There was a time I gave all my power to food to lose weight. I was terrified of weight gain and obsessed with the scale. I counted calories like my life depended on it and found myself preoccupied with food. I scrutinized my body. I noticed personal weight gain and even tiny amounts of weight gain in other people. Despite my thin privilege, I still wanted to lose weight.
I was a fatphobe.
A fatphobe is defined as a person who fears or has a negative perception of fat people and/or fatness.
Here’s the thing. I was not consciously walking around spewing insults to fat people. I was not cracking fat jokes or intentionally shaming people for their body shape or size.
But I did actively support diet culture. And by doing so, I was supporting the oppression of larger bodied people.
Let’s Stop Pretending
If you’re trying to lose weight, there’s a part of you that’s fat-phobic.
And you know what? You’re not a bad person for wanting to lose weight. You get one free pass. Why? Because we were all taught to fear weight. We grew up surrounded by weight stigma and weight discrimination and didn’t really question it. The “Obesity Epidemic” was something our teachers taught us about in health class with the same fearful, panicked tone as the section about unprotected sex. Lol.
But now we’ve been educated. We’re aware. We know fat-phobia exists and that it’s dangerous to health. To dismantle it, we can start by looking for where it shows up within ourselves.
According to the Christy Harrison, an anti-diet dietitian and the creator of the Food Psych podcast:
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
1. Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue
2. Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status,
3. Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others,
4. Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health”
Notice Why You’re Clinging to Your Diet
And now that I’m calling everyone (including myself) out, I know there will be a bunch of people stewing in anger at the idea that their diet isn’t making them a better person. In fact, you might be coming up with all these reasons why you adore your “healthy lifestyle.” Perhaps you hear yourself arguing that you choose to diet because you value self-improvement and health. It has *absolutely nothing* to do with fat-phobia. (Of course not)!
However, by using this particular response to justify your weight loss, you’re buying into two of of the most dogmatic, fat-phobic beliefs of diet culture which tell us size is always indicator of health and that the smaller you are the better person you are.
Let’s not forget that there several larger-bodied people out there who have achieved an outstanding level of athleticism and health without shedding pounds to do so. Lizzo and Ragen Chastain are examples of this.
The self-improvement comment I hear many dieters claim is also tied to a sense of morality and virtue which falsely presupposes that larger bodies can and should be improved. It also implies fatness is wrong, connecting size to being “good” or “bad.”
Notice the Subtle Ways You Perpetuate The Problem
And if you need more concrete examples, here are a few examples of fat-phobia that appear harmless to the untrained eye:
Do you typically order the house salad with dressing on the side because you’re afraid of the fat content in the french fries?
Do you usually go to the gym to feel better and have fun, or do you go to “work off” the extra cookie you had after dinner?
Do you typically buy the black cardigan/sweater/dress/pants etc. because somewhere along the line someone told you “black is slimming”?
Do you post before and after photos of your weight loss journey on social media?
Do you assume all weight gain is due to laziness and inactivity?
Do you turn down dates or social events because you don’t feel like your body is “where you want it to be right now?”
Do you suck in your tummy and/or pose with the “skinny arm” in photos?
When people refer to themselves as fat, do you immediately try to make them feel better as if they just put themselves down?
Do you feel “pissed” at one of your coworkers for “ruining all your hard work” by leaving a box of cookies in the break room?
Do you suggest unsolicited diet plans and work-outs to people who have recently gained weight?
If you notice that you do these things, you are either consciously or unconsciously participating in diet culture. And when you think of it, that means you’re perpetuating a backward, hateful, non-progressive system that alienates certain people who are just living their lives with the bodies they were given.
Is your Lifestyle Just Fat-phobia in Disguise?
To be honest, I wasn’t aware of how psychologically damaging fat-phobia could be to myself and others. Of course I didn’t call it fat-phobia at the time. It was disguised as an intense interest in health, which was motivated by my selfish need to feel elite (which in my interpretation of the world at that time, meant skinny).
The pervasiveness of diet culture made me believe my food obsession and fear of weight gain was just a part of life. I was mindlessly restricting my food to achieve an impossible ideal.
Before I knew it, I was neck-deep in an eating disorder that took several years to battle away. This is why I’m so passionate about the subject. Yes, I’ve lived with thin privilege my entire life. And no, I don’t know what it’s like to live in a larger body. But I do know on a very personal level the dangers of fat-phobia.
My experience with recovery was a crash course on body acceptance and the harsh reality that my “ideal” body size can not be sustainably controlled.
A Harsh Reality
Here’s the truth: your body size will land where your genetics tell it to be. No matter how hard you try, you cannot outsmart your body forever. Living below your set-point (the weight range your body is programmed to function optimally) is not sustainable. Science supports this. In a content review conducted by the Psychology of Eating, researchers discovered that out of all random controlled studies of weight loss programs, the majority of people who lost weight during the initial 12 months of the program regained all but 2.1 pounds of the lost weight back within 2–5 years (APA.com).
So what does this tell us? Diet programs promise a false dream and feed off of our hope for a “better life.” And the sooner we all take that on as a universal truth the sooner we’ll all start to see diet culture for what it is: A lie.
Fat-phobia Doesn’t Come From Within
If you find yourself struggling to accept your body and the way you eat, it’s time to ask yourself: Would I be suffering with body dissatisfaction or forcing myself to be vigilant around food if I lived on a deserted island?
In other words, if diet culture wasn’t constantly breathing down your neck, would you still feel broken? Would you still feel compelled to change your body? I bet not. Nobody worried about size diversity until western media decided it was wrong. Take what happened in Fiji, for example.
In 1982, Harvard Med School psychologist Anne E. Becker traveled to Fiji for a summer of anthropological fieldwork. She observed how “Fijians appreciate large, robust bodies” as it was a sign of prosperity related to food abundance. This, of course, was before western television was introduced to the island.
By 1998, television, along with western soap operas and sexy advertisements had been introduced to Fiji. An with it, came a sudden increase in body dissatisfaction and a need to lose weight. By then, 11.3% of Fijian adolescents reported purging at least once to lose weight. (Source)
What does this tell us? Media and diet culture is what makes us believe we need to change. Without it, we would probably be content with the bodies we’ve been given. Western media and beauty standards have inflicted our minds with a fat-phobic plague.
And to reiterate, if diet culture diet didn’t exist, would you really want to change the way you look?
Most dieters are extrinsically motivated to loose weight. Weight loss is connected to belonging and a need to be treated with the same level of human decency as thin people. It is a natural human desire to feel connected and want to create a sense of belonging for yourself. This is what makes dreams of weight loss so difficult to let go.
According to Verywellmind:
Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise. This type of motivation arises from outside the individual.
It may be useful to ask yourself what motivates you to diet and exercise? Is it due to pure enjoyment from within, (intrinsic motivation) or is it due to external factors such as your need for social acceptance, praise, status or increasing your perceived level of attractiveness?
More so, is there any part of you that objects this incessant need to lose weight? Listen to that part. Perhaps that part sometimes wonders: Aren’t I just fine the way I am? There’s wisdom in that thought.
For Chronic Dieters, the Best Option for Self Improvement Dwells in Acceptance
Unlearning diet culture and deeply rooted fat-phobia take work. It can be a confusing, painstaking process.
For me, body acceptance came when I let go of the body standards and ideals I forced upon myself. There was suddenly a point in time in which my food obsession was no longer worth being thin. I would rather have food freedom than a perfect body. I gave up control. I accepted my lack of control around food. Learning to trust my body again was like learning to walk again.
And, it’s important to note that you need to accept the fact that when you stop dieting, your body will most likely change. Probably the most difficult part about un-dieting is accepting that in doing so, you will have to constantly accept a new body over and over again until you reach a set-point range that your body naturally exists within.
This acceptance is crucial on several plains within yourself and the outside world. And although it may be difficult to accept, you must be willing to accept that your fatness and the fatness of other people is allowed. You must also be willing to accept that maybe your diet has been holding you back from living a fully present life, and that perhaps life will not improve if you lose weight. There is no perfect route to changing your mindset on this, but with willingness to see an alternative to the life you’ve always believed in, you might be able to experience a shift.
And above all, we must collectively accept that beauty, joy and health comes in varying forms.