Big-boned, pudgy, jolly, chubby, large…

Deconstructing our fat-phobia

Fat. Fat fat fat. Fat fat. FAT. “Fat” is descriptive. “Fat” has the potential to be empowering. “Fat” can be anyone. “Fat” is definitely and inescapably some.

Hearing “fat” that many times in a row can be shocking. The way we silence this word, how we strenuously avoid saying it, is so profound that I can feel its dead weight in the pit of my stomach. When someone sees a person of size, “fat” hangs on the tip of their tongue, in the back of their mind. People attempt to replace the word with euphemisms, but because “fat” still hangs in the air around them, they can’t dispel its pressure. You’ve heard them all: big(ger), large(r), overweight, (kinda) chubby, curvy, heavy(-set), big-boned. Fat. This is the rhetoric of progressive folks concerned, at least in theory, with body-size oppression. It is also a sanitized version of fat-phobia. In this case, the censoring of a loaded word also indicates the failure to address the reality it describes.

When society brands greed, over-consumption, and depravity onto fat bodies, fat people become the non-consenting representatives of the ills of an “affluent” society. When fat comes to figure as something that’s wrong – with a culture, with a people, with our bodies, with our habits – it becomes something to be rectified. And when its cure – thinness – becomes a commodity, you better bet your sweet ass that “fat as object” will eclipse “fat as lived experience.” “Fat” as a thing allows it to be shaved away, diagnosed, pathologized, detested, deemed immoral and excessive. In one fell swoop, millions of people get erased and dehumanized.

Fatness is increasingly understood as a virulent epidemic plaguing North Americans. If you’re fat, you better lose weight, and if you’re thin, you better watch your weight. But why the strong focus on shrinking our bodies to fit a narrow ideal? Right, it’s that life-extending and life-improving equation: “thin equals healthy.” The well-intentioned innocence of this claim needs some doctoring with a good dose of contextualization.

Let’s talk about fat, baby.

Fat? Say goodbye to societal acceptance of horizontal stripes, tight clothes, bright colours, and baby-tees on your bod. Fat? Say hello to the disregard, discrimination, and misdiagnoses of health professionals who locate your health problems in your fat. Fat? Say hello to the same qualities being treated as incidental behaviour in thin people but as essential to your and other fat people’s characters. Fat? Say goodbye to stores that carry your size, chairs that fit your body, and planes that only charge you for one ticket. Fat? Say hello to the moralizing impositions of every-fucking-random-person-ever concerning the way you eat, dress, move about, think of yourself, and live. Fat? Say hello to being the poster child and target of a $45-billion industry that calls for the elimination of large sections of your body all in the name of “health.” Fat? Say goodbye to being thought of as normal, healthy, active, and intelligent upon first glance. Fat? Say hello to being pathologized, culturally desexualized, ridiculed, and sentenced to an early death.

The problem here is not fatness, nor is it fat people. The problem is a society steeped in fat-phobia and sizeism. It is a society that prefers to turn a profit off the “uncontainable” bodies of millions, rather than challenge the institutional, systemic, and cultural disparagement, fear, and erasure of fat people.

An oft-repeated phrase in the fat acceptance movement is “correlation does not imply causation.” Fatness and unhealthiness may be associated, but they should not be conflated. When fat stands in for unhealthy, yo-yo dieting, Weight Watchers, and weight-loss surgery follow. These “health-improving” (read: size-reducing) tactics have proven to be harmful and ineffective in the long run for the majority of people. Our focus needs to shift away from the rabid consumption of our physical, emotional, and mental energy in a wasted effort to get thin and toward the possibility of good (and bad) health at every size. To be sure, the parameters of someone’s size are largely genetically determined. Instead of scapegoating fat people, we need to turn our lens to profit motives as they manifest in and perpetuate a context of fat discrimination. There’s at least one thing that’s good about being thin: not having to deal with the heart-attack-inducing stress that comes from being fat in a fat-hating society.

Lisa M writes in this space every other week. Write her at