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Fat Phobia:The Persistent Shadow in Our Society and Its Toll on Mental Health

“It was funny, she thought, that people treated her flesh like a public resource, a reservoir for all their insecurities and emotional dysfunction, when it was she who had their insides at her fingertips.”
― Gretchen Felker-Martin, Manhunt

We inhabit a society that is vehemently committed to diversity and inclusion. It’s a progressive move that has been a long time coming. And yet one area in which we continue to stereotype, exclude, and ridicule, is that of our human bodies. Every day we witness the insidious persistence of fat phobia and weight bias.

How?

Think about the messaging we receive on a daily basis around the ideal body and how we are supposed to look:

  • Thin bodies are glorified in media and advertising
  • Discriminatory health and fitness standards
  • Persistent use of the BMI as a measure of healthy weight
  • Biases in clothing sizes and availability.
  • The normalization of diet culture as a moral imperative.
  • Discrimination in healthcare settings, leading to delayed diagnoses, substandard care, and reluctance to seek medical help. Healthcare professionals may attribute all health issues to weight without proper investigation, contributing to a cycle of health inequity.
  • The assumption that weight loss is always beneficial and desired, regardless of the individual’s circumstances or health status.
  • Celebration of weight loss within peer groups.
  • Harmful jokes about people with larger bodies on TV.
  • People in larger bodies in the media portraying characters who are deemed to be miserable and unattractive.

This form of bias isn’t merely about social exclusion or aesthetic preferences; its impacts are profound and far-reaching, affecting every facet of a person’s life. From healthcare disparities and workplace discrimination to the fear of judgment in public spaces, the ramifications of fat phobia have a profound impact on the mental and physical well-being of those targeted.

It’s a societal issue that, despite progress in other areas of discrimination, remains stubbornly ingrained within our cultural fabric. Worse still, it is considered ‘normal.’

The Roots of Fat Phobia

Fat phobia is not a new phenomenon. Its roots can be traced back to various social, economic, and historical factors that have contributed to a widespread negative perception of fatness. According to Dr. Linda Bacon, a leading researcher and author of “Health at Every Size,” the origins of fat phobia can be linked to “a mix of puritanical beliefs, the medicalization of body size, and a diet industry that profits from insecurity.” Dr. Bacon points out that societal standards of beauty and health have long been skewed towards thinness, often ignoring the complex interplay of genetics, environment, and social determinants of health.

The Media’s Role

The media has played a significant role in perpetuating fat phobia through its narrow representation of beauty and success. Images of thin, fit bodies dominate television, magazines, and social media, setting unrealistic standards for the majority of the population. This constant barrage of imagery not only marginalizes those who don’t fit the mold but also stigmatizes fatness as a failure of self-control or lack of discipline. Dr. Sabrina Strings, author of “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” emphasizes how these representations are not just about size but are deeply intertwined with race, class, and gender biases, further complicating the narrative around body size and health.

The Impact on Mental Health

The consequences of living in a society that vilifies a part of its population based on body size are profound. Studies have shown that weight discrimination can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction. The relentless pressure to conform to an ideal body type can drive individuals towards unhealthy behaviors, such as controlled eating, excessive exercise, or avoiding medical care for fear of being judged. Dr. Janet Tomiyama, a psychologist specializing in stress and health, notes, “The stress of experiencing weight stigma has been shown to increase cortisol levels, which can lead to further weight gain and exacerbate the cycle of stigma and discrimination.”

Fat phobia also plays a significant role in the development and perpetuation of eating disorders, creating a vicious cycle of stigma, body dissatisfaction, and harmful behaviors. The societal obsession with thinness and the pervasive fear of gaining weight foster an environment where individuals may feel pressured to engage in extreme dieting, excessive exercise, or disordered eating patterns. This relentless pursuit of an unattainable body ideal can lead to conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders

Fat phobia not only contributes to the onset of eating disorders and other mental health conditions but also complicates recovery by reinforcing shame, guilt, and the internalization of negative body image, making it imperative to address this form of bias in both preventive and therapeutic contexts.

At the very least, our societal obsession with how we look and the endless pursuit for thinness creates feelings of shame, unworthiness and a disconnection from one’s body. Poor body image has become an epidemic that we discount as being normal.

The Path Forward

Combating fatphobia and weight bias requires a multifaceted approach that addresses its deep-seated roots in society and begins with some of the following:

1. Education and awareness. By challenging the stereotypes and myths surrounding fatness and health, we can begin to dismantle the biases that fuel discrimination. If we promote body diversity and inclusivity in media representations, this offers more realistic cultural standards of beauty through a diversity of body types and experiences. It also helps people to have a holistic understanding of health that transcends body size.

2. Healthcare professionals have a critical role to play by adopting a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach, which focuses on improving health behaviors without emphasizing weight loss as the primary goal. This shift in perspective can enhance the doctor-patient relationship, improve health outcomes, and reduce the stigma associated with seeking medical care.

3. On an individual level, cultivating compassion and empathy towards oneself and others is essential. Recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, regardless of body size, can help build a more inclusive and supportive society. If, the next time we notice ourselves judging a person for their body size, we ask ourselves where that judgement comes from and how it would impact that person, we go a long way in changing how we view people’s bodies.

4. Challenge the stereotypical views we have about why some people have larger bodies. The age old assumption is that people are bigger because they are lazy or eat too much. In fact, there are many reasons why people may be living in larger bodies, including the side effects of medications, a thyroid issue, genetics, illness, stress, trauma, and poor quality sleep.

Final Thoughts

Fat phobia is a pervasive issue that continues to affect the mental and physical health of many individuals. Despite the progress made towards inclusivity and diversity, the deep-rooted biases and systemic structures that perpetuate this discrimination remain. By listening to experts, challenging societal norms, looking at our own beliefs, stereotypes and judgements, we can be part of creating a culture of compassion and empathy. Only then can we hope to see a future where fat phobia is a thing of the past and every person is valued and respected for who they are, not judged by the size of their body.

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