Social Justice Usage
Fatphobia is the fear and dislike of fat people and the stigmatization of individuals with bigger bodies. As with any system designed to exclude, shame or oppress people on the basis of shared characteristics or identities, it can be easy to assume that something like fatphobia only exists on an individual level. In reality, it is layers of complex beliefs and institutional systems that treat fat bodies in need of correction and discipline– sometimes through violent means. Fatphobia can end up shaming, silencing and “correcting” fat people simply for existing. It feeds the bias, discrimination, disregard and sometimes even hatred that all fat people have to contend with on a daily basis.
New Discourses Commentary
“Fatphobia” is, like all of the -phobias in the Theory and activism of Critical Social Justice, held to be a form of oppressive systemic power, specifically in this case held against fat people. (As a special note of some importance to this idea and to fat studies, calling them “fat people” is also something demanded to avoid being guilty of fatphobia, as “obese” is believed to be problematically tied up with healthist and medicalizing narratives and “overweight,” “plus-sized,” and “heavy” perpetuate fat stigma by implying that there is a correct weight or size for a person to be.) Fatphobia, then, is not so much an irrational fear of fatness or fat people (as the term might imply, etymologically) as it is a kind of unjust systemic rejection of fatness and disenfranchisement of fat people (again, not people who happen to be fat, but fat people, understood as a personal and political identity—see also, identity-first).
Fatphobia is one of the central objects of interest of fat studies, which is the critical theory of fat identity statuses, as it is the systemic power dynamic that must be critiqued, deconstructed, disrupted, dismantled, subverted, or otherwise overcome through that approach to critical theory. In that it is a form of oppressive systemic power, fatphobia is held to be the result of socialization into socially constructed attitudes about that view fat, fatness, and fat people negatively, and it results in the unjust marginalization, minoritization, and oppression of fat people. Fat studies would view the socially constructions of “fatness” or “obesity” and the related social and psychological harms as infinitely more important than any relevant medical or health concerns.
According to fat studies, fatphobia is understood to be the systemic consequence of fat stigma. This is, in turn, maintained by thin-normativity (belief that thinness is both normal for human beings and preferred), inscribed, reinscribed, and maintained by thin-normative, fat-shaming, healthist, and/or medicalizing narratives and discourses about the unhealthiness of being fat. It is also capable of being willfully ignored as a site of necessary activism by those with thin privilege. Fat studies insists that fatphobia can be directly disrupted, dismantled, and deconstructed through critically theorizing upon the social significance of fat and fatness, and it can also be combated by body positivity and fat acceptance (see also, healthy at every size).
Nearly anything that can be construed (or misconstrued) as holding fat or fat people in a negative light is deemed fatphobic by fat studies. Like with other identity-relevant attitudes, like racism, sexism, and so on, some such attitudes may merit being considered fatphobic; for example, the beliefs that fat people are, on average, less capable, less intelligent, lazier, dirtier, universally uglier, or generally meant to be the butt of jokes. Obviously, it is possible to maintain genuinely unfair prejudicial and bigoted attitudes against fat people. This is the reasonable starting place from which fat studies departs into a much more radical critical theory.
Critical accusations of fatphobia are not always so reasonable and fair. If people prefer thin romantic or sexual partners over fat ones (or, over a particular fat one who happens to be a fat activist), for instance, that is likely to be construed as the result of fatphobia. If a fat person (especially a famous one) wants to lose weight or do so, the desire to lose the weight is likely to be considered a form of internalized fatphobia (see also, internalized oppression), and she will be shamed for it. If none of the seats on an airplane are of adequate size for a fat person, that is likely to be considered to be the result (or a manifestation) of fatphobia causing designers not to be particularly concerned with the lived realities of being fat. If a doctor identifies a morbidly obese person as “obese,” that along with any medical information or advice that links body weight to health will also be considered to be fatphobic, if not fat-shaming (and healthist). Indeed, the label “obese” and any such information and advice will be construed as the result of a “fatphobic medicalizing narrative” that casts being fat as a health issue with negative ramifications, thus generating fat stigma, perpetuating thin-normativity, and maintaining healthist attitudes and narratives (see also, Foucauldian and biopower).
This critical view of fatphobia is therefore undeniably both ridiculous and dangerous. It isn’t merely subversive or disruptive public relations campaigns like body positivity, healthy at every size, fat lingerie (fatshion) modeling, and so on. Rather than taking on genuine bigotries against fat people while accepting the realities that being obese is the result of consistently consuming an excessive number of calories and is strongly correlated to a wide range of serious health problems—and very often within one’s control—as well as limitations on one’s quality of life and lifestyle options, this view of fatphobia attempts to coddle the feelings of fat activists. It does this specifically by casting both medical science and common sense as being akin to conspiracies rooted in a systemic hatred of fat and fat people. Of course, such tacit conspiracies mostly don’t exist. Practically, this results in rejecting medical advice, resisting losing weight, urging people not to lose weight, and treating people who do lose weight as a kind of traitor (akin to race traitors or gender traitors—see also, solidarity).
The roots of this bizarre view, which are developed in the critical theory called “fat studies,” are profoundly to do with certain ideas of the French postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, particularly a misconstrual of his notion of “biopower.” By taking Foucault’s analysis of how social constructions of madness and homosexuality were used in various ways throughout history to control dissident (and gay) people to an absurd extreme, fat studies has construed medical advice that being obese is profoundly unhealthy (in the overwhelming majority of cases) as a means by which scientific “narratives” (not knowledge) are used to shame and control fat people. It is, we admit, almost difficult to believe that people believe this. Nevertheless, also following Foucault and his lectures on biopower, this can lead to a particular paranoia about fatphobia in fat studies that leads them to see encouraging weight loss as a form of “eugenics” that could lead to a “fat genocide” (wherein no one dies but everyone lives at or near their healthy weight).
Because of its deep roots in Foucauldian thought around madness and homosexuality, and the social control thereof, particularly by knowledge produced by the sciences, fat studies is often profoundly informed by queer Theory. Thus, many parallels exist between fatphobia and homophobia (or transphobia), and much of the argument locates privilege in accordance with some normativity: thin-normativity (like heteronormativity and cisnormativity). It therefore advocates disruptive, deconstructive, and subversive activism like the politics of parody as a means of applying “strategic resistance.” A similar means of doing strategic resistance—if not strategic essentialism—is acceptance of the word “fat,” rather like the acceptance of the word “queer” in queer Theory. Fatness is therefore sometimes Theorized as a form of queerness, and issues having to do with accepting fatness under conventional standards of beauty or attraction (romantically or sexually) are sometimes treated similarly with parallel issues in queer Theory.
This critical view of fat and fatness has a number of deleterious effects on the prospects of LGBT advocacy. Theorizing fatness to be similar to homosexuality, or more specifically queerness, implies that, like fatness, perhaps homosexuality can be changed by concerted efforts or that it results from particular lifestyle choices. This is because fatness overwhelmingly results from consistently consuming too many calories, and LGBT activists spent decades, if not centuries, making the case that one’s sexuality is not the result of virtues or vices. These ideas run directly counter to those at the core of liberal approaches to LGBT advocacy, which have been highly successful (much to the chagrin of queer Theorists, it should be noted).
In that fat studies is a relatively new field of critical theory applied to identity, it has also drawn upon the other older approaches, notably critical race Theory. When it does this, fatphobia is Theorized as being more akin to racism, and fat is therefore Theorized as being in parallel to race. This results in an attitude that being fat is an intrinsic state of affairs, leading to promulgating a belief that asking people to lose weight is an act of bigotry and impossible. Where it has taken on the thinking of critical race Theory, fat studies can become quite pessimistic about the impacts and state of fatphobia and is more likely to consider it to be perpetuated through hidden discourses that need to be critically examined.
Generally, this line of thinking also requires fatphobia to be tackled intersectionally with all of the other forms of systemic oppression at once. This likening of fat status to race and all of the other factors of identity is also not typically welcomed and can be damaging to liberal activism on those issues. Under this line of thinking, the lived experience of fatphobia as a form of systemic oppression confers knowledges that are relevant within standpoint epistemology.
Biopower; Body positivity; Common sense; Cisnormativity; Critical; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Deconstruction; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Fat acceptance; Fat activism; Fat shaming; Fat stigma; Fat studies; Foucauldian; Gender traitor; Genocide; Healthism; Healthy at every size; Heteronormativity; Homophobia; Identity; Identity-first; Injustice; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Lived experience; Marginalization; Medicalizing; Minoritize; Narrative; Normal; Normativity; Oppression; Politics of parody; Postmodern; Power (systemic); Privilege; Problematic; Queer; Queer Theory; Race; Race traitor; Racism (systemic); Science; Sexism (systemic); Social construction; Social Justice; Socialization; Solidarity; Standpoint epistemology; Strategic essentialism; Strategic resistance; Subversion; Theory; Thin privilege; Thin-normativity; Transphobia
Fatphobia is present in almost all kinds of media that we consume, and it teaches us what kind of body type we view as valuable and desirable in our culture. Fatphobia in the media is a cultural practice that rewards devaluing fat people, and insists on showcasing thin people as the norm and as what is “beautiful” and “desirable”. It also plays out on a personal level. This includes personal interactions, conversations or hurtful remarks that, regardless of intentions, enforce certain views about what bodies are good and which are bad. For example, policing what someone is eating, complimenting weight loss as inherently always good, telling fat people about their own health as if they don’t know any better, or giving unsolicited advice on weight loss, etc., can all stem from fatphobia. When we presume we know better than what someone else’s body needs, as if fat people have not heard the same rote stereotypes and concerns about their weight hundreds of times before, we are often concern trolling – using health as an alibi to shame fat people for being fat.
Institutional fatphobia is embedded in the ways fat people’s lives are over-determined by the systems and structures that govern everyone’s lives, including but not limited to: the medical industrial complex, the diet industry, the media industry, public standard size seats and turnstiles, standard size clothing that is not accessible to fat people, etc. All of these things teach fat people that this world was not made to fit them, that there is something wrong with fat bodies as opposed to the systems that say everyone needs to be a certain size to be deserving of care and access. In all of these instances, we are taught to think of bigger bodies as being inherently less healthy, less desirable, less capable, etc than thin bodies. We are taught instead that fat bodies are a burden on our communities, our taxes, and on the quality of medical care we all receive. Institutional fatphobia frames and entrenches the harmful attitudes discussed above.
This last one is especially of concern when we consider the intersection of race and fatphobia, as the enforcement of what body deserves praise or punishment can mean different things for racialized people. For instance, using the body mass index to gage the “health” of Indigenous, Black and other racialized bodies means imposing a European and Anglo-Saxon arbiter of health on bodies that are vastly different in terms of their fat/muscle ratio, where they carry fat on their bodies (hips, butt) and in terms of how and what they eat as well. It also erases the context and history of why we eat a certain way, and how and why our bodies process certain foods (or not).
Of course, this means that fatphobia certainly shows up in the doctor’s office. Doctors are taught they are carrying out disinterested science, but studies have repeatedly shown that doctors and nurses often hold the same biases and stigma against fat people as the general population. This echoes the long-standing research on racialized patients receiving differential care due to racism (less painkillers for the same injury than white people receive, not being believed when they present with certain symptoms, etc). In the context of fatness, this may look like weight loss being recommended automatically by doctors, regardless of the person’s actual health or if it has any bearing on the health needs of the individual. It can also look like assuming that being fat is the cause of any number of health problems, including sexual and reproductive health problems, whether or not any correlation exists between weight and the health concern an individual is seeking care for. This matters!
Revision date: 8/4/20