I’m not sure if any of you have noticed this, but some people are fat. These people go shopping, drive cars, go to the gym, go out to dinner, date, and have careers. They’re pretty much normal in every important way with the whole gamut of human thoughts and feelings. Despite being, you know, human, fat folks face a barrage of cruelty and misinformation from multiple fronts. Fat shaming encompasses everything from stares and jeers on the street, to the headless fatties featured in every news story on the so called obesity epidemic, to the never ending comments on the internet about how anyone can lose weight if they would just stop shoving their face full of Cheetos, and everywhere in between.

We live in a culture that has an extraordinarily narrow definition of beauty. It’s so exacting that essentially no actual human being is considered attractive enough to be featured in the media without modification. Pretty much every human body or face that you see in magazines, ads, or online has been altered using technology to appear thinner, smoother, or more toned. These alterations are performed on models who already belong to a very small portion of the population; today’s female models weigh around 23% less than the average American woman and many meet the criteria for eating disorders. The impossible standard that we are all faced with is a huge topic with implications for almost all of our lives. It’s important to keep this context in mind when talking about fat shaming, because it plays a real role in how we both feel about our own bodies and about others. This constant bombardment with impossible images shapes what we view as normal and healthy in a distinctly not normal and unhealthy way.

In addition to having an unrealistic and often unhealthy image of beauty, our culture also loves telling other people what to do, often under the guise of concern. One example of this that runs kind of parallel to fat shaming is slut shaming. In an attempt to control what other people do with their bodies in their own time, we tell women that they need to stop having so much sex because it’s wrong, or they’ll open themselves up for rape, or that they’ll get diseases, or pregnant, or nobody will want to have a real relationship with them, or Vesuvius will erupt and kill us all, etc. While there are plenty of reasons why each of those isn’t particularly true, they still pervade our culture and get pulled out every time somebody wants to shut a woman up.

Fat shaming works in the same way, largely untrue or biased information is bandied about as a reason for removing the humanity from a large group of people. Actual people with hopes, dreams, loves, and losses are reduced to clips of their bodies walking down the street without the most human portion, their faces, showing. Real people are turned into the strawman who does nothing but sip on extra-large shakes while munching their way through entire pizzas. Rather than looking at the reality and complexity of health, we find it easier to ignore the facts and instead practice and even encourage cruelty.

When it comes to health, it’s important that we separate our preconceived notions from the facts. In order to do that, appearance and health need to be divided. It is not possible to look at somebody and know how healthy they are. In the same way that you can’t guess somebody’s education based on their clothing, it’s not possible to determine whether someone has high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. It’s not even possible to determine how physically fit somebody is just based on appearances. Obesity in and of itself does not cause those disease processes, they are often the result of poor diet and a sedentary life style (but there are other causes, genetics for one). It is easy to assume that if diet and activity level are healthy, then it will follow that a person’s fat will simply melt away leaving a runway model. That’s not how it works, though. Multiple studies over many years indicate that diets do not work, often from the very beginning and certainly not over the long term. Even worse, diets can be actively harmful. They can lead to long term patterns of disordered eating and eventually eating disorders, and some diet plans can lead to deficiencies in necessary vitamins and nutrients. In addition, it is possible to exercise and have good cardiovascular fitness without being thin. Disappointingly, many people are discouraged from maintaining healthy life-style practices when they fail to see an accompanying weight loss. By valuing appearance over actual health, our culture encourages unhealthy life styles.

Even more surprising, there may be health advantages to fat. In one study, obese and overweight patients were more likely to survive cardiac treatment, in another, fat subjects were less likely to suffer cardiac death. Yet another study indicated that overweight and obese people live longer than their average weight counterparts. These studies are important, because health is probably the number one reason cited by fat shamers. They don’t want you to think that they’re so coarse as to care about appearance, no, it’s all cloaked in the language of caring.

The truth is that fat shaming is not caring. It is dehumanizing, cruel, and paradoxically utterly ineffective at achieving the goals of those who practice it. It begins on the faulty premise that fat people don’t realize that they are in fact, fat. From there it continues to assume that maybe they are ignorant of diets, despite the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry. It traffics in the idea that making people feel ashamed and saddened by their own bodies will motivate them to change, when evidence indicates that depression and isolation are more likely to lead to weight gain. Maybe worst of all, it implies that it is ok to police somebody else’s body and life, so long as their appearance is distasteful. Shake this up with science gained from news clips, and you have a toxic cocktail of hate.

Let’s take a step back and look at what is true and healthy. Bodies come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and that is not just ok but also really cool. It’s possible to live a healthy, long, active life at any size. The best way to encourage health is not making other people feel bad about themselves, but building healthy communities where a variety of nutritious foods are available all the time, after all, it’s hard to eat well if you live in a food desert without practical transportation. Make exercise something that is possible and enjoyable for everyone. Love your body, no matter how it looks. It may make some people uncomfortable, but that is their problem, not yours. Finally, let’s spread a little more love for every body.

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Lizzy is a feminist, microbiologist, housewife with a penchant for complicated desserts and activism. She resides in the land of cowboys with a terrifying cat, an eccentric corgi and a blonde.


  1. June 4, 2012 at 9:52 pm —

    Interesting article. Definitely agree that people who are overweight can be just as/more healthy than thinner people. In different times, small breasts were considered more attractive than larger ones, and bigger women over thinner, so it is kind of a fashion thing. I would love to see a wider definitions on beauty/more body positive stuff in our culture though. Or just more focus on who you are as a person rather than what you look like… I still think obesity in children can lead to health problems esp since their bodies are still growing. The culture creates the worst problems for kids though, with the psycho-social effects.=( Really annoying that weight loss TV shows-the biggest loser etc, focus on dramatic weight loss, even though since they are exercising they would be gaining muscle as well?

    • June 5, 2012 at 1:44 am —

      I think that you’re totally right that we need to move away from what people look like and focus on who they are. In terms of health, we need to encourage healthy eating habits and active life-styles for everyone, regardless of their appearance. Shows like The Biggest Loser are the exact opposite of that. The contestants undergo some very unhealthy things in their attempts to lose weight, things like crash dieting and abuse of laxatives and diuretics. TV shows that focus on weight loss almost never do it in a healthy manner because they are all about meeting an arbitrary standard of beauty. Posting dramatic before and after cholesterol numbers doesn’t have the same impact of before and after body photos.

      • June 5, 2012 at 2:39 am —

        Definitely…I don’t understand who even likes those shows…It’s kind of interesting that there are all of these cooking shows, and then these sadistic/masochistic weight loss shows one after the other! (Im in NZ and we only really have 4 main channels). Pretty unhealthy relationship with food-love/hate thing, which is not good! Don’t get me started on Toddlers and tiaras, or any of those plastic surgery competitions…Reality TV is played way too much here, I guess because it is cheap to make? I have thrown away my TV and just watch stuff on the internet/read now. Feels good. 😀

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