Despite being a straight-size person, fatphobia affects my life more than you would think.
I have been chronically ill most of my life. I’m reasonably functional nowadays and enjoy full mobility, but that wasn’t always true. In college, while most people were partying and making friends, I was in and out of doctor’s appointments for a mysterious intestinal condition that caused me excruciating cramping after meals. There were days I could barely eat for fear of pain. My condition kept me stuck in my apartment for months at a time, living on white rice and applesauce.
But I have always been deceptively good-looking. My body gives the suggestion of musculature and I’ve never had an ounce of extra body fat anywhere. My skin is clear as long as I use CeraVe facial soap and my hair is stupid thick no matter how undernourished I am.
Consequently, everywhere I went when I was sick, people assumed I was healthy.
- They assumed I could run 5 miles when I had trouble walking even one.
- They assumed I ate healthy when my diet was ridiculously nutrient-deficient and my food passed too quickly for me to even digest it in the first place, resulting in [CONTENT WARNING] bowel movements made up of floating liquid and undigested food matter, not solid waste.
- If I said something about health and fitness, people assumed I knew what I was talking about.
After people making these assumptions, there would always come a terrible moment when I had to say “I’m actually, uh, really weak. I can’t run, or sometimes even walk…”
The saddest part was that doctors made the same assumption. I can’t tell you how many times doctors have assumed I was exaggerating (or fabricating) my symptoms for attention. “You’re a healthy young woman,” they say. “You’ve just got a little IBS.” That is in fact the diagnosis on my medical chart — Irritable Bowel Syndrome — because it took me years just to convince doctors to run the tests… and then the shutdown happened.
When emergency room doctors and specialists finally realize I’m not lying about my symptoms, they assume I’m lying about drug and alcohol use. People who are severe alcoholics for decades often have the same symptoms I do. But I’m not an alcoholic, let alone one consuming the bottles of alcohol a day it would require to induce these symptoms. The only drug I use is medical marijuana — you know, for my symptoms.
What I experience in medical settings is, I think, a kind of reverse fatphobia. If all fat people are lazy and causing their own medical problems, all thin people are essentially healthy and don’t have medical problems.¹
While I was recovering, my goal was to gain weight. Any kind, as much as possible. I ate Chipotle and ice cream and pizza and never limited myself and tried to gobble down as much as possible before I got sick. (Which was never very much). I also started “heavy” weightlifting — which, for me, was just any kind of weightlifting at all. I was too weak to bench-press using a bar, so I began training by doing dumbbell bench presses with 5 lbs in each hand. (For people who don’t weight lift, that’s like exercising by lifting a single book in each hand. Sad.)
The first time I put on one pound of extra body fat, I celebrated. I was healthy again! My body was retaining calories! It was a miracle.
One of the conversations I had over and over during this period of time was about body fat.
Me: “I’m going to the gym! It’s awesome. You should join me.”
Able-bodied friend: “Man, I need to go to the gym more often! I am putting on the weight.” They reach down to pinch whatever fat they have.
Me: “You know, I wish I was fat. I’m trying to put on weight, not lose it.”
Friend: “You wish you were fat?!”
Me: “Yeah. Fat bodies are retaining nutrients and calories. Fat bodies are healthy bodies. My body can’t absorb enough nutrients or calories. I’m not thin because I’m healthy. I’m thin because I’m sick.”
Friend: “Yeah, but at least you’re thin! Ugh, I wish I was thin…”
People would unrepentantly, unselfconsciously tell me they were jealous of my thinness, even though it was the result of a disability.
Some people even went so far as to say they were jealous of my disability because it ensures I’ll never be fat. Sure, I will struggle my entire life with malnourishment and excruciating cramping, submit myself to large amounts of painful and expensive medical procedures, and spend will two or three times as much on food over the course of my life as other people, but that’s the price you pay for thinness, right? Haha.
That is some seriously messed up shit, people.
The ability to store body fat is usually a sign your body is healthy. Your body can utilize so many calories it can afford to save a bunch of extra as body fat. People with degenerative diseases, intestinal disorders, and other forms of wasting don’t have enough extra calories to store. When I see fat people, I see people blessed with bodies that are so good at using calories they have extra. Their bodies love them so much they make sure they have all the calories they will ever need. That’s a blessing, not a curse.
Accordingly, most fat people are pretty healthy. Having an enormous amount of body fat proportional to the rest of your body can cause joint pain and other health issues, I know, but short of that, extra body fat isn’t hurting anyone. I don’t know a ton about the science and pseudoscience of fatphobia, but I am quite sure being fat (and otherwise healthy) is not as bad as what happens to me. Whenever people try to tell me it is, they automatically discredit themselves.
Not all fat people are able-bodied, of course. But in many cases, the disability is what causes the fatness, not the other way around. When a fat patient visits a doctor about sleep disturbances and ends up receiving a lecture about weight loss, that doctor is committing the same sin he commits against me: focusing on appearances rather than the patient’s complaint.
I would be denying reality if I didn’t acknowledge some people are fat because they’ve fallen into a pattern of comfort eating to soothe their emotions. But I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an unhealthy coping mechanism of their own. Fat people are just unlucky enough that people can see the evidence of their unhealthy coping mechanism while they walk down the grocery store aisle.
But you know what? Thin people can make bad dietary choices too. A thin person “blessed” with a hyper-fast metabolism may eat the same diet as a fat person (and consequently face the same health risks) but be labeled “low-risk” by doctors. They will not be judged by the people around them. They’re not blessed because they’re actually healthier, they’re “blessed” because everyone thinks they are.
Anyway, health risks related to body fat are only a small portion of the many health risks people face over a lifetime. People have strokes and heart attacks and get cancer for reasons that have nothing to do with body fat, like alcohol consumption and smoking habits, sleep patterns, nutrient availability in their food.
A fat person in my life who is ashamed of being fat put it to me this way:
“We judge fat people because we can see fat people. We can’t tell someone has a gambling problem, bad marriage, or alcoholism by passing them in a grocery store aisle, but we can see if someone’s fat. So we judge people based on that.”
When you pass a fat person in the grocery store, you have no idea what their life is like. Maybe their husband just killed themselves. Maybe their mother is dying of Alzheimer’s and they are her primary caregiver. Maybe they have a disease that keeps them fat against their will. Maybe they just like doughnuts and don’t give a fuck what you think. We can see fat, so we judge fat.
But you know what? It’s OK to be fat and unhealthy. Like, sure, if you’re fat and unhealthy and it’s a result of your own choices, you might be well-served by hitting the gym and building some muscular and cardiovascular strength. But I would be well-served by saving a liquid emergency fund, and I don’t do that either.
Everyone reading this article is fucking up some area of their life. Maybe some fat people are fat purely as a result of their own bad choices. But if they are, that doesn’t make them any worse than the rest of us. Thin people aren’t better than fat people because they’re fucking up a different area of life not visible to the naked eye.
In fact, I’d say being fat due to poor dietary choices is one of the more innocent ways someone can mess up in life. People can be compulsive cheaters, gamble away the family savings, or abuse their children, but all you’ve done wrong is eat too many grocery store muffins? Hell, I’m proud of you. God knows I’ve done far worse things than that.
And you know what? It doesn’t matter why people are fat anyway. Judging them for being fat is not okay regardless.
Why do you care, anyway? Why do you care if someone’s fat because they’re disabled or because they turn to potato chips at the end of a long day? Don’t you have better things to do than sit around and judge fat people?
When people grab their fat rolls and tell me how they wished they could lose this fat, I feel sad inside. I feel sad because I wish for the very thing they wish to get rid of. I feel sad because they have no idea they are already beautiful just as they are.
We need to stop cutting the world into black and white categories — fat and not fat, healthy and not healthy, thin and not thin, fit and not fit. These categories don’t exist. Health and fitness abilities are as individual as the people who struggle with them.
What’s more, we can’t judge these things from the outside. The fat man in the frozen food aisle may be a bodybuilder capable of lifting your couch single-handedly, and the thin attractive woman in the veggie aisle may have an appointment with her gastroenterologist later that day.
Even if we could, we’re in no position to judge. The fat person at the grocery store buying a cherry pie may be giving in to temptation, but if you attempt to judge them based on the tiny amount of information you have, you’re the one engaging in the much more serious sin of prideful and foolish judgment. He who is without sin among you may cast the first stone.
As if it’s any of your business anyway. Don’t you have your own problems to worry about?
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I’ve tried my best to simultaneously share my honest story & thoughts about fatphobia and be sensitive to the real men and women who struggle against fatphobia on a daily basis. If there’s anywhere I’ve said something bigoted or seriously put my foot in my mouth, please call me out! I don’t want to make anyone’s life worse.
1: Of course, there’s also ageism and sexism at play. Many doctors would listen much more attentively to an older man. And I’m gender-nonconforming and masc-presenting, so transphobia probably plays a role too. But the role of fatphobia and “thinness” is not to be discounted.
Originally published at byrslf.co