Plenty of attention is given to the health implications of obesity, but much less thought is given to how a fat-stigmatising culture damages people – women especially. Why can’t all bodies, not just slim ones, be allowed to feel comfortable in their own skin, asks Catherine Trundle.
This week a new report reminded us that New Zealand has the third highest obesity rates in the OECD. It highlighted our rising levels of childhood obesity, and the lack of appropriate policies to address it. The health consequences of our enlarging nation are, the report said, potentially catastrophic.
I’m not here to dispute the links between illness and obesity, although I might quibble with the blunt BMI instrument that draws lines between unhealthy and healthy bodies. And many of the policy ideas the report suggests are sound, such as getting rid of junk food in schools. But I do want to offer an important caution to any newfound enthusiasm in the fight against fat. However we go about tackling this problem, we need to consider the cultural way we currently regard fatness.
This means thinking about how medical attention towards obesity might get used to justify more hostility towards women’s bodies that don’t conform to our skinny beauty norms. In other words, how might we stop this medical concern from reinforcing our fat shaming ways? For just as obesity might be a growing health problem, living in this fat stigmatising culture in a widespread wellbeing problem for most women. But there has been little widespread outcry about the negative social effects of living within a fat shaming society, and few policy proposals to try to confront it.
This is an issue worthy of attention because regardless of size, most women in our society feel fat, some of the time, most of the time, or all of the time. Fatness is for many women a constant unwanted companion. To focus on women’s experiences here is not to say that men don’t suffer in a fat shaming culture and are never its targets, but that women suffer in a particularly sharp way thanks to our uneven standards of beauty and our gendered expectations about bodily control.
I’m using the word fat here as the fat acceptance movement does, as a reclaimed insult, as a matter-of-fact description of a big body. The bodies labelled fat in our society vary significantly in size. Many so-called fat bodies are not particularly physically large. They are not targets of medical intervention. They are simply bodies that exceed our impossibly tiny ideals of beauty. Fatness is always relative to a standard. And our standard is an insane one, wide enough to catch most of us in its net.
There are many plot lines in our culture to explain fat bodies. There is the story of our gluttonous, processed, sedentary age. One that creates the perfect conditions for an epidemic of obesity. One that requires us to get out of our cars and up from our desks and away from the fast food outlets and chocolate aisle.
We also talk about fat bodies as poor bodies, as revealing the ravages of financial poverty and time poverty and nutritional poverty. Obesity can signify the stresses and strains of social and economic marginalization writ large on the body.
Then there are the stories women tell that describe eating as a way to deal with trauma. Food comforts, so it can work to displace something uncomfortable. Some women seek to be nurtured, to build themselves up through food when they feel parts of their lives are numb or depleted. Or they eat because their bodies have been violated. Fat can feel like protection, like presence.
These are among the many explanations to account for the rising ‘problem’ of fatness. They are all useful in countering the simplistic thinking of people who blame fatness on women who just don’t have enough self-control to choose the salad, every single time, like some robotic rabbit. But I’m not satisfied with these stories alone.
For must we always see fat bodies as broken, as in need of cure? As lacking an intervention. Why are they always the result of a social ill? Can we ever see them, celebrate them, as whole?
Not all fat bodies eat ravenously, compulsively, addictively, or poorly. Many just refuse to eat sparingly. And combined with a naturally slowing metabolism, and having kids, and caring less about what other people think, and putting families first, and taking certain medications, and years gone by, they gradually become soft and floppy and fat. They refuse to be calcified into some scrawny teenage form forever.
And what if a fat body is the result of trauma, or self-protection, or struggle? Surely that body, especially that body, deserves to be accepted and appreciated. Why must we always demand of people that they erase their scars and make themselves anew? Why must our stories about fatness always end in an expectation for transformation?
There is nothing natural about fat shaming. People have to be taught to hate fatness. Babies and toddlers love their mothers’ fat bodies. They relish being able to snuggle into big pillowy breasts, or press their heads against soft tummy rolls, or hide shyly behind the reassuring legs of a woman with wide hips and thighs.
But this sense of comfort and safety in their mothers and grandmothers’ bodies is often gradually eroded, replaced with a sense of revulsion towards fatness. Heartbreakingly, children often pick this up first within their families, as they begin to observe the struggles adults have with fat bodies. Then later, society, with its limitless ways of signalling its hatred for fat bodies, takes over the task.
To keep a body small that wants to be bigger requires an extraordinary, iron fist of will and effort. It is impossible to describe to a person who is naturally, effortlessly skinny, who has never viewed their body as fat, just how much energy and monitoring many women expend to enact this work.
Some women describe this work as hinged to a necessary and conscious feeling of self-hatred. They describe it involving a jolting ‘waking up’ moment. Perhaps it was a photo of their fat body that induced a sense of revulsion. They suddenly think, “That is not me. What a monster, I can’t live with this body one minute longer!”
Then begins the brutal self-talk that propels a woman towards thinness, telling her fat body that what it thinks it wants is deluded, an unhealthy pattern, that it had been lazy, that it must now comply, that it must under no circumstances give in to temptation. The fat body subdued this way must constantly be told it is an illusion and an intruder, that the real body is inside, waiting to be release and revealed. And the irony here is that the weight loss industry often describes this process as one of self-love, as about gaining some self-respect, as about being ‘worth’ this effort.
Older women, increasingly fed up with caring about weight, often share this reflection with me: Years spent fighting their fat bodies is often precious time not spent cultivating their talents, or attending to friendships or just relaxing and having fun. Or it is time spent feeling like they are doing all these things in spite of the challenges of living with their fat bodies. In our society, fat bodies are rarely seen as allies to living a full life.
In a fat shaming culture like ours, fat bodies often feel they must do less. Swim less, go out in public less, reveal their skin less. For fear of drawing attention or breaking the rules about bodies that shouldn’t be seen or celebrated. It can mean always trying to take up less space, to think about how one’s elbows and hips might intrude on the person in the next seat. Being big means having to try to be tiny and unseen.
Fat might look like it is a type of ruinous excess, but much of the time it results in scarcity. Like receiving too little respect in public. Or having a diminished sense of entitlement to demand what one needs. It often means settling for less.
And even those who win the battle against fat lose something, beyond pounds. To keep a once fat body at a smaller size long term requires coming to terms with the loss of old habits that mustn’t ever be repeated. Sometimes these are happily discarded. But often it means living with a new type of vigilance towards the body, to stop it sneaking back to its old pleasures. To never quite trust it again. We must now treat it as a problem child we’ve outgrown, but who nonetheless we’re stuck with. Whose wayward behaviour we have under control, for now at least.
Fighting our fat bodies requires separating them off from ourselves, as objects subordinate to the mastery of our minds. The word master here is apt. To become thin often involves treating our bodies like some sort of slave-like underling. They get no say. They’ll be punished if they don’t comply. We want to bend them to our will, trick them if necessary into our idea of happiness. But bodies always end up being lousy slaves. They have sneaky ways of staging rebellions. Of raiding the pantry late at night and hosting parties when the master lies asleep.
In reality, many fat bodies are bodies that just crave to be allowed to feel comfortable in their skin. We now know that at the cellular and molecular level, bodies work hard after weight loss to return to a weight that feels like it fits that body.
This is why for the most part, fighting against the fat body results in failure to rein it in, to make it live in a smaller space. Very few people achieve and sustain thinness through these terror tactics. The body just won’t stand for it. Most of the time, that is. Occasionally, the body simply crumples, and the mind, euphoric in its total control, gives birth to an eating disorder.
So, what then is to be done about this never-ending futile battle against fat? Let’s start by acknowledging the harms of a fat shaming culture. Our approach to fatness is so unnecessarily destructive, so ineffective at making people healthy or happy.
To fight against our fat shaming culture doesn’t mean we must now rail against women who want to lose weight. It doesn’t mean, for example, rejecting a person or family’s efforts to get fit, or deal with diabetes. People have various ways that they care for and protect their bodies across their lives. Sometimes these include eating in new ways or moving more, and sometimes it involves losing weight. Some bodies also expand and contract at different points in the life course without purposeful, hell-bent effort.
But I am against the way we muster such contempt for fatness, that we approach the task of crafting an ideal body with such disrespect for that body, that in response our bodies have to quietly plan counter-coup attempts. I hate that we turn our bodies into battlegrounds in the process. And any women bigger than our beauty norms who feel quite happy with themselves, just as they are, must fight against a social tide of disapproval so strong that to be content in a fat body has become a radical act of cultural defiance.
And I wish the medical profession would think harder about what it means to pathologise obesity in a society that already hates fatness, and particularly hates it in women. For to tell a woman she has a ‘problem’ with her body is to give her one more reason to turn against it as the enemy. And It’s not to ask her what she needs in life, whether she feels safe, or seen, or loved, or to enquire about the conditions she would need to flourish in the way she wants to flourish. Couldn’t we let her body, in whichever shape it settles, be the outcome of attending to these questions first, rather than the problem in need of fixing in order to address them?
I wish that after over 60 years of women complaining about the pressure to be unrealistically thin something would actually change. I’m sick of how intractable this crap is. I’m sick of how resigned we’ve become to expecting this pressure to surround us like oxygen.
I’m talking actual, real change. Not little tokens, or exceptions that prove the rule. Like banning French catwalk model who look like they haven’t eaten in a year while still normalizing models that look like they haven’t eaten in a month. Or the rise of the new ‘niche market’ in plus size models, still perfectly proportioned and only ever a little bit fat.
I wish I could offer a pithy solution to this crazy mess. I haven’t got one. It’s certainly no use telling a woman who believes she’s fat to just be body positive and love herself, when everything around her is saying the opposite. In most instances, that’s just setting her up to fail with her fatness, once again. The issue of fatness and its consequences have to stop being simply a task for individual internal effort.
Maybe we just need to collectively rage against the skinny machine. Whenever we come across it. Calling it out. Being louder. More indignant. All of us. All the time. Maybe that would be a good place to start. Let me put this simply. Women do not need to hate themselves this way. It is not inevitable.
The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.