How We Learn Fatphobia

Child pulling a silly face in the mirror

It’s widely acknowledged that the media has a problem with fat people. Whether they’re the butt of the joke, the gluttonous villain or the undesirable ‘before’, fat bodies are rarely presented in film, television or print in a positive light. It’s understandable then, when bombarded with these fatphobic messages in the media, that many of us internalise these negative associations with being fat – often so strongly that we don’t even realise it’s happened.

But it’s not just the media to blame. The seed of my insecurities was planted by the real people in my life – the fatphobic media just provided an ideal environment for it to grow.

I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t think about my body critically in terms of how big it was, or how much it weighed. When I think of where my own insecurities blossomed, it wasn’t when looking at photos in magazines, or actresses on the television. We all knew – we were all told explicitly, even ­– that the bodies we saw in the media were airbrushed, were not real. It was the near-constant commenting from others around me, whether it be criticising their own weight, or subtly commenting on mine, that slowly taught me to hate the way I looked.

“I’ve always considered stressing about weight to be an inherent part of womanhood.”

Growing up I witnessed nearly every single older woman in my life complain about being too big. As I grew up, female friends at school began to repeat these worries – ‘fat’ was an insult, a word that we weaponised against ourselves and each other. Without us ever acknowledging it out loud, we all agreed that fat was pretty much the worst thing you could be. We learnt to hate our bodies as a group activity.

Without ever thinking about it consciously, I’ve come to realise that I’ve always considered stressing about weight to be an inherent part of womanhood. Not ‘being slim’, not ‘looking beautiful’, but the actual act of worrying about how big I am. And alongside learning to be constantly critical of our bodies through watching the other women and girls around us, there were the offhand comments in relation to our weight that stick in our minds, sometimes over a decade later.

“I was 11, in my first year of secondary school and worried I was too fat, as I was a size 10 and always had wide hips. I was also told I had “child-bearing” hips by my friend’s Dad.”

“When I was in after school club (maybe aged 8/9/10), the worker told me I didn’t need any chocolate spread toast, which we were all making, because I’d ‘had enough’ – my one slice compared to other kid’s on their fifth.”

“My friend’s mum told her, in front of me, not to lend me a dress for the Year 5 school disco because I’d stretch it and ruin it.”

“I wanted to do ballet when I was in early primary school. My parents said I was ‘too big’ to do ballet because they have to do lifts and stuff. Apparently they meant big as in tall (I was), but I just remember mental images of cartoons I’d seen with ballerina elephants.”

“I remember one summer my Nan exclaiming you could feed an army off my legs because they were so… sizeable.”

“When I was about nine or ten, I planned to go running every day of the Christmas holidays. I made an excel spreadsheet to record my weight and called it ‘fitness holidays’. My mum also told me a bunch of stuff I’m ‘too plump’ to wear and I’m only just getting my head out of that. it included chokers, roll necks, crop tops, and dangly earrings.”

“I was told I looked like Shrek in Year 9. Back then I was only a size six, too.”

“When I was ten, my PE teacher told me that I need to work harder because I’m overweight. I remember being that age and wishing I could cut my tummy rolls off with scissors. There’s an advert of a girl with scissors in her hand looking at her belly and that reminds me so much of me.”

When we think of young people worrying about their bodies, it’s easy to think that it’s just teenagers that experience the pressure to look a certain way. But the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) has found that children as young as three (THREE years old) have body image issues, and some four year olds know how to go on a diet. Almost a third of nursery and school staff have heard a child label themselves fat. and while the influence of television, books and animations are cited as a contributing factor, hearing adults discuss their negative opinions of their bodies also has an impact.

“Even as an adult, so many people in my life still use ‘fat’ as a self-insult or as a euphemism for perceived bad behaviour.”

Right now, I would describe my body as ‘fat’, and I no longer use that word as a negative – it’s just a descriptor, but it’s taken me a significantly long time to reach this point. Even as an adult, so many people in my life still use ‘fat’ as a self-insult or as a euphemism for perceived bad behaviour, and it’s difficult to pull away from. Colleagues that say they’re ‘being good’ when turning down a piece of cake, or perhaps worse, that they’re ‘being fat’ if they DO take a piece. Friends say they need to lose weight to ‘look good’ for a party or event. Even when trying to pay each other compliments, we will often ask “have you lost weight?”

There are, of course, those who take a more direct approach to their fatphobic rhetoric – for current examples, you only have to browse Sofie Hagen‘s Twitter replies for thirty seconds to see that. But the slew of hateful, fatphobic trolls that crawled from the woodwork in response to her speaking out against Cancer Research UK’s ill-thought out ‘OBESITY’ campaign aren’t the only ones we need to watch out for. Without intending to, we reinforce a fatphobic idea of what is beautiful and what is healthy in the language we use every day. We’re not just bringing each other down, but we’re also passing these harmful ideas on to the next generation. We’re teaching the same toxic ideas about what it means to be ‘fat’ that we absorbed so easily ourselves as children.

Next time you’re about to assign moral value to a piece of cake (“I can’t eat that, I’m being good”), just think about what it is you’re actually saying. Before you complain about “feeling fat today”, consider who is listening and how your offhand comments might affect them. And if you’re thinking about commenting directly on the body shape of a literal child?

Just straight up don’t.

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