What does it actually mean to be “fat”?

 Portrait of the artist as a fat woman

Portrait of the artist as a fat woman

While I was running a group for teen girls and I made a startling, controversial statement. Did I claim that Rihanna is overrated or high school should last for six years? No, something far worse. I stated that I, Kimberly Vered Shashoua, am fat.

Immediately, I got disagreement. I could call myself “fluffy.” I could be “big.” Not a single girl thought that my multiple chins or large arms were evidence enough that I was “fat.” Huh?

In order to make sense of their response, we need to look at intersections of privilege, power, and social control.

“Fat” in our society doesn’t just mean being large. It has moral connotations. “Fat” is associated with being lazy, undisciplined, or bad. The alternative, “thin” or “fit” is often seen in moral terms as well. Those phrases don’t just conjure up a body type, but ideas about being committed, disciplined, virtuous.

Society currently has a moral continuum where we can place mentally assign people as being more or less worthy of love, compassion, or privilege based on their size.

 People of all body types find love, but we usually only see a narrow range represented in media

People of all body types find love, but we usually only see a narrow range represented in media

Isn’t this kind of weird? Well not, if you look at dynamics of privilege. Every system of privilege (such as racial, economic, and ability) has winners and losers. People are sometimes aware of how much they benefit, and sometimes they aren’t. For those who have more privilege than others, they want to hold on to their benefits, even if it means putting others down.

According to the current system, people with more prized body types have a lot more privilege than people who have body shapes that are less valued. This privilege includes compliments and praise (“You look great!”), access to a wider variety of clothing (as opposed to limited plus-size selections), and are seen as more romantically desirable.

It’s also not a coincidence that the currently prized body types intersect with class and racial structures.

 Time, food access, and cooking skills are hidden ingredients

Time, food access, and cooking skills are hidden ingredients

Food that are calorie-dense, like fast-food, require less money, time, preparation, and emotional energy to make. Making steamed veggies at home requires access to the grocery store, time to pick up and prepare the food, energy to cook it, and enough overall nourishment for this meal to not leave them hungry. Cooking for yourself when you have an office job, a car, and the ability to take paid sick days is a much smaller hurdle than if you work a demanding service industry job, such as waitressing, are physically and emotionally drained at the end of your shifts, and don’t get paid if you miss a day of work. If we think about people in these two jobs, it takes a lot less “discipline” and “motivation” for the first person to make a home-cooked meal.

But what about health?

 The actual science of the "obesity epidemic" doesn't justify the moral-panic-charged response

The actual science of the "obesity epidemic" doesn't justify the moral-panic-charged response

This is an interesting question, that circles back to ideas of being socially acceptable. Those concerns about the obesity crisis? Largely a moral panic. (Click here for more info - a summary: the BMI is arbitrary and was never designed to measure a “healthy weight” and at the 5 year mark, virtually all people (95-98%) who have lost weight regain it).

Then, there’s the idea of health and morality intersecting once again. Okay, another thought experiment. There’s a picture of a toddler with cancer online. What do you think the comments would be like? “I’m praying for him! Get better!” Right?

Okay, let’s think of a picture of fat woman in a bikini. I’ve seen comments like “Ew, that’s so unhealthy.” and “You shouldn’t encourage other people to be unhealthy.” Seems normal.

Why the difference? Well, morality, blame, and social control. A baby who has cancer is also unhealthy, but the fat lady is thought to have taken actions to gain weight, almost having sinned in some way. Any health effects are deserved, almost like a punishment for bad behavior. Health effects from these actions are “disgusting” because they come from breaking social rules. There’s a learned aversion and revulsion to things tied to almost-moral transgressions.

What about “encouraging people to be unhealthy?” Yeah, that doesn’t happen. People generally don’t get inspired  to make their own babies ill by seeing sick babies. I’ve never had one of my friends tell me she thinks she should gain a ton of weight after seeing a cute picture of me. What has happened is that when stigmatized bodies are celebrated and accepted, some of that privilege that people have worked so hard to maintain gets chipped away.

In spreading self-love, we are actually a direct threat to the system that says that thinner people are worth more.

 This sign is true for EVERYBODY.

This sign is true for EVERYBODY.

So many people have suffered under the assumption that in order to be worthy, you need to look a certain way. People have internalized this oppression, made sacrifices to get benefits, and blamed themselves for pain they’ve endured. Saying “I’m fat and that’s cool” is upending a basic social structure.

Accepting all bodies causes “moral” harm to the system of privilege. “Immoral” behaviors, such as eating “bad” foods, are seen as more acceptable. “Virtuous” actions, like daily exercising, become less important. If these societal ideas about virtue and immorality relating to bodies goes away, what replaces it? Chaos? Social unraveling? Or greater equality.

When you step back from it, people’s reactions make a lot more sense.

People in the past who have been mean to me about my weight weren’t just expressing a simple thought. Those mean comments were less personal and more about the systems we operate in. Those girls didn’t want to say I was fat, not because I’m a small person. I think they didn’t want to imply that I was morally bad and they didn’t want me to have to deal with the hardships that come with being in a stigmatized body.

The truth is, I’m fat.

 Fat and feelin' fine

Fat and feelin' fine

I’m not “fat” - I make no claim to laziness or immorality. I won’t tell you anything about my activities, eating habits, or heath, as they are irrelevant to my worth. I exist in a large body, and that’s okay.

Being in this body has taught me that context is so important. So many issues people deal with feel like personal flaws, shameful in some way. When we zoom out and place things in context, the picture changes. We don’t have to face our challenges and marginalizations alone. We can learn about other people and help advocate for people who have less privilege than us. United, we can see the true beauty of who we really are.

<3 Vered