Opinion Print 2020

Navigating Health Through Fatphobia

Written by Siang Jin Law
Graphic by Anna Isaacs

This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.

CW: Disordered eating, weight talk, body image.

It’s Year 4, and I’m standing in line with my fellow classmates waiting to step onto a scale. It’s time for our quarterly health check in, where the number that pops up on the scale gets recorded into each of our report cards, right under our grades for Math and English, and is compared with all the other kids in the class. I get my number, and it’s between 45-50kgs whilst my classmates get numbers like 36kg to 40kg. The teacher weighing me tuts and hands me my report card, noting that since the last weighing, my weight has gone up. I remember my face heating up, shame pooling in my stomach, and dread settling in my chest at having to show this to my mother to sign off on, knowing that despite the As next to my subjects, the number next to weight will be what she talks to me about more. That she will sit me down and talk to me about the importance of watching what I eat and how health is so important, instead of talking to me about what I learnt in class and how well I’m doing in them.

When this happened, I was 10 years old, and it was just another step in cementing the structures of fatphobia into how I view myself, my body, and my health. Exercise was viewed as a necessary evil to keep the fat back, and food was always eaten with a guilt that what I was eating was too much, too indulgent, and too unhealthy.

This mentality has operated silently in my brain for the entirety of my adolescence. It’s made it difficult for me to continue navigating health and the relationship I have with my body. When facing things like exercise and eating, it’s challenging to stop my thoughts from automatically going to thoughts that are heavily rooted in fatphobia, like calorie counting and exercising with the intention of being skinny.

It was only last year, when I started to really immerse myself in fat liberation and body neutrality activism, that I realised that just like the patriarchy, fatphobia was a societal and structural construct that served to oppress and marginalise. Society sees fatness and uses it as a free pass to be cruel to fat people, hiding it behind notions of concern and care for that person’s health. This is perhaps most clearly seen through reality shows such as The Biggest Loser and My 600 Pound Life, where fat contestants are subjected to weight-loss regimes that involve extreme dieting and in the latter, measures like gastric bypass surgery.

Shows like these use ‘tough love’ techniques such as humiliation and abuse to get their participants down to an “ideal weight”, with little regard to how such narratives and rapid weight loss techniques could have long-term health effects. Fatphobia isn’t just in extreme examples like this either – it’s in your friend’s Instagram post about her fear of “gaining the COVID-19 pounds”, in your aunt’s comments about how your arm looks like a chicken thigh, in the way your movie theatre laughs at their favourite superhero getting fat.

The notion of health as it exists today has been heavily built around weight and a leaner body type. Conversations about being healthy often involve doing anything to avoid “looking fat” and are activities like increased weight loss and disordered eating. Schemes like intermittent fasting and the keto diet involve only eating between certain hours of the day, or only eating certain types of food, with a common theme being restricting food consumption through time, amount, or type.

Within these diets, eating and food are viewed as necessary evils, and when people eat outside the rules of the diet, it’s punishable. These conceptions of healthy living make it difficult to perceive health in an objective way outside of fatphobia, especially when success looks like lean body types with little regard to the methods it takes to get there. When health is so heavily associated with anti-fat in societal mainstream narratives, it makes it even harder to create narratives around health that do not promote fatphobia and disordered eating habits. This is potentially why the rates of eating disorders within fat communities are increasing rapidly, with one in five people who are identified as “obese” having disordered eating patterns.

It’s been a journey in trying to reroute my thoughts into healthier and into ways that are freed from fatphobic intentions. Fat liberation has taught me that rooting self-worth in fatphobia and the desire to be skinny will never benefit anyone (including people who are skinny) because it is a never-ending race to the bottom. It’s also opened my eyes to the ways in which society continues to structurally oppress fat people, from the medical profession to the airline industry. Fat bias, whether implicit or explicit, is held by everyone in society. Until we stop subconsciously blaming fat people for their size, thinking that there needs to be a solution to fat people, or that losing weight is a simple and straightforward matter of will, fatphobia will continue to oppress and marginalise.

Instead of seeing exercise as a necessary activity in order for me to deserve my daily meals, I’m trying to see it as a way to loosen the tension in my muscles, to make me feel stronger (so I can lift more puppies), and to make me feel happier and lighter in my body. Every day, I’m practising catching fatphobic thoughts as they come and slowly unpicking them, holding them to the light to see if fatphobic narratives run through them and how. I’m still trying to destigmatize the word ‘fat’ in my mind; trying to use it more and say it out loud without feeling shame and fear. It’s okay to be fat, fat is beautiful, and there is absolutely no gain for anyone in fat-shaming and fatphobia. I’ve viewed my body as something to be guilty about for not being smaller for so long that it’s been relieving to feel the internal pressure easing the more I’ve worked to undo the fatphobic narratives that were threaded into every decision I made.

There are definitely still days where I catch myself indulging in feeling pleased that I look skinnier in certain outfits or from certain angles, or when I don’t eat until I’m full because I’m scared of how it might make me fat. I also acknowledge my privilege in that I’m a smaller fat who can still fit into straight sizes, and that the discrimination that occurs to larger fats is undeniably worse and more prevalent. There is a fear that despite what I tell myself that what I’m doing is still rooted in fatphobia hiding behind notions of fat liberation, and it’s an educational journey I’m still actively undertaking every day. Fat liberation is just another aspect built into the feminism I champion, and it’s something that I will fight for just as much.

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