“Intentional weight loss is fatphobic”: Let’s discuss
I'm a woman who lost a lot of weight. I've got some thoughts on fatphobia.
A TikTok creator with more than 5 million followers posted recently about his significant weight loss. Comments and response videos called him “fatphobic” and said he was “praising thinness.”
This happens a lot, often with celebrities. The ideas that losing weight necessarily “praises thinness,” or that a person’s own weight loss definitely suggests only a fear or hatred of fat itself, pop up all over Twitter and TikTok. As Ashlee Marie Preston writes, “the threat of being exiled to social Siberia for losing weight is real.”
Fatphobia–which some fat activists don’t use for reasons Aubrey Gordon describes here–is absolutely a concept worth examining: Why are people repulsed by fatness? What are fatphobia’s racial origins? What does this fear and hate do to us? Can we undo it?
To me, these accusations of fatphobia presume that some of us have it (the bad ones) and some of us don’t (the good ones). But in “The Fat Studies Reader,” fat activist Marilyn Wann writes:
“Every person who lives in a fat-hating culture inevitably absorbs anti-fat beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes, and also inevitably comes to occupy a position in relation to power arrangements that are based on weight. None of us can ever hope to be completely free of such training or completely disentangled from the power grid.”
I used to be fat. The question for me isn’t: “Am I fatphobic because I intentionally lost weight?” It’s: “I intentionally lost weight. What do I do with my internalized fatphobia now?”
“That outcome will depend on how you conduct yourself afterwards”
Regarding “intentionally,” let me be clear: Part of my binge eating disorder recovery was the recognition that I’d gained weight because I was abusing myself with food. I didn’t want to lose weight just to be smaller, but I eventually could no longer accept the signifier of my abuse. I have trouble with “intentional weight loss is fatphobic” because for people who have eating disorders, it might not be so cut and dried.
Recovery can be about so much more than weight loss, but reversing the effects of this abuse can be part of it. That might be different from intentional weight loss that’s solely about wanting to be thin, but I understand that impulse, too–as explained in this tweet thread: “...society is fatphobic, we are marinated in antifatness, and fat people get treated like shit. The overwhelming majority are [losing weight] for access to social currency that thinness offers.” Was part of me hoping to heal from a deeply personal mental issue? Yes. Was part of me also hoping that by losing weight, men wouldn’t yell “fat bitch” at me on the street anymore? Absolutely.
People lose weight (just as they gain it) for all kinds of reasons. Though nuance and complexity in our bodily discourse is difficult, I don’t think the shortcut is a rule that it’s always fatphobia and nothing else.
What, though, do we do with the fatphobia that is there?
Writer Lesley Kinzel mentions something in a piece about weight loss surgery that rings true:
“Still, body autonomy is paramount to fat acceptance. We cannot ask the world to affirm our right to conduct our bodies as we wish if we cannot offer the same affirmation to everyone else. If you want surgery, you get to have it. That does not mean you still get to participate in or be embraced by fat acceptance communities — although it doesn’t mean you will be excommunicated either. That outcome will depend on how you conduct yourself afterwards.”
I haven’t had weight loss surgery, but I lost around 70 pounds several years ago. I’ve conducted myself clumsily. I’ve posted a before-and-after weight loss photo that might have contributed to some nasty body-image feelings for myself and others. I told a story about my weight loss in 2016 and said one of my biggest fears was that someone would look at me now and think I “still look kind of fat.” What a terrible thing to say. What a terrible way to feel. But I’m human, and I felt it.
I fear–more like “worry for”–myself as fat because I only know the concept of a “fat me” as a person in pain. I don’t want to go back to when I was in pain. Would I fear a fat me now, if my fatness wasn’t connected to bingeing and abuse? Maybe less so, but probably. I’m entangled in that power grid. I felt bad when I was fat and I don’t feel bad now; there’s more to it than that, but I’m not sure my lizard brain can quite un-ring that bell.
Roxane Gay has said: “I don’t want to pretend that I’m OK with [my body], and it’s not judging anyone else. It’s just that I know the realities of living in my body.”
“If you’re not directly impacted by the oppression you’re combatting, you just have to stay in your lane”
In the TikTok I linked above, the speaker says: “It’s really important that if you still go through with intentional weight loss that you don’t sacrifice fat liberation politics, because otherwise it’s still just fatphobia, even if you’re doing it for your mental health and accessibility.”
This raises the question of who is able to do that.
Activist Lindley Ashline writes that fat liberation “is the deliberate work of tearing down the systems that have created a world where fat people are denied full participation in society and life, from apparel to healthcare.”
And in her history of fat liberation, Sarah Simon writes: “Engaging in fat liberation is the same as engaging in any political movement; if you’re not directly impacted by the oppression you’re combatting, you just have to stay in your lane and be keyed in enough to know when it’s appropriate to step up and when to step back.”
I’ve experienced anti-fatness slung at me from family members, doctors, and strangers (and: I wasn’t that fat. I was “small fat”). I’m not fat anymore, so what’s my lane? Maybe only these: the language I use about myself, and the fitness industry that employs me.
This is not the boots-on-the-ground work of fat liberation, but it’s how I conduct myself as someone who understands what it’s like to be fat: I don’t talk about my “old” self with disgust or embarrassment. I try to encourage self-compassion when people talk about themselves this way (“Hey, be nice to yourself, you’re human” is the best I’ve got). Someone at work once was saying that in college they weighed “like 140 pounds. I was huge, oh my god, I was just like, ugh.” My god, 140 pounds, can you fucking imagine! People in the room–most of whom, including me, clearly weighed 140 pounds or more–squirmed, and I swallowed my bile and said we shouldn’t talk about weight at work. Obviously.
At the gym, it’s very important to me to discourage this kind of body bashing. People bring it with them to my cycling class with it all the time. I never talk about earning the beach bodies or attacking the fat or working off the snacks. I am invested in making the gym a more welcoming and accepting space for all bodies. I discussed this in response to SELF’s “The Future of Fitness” issue here.
This isn’t “yay for me” testimony–these are examples of the kinds of things we might do, whether we’ve been fat or not, to put everyone at ease where bodies are concerned. This is the bare minimum. This is self-kindness in a society that capitalizes on self-loathing. Maybe that’s as far as the action can go for some of us. Maybe that’s a start.
I’m not an authority on fat acceptance. I don’t feel like I can be an authority in any one space–I’m a fitness instructor critical of elements of the fitness industry. I’m a person who’s lost weight who is critical of elements of the weight loss industry. I’m a person who used to be fat who is critical of elements of the fat acceptance movement. I’m not really an expert anywhere, but I am curious everywhere.
It’s with that curiosity that I examine body image, my own fatphobia, the fatphobia in our culture, and the complex questions of what we do with and how we think about our bodies. We shouldn’t tolerate explicit anti-fatness and abuse, but we should also not exile people to Siberia for having some degree of internalized fatphobia or making choices we might never fully understand. Instead, we might bring them into the conversation.
Again, from “The Fat Studies Reader” introduction: “Each person brings useful leverage to help shift attitudes. I welcome thin* people not as allies but as colleagues.”
So here we are. There’s a lot of work to do.
*I don't use the word "thin" to describe myself. But I'm a woman on the lower end of the non-plus size spectrum who is smaller than the average U.S. woman.