Jennifer Lee from Victoria University confronts commonly held stereotypes of overweight people.
By Jennifer Lee, Victoria University
Fatty, go on a diet. Hey doggie, you can do it – you can make it up that hill. Girls are so fat these days, it's disgraceful – in my day, we watched our weight. You're beautiful, but you'd be even more beautiful if you just lost some weight.
If I listed all the insults, I'd fill a page. I note them here to show that fat prejudice is rife in Australia. Sometimes it is women who look over their glasses and direct their eyes up and down my body in shops where they don't stock anything over size fourteen. My left-wing, friendly and kind GP says, “You're bigger than you were last time so it's harder for me to get this in place,” as an apology for groping around during a pap smear – an apology that blames my body for her less-than-perfect technique.
That's a subtle example, because I try to choose my medical professionals carefully to avoid the standard fat prejudice. It demonstrates that sometimes we are hit with fat prejudice in the most vulnerable or intimate situations. Why aren't medical students trained to deal with fat bodies? Why isn't medical equipment generally made for different kinds of bodies – fat ones included? Fat people are sent constant messages that they are wrong, that they need to change, that the world around them is fine and doesn't need to cater for them.
I know what some readers are thinking: “You're wrong. Lose weight. You can control your weight. Why should we cater for you? I'm not fat, why are you?”
In other words, if you're fat, you're not acceptable as you are. You're a second-class citizen. You don't deserve the same rights a thin person has. Does this remind you of anything? It reminds me of what we call prejudice. Is it the same as prejudice against queers, people of colour, the disabled? Not exactly – all prejudice is different. But we can draw some parallels. Large institutions (the government, media, medical associations) are trying to turn us all thin. They are fostering internalised fat hatred in an attempt to control bodies, and in the process they are authorising others' hatred and abuse.
So why call myself “fat” or align myself with “porko” or the other terms I've had hurled at me? The fat community has taken “fat” on, treating the word as a neutral descriptor in order to reclaim it and reduce its power as a negative. “Overweight” carries an inherent judgement: “over”, above what you should be, thus the implication of a particular normal weight. Obesity is derived from the Latin obesus (“having eaten until fat”) which directly – and problematically – correlates obesity with overeating.
I am fat. Not fetishised hourglass fat, but fatty-fat-fat-fat. I am 174 centimetres tall and I weigh about 135 kilograms. I am not on a diet. I am not trying to lose weight. I eat green vegetables most nights but I also eat potato chips and drink beer sometimes without feeling morally reprehensible. If you're judging me, should I lift my value as a citizen by saying that I don't smoke and I also go to the gym regularly, and that I am a member of Aquaporko, a fat synchronised swimming team? Does my rating drop again when I say that I do none of that with weight loss in mind?
Should I worry about what I might cost Medicare in years to come? The government and media tell us that obesity will cost taxpayers A$58bn per year (though a 2008 estimate by leading actuary Geoff Dunsford was A$8 billion). Whatever the figures, they're being manipulated, because “obesity” costs reflect the impact of heart disease and diabetes – and thin people get these, too. The figures are also based on assumed correlations and fail to consider the possible unmeasured costs resulting from a weight focus and anti-fat messages, such as weight cycling, responses to fat stigma and associated mental health issues related to oppression and discrimination, and the possible development of chronic dieting and eating disorders.
In 2008, Melbourne's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute released a report entitled Australia's Future Fat Bomb that declared Australia to be the fattest nation in the world, a claim based on a rather dubious collection of data from 14,000 Australians. When you Google “fattest country”, the results show articles claiming that title for the United States, Australia and Mexico. Likewise, Germany, Malta, Greece and Britain have all been labelled the fattest nations in Europe. Not all those claims can be right. Often, the statistics are not collected with rigour, and data is also manipulated. So why inflate statistics, why create panic? These are the questions we should be asking.
I'm asking for readers to look beyond what they've been told about fat all their lives. It isn't uncommon for us to blindly accept long-held beliefs. Margaret Heffernan researches the ways people are faithful to their favourite ideas even when faced with hard evidence that disproves those ideas. She argues that our brains treat information that challenges our treasured beliefs differently:
“Cases of wilful blindness aren't about hindsight. They feature contemporaneous information that was available but ignored. While it is tempting to pillory individual villains, the causes are more often systemic and cultural. There are many reasons – psychological, social and structural – why we don't see what we most need to notice.”
I expect many readers disagree with what I say about weight and fat, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. Check your knee – is it jerking?
The fat acceptance movement doesn't claim that there is no correlation between weight and health, but it does highlight when those claims are grossly exaggerated at the expense of shaming fat people, neglecting other aspects of health such as stress, sleep, mental health and balanced eating (not starvation for weight loss). Being classified “obese” often gets you a different diagnosis or treatment than someone in the “normal” weight range. A side effect is that thin people are assumed to be healthy whether they eat well and exercise or not, and so may not get the medical tests or attention they need.
In their 2011 paper, Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift, Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor discuss the major evidence relating to health and “obesity”. They found that “the most comprehensive review of the research pooled data for over 350,000 subjects from 26 studies and found overweight to be associated with greater longevity than normal weight”. For those over fifty-five, the evidence shows that being in the overweight or obese categories decreases the risk of death. These are the results that generally don't get reported by the media.
You can see the victims of the obesity panic and the fat hatred – women, even feminists, constantly restricting what they eat to fulfil an aesthetic ideal or false notion of health. I know socialist feminists who don't shave their legs yet count calories. There are plenty of fat people who aren't victims, who may or may not eat well, exercise enough or be “healthy”, but who accept or celebrate their bodies. And there are thin women who think they're fat and hate their bodies. Fat hatred is not confined to those who are actually fat. The self-loathing is a human rights issue; it is a reaction to anti-fat messages and weight-loss campaigns.
While men undoubtedly suffer from anti-fat messages, women are still valued for their beauty first and are socialised accordingly, which perhaps explains why the majority of fat activists are women. Yet I believe that the group most at risk from anti-fat messages is children. Across the globe there is a possible correlation between “obesity epidemic” policies and an increase in child and adolescent eating disorders. The 2012 report of a survey conducted by the CS Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan notes:
“the rising prevalence of eating disorders – and the trend of seeing these disorders more often among younger children – raises concerns that some obesity prevention initiatives may inadvertently promote an unhealthy anxiety about eating or weight among certain children”.
The initiatives that are implemented at schools include height-weight measurements, increased physical activity, nutritional education and limits on sweets or “junk food”.
Encouraging increased physical activity can be positive if various options are offered and if the activity is not always competitive and skill-based. Providing a range of food, including highly nutritious items and a smaller number of “junk” options, is not a problem. But when the focus of the activities is weight loss, restriction, regulation and forced change – and not just health – it becomes something else. The “healthy” messages are muddied by the weight loss messages. Fat children are learning that they are not okay as they are, and they often take extreme measures to gain approval – to become thin at any cost.
In Australia, there is an absence of published quantitative research on the link between obesity messages and unhealthy eating behaviours in children. Nonetheless, Professor Susan Sawyer, chair of adolescent health at the Royal Children's Hospital, says,
“These adolescents have anorexia nervosa in terms of how unwell they are, the distorted body image and the amount of weight loss, but they are at normal weight. This is very new.”
These medical professionals are at the front line and, while this isn't hard evidence, it is important to investigate the causes of this “new” eating disorder. The long-term effects of a widespread anti-obesity campaign haven't been measured. Yet, while some medical professionals are suggesting less extreme anti-obesity campaigns, they are still advocating surveillance and measurement of weight, and are unwilling to consider Health at Every Size (HAES) principles.
HAES proposes size acceptance as opposed to weight loss. It encourages people to use hunger and satiety, individual nutritional needs, and enjoyment to regulate their eating, and it discourages external dietary restriction. HAES advocates don't discourage weight loss but they challenge intentional weight loss as a goal and promote the long-term focus on healthy behaviours whether that means losing or gaining weight. Critics argue that such an approach will lead people to eat uncontrollably and gain weight. However, Bacon and Aphramor show that this has been disproved by successful HAES programs:
“HAES research shows that by learning to value their bodies as they are right now, even when this differs from a desired weight or shape or generates ambivalent feelings, people strengthen their ability to take care of themselves and sustain improvements in health behaviours.”
The removal of food restriction usually results in more balanced eating, with less guilt and anxiety. When I refer to food restriction I'm not just talking about the negative effects of fanatical restrictive diets – I'm also talking about the negative effects of food restriction for the purpose of weight loss. None of these HAES programs has resulted in weight gain, and all studies have shown improved eating behaviours. As Deb Burgand discusses, while HAES may or may not lead to weight loss (that's not the point of it), dieting, and even what is referred to as “healthy” food restriction, is proven to result in weight gain over time in most people.
I was put on my first diet at eight years of age, and I dieted on and off until I was twenty-eight. The only thing that food restriction did was to enhance my shame and cause a twenty-year diet-binge eating problem that took five years to rectify. The millions of women who diet or engage in “life-style changes” (that is, food restriction) for the purpose of intentional weight loss and then put all the weight back on – are they all inadequate? Are they all to blame for being weak and lacking discipline? The flourishing diet industry is the evidence that women don't blame the diets for failing them.
The medical profession's insistence on an intentional weight loss focus, as opposed to a HAES approach, demonstrates the expectation that long-term weight loss is possible and, therefore, that it's your own fault if you don't lose weight and keep it off. Yet the Women's Health Initiative conducted the world's largest controlled diet clinical trial, and found that 20,000 women who maintained a low-fat diet and increased their physical activity for seven years lost only an average of 0.4 kilograms.
The director of the University of Melbourne's Obesity Consortium, Professor Joseph Proietto, rightly argues that diet and exercise do not often reduce weight in the long term. But he also argues that weight-loss surgery is a good response:
“Finally, we must help the long-suffering obese in their struggle to maintain a reduced weight. In the absence of safe, effective pharmacological agents that can be used long-term, bariatric surgery is the most successful intervention for sustained weight loss. Why is it not more often conducted in public hospitals?
However, Proietto doesn't disclose the horrific side effects. A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 4.6% of people who underwent bariatric surgery died within a year. Complications of weight-loss surgery are outlined in Linda Bacon's Health at Every Size: anaemia, arthritis, body secretions, cancer, chest pain and erosion of teeth enamel from vomiting, depression, early onset of diabetes, hair loss, infertility, malnutrition and … wait for it … weight regain.
Still, in some moments I do find myself wishing I were thin. But I catch myself and think, “Why do you want to be thin in this moment?” The answer is inevitably about thin privilege. If fat was the sought-after attractive body in the media, if doctors separated fat from disease, if big clothes sizes were available everywhere, would I ever want to be thin?
When I speak about thin privilege, I am talking about the advantages that thin people in Western culture experience, such as being assumed healthy and having a wide array of clothes available, as well as a body that aligns with dominant ideas of what is attractive. It's time to acknowledge thin privilege the way the Left has acknowledged white privilege, class privilege or straight privilege. As a white middle-class person, albeit with working-class roots, it is worth noting here that I can't speak for all fat women, and I have barely been able to touch on the prejudice that fat people of colour experience.
Considering the multi-billion-dollar diet and “health” industries that profit from fat hatred, it's ironic that the Left has, at times, used the fat body to symbolise capitalist excess. We are not a metaphor. Please stop using us as one. The reason people have successfully used “fat” as an insult is because of all the other words people think fat means: lazy, sloppy, stupid, undisciplined, greedy. Replace “fat” with “black” and how do you feel about these long-held assumptions?
Despite addressing the assumptions that are made about “obesity” and health, it is not my overall purpose to explain all the reasons someone might be fat. Nor is it to justify the existence of fat people who are healthy at the expense of those who are not. Nobody should be judged for being fat or for being unhealthy. There are some fat people who aren't healthy – that doesn't give other people the right to judge those people. The idea that we should all be thin, as if we were cut out of the same mould and have the same genes, is like a dystopia: a vision of a society where we all look the same, perhaps with different coloured skin. The Left has stood up to that kind of homogenisation in the past and recognised it as prejudice.
This might be the first time that some readers have thought about fat prejudice, although if you live your life as fat, you don't need to be told about the stigma. In fact, you might have been trying to change yourself to avoid bigotry. But there are alternative ways to respond to fat prejudice: fat acceptance and fat activism.
There is a strong fat social media presence in Australia, and the local fat activist movement has grown and grown over the last two years, largely due to a few highly dedicated activists. While Australia doesn't have a long history of fat activism, there is documented fat activity in the US from 1967. In 2011, UK fat activist and writer Charlotte Cooper published A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline Zine, which explores the long history of fat activism in the queer community. Fat acceptance groups exist in many other countries, including France, Germany, Spain, Canada and Argentina.
There are different approaches to fat activism, from community building and trying to change fat people's attitudes towards their own bodies, to changing institutional policies and getting voices heard in the media.
Jackie Wykes, a University of Melbourne PhD candidate in Fat Studies, formed the umbrella collective Chub Republic in 2011. She stresses that fat activities and events in Melbourne are very much a collective effort. One of the Chub Republic groups is the Melbourne branch of Aquaporko, which Jackie formed after hearing members of the original Sydney group speak at the first Australian Fat Studies conference at Macquarie University. According to Wykes,
“Aquaporko is intrinsically political. It's about visibility – a group of fat women in flowery bathing caps doing synchronised kicks in the pool is pretty unmissable. It's also about movement and strength and physical skill and learning that our bodies – which we're told over and over again are weak and flawed and pathetic – are actually capable. That we can do things that are physically difficult, and that we can do them in a way that is beautiful and elegant and fun and wonderful.”
My first public fat activism action was to co-curate a 2010 performance event and art exhibition in conjunction with the Macquarie conference and Sydney activist group Fat Femme Front. We exhibited fat art, including nudes, and had a range of performers from Australia and New Zealand. It sold out, and I realised the need for more fat voices to be heard. Then I co-organised a reading event at the 2011 Midsumma Festival called Dangerous Curves Ahead, which again sold out. Bringing fat events to the queer community has led to my conclusion that being fat, and embracing being fat, can be seen as being queer. While I encourage the Left to take fat on as an issue, I especially encourage queer groups to recognise fat prejudice as body policing – something with which the queer community is historically very familiar.
There is an explosion of fat activity in Melbourne at the moment. Amy Espeseth of Vignette Press has commissioned Wykes and me to edit Fat Mook, a “magazine-book” to be published in the next year. Funding and publishing a collection of fat images and narratives is another form of fat activism – it's empowering to the artists and writers (and to the fat readers who don't often read or see positive representations of themselves in print) and perhaps educational to a wider audience. I also convene the Victoria University Fat Studies reading group. This is open to academics and students from any university, as well as members of the fat community.
Kelli Jean Drinkwater, a Sydney fat activist and performer, is making a documentary, Fierce Flesh, about fat activity and activism. In New Zealand, Dr Cat Pausé presents the radio show/podcast Friend of Marilyn, and in 2012 she is hosting a Fat Studies conference at New Zealand's Massey University.
In her keynote at the 2010 Macquarie University Fat Studies conference, Charlotte Cooper spoke of fat people wearing bright, tight-fitting clothes and eating ice-creams in public as fat activism. She's right that these activities can be challenging, although being born and bred in Melbourne I naturally wear a lot of black. I'm a feminist so I think choice is important, and fat people don't always get to choose their clothes freely because of what is available. For this reason, Wykes also co-organises fat fashion swaps – the Fabulous Fatshion Extravaganza. She says,
“Caring about fashion is often dismissed as shallow, but it's actually incredibly important. How we dress signifies all sorts of things about identity, sexuality, and culture, about who we think we are … And it's a powerful experience to be in a space full of all sorts of fat bodies, especially when you don't often get to see other bodies like yours.”
Viewing positive images of other fat bodies helps to normalise and celebrate bodies that have been pathologised. Nonetheless, as Australian Fat Studies scholar Dr Samantha Murray argues, changing your mind about your body is not a simple task. Fat activism doesn't necessarily “solve” the complex relationship that individuals have with our bodies. But it can give us a sense of community, draw other fat people to shift their views of the fat body and provide an alternate narrative to a society bombarded with the “obesity epidemic”.
What am I demanding of left-wing people, of feminists? This is a call to action. What would we call victory? For people to question the anti-fat messages they receive from the media, from medical professionals, from government policies. All those experts can't be wrong, can they? Yes. Yes, they can – and they are.
What do I want from fat activism? All the activities I have so far described are incredibly important. What else do I want? Deep down, I want all the privileges that thin people have.
I want fat prejudice and stigma to be recognised. At the very least I want left-wing friends, feminist friends, to stop talking about diets and accepting the status quo. I want it not to be assumed that I would like to lose weight; that all fat people want to disappear and become thin, like we're told to. I want it not to be okay to tell people to lose weight in the mainstream Australian media, the way it's (usually) not okay anymore to say that gays and lesbians are perverted and should change and choose to be straight. Of course racism in the media is still rife – we see it levelled at Indigenous people and asylum seekers all the time. But the Left does not think that is okay. Do you think fat hatred is okay?
I'd like to say I enjoy explaining my position to educated, intelligent, politically aware lefties over and over, at events, at work, at parties. But I don't really – especially when I keep hearing: “Oh, but weight loss is healthy”. There's a long conversation, or many conversations, between that and fat acceptance. Maybe more words than this article can provide. Maybe all the sources I've referred to will help. Follow them up.
This is a big fat battle – let's fight.
This article was originally published in the literary and cultural magazine, Overland.
Jennifer Lee does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.