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Society insists that laziness makes us fat – now science proves this is baseless bigotry

The reason fatphobia is so pervasive and normalised is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that if a person is fat, it is their fault 

Sirena Bergman
Friday 25 January 2019 14:31 GMT
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Weight loss expert criticised over suggestion fat parents are to blame for childhood obesity

Few people hear the word “fat” and don’t respond with a subconscious visceral reaction. It’s what the bullies shouted at you in school, what the media has always implied you are – or even worse: will become. It’s the food to avoid, or to divide into “good” and “bad” categories and obsess over which to eat and when. It makes you feel guilty, ashamed, defective.

Words which exist to oppress people typically go one of two ways: society either comes to realise the problematic implications of them and they (mostly) fade into oblivion as they become less and less acceptable to use (“retarded”); or the communities affected by the term choose to remove the word’s power by reclaiming it as a point of pride (“queer”).

“Fat” seems to straddle both. It is at once avoided by the mainstream in favour of “overweight” or “large” for fear of seeming offensive, while also used by people – mostly women – in the body positivity movement as a non-judgemental descriptor of size. And yet, it is still used as a derogatory term, because thinness remains the gold standard.

The reason fatphobia is so pervasive and socially normalised is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that if a person is fat, it is their own fault – they’re lazy, lacking in willpower, unhealthy – and we’re doing them a favour by pointing it out. After all, obesity is an epidemic, we’re told. Fat people are a drain on the NHS. They’re more likely to get sick. It’s not just perceived as acceptable to discriminate against them, but even helpful.

Needless to say, this is all misinformed claptrap. Research released today has shown that being thin isn’t in fact a sign of virtue or health, for the most part it’s a genetic predisposition, much like eye colour, hair texture or the size of your feet.

This was the largest study of its kind, undertaken by Cambridge University. Typically, such studies focus on people who are considered “overweight” – a loaded term many people deem to be based on arbitrary judgements. This time, researchers looked at people who were naturally slim, for whom portion sizes and dietary habits are pretty much irrelevant to their size, and found that this was directly linked to their genetic makeup, as opposed to “lifestyle choices”, which are often cited as the cause for obesity.

The medical community has a lot to answer for when it comes to the way we have marginalised fat people. Research has shown that doctors often hold negative attitudes, both explicit and implicit, about people they see as being “overweight”. Endless anecdotal evidence tells of fat people – again, in particular women – having health concerns dismissed as simply a byproduct of their weight, being told to diet and exercise, as opposed to being properly treated.

Yet studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol, while about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy”.

Last year, plus-size model and body positivity activist Tess Holliday was featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan in a swimsuit, and the backlash was immediate. Many men, who presumably have never bought a copy of the magazine in their life, were concerned that it was promoting a “unhealthy body image”. As many argued at the time, men who objectify women are rarely worried about their health, they simply don’t like to be faced with a female body which subverts the ideals they benefit from promoting. As long as women are primarily preoccupied with losing weight, they’re probably not actively working to dismantle the patriarchy. Being hungry has the unsurprising side effect of making your brain work much less effectively.

There is obvious sexist hypocrisy in the anti-Holliday argument, even if we accept the fallacy that fat equals unhealthy: the vast majority of models used on magazine covers and catwalks are medically underweight, yet comments on their visibility are occasional and tepid. Whenever Donald Trump has (actually) ended up on the cover of magazines, no one complains that he’s an unhealthy role model because of his appalling diet and lack of exercise.

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In order to put an end to fatphobia and discrimination, we need to collectively accept that size does not necessarily have any bearing on health. Telling people to lose weight has been proven over and over again to be entirely counterproductive, while helping people to love and accept their bodies is the best way to ensure they treat them well. We also need to get past the idea that size is a sign of morality – thin people are in no way superior to fat people, any more than those with blue eyes, straight hair or small feet are.

Of course, there is a lot of money in making women hate their bodies. The beauty, “fitness” and diet industries – worth hundreds of billions of dollars collectively – thrive on the back of selling impossible beauty standards, and directly associating your proximity to this ideal with happiness and wellbeing. Thinness is a key part of this message. We can only hope that by divorcing size from morality or virtue, this can begin to change.

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