By Ginamarie Simpson, guest blogger and FGH Merch Queen
“We awake in the dark to hike a very busy trail in Banff National Park. I read reviews online that talk of tour buses full of people on the Johnston Canyon Trail. For me, nature is an escape from urban life and people. I seek solitude and serenity when I’m out in nature. A hike full of tourists isn’t very appealing to me so we arrive very early at the trailhead. There are a few people on the trail but mostly we are alone. The Johnston Canyon trail starts out through forest along a glacier-fed turquoise-colored river to catwalks that go down into the canyon. Without the catwalks, this hike would only be accessible if you repelled into the canyon. There are several waterfalls along the trail as well as some interesting geological formations called “The Inkpots.” I’m pleased that the trail is mostly empty and we have time to soak up the beautiful surroundings without swarms of tourists. It’s almost 9 am when we decide we should turn back to the trailhead to avoid the increasing crowd. As we near the parking lot, there are a lot of people on the trail. A large group of older folks in front of us uses the entire width of the trail, unaware of basic hiking etiquette to walk single file and allow others to pass. We attempt to respectfully and quickly move past the group several times before we can find an opening. I eventually manage to jog around them but my girlfriend gets caught up in the group behind two older men. After I jog past one of the men says, “Wow, was that an earthquake? You could really feel the earth move when she went by,” to the person beside him who laughed. My girlfriend is behind them. As we got back to the car, she tells me what was said. My nature elation and hiking high are gone in a flash.” – Summer Michaud-Skog
This, in short, is FATPHOBIA. Far too often this is what fat people experience while engaging in outdoor activities. I personally have not experienced fatphobia while hiking because before joining a community I never hiked. I was too intimidated by the possibility based on biases and judgment I experience in my everyday life. Many members of the fat community have avoided physical activities not because they couldn’t do it but because of the ridicule. As if to say that fat people have no right to be climbing a mountain in one breath and then chastise us in the next for locking ourselves away from public scrutiny.
Fat people are just like non-fat people. We are all different colors, genders, and sizes. We have all the same feelings and emotions, struggles and goals. We have families, friends, and successful careers. We are fat and yes we are healthy. We are people too yet fat people are the least acknowledged and socially accepted group of all marginalized groups.
Fatphobia is not a new antipathy. It’s deep-rooted and for the most part, begins in the home and surroundings of family. For anyone who is deemed “chubby”, “overweight”, “big boned”, or “thick” etc, it can have an immediate negative effect on self-worth and self-acceptance. If your family is highlighting your bodies “flaws” then what will perfect strangers say and do? Depression, isolation and eating disorders are often outcomes of such treatment. The more someone suffers from weight bias and stigma the less likely they are to want to be outside actively participating in anything.
In the last few years, “Body Positive” has been coined as an umbrella term to cover all those who have issues with their bodies or who don’t fit in our societal diet-culture picture perfect image. This has given fat people an invitation to come out of hiding. It has been a slow unveiling but today you have fat forces to be reckoned with who challenge the biases with fat liberation and fat positivity. They take it to a whole new level and direct a celebratory approach to the word fat like Summer Michaud-Skog the founder of Fat Girls Hiking who says, “I use fat not only as a description of my body but as a political identity!”
Summer has created a community that embraces bodies of all sizes and abilities. With 22 chapters all over the US and Canada, she spreads the love of the outdoors and scoffs at critics who visualize smaller body types as being the only acceptable ones. Summer has a mission statement that tears down the walls of fat oppression;
“Fat Girls Hiking is fat activism, body liberation & outdoor community. We want to take the shame & stigma out of the word FAT & empower it. Our motto, Trails Not Scales focuses on Self Care in the outdoors. We promote weight-neutrality & Health At Every Size. We want to create a space where fat & marginalized folks can come together & feel comfortable in the outdoors. We are a community where people can access outdoor spaces in a way that meets their needs. We want Fat & marginalized people to be able to claim their space on the trail. We believe in representation for those fat folks, folks of all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, classes, abilities, genders and sexual identities. No diet or weight loss talk or bigotry of any kind is allowed in our online or real-life spaces. Our community is for marginalized folks & allies!”
These hikes are done year-round with different levels of difficulty and ease. Some specifically to include those with mobility limitations. The most important aspect to all of us who hike with Fat Girls Hiking (FGH) is that the chapter ambassador leads the hike from behind this way the slowest of the group has support and encouragement. Not everyone completes a hike but everyone certainly has someone rooting them on no matter the distance. There are FGH events like camping, weekend getaways, meetups at other fat inclusive gatherings and communities. Not only is it a great way to make friends and be active, but it’s a way to experience life as non-fat people do but with support because there is power in numbers. Fatphobic people are less likely to say or do something to a group of fat folks than they are if one of us was alone; like what happens at work, on the street, the grocery store or the mall, etc.
So why do “normal” sized people have such disdain for fat folks? Many use the cover of care or concern for the health and well-being of the “obese”. While others describe a much deeper fuel for what feels like pure disgust and even hatred. Clinical psychologist, Seth Meyer says, “ Most people’s flaws (infidelity, bad temper, etc.) aren’t so apparent, so you have to get to know your average person to actually see his or her flaws. But with fat people, there’s no hiding.” Now the fact that Meyers uses negative comparisons is common because who could possibly be happy being fat? His point may be misguided and lacking perspective since he states being fat as a “flaw” but one point he makes could be key as to why fatphobia even exists. Meyers says.” In therapy with my clients, they are often shocked to find over the course of therapy that their own judgments of others simultaneously reflect the degree to which they also judge themselves…..there appears to be limitless self-judgment out there in the universe, and it’s poisonous because these self-judgers are twice as good at judging-even hating- others for any number of reasons (too fat, too gay, too ethnic and so on).” Simply put the bullied becomes a bully. This is behavior as old as man/woman so what’s the big deal?
Most fat people have been on the end of harsh, painful and even abusive words as a means of “motivation” to lose weight. The concept of a fat person being completely happy, content and even overjoyed to be in their body is something society itself has a hard time grasping. The anonymous blogger Your Fat Friend writes,” Arguably the greatest trick of anti-fat bias is its insistence that — regardless of health, genetics, environment, (dis)ability, or any other factors — thinness and weight loss are universally accomplishments. Even for thin people with disabilities or chronic health issues. Even for thin people who struggle to put on weight. Even for the thin people who can eat whatever I want and never gain a pound. Even cancer patients and others struggling with illness are told that, on the bright side, you look thinner than ever.” Your Fat Friend has article after article written about the social realities while living and identifying as a very fat person and says,” Like you, I’m just trying to exist in a body in this world. Please just allow me that.”
There aren’t statistics to prove how a fat persons mental health improves when treated like a decent human being, but there are plenty of fat activists and community members who are no longer willing to hide in the shadows of societies fatphobia with so many stories of pain as well as triumph. There are a number of us taking to the trails and making our mark. Not to prove anything to society or fatphobic naysayers, but to live and thrive as others do. Fat people get just as much joy and stimulation being outdoors and being active so now with a growing community like Fat Girls Hiking, there is a positive and safe outlet to a world so many felt was off-limits. Nature is for everyone to enjoy and take in. FGH founder Summer says,” Along these trails, the seeds of self and body love begin to bloom……to fall in love with nature is to fall deeper in love with myself.”
Unfortunately, just like racism, homophobia, or sexism, fatphobia will not be eradicated. Us fat people can only hope that our positivity, determination, unity, and celebration of our bodies will continue to show others that we will not back down to discrimination. Our community is very inviting to allies who believe in our equality and support our self-love in the bodies we have embraced. Yes, my formal complaint is that fatphobia exists at all, but the only way to chip away at such a deep seeded bias is to look beyond the body. If you can acknowledge that fat people experience joy and elation on the trails, in the outdoors, and in life than you can eventually see that just because our bodies look different doesn’t make it any less appealing or valuable.
All Photographs by Fat Girls Hiking founder, Summer Michaud-Skog
Michaud-Skog, Summer. “Weight-Loss Comparison Photos Hurt Your Fat Friends.” Fat Girls Hiking, 1 Feb. 2019, fatgirlshiking.com/2019/02/01/weight-loss-comparison-photos-hurt-your-fat-friends/.
Friend, Your Fat. “Who’s Hurt by Being Called ‘Fat’? – Your Fat Friend – Medium.” Medium.com, Medium, 29 Aug. 2018, medium.com/@thefatshadow/whos-hurt-by-being-called-fat-551930bc6989.
Meyers, Seth. “The Psychology of Why People Dislike Or Hate Fat People.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2011, www.psychologytoday