contention and a way in which to taunt me. In many respects, school was the entire world back then—there was no Internet to show me that it was actually much bigger.
Being targeted by my peers made me really uncomfortable in my body, and it took many years to shed that discomfort. It taught me early on, the way that our culture uplifts hyper-femininity, and so, from the time I was around twelve years, I was really buying into that—I was always the best dressed, sweetest smelling, with my nails done and my eyebrows waxed. Being hyper-feminine allowed me to buy respect—it was almost like social cache.
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Do you remember learning about fatness in school?
YFF: I don’t actually remember learning about it in science. I don’t think there was much conversation in biology; it was much more of a social learning—those messages were really clear. I was a teenager at the height of Fen-Phen, a diet pill in the US that got banned because it caused people’s hearts to stop. At this point, it was very clear to me that you should be thin or you had to die trying. I remember reading all the negative press about this pill but thinking, ‘this is all I’ve got.’ I had been on diets for eight years and I was 16 and on Fen-Phen, and I had already been trying as hard as I could and nothing was working. Health didn’t even feel like an option to me. ‘You just have to become thin or every part of your life is over’—that was the message that I got.
ED: I can relate to that. I think the first place where the ideas of fatness and healthiness was linked was in doctors offices, primarily because I don’t believe any doctors—other than doctors who go out of their way to get that training—understand the way that they stigmatise fat bodies. They have no idea that the way they clinically approach fat people induces shame, makes it uncomfortable, and makes it so that they do not receive the healthcare that they actually need.
I was diagnosed with asthma when I was seven. I was considered normal sized on doctors charts and treated normally, and then suddenly I was off the charts. I had always felt loved and cared for by my doctor and then it changed. My body had to fit this chart otherwise they didn’t know how to treat me for a very common illness that many children have. I started dreading the doctor’s office reading what they were going to say. That was when I realised that my body was perceived as unhealthy and therefore, untreatable.
“We don’t identify with fatness, we don’t build relationships around fatness, and we also don’t get any validation from fatness.”
So many studies show that fat people are less likely to access the healthcare they deserve.
YFF: Exactly, because no part of doctors’ training requires them to interrogate their own biases. I think it’s something like two percent of trans patients in the US have been assaulted by their doctors. We have these massive crises showing us that anyone who’s not thin, white, straight and cisgender is not getting the same kind of care as everyone else, but because doctors are lifted up as an ultimate authority, they’re not being held accountable for their biases.
What first motivated you to write about fatness?
YFF: This project for me started accidentally. I posted a Cheryl Strayed quote on Facebook that said, ‘there is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round.’ It felt so good to see someone acknowledge that in addition to being super harmful, diet talk is mind-numbingly boring—it’s like the weather times ten. So I posted it and got into a very deep disagreement about it with a thin friend of mine. She thought that it was very insensitive. We had a long conversation about our different experiences and our different bodies, and it just didn’t land. Afterwards, I wrote her a letter and shared it online. About 40 to 50 thousand people read it on Medium, so I decided to keep writing.
ED: For me, it happened in college. I was producing an 80-page research paper about what had, at the time, been dubbed ‘the obesity crisis’ in the United States. I started it with the idea that obesity was cause for legitimate panic, but when I actually started digging, I realised it was all a scam and a lie. I realised the dieting industry is a lie— the way the media portrays fat people is a lie, the way that I had been treated by doctors for more than 20 years was a lie. Writing that paper completely reframed the way I thought of not only my body, but also my political identity and that’s what snowballed me into fat acceptance.
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YFF: Was there a particular piece of data that made you realise that?
ED: Yes, actually. It was about the introduction of television to teenagers in Fiji. Nearly all of the teens involved in the study, but particularly girls, developed immense body dissatisfaction and even eating disorders from their exposure to TV. At the time, my paper was probably about 50 percent done, and I had to go back and do it all over, because that’s when it clicked for me that all of these people are in collusion with one another. All of these industries are in cahoots to profit off of people feeling poorly about themselves—that’s when my mind really changed.
Speaking of profiting, it seems ‘body positivity’ is the latest fad in fashion and beauty marketing. Do you think there’s still space for the body positivity movement, or do you feel it’s strayed too far from its roots?
YFF: I think body positivity really resonates with folks for whom loving their body is the biggest challenge they’ve faced, but for a lot of people it doesn’t end there—for me, it doesn’t end there. When I step into a doctor’s office or onto an airplane or into a locker room, it doesn’t matter how much I love myself. I can advocate for myself but it doesn’t change someone else’s attitude.
Body positivity has been de-fanged in a lot of ways and pulled away from its roots. It feels like some sort of secret, like ‘just manifest it!’ But that’s not actually how it works for fat people. It feels, frankly, like something that was started by and for fat people and people with eating disorders in a very political way, and advertisers and corporations have gotten a hold of it and its become less and less of that.
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ED: I couldn’t agree more. I think that history is very telling. Body positivity was a term started by fat people to get legal protection. Now, it’s become a lot more about fashion. That’s important—fat people need to be able to go into a store and purchase clothing, they need to be seen as worthy of dignity and therefore worthy of legal protection, but it’s stopped at the fashion part. There are 49 states in which it is perfectly legal not to promote someone, to fire someone, or to basically malign someone in the workplace because of the size of their body, and that’s what gets lost. Not only for fat people but also people with disabilities. Can a fat person get on a plane comfortably? Can that person get on a rollercoaster? Can a fat person go to a restaurant?
None of those things are considered as people are building, as lawmakers are passing anti-discrimination policies. I think the moment that body positivity went away from ‘how can we make it so that fat people can safely exist in the world without being discriminated against’ to ‘how do we market and sell this clothing line’ it lost its way and purpose for being. I do not believe that means that body positivity is worthless, it’s just misguided. The people that were centred in that movement previously have been pushed to the sidelines for financial gain.
It’s been commodified.
YFF: Exactly. I have started screenshotting every Instagram ad that claims to be ‘for all bodies.’ I would say at this point seven out of ten of those brands don’t actually carry plus sizes. They’re using this rhetoric to reinforce the status quo and reinforce exclusion by framing it as inclusion, which is wild, and feels like gaslighting. That’s a really powerful message to keep internalising.
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“There are 49 states in which it is perfectly legal not to promote someone, to fire someone, or to basically malign someone in the workplace because of the size of their body.”
How would you describe fatphobia for someone who doesn’t know what that term means?
ED: I would say that it’s a set of systems, policies and social behaviours specifically designed to discriminate against a person because of the size of their body. That would be my thought line. But there’s so many aspects to it that that doesn’t feel like enough.
YFF: Ditto. Do I talk for 17 hours or for 30 seconds? Particularly in the US, we have invested billions of dollars of federal funding into specifically freaking out people about getting fat, and freaking them out about fat people. There’s a war on obesity, and childhood obesity, which Lesley Kinsel wrote a phenomenal piece on a few years ago for Newsweek. It was a letter to Michelle Obama. She reframes it as a war on fat kids. We’re not taking aim at a set of health conditions or behaviours or policies—we have collectively invested billions of dollars and decades of time into reinforcing the idea that fat people are the biggest public health threat.
How do you see this change happening?
ED: It takes hundreds of years to move the needle a tiny amount. There are fat activists around the world mobilised around this issue—trying to make the world more equitable for fat people and codifying that in law. It is still tolerable and accepted to be fatphobic, and in some respects it’s that way with racism too. You can be a racist and there can be no consequences, but now being publicly racist would normally result in an immediate consequence. Someone would call you out. That hasn’t happened in terms of fat acceptance—we’re still in the baby stages where people start to shift their mindsets and understand that it’s wrong, that it’s OK to be fat. When we get to the end game, I don’t even know if I will be alive to see it. That’s scary, but it’s the reality.
“We are replacing a beauty standard with a health standard that is just as fickle, just as relentless and just as out of reach for many of us.”
Do you feel like representation has gotten better since when you first started watching TV?
ED: I should back up and say that I was raised on Queen Latifah playing Khadijah James on Living Single, and I’m convinced that I became a magazine editor and writer almost subconsciously from watching that show. I think that character kind of broke the mould in some respects, and then Hollywood went right back into that mould. The media thinks that the inclusion of fat people is enough, that their representation is enough—it doesn’t matter how the character is developed, what their politics are around their bodies; it’s just that they have included the fat person. Then they’ve fallen in love, probably with another fat character—not that there’s anything wrong with that—and they’ve typically met in an overeaters anonymous class. Their entire relationship is centred on either losing weight or going on a journey to accept their bodies.
Mike and Molly did that, This Is Us does it every single week. As of yet, there hasn’t been any middle ground in which we get fat characters who are nuanced, who exist outside of how their body looks, who fall in love and out of love, and have friendships that work and don’t work—or when they do give us that, it’s a person that has to fall and hit their heads to realise that their life could be good.
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YFF: I agree. I would say no, it’s not better. We have Melissa McCarthy, we have Rebel Wilson—they’re really funny comedians, but a lot of their comedy is about how their fat bodies get treated. Fat suits are still a major thing, we still have shows like The Biggest Loser which humiliate fat people who are desperate to be thin.
They’re now rebranding it as a ‘wellness’ show. The New York Times did a wonderful piece about it, saying that actually, all of these people permanently damaged their metabolisms. The majority of media representation—whether it’s comedy, reality TV, or drama—is all centered on fat folks’ humiliation, which doesn’t sit well with me, and its still overwhelmingly white and staggeringly cisgender.
“The media thinks that the inclusion of fat people is enough, that their representation is enough—it doesn’t matter how the character is developed, what their politics are around their bodies; it’s just that they have included the fat person.”
Speaking of ‘wellness’, how do you feel about this trend?
YFF: It feels like we’re in this bizarre moment—we’re replacing a beauty standard with a health standard that is just as fickle, just as relentless, and just as out of reach for many of us. No one is asking to see my blood pressure numbers; no one is asking to see my T cell count; they’re just talking about the way I look, and it feels more virtuous to say ‘health and wellness’ rather than beauty.
Evette, you said on Twitter that one of your goals for 2020 is to be in a community with more fat folks whose political commitments align with yours. Why do you feel that has been lacking?
ED: I’ve come to know myself through my relationships with other fat people—two of my best friends are fat, and we’ve been through a lot of awakenings together. So much of diet culture is gaslighting—you know there’s so much wrong with it but you’re compelled to go on this elusive quest to be thin. When you’re surrounded by other fat people who are unlearning as you’re unlearning, it helps to validate your experience.
Up until this point I have not been very active in the fat communities that exist online, but they’re so important—especially at a time when so many other oppressed groups are under attack in the US. The first step in organising and mobilising around an issue is to build relationships and I am really invested in doing that—I am trying to build a community across state and country lines that is encouraging and supportive for fat people, especially if they feel isolated in their hometown or in their family.
YFF: I agree. I think it was John Steinbeck who talked about being temporarily embarrassed millionaires—none of us are poor; we’re just temporarily not super rich. That’s how we think about fatness too—fat bodies are inherently temporary. We don’t identify with fatness, we don’t build relationships around fatness, and we also don’t get any validation from fatness. Fat friendships have given me that validation and healing—and that has been transformative.
Going back to this process of unlearning, what would you say is the most damaging misconception that we, as a society, need to address?
ED: We have to start by confronting this negative idea of ‘glorifying obesity.’ As soon as a fat person exists and takes up space, they’re ‘glorifying obesity.’ Take Lizzo— she’s trying to exist, to be an artist, to be a public face, and to be honest about the fact that she has anxiety and is navigating depression, and then she’s maligned for trying to find joy at a basketball game.
“Lizzo doesn’t dare to exist. She simply exists, and people need to accept that reality. But they can’t, because they so desperately want Lizzo to hate herself.” @zblay is so damn good at cultural criticism. https://t.co/vuR8eoRAy0
— Evette Dionne (@freeblackgirl) May 8, 2020
That only happens because we have a collective cultural idea that to be fat is to be sad, and fat people must penalise themselves for not being able to fit into this ideal. Until we can exist as we are and be treated with love and respect, we’re going to continue to see people being pelted online for being who they are. But there are so many steps for that; I feel that’s an insufficient answer.
YFF: This is a great question, and I know that because it is so difficult to answer. I think the most harmful thing is the idea that fat people are choosing to be fat— that we are negligent of our own bodies. Some people are choosing to be fat, but so many aren’t. The idea of ‘it’s a choice’ is a way of reassuring yourself that whatever you do to a fat person is their fault and not your own. It feels like we’re on the tail end of this ‘is it a choice?’ conversation in terms of LGBTQ+ identity, and I just wish I could fast-forward through the next 20 to 30 years of fat conversation, while we debate whether or not it’s a choice, because frankly I don’t particularly care.
“I don’t think there is ever going to be a point in my life when I am not unlearning fatphobia.”
We are 70 percent of the US population—it doesn’t matter whether fat people are being wilful or not; we are the majority of this country and a growing majority of most developing and developed nations. It’s very strange to have such a commanding majority of people who still believe that they are worthless, that they deserve to be treated the way they do, that they shouldn’t have protections or solidarity; it’s truly wild.
And on a personal level, is there anything you’re actively trying to unlearn?
ED: I don’t think there is ever going to be a point in my life when I am not unlearning fatphobia. Right now, personally, I am working specifically on self talk—the way I talk about my body not only with myself but also with other people. I can be incredibly self-deprecating and that only allows the cycle of shame to continue.
YFF:I wear a US womens 26, so I’m a fat lady—no two ways about it. I’m going to get on a plane tonight and that idea fills me with dread. There will be a point when I sit down in my seat and I strap myself in with my seat belt extender that I bring and—it always happens—when I have this thought that someday I won’t have to go through this, that someday I’ll be thin. Even after years of not dieting—because I did that for over a decade and truly nothing happened—I still think this.
I know the data—that anywhere between 90 and 98 percent of diets fail. We’ve been lifting up the two to five percent for whom it works for so long that we’ve sort of tricked ourselves into believing that it will work for everyone. But I still have these moments of magical thinking, and I’m working on just letting myself sit with that and not being ashamed, because that kind of thinking is inescapable.
Photography DEO SUVEERA