Fat people are oppressed in numerous ways: we are denied access to jobs, health care, comfortable seating, love, and positive representation in media. We are also expected to change our bodies to fit into this culture that oppresses us. It exhausts me. It damages my ability to meaningfully give myself care. But I understand why so many people give up the fight – systems of oppression are designed to wear us down if we don’t conform.
However, there is a solution. When we stand up against the bigotry fat people face, we can make a positive impact in our communities not only for fat people but all marginalized people.
One way to fight fatphobia is not participating in diet culture. It’s a shocking concept, I know. Every day we can show up to the table, the trail, the office, the internet with this idea of eradicating diet culture. We can think about how we are influenced by diet culture and how it’s damaging to us. The most common participation in diet culture is talking about restrictive diets or exercise as a tool for weight loss. And the second most common is side-by-side photos of that weight loss.
Side-by-side weight loss photos are typically two photos next to each other to create one image. The photo on the left is the “before” photo of a fat body. The photo on the right is the “after” photo of a that same body, only smaller. The caption might say things like: “Happier & healthier in 2019” or, “Feeling stronger.” These ideas aide fatphobia, weight stigma and ableism. Fatphobia is a system of oppression. Systems of oppression continue to exist because someone benefits from your participation in them. Regardless of if you think you’re “just celebrating your hard work,” it is damaging to fat people when you post these kinds of photos under the guise of wellness and being stronger and healthier. These photos are oppressive to anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to lose weight.
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
― Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
How can you support people who face fat oppression and anti-fat weight bias?
Read, research and listen to your fat friends. There many great articles, books and podcasts by fat people about fat experiences and fat oppression. Change your social media feed to include pages/people who spotlight fat bodies, fat activists and fat communities. The more we normalize fat bodies and listen to the lived experiences of fat people, the more we are able to understand the systematic ways our lives are altered to cater to a singular beauty/body ideal. Then, look up articles by Virgie Tovar and Lindy West. Check out resources like Be Nourished (Portland, OR) and Nalgona Positivity Pride. Read books like Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker, You Have the Right To Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar, Fat? So! by Marilyn Wann and The Body is Not an Apology by Sonja Renee Taylor, to name a few of the many.
Be open to learning.
Our culture has created so much stigma for fat people based on what it deems “healthy.” The weight loss industry is worth $70 billion dollars and has a 95 percent failure rate. This is capitalism at its finest. We buy the idea of weight loss so readily in our culture that it takes a lot of deprogramming to understand that it doesn’t actually work for most people. We buy the idea, even with its overwhelming rates of failure because we want to conform, be socially acceptable, be loved and happy. We want to buy what our culture sells us. Just stop. Think about who is profiting from your self hatred; it’s alarmingly clear that racist, hetreosexist patriarchal standards of beauty are the “goal” for any person participating in diet culture.
Don’t deny fat people’s lived experiences.
Just because you don’t personally experience fat oppression, doesn’t mean it’s not real. If you’re a fat person, doing your best to love yourself in this fatphobic culture, I see you. You are valid as you are! And if you are actively trying to lose weight as a fat person, your experience is valid too. But posting side-by-side weight loss photos is still participating in diet culture; a culture that has brainwashed you into thinking that your fat body is unacceptable and you should constantly strive to change it to be “healthy” and aesthetically pleasing.
And then, listen some more.
We need allies to help us fight fat oppression because we are fucking exhausted. Something as simple as being mindful of the content you post on social media can go a long way for your friend facing fat oppression or other forms of oppression. Don’t ask your fat friends to do the emotional labor of explaining fatphobia and anti-fat weight bias to you. Do your own work.
“There’s a reason why I prefer ‘fat positivity’ to ‘body positivity.’ Fat positivity isn’t a subcategory of body positivity; it is a prerequisite. Because without a full reckoning of what it means to honor all bodies unconditionally, ‘body positivity’ becomes just another thing to fail at, just another impossible gendered expectation.”
—Lindy West, The Way We Talk About Bodies Has Changed. What We Do About It Comes Next.
We all know that social media has become a huge part of our daily lives, and it’s important to remember that with the content we consume in our feeds often reflects our personal values and beliefs. We follow friends, authors, celebrities, politicians, meme makers and social activists that share our ideals. In my work with Fat Girls Hiking, I follow and share pages that align with the values I have built this community on; values that celebrate diversity and inclusion, accessibility and the outdoors as well as the fat positive community, fat activism and ending anti-fat bias and stigma. I am a fat, white, queer, feminist, polyamorous, poor, heavily tattooed femme. My lived experiences within these identities inform the ways in which I am treated by others and the access I have within the culture.
When the body positivity movement became mainstream, many social media pages and posts popped up that mirror the rhetoric of diet culture. Body positivity became the new way toward health and wellness. The voices of fat people within the movement became diluted. “Love yourself thin” mentalities sprung up in body positive spaces, and with it, an entire erasure of the history, work and meaning behind it.
I see this repeatedly any time I state that I will unfollow people who post side-by-side weight loss photos as a celebration of their “success and hard work.” Using the safer spaces and language of the body positive movement to justify fatphobic content doesn’t make it less fatphobic. The body positive movement was created by and for fat bodies. If you think your “body positive” caption absolves you, you’re wrong.
The mere sight of these side-by-side photos triggers a deep response in my gut telling me that I should desire to lose weight. It has triggered shame spirals and left me wondering why I’m supposed to want to change my body to fit into this ideal. I’m supposed to congratulate you on your weight loss because you’ve worked so hard. But it has never felt right to me. I know I’m not alone in this response. For the record, I don’t personally want to lose weight and I don’t care if you do. I absolutely don’t want to hear about your diet or see your weight loss photos. And I stand by my response to unfollow people who post side-by-side weight loss photos. It’s nothing personal y’all, I just cannot get behind that. It harms my psyche.
I know what you’re thinking; what’s the harm? Why can’t you stop being selfish and celebrate my personal triumph toward health and happiness? I’ve worked so hard, I deserve to celebrate my weight loss. And anyway, aren’t you just promoting obesity by using fat in a positive way and telling people it’s ok to be unhealthy? Can’t we just focus on the fat girl hiking part and leave the political stuff behind? I don’t know why you told us you were queer, no one is at this hike looking for a date. (Actual comments/messages I have received.)
Now here’s when you really have to listen. The Fat Girls Hiking community was created as a safer space for fat and other marginalized people to experience the outdoors free from shame. In creating the social media accounts for this community, those values are the same. There is zero tolerance for any content that harms the people in this community which includes any diet culture or weight loss talk or images. This is non-negotiable in this community.
“My life wouldn’t be easier if I were thin. My life would be easier if this culture wasn’t obsessed with oppressing me because I’m fat. The solution to a problem like bigotry is not to do everything in our power to accommodate the bigotry. It is to get rid of the bigotry.”
― Virgie Tovar, You Have the Right to Remain Fat
To move forward in solidarity with fat people and the Fat Girls Hiking community, you must be able to do your own work around systematic fatphobia and your own internalized anti-fat weight bias.
Any time you body shame yourself, post a weight loss “success” photo or talk about the diet you’re on to lose weight, you tell a fat person exactly what you think of them: they are unworthy of happiness as they are, they are less than, they should also change their body to fit cultural body standards.
Let’s come together as fat people, marginalized people and allies to change this shameful, harmful narrative around fat people’s experiences in our culture. Let’s listen more and be kind. Your experience doesn’t have to be the same as mine but I will never celebrate the idea that I or anyone else needs to shrink their body to be acceptable, healthy or happy. You have the right to be who you are, in the body you have right now, free from shame.