The Realities of Fat Shaming
A young man walks into a concert at his university, dressed in clothes that bring out his best. With a fresh trim and a spring in his step, he walks up to a group of friends from school he hasn't met in over a year. Before a conversation develops, someone quips, "Dude, you're getting rounder every day, heh?"
He laughs, but his disappointment is immeasurable, and his day is ruined. It doesn't matter that he's in his best clothes or that it's a reunion. What matters is the shape of his body, and to many people, that's the only thing that ever seems to matter.
This is a real event that took place in the life of one of the writers of this article. It's a story that's all too familiar. People experience fat shaming on a daily basis, and in a society that is slowly but surely learning to be sensitive to those who don't fit a standard description, it's a vice that is still painfully prevalent.
In the past, people rarely needed to justify the reason behind comments that fat shame others. Now that society is more considerate of mental health, many people justify their continued fat shaming practices by saying it comes from a place of "concern".
The problem with that is that anyone who is fat is very much aware of the reality of their bodies. It's the body they inhabit, it's the body they see when they look in the mirror. Quite often, people who are fat are already struggling to accept their bodies. Worrying about people's perception of you due to the shape of your body is bad enough without somebody coming in and pointing it out.
Scientifically speaking, the notion that all fat people are unhealthy is unfounded. Research on the topic does not unanimously agree on this issue. While conventional wisdom says the heavier a person is, the more health risk they have, there is also research that actually says being slightly overweight could mean a healthier and longer life expectancy. Furthermore, metabolism works differently in different bodies, and losing weight often leads to loss of metabolic rate, which is ultimately a bad thing. The existence of metabolically healthy obese people is something that gets lost in this conversation altogether.
It's not just a person's weight that determines whether or not they're healthy, other physiological markers contribute to that. While obesity can lead to health complications, the assumption that a person is unhealthy based simply on whether or not they are fat is unnecessary, and often wrong.
Stress and anxiety, among other mental health related problems, contribute to overeating. When a person is constantly reminded and made to feel bad about their physique, it causes more stress. Instead of receiving support for a real life problem that pushes a person into stress and stress eating, they are met with fat shaming.
Fardin Farhan Khan, student at Islamic University of Technology, traces his problems back to Nursery, "I was a fat child. When I first started going to school and the difference in my physique started being pointed out to me, it made me feel bad. I would go back home and eat my mother's cooking to make myself feel better about it, inadvertently starting a cycle of stress eating that took a long time to get out of."
While one of the two writers can attribute overeating from stress as a prime cause of their weight gain, the other cannot. Similarly, in terms of losing weight, exercising and diets don't work the same way for everyone. This isn't an excuse to live in an unhealthy fashion, rather a statement to prevent a repeated cycle that we have noticed in ourselves as well as other people who are fat.
When dieting and exercising doesn't get you the ideal results, you either fall back to overeating from stress or starve yourself. The purpose of exercising and dieting are to ensure your body stays healthy, it isn't to drastically change your body shape to suit an arbitrary standard.
Looking into the mirror and being unhappy with your body is a horrible feeling to have. These feelings have the potential to culminate into becoming some form of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), and that is without people pointing it out to you that you are fat.
In many cases, people who are fat are always worried about how others perceive them. Oftentimes, this results in self-deprecating humour to ensure that people around them know that they are self-aware.
It's not always about insults either. Raidah Morshed, a student of BRAC University points out, "A lot of people try to be sensitive towards someone who is fat by using words like 'confident' and other backhanded compliments when they dress out of their comfort zone. I think they don't realise that the nicest comments someone could make about my body is no comment at all."
Whether we like it or not, the media has a great impact on shaping cultures, tastes and preferences. Looking back at the state of media and pop culture a couple of decades ago, it is apparent that fat people are not portrayed in the best light.
Think of how many movies, shows or magazines portrayed a primary character who was fat. It's rare to see a fat person as an interesting supporting character even. In most cases, they usually fall into the archetype of "funny fat guy", the group's punching bag, or the "fat bully".
This is further perpetuated by memes. The fat character in most memes are caricatures who are always portrayed as the butt of the joke. An example is the Brendan Fraser meme where they compare him from earlier in his career when he had the "ideal Greek sculpture" body versus when he gained some weight in later years.
Ravary, Baldwin and Bartz (2019) noted how instances of celebrities fat shaming someone or fat shaming incidents in popular media, increased the instances of implicit anti-fat attitudes on their Project Implicit website. This means people were more comfortable engaging in fat shaming rhetoric when they had noticed popular celebrities or media engaging in it.
One of the worst things about experiencing fat shaming is how normalised it is. In our culture, in family settings or in day-to-day life, people who are fat are subjected to constant reminders and snide comments on their physique.
"As a child, I remember being aware at all times of how I was fat, and that was because of how my family kept reminding me. When one of my uncles was giving everyone rides on his new bicycle, I remember being hesitant to ask because I saw myself as fat and unfit for that," remembers Zawata Afnan, now 27.
Unsolicited advice, which is often veiled bullying, is another plague that fat people have to deal with. Sakib Bin Ashraf*, a media professional, recounts an incident when a senior at work saw it fit to remark on his physique at the end of a work call. "He told me he was getting worried for my health, and his version of advice was to ask me to get chased by a pack of rabid dogs," Sakib remembers.
People are not defined by the numbers they put up on a scale. Fat shaming reduces the lived experience of fat people to a point where they start to think their weight is all that there is to them, whereas their lives consist of good and bad memories, and complexities that are wholly unrelated to the shape of their body.
Fat is not an identity, and fat shaming is a pattern of behaviour that does not belong in our society.
*Names have been changed upon request
1. The Atlantic (August, 2017). Is it unhealthy to be overweight?
2. Johannsen et al. (July, 2012). Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass.
3. Rey-López et al. (October, 2014). The prevalence of metabolically healthy obesity: a systematic review and critical evaluation of the definitions used.
4. Ravary A., Baldwin M. W., Bartz J. A. (November, 2019). Shaping the Body Politic: Mass Media Fat-Shaming Affects Implicit Anti-Fat Attitudes. Pers Soc Psychol Bull.