Fat shaming is not a partisan issue. But no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s low hanging fruit that’s all too often slung at easy targets.
On Monday, House Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper to address President Trump’s claim that he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a precaution against COVID-19. This seems bizarre in and of itself, as there is no evidence that prophylactic intake of this drug can protect against the virus. She expressed concern about the lack of scientific evidence and concluded by saying, “I think it’s not a good idea.”
However, it was something else she said that was an even worse idea: taking a jab at the President’s weight.
Now don’t get me wrong. I despise 45 and all he represents. I have my own opinions, informed by the facts of the day and a desire to treat people with humanity and dignity.
But I draw the line there.
Say what you will about his policies. His attitude towards women, Dems,and the press. His persistent and blatant racist, ableist rhetoric and complete lack of presidential behavior and speech.
Say anything else because there is plenty to choose from. Going after his weight shows a lack of creativity and perpetuates the stigmatizing and harmful language that exacerbates weight stigma. It’s lazy. Mocking someone’s body is the norm so it’s easy to do without question. We can do so, so much better.
We need to do better.
As influential voices become more emboldened to speak critically about the current administration and its leadership, we need to think carefully about how it will be interpreted by the public. As left-leaning groups plea for decorum, diplomacy, and decency, it seems an odd double-standard to me that they see no issue stooping to the same level of personal insults.
If you’ve ever dug into the history of the word “obesity” and BMI, it’s interesting. I mean interesting in the sense of, “Wow, that’s incredibly fucked up and I can’t believe we’re still using such an antiquated and ineffective system to assess someone’s health.”
The word “obesity” literally means “to have eaten oneself fat.” But this is not the sole contributor to body shape and size. It is largely determined by genetics. Additionally, social determinants of health such as poverty, weight stigma, healthcare avoidance, and environment all contribute more than we think. While it’s nice to think a “healthy” lifestyle is all that’s needed to stay thin, it just isn’t that simple.
Note: I use the word “fat” as a neutral descriptor and to normalize it. I acknowledge my significant thin privilege while also deferring to the preferences of those I know professionally and personally. I avoid “obesity” outside of the general definition to avoid contributing to further stigmatization.
But our wellness-obsessed culture has taken it to new levels, associating thinness with beauty, worthiness, and moral goodness. We crave a sense of control so we spin a web of lies around willpower and self-discipline. This overlaps really nicely with white culture as a whole, which prides itself on “working for everything you have” and a sense of entitlement.
This web of lies is harmful. It distracts us from better understanding the actual determinants of health and supporting all people in exercising autonomy in health decisions that impact their bodies. And as author and anti-racism educator Ijeoma Oluo said, the size of your body has no moral value.
She’s right. If you look around in your life, you will likely see plenty of examples of people who are righteous, good people. Your interpretation of their goodness might be influenced by body size because we live in a fucked up society that elevates certain body types as superior or aspirational.
But their actions, demeanor, and relationship with you are what informs that more than anything else. You might be conscious of their body — much like we might be conscious of race, or age, or gender identity, or any other defining factor — but you don’t diminish them to a single shallow representation of themselves based on that.
Our brains are conditioned to constantly look for evidence to support our beliefs. We scan our environment and look for ways to justify the patterns we uphold. A public endorsement, subtle or obvious, grants us the validation we want so we don’t have to change.
We need to do better.
The most harmful part of Speaker Pelosi’s statement is that is won’t harm President Trump, at least not in the way she likely intended it. Sure, he might take to social media or wallow deeper into his secluded late-night musings or deluded press briefings.
But the real danger here is that hundreds of thousands of people will see these fat-phobic comments and take it as a permission slip to use them, too.
It will harm their fat friends and family members, their fat coworkers, their fat children. Even if they don’t speak the words themselves, it will become further ingrained in their psyche and reinforce the problematic stereotypes our culture associates with fatness.
Gluttony. Laziness. Uncleanliness. Uneducated. Lack of self-control.
These characteristics are not exclusive to large or fat bodies. They are displayed everywhere, across the wide spectrum of human shapes and sizes.
Not only that, but we can take it a step further to question why we associate these traits as negative or undesirable in the first place. The roots of it trace back to racial origins, where the physical features more commonly seem among black people were deemed ugly, unattractive, less desirable. It separated Whiteness from Blackness, and reinforced that there was a gold standard to be achieved.
All other races, all other humans, have been measured against that standard ever since.
I’m not saying this to jump to the defense of fat people. They are perfectly capable of standing their ground and speaking from their experiences. It is not my place to speak over them or for them.
Fat people do not need thin saviors anymore than BIPOC need white saviors. Just like BIPOC need you to be less racist, fat people need you to be less fat phobic.
I’m saying this to call you in and ask you to examine your beliefs about fatness, morality, and how they bubble to the surface in your own life. If you’re like me and benefit from thin privilege, you have a responsibility to be aware of how this harms the people you care about.
We need to do better.