Fat activists want to reclaim their bodies but it is not “fatphobia” to recognise the risks of obesity

How ridiculous, how self-deluding to suggest that any problem with fat is irrational and not because being fat is objectively bad.

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A sneaking linguistic drift in the way we talk about prejudice has turned isms into phobias over the past few decades. Sometimes this makes sense: homophobia, the model for these coinages, really is driven by illogical disgust. Sometimes, it’s complicated: a horror of contamination undergirds racism, but a concept such as Islamophobia bundles up critique and bigotry as one. Sometimes it’s absurd: replacing sexism with a diagnosis of “femmephobia” implies that women are held down by a cultural revulsion at the colour pink, rather than, say, sexual harassment and a lack of maternity rights.

And then there’s fatphobia, treated as the most preposterous of all the phobias. How ridiculous, how self-deluding to suggest that any problem with fat is irrational and not because being fat is objectively bad. Here, I should make an admission: I am fatphobic. Being overweight appals me, and I wish it didn’t. I was delighted when I got skinny at 14 as a result of glandular fever. When marathon-training in my thirties made me the tiniest I’ve been as an adult, I felt an elation I knew was dangerous.

With my bones on show, I was untouchable. No one could say anything about me. I was, self-evidently and unimpeachably, in total moral control of myself – because being fat is seen as a moral condition. It’s associated with laziness, with a failure of personal responsibility. Fat bodies elicit revulsion: if “dirt is matter out of place”, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas defined it, then the fat body is always a pollutant, because it always consists of matter where matter is not supposed to be.

Unsurprisingly, being treated as shameful and disgusting has done very little to benefit fat people. Millions of people, mostly female, have been corralled in a half-world that the novelist Sarai Walker satirised as “Dietland”, chewing joylessly through eating programmes that are only fitfully effective, in the hope of reaching that weight at which they can have permission to begin their lives. Stories abound of fat people (women, mostly) whose doctors have offered lectures on weight loss while ignoring the symptoms of serious illnesses.

Most extremely, people are pressured into bariatric surgery that restricts or bypasses the stomach so you can no longer consume or absorb as many nutrients. That means your calorie intake goes down, but so does your intake of everything else your body needs to survive and function. A lifetime reliance on supplements awaits. You will never eat a normal meal again. The writer Roxane Gay describes the effects of her own surgery like this: “I wasn’t hungry, but I was starving.”

In Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1972, Susie Orbach unpicked the feminine self-loathing that sustains the diet industry, but she still treated fat as an undesirable state. For Orbach, starving yourself or stuffing yourself are both ways to protect against the demands made on the female body, and being fat unwomans you as surely as being thin.

Faced with the indignity meted out to fat people, Orbach’s inheritors go further. The fat acceptance movement and the more radical fat activists, who organise mostly through social media and blogging, treat fat as identity. For them, being fat is something to be celebrated, not denigrated. Fat is beautiful. Fat is a determination to take up space in the world. Fat is not unhealthy. Fat is certainly not an individual failing, and none of the ways we’re told to fix it actually work.

On that last point, they have compelling evidence. BMI (body mass index) is a notoriously unreliable measurement, which arbitrarily classes a lot of people as overweight when they’re unlikely to have health problems because of their size. Your propensity to fat is substantially inherited, and the bit that isn’t probably has as much to do with transport policy and the kind of food that’s available as with personal choices. Calories are calculated by freeze-drying, crushing and burning food – which, unless you happen to have a furnace for a stomach, is not a very good analogue for human digestion.

But although we may be wrong about how heavy is too heavy, the risks that come with being obese – strokes, heart disease, diabetes; but also everyday miseries of chafing and sore joints – are clear. When the size-26 model Tess Holliday appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK this summer, it was claimed as a body positivity win. Anyone mentioning Holliday’s health was briskly smacked down as fatphobic. But being a size 26 is, definitively, not good for you. As an archetype of beauty, Holliday is no more and no less dangerous than a size-zero waif.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that fat activism has thrived in the bodiless realm of the internet, where a carefully framed photo and some ardent sloganeering can stand for a whole self. For those who find support from the movement, but ultimately decide they would like a future with less morbidity and more mobility, there’s a horrible conflict: when you lose weight, you lose your friends too. “I worried that people would think I betrayed fat positivity,” says Gay. Such fears are not exactly unfounded: one fat acceptance blogger describes an obese friend getting thinner as “the quiet heartbreak of losing someone who truly understood what it meant to live in a body like mine”.

That sounds every bit as proprietorial about a woman’s body as a fat-shaming catcaller. Fat activism doesn’t undo the logic of fatphobia so much as mirror it, and turning fat into a political identity doesn’t help to address the endemic public health issue of obesity. In fact, discussing obesity as a public health issue is another thing that’s damned for being fatphobic. Hatred and horror are no good, whether aimed at ourselves or at a whole group of people; but acceptance should mean telling the truth about our bodies. Nothing is more like phobia than being afraid to name reality. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis