Tag Archives: fat shaming

Changing my body story

The body story I have had for most of my life goes like this: I am fat and unattractive. I am fat because I am lazy and greedy and don’t try hard enough. I make a fuss about pain. I would have more energy if only I did/ate/thought the right things so it’s really my fault I’m not doing better. That body story has gone with me no matter what I’ve done, or how hard I’ve tried. It is not a story I started out telling myself, it was told to me and I internalised it.

I’m working on changing that. It is not an easy thing to do, because the story is so embedded, and there are other stories tangled into it – that I should not expect love because I am fat. That no matter how good I am, it will never be enough to offset how unattractive I am. Pre-teen me was told that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. I don’t think I’ve ever really got past that, even when it’s repeatedly been proven not to be true. It haunts me.

My new body story takes into account some truths about my body. I’m very hypermobile, which means I hurt and injure easily, and I hurt a lot. It re-casts my historical pain not as fuss making, but as a real issue. Hypermobility often goes with fatigue, and everything taking more effort. I can re-write the stories about my laziness as being about limitations in my body, and not lack of trying on my part. My poor co-ordination in childhood – only marginally better now – probably also wasn’t a lack of effort on my part, but a consequence of the hypermobility.

I can tell myself new stories about how child me tried their best, but had problems.

Hypermobility has implications for the soft tissues, including the stomach. I’ve always had a dodgy digestive system which suggests that the soft tissue issues are in my guts as well as around my joints. I’ve always had trouble building stomach muscle or getting my middle into a shape I’m happy with. During pregnancy, my middle expanded to an alarming degree. This would make sense if I have weaker tissues to begin with. What if the stomach shape that was the source of so much childhood shame wasn’t about fat, but about the state of my muscles? Dieting never changed it. Starving myself never changed it. Exercise routines, regular swimming and other such efforts have never made much difference either. Trying to get my stomach to be a more acceptable shape has been a life-long obsession. What if it’s not because I’m greedy and lazy? What if something else is going on?

I am trying to tell myself new stories about how this might not have been some kind of personal failing on my part.

I’m also becoming aware of a thing. When the first port of call is to stigmatise fat and shame the fat person for being morally inadequate, there’s no looking at causes. There’s no asking what’s going on in their body and how that might be managed, dealt with, or how they might be more kindly supported in getting on with life. No one (including me) asked what was going on in my body because it was so obvious to everyone (me included) that my greed and laziness were to blame. That my body did not change was proof that I must be too greedy and lazy to really make the effort. Even as a teenager on the slimfast diet (remember that? Replace 2 meals each day with special milkshakes) I did not get to be the right shape. I did get to be very tired and had lousy concentration.

Putting down a story that has dominated my entire life isn’t easy. But, it does help having a new story to replace it with. A story in which I do not have to hate my body for the accident of how it is. A story in which it is not my fault. A story in which I do not have to think of myself as a ‘bad’ person. And if my body is not an expression of my moral failure, it becomes that bit easier to ask people to accept me as I am.


Fat Shaming

There is no evidence that making fat people feel unhappy about their weight does anything at all to bring about weight loss. However, people who fat shame others routinely hide behind the excuse that they’re doing it to help. Fat shaming people is a form of bullying, the mechanics of which need exposing.

I have some idea what shape my body is. At this point, my sense of self may be fatter than my physical presence. It may always have been – it’s hard to tell. I have never needed anyone else to tell me about this, and I am normal in this regard. Talking to people about their body shape starts from the assumption that somehow the fat person doesn’t know about their own body. At best, that’s patronising. At worst, it’s humiliating and destructive.

It’s ok to talk to fat people about their body shape if you are their doctor, their fitness coach, their physiotherapist, their counsellor, their nutritionalist or some other professional and qualified person working for them. If you aren’t qualified and you haven’t been asked then it is better to assume that your unsolicited opinion is neither helpful, nor required.

One of the great myths about fat is that it is simply a consequence of eating too much. It is because we are encouraged to see fat as a moral failing that we feel entitled to humiliate fat people in the guise of ‘helping’. There are many causes of fat, including physical illness, medication for bodily ills and mental health problems, sleep deprivation, and possibly stress. We don’t know how pollution impacts on fat storage. We do know that starving yourself increases your chances of subsequent weight gain, and we know that making people miserable and self conscious doesn’t help them change.

Poverty diets can mean you’re overweight and suffering malnutrition. Depressed people may be eating as a form of self-medication. Alcohol has a lot of calories in it. If you don’t know what’s caused a person to gain weight, you aren’t qualified to tell them how to deal with it. If you give unsolicited advice when you don’t know what’s going on, you might encourage the very behaviours that are causing the problem. Just because a person is thin does not mean they have a good understanding of how anyone else can also be thin.

If you are genuinely worried about the health of someone you care for, pointing out to them the health risks associated with their weight won’t do anything productive. Instead, why not find out what the problem is – maybe they are in too much pain to exercise and could do with some emotional support. Maybe they are in poverty and living on cheap carbs and you could help them by setting them up with a weekly veg box. Maybe they are so painfully self conscious that they can’t face exercise, and you could offer to go with them so they feel safer and more supported. Maybe their diet is being influenced by a controlling partner who wants them fat so that no one else will find them attractive – it happens.

Those moral judgements about fat mean that sometimes some of us can’t bear to see a fat person being happy. Some people act like its unacceptable for a fat person to be comfortable with themselves, and the reaction is to knock down hard with fat shaming. That’s deeply shitty. By ‘fat people’ here, in my experience we can also be talking about women who have recently given birth, and women who are anything other than bone thin. Fat shaming on social media and in the rest of life can happen to anyone female who isn’t a skeleton. Because it’s not really about the fat at that point, it’s about grinding women down.

If you care about someone, find out how to support them on their terms. Anything other than that, is about hurting, shaming and undermining a person. If you see it happening, speak up. Shaming people destroys self esteem and makes it harder to resist this kind of abuse, so it should not fall to the victim to have to deal with the perpetrator.

 


Thin Privilege

I’ve always had issues with my body size, and have spent much of my life larger than I wanted to be. After pregnancy, I was a lot larger than I wanted to be and it took a long time to change that. I’ve had a lot of experience of fat shaming, and some experience of what happens when you don’t have thin privilege. I’m starting to get back into that more privileged thin space and want to talk about what that means.

The first and most obvious difference over the last few years has been the greater ease buying clothes. I can walk into a shop and expect to find clothes that I like and that will fit me. If I want loose clothes I can actually buy things a few sizes bigger and wear those. When this is normal to you, you don’t notice it, or the implications for people who don’t have that privilege.

The odds are that if I went to a doctor with any complaint at this point, I would not be diagnosed with being fat but might get the problem itself taken seriously. This means my chances of survival are improved. It also means I have a better chance of accessing mental health support. At a previous round of asking for mental health support (when larger) and admitting that I mostly just wanted to die, I was told to get more exercise.

I am much less likely now to find people around me feel entitled to comment on my food choices. I’m painfully uncomfortable about scrutiny whilst eating, so this is always an area of anxiety for me. One of the great ironies here is that I have never lost weight or even managed my weight through calorie control. Since I’ve been eating with a view to maintaining good energy levels and supporting my mental health, I’ve become healthier. The things casual commenters would likely judge are actually good choices for me. When you are carrying visible fat, so many people feel that they are qualified to speak as nutritionists without knowing a thing about your body or your circumstances.

The things that some people think, and state in relation to body fat, are nuts. Here’s a selection of things I’ve been told over the years…

That my heavy periods are caused by being fat. They aren’t – my weight has fluctuated, my periods have been constant.

That fat people can’t dehydrate – because no, I am not actually a camel, thank you.

That no one will ever love me or want me because I am fat – that’s not proved true in practice.

That I must be miserable because I look terrible. Well, no, it’s more the fat shaming that makes me miserable than my body shape.

That because I am fat, it is difficult to imagine that I might have any delicacy of feelings. Fat people cannot be delicate in other ways. Because obviously my emotions are also fat, and solid, and big. It’s funny how largness in one aspect of being is interpreted as being a whole-person issue.

I’ve also noticed that much of this shaming has had little relationship with how large I actually am – that carrying less fat has not reliably reduced the shaming in proportion. It is as though I am haunted by the ghost of the fat I have carried in the past. The lack of relationship between my size and the criticism I’ve been subjected to does flag up all too clearly that this isn’t about my body shape at all. It’s about a desire to hurt and humiliate. Unlike my arm length or the size of my feet (I’ve been criticised about those, too), my body mass can be interpreted as something I have total control over, which makes it the more effective target. It becomes a judgement of me as a person.

To be thin, is to not have your personality assumed from your body shape. That’s a privilege which underpins many other things, but is invisible to the person benefiting from it unless they’ve also experienced how their identity will be inferred from a larger body.