Fat phobia, our changing bodies, & the COVID-19 pandemic. #CopingWithCOVID19

by LMA

May 2020

I am a fat woman. My fat body is a valuable body. She is a comfort to me. She is the only thing I’ve had with me throughout my whole life, and she’s one of the only things I ever will have with me. I’m so grateful for her. I’ve worked very hard to feel peaceful with her and about her. She deserves nourishment, care, and love. All of our bodies do.

In many respects, this pandemic has brought forward and exacerbated many problems that were already here to begin with, but brought them up in entirely different ways. The problem I would like to talk about is the way we refer to and talk about fat bodies.

I have seen a lot of folk, particularly in online spaces, make jokes and comments about their bodies and the amount of weight they will gain or have gained during the pandemic. At the beginning of quarantine, I saw over and over a clip of a famous politician talking about something getting bigger overlaid with people making reference to their bodies. I’ve seen multiple Tik-Tok videos, tweets, and Instagram posts include similar jokes about changing bodies, eating comfort food (heaven forbid our bodies be comforted during a global pandemic) and the “need” for a trainer because of increased weight from quarantine.

These have come from people I know and love and even from respected Mormon Twitter folk I would never assume would make these kinds of fat phobic jokes. Just a few days ago, I saw the highest ranking female political official in the country I live in make an extremely fat phobic comment about another political official’s response to COVID-19 in a way that was meant to clearly demean him and his body. Several days afterward, it was still a trending topic on Twitter and there are significant numbers of articles and fat phobic comments attached to them.

When people make these jokes and comments, they are joking-not-joking about these concerns. Many people do not fully realize what they are inferring or communicating. However, what is being communicated is very clear. What people are communicating is that the worst thing that could happen to their body is that it could become fat or larger than it currently is. They are communicating deep insecurity, fear, and hatred of fat on their own and others’ bodies.

The term for this is fat phobia.

It makes a lot of (tragic) sense why this is so:

We are taught from the time we are young that our bodies are not to be accepted in whatever form they are in, and that however they are, they are not right. This is especially the case for children and adults in fat bodies, and bodies of color, particularly women of color.

We live in a deeply fat phobic society where we are taught our value is in our body’s appearance, and the type of consumption our body can offer. We are taught that to be valuable is to be as thin as possible, and to never accept or be at peace with whatever type of body we have or are transitioning into. We are taught it is better to restrict and actively harm our bodies than to nourish and protect them.

We live in a fat phobic society that is founded on discrimination of fat bodies by the medical establishment and the deeply discriminatory and disgusting notion that the most “physically healthy” body is a thin body. This is manifest in the medical discrimination of fat bodies and the vastly different levels of and access to medical care and compassion people receive depending on body size. See this conference presentation that describes the tragic and shaming experiences of fat folk with medical professionals or practitioners and this article and this research about fat women’s experiences with doctors.

The garbage adages we have been taught our whole lives about how all fat bodies become and are physically unhealthy are also wrong and inaccurate. Fat activists such as Jes Baker have written about this. For example, given that fat folk are discriminated and responded to so negatively by doctors and other medical professionals, they are less likely to go to the doctor (research clearly bears this out). Potential medical concerns can be the result of poor medical care and lack of access to care, not that fat bodies are inherently unhealthy (see Jes Baker’s book, “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls”).

We are also taught that fat bodies are not sexually desirable or worthy of partnership, or if they are, it will be because someone has a fetish for fat bodies. In our church, we teach that the only way to access sex is through heterosexual marriage and partnership (which is wrong), and worse yet, that appearance plays a prominent role in this process. In my family, this was communicated to me in the ways people talked to me about my future. I was consistently talked to in language about “if you get married” or “if you have a family” whereas it was assumed my thin or somewhat straight-size siblings would get married and be partnered and have families. This is disgusting. Every person is desirable and worthy of partnership, connection, and intimate relationships in whatever way they are desired and feel good to that person. See this lovely article from Scarleteen about our bodies and building confidence in our bodies and sexual selves.

If you have not watched the Hulu TV series “Shrill,” you need to! The series portrays the life and dating experiences of Annie, a fat woman, portrayed by Aidy Bryant. It was healing for my soul to watch it, especially my 5th grade self who was told she was a “fat pig” by a boy who was in her primary and Sunday school classes all throughout childhood and adolescence. Straight-size folk need to watch it and consider their own internalized fat phobia (see this piece for examples of what fat phobia could include).

Fat bodies are not a fetish. They are just regular and are bodies.  I wish someone had told me this before I was in my late 20s and early 30s working on these things fiercely in therapy. We need to be talking about these things and examining our internalized fat phobic biases openly so that we can be respectful, supportive, and nurturing towards ourselves and others.

Fat phobia is also deeply hurtful to folk in straight-size bodies. People spend hours and hours and years and years of their lives restricting food intake, dieting, over-exercising, and harming their bodies in various ways. Research clearly indicates dieting and other harmful behaviors do not translate to overall health or body weight lost, let alone the toll these behaviors take emotionally (see this discussion here for more information). Fat phobia is deeply harmful to everyone.

It makes sense then, why, in a global pandemic, people are so afraid of their bodies changing, and heaven forbid, becoming fat. But this doesn’t make it okay.

What are you saying to yourself and your fat (friend, family member, co-worker, child, intimate partner) when you make that joke about needing new jeans after this?

What are you saying to yourself and others when you make that joke about needing a trainer after this?

What are you saying to yourself and others when you joke about gaining weight because of the pandemic?

This is what is being said:

My (your) body isn’t okay; it is the worst thing that could happen right now (spoiler alert: it’s not). My (your) body is something to be joked about; it doesn’t deserve dignity and kindness. My (your) body isn’t attractive; anything other than a thing body is gross and unattractive, but especially a fat body.

Fat phobia is not a joke, and people aren’t joking when they say these things. All bodies deserve love and softness and comfort and nourishment, always. If you need a larger pair of jeans after this pandemic, you can get a larger pair of jeans. Do any of us honestly feel that a loving Heavenly Mother cares what size pants we wear? She would want us to nourish our bodies, period. In a pandemic and every other day, week, month, and year of our lives.

Later today, a list of affirming mantras about our bodies, body size, and food will be posted on the blog. Your body deserves softness, kindness, and comfort, as does mine.

LMA

LMA is PhD-holding boss lady that teaches child development to university students. She cares deeply about issues that affect women+ inside and outside of our Church.

You may also like...

13 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    So important and true. Thank you for this piece, LMA.

  2. Abby Kidd says:

    This is important and timely. I am continuously surprised at how many people, even those who are making conscious efforts to be inclusive, still make fat phobic comments and jokes. Thanks for addressing it! It’s time to change our old harmful, shaming ideas about fat bodies.

  3. Shirl says:

    I appreciate many of the thoughts in this article. Thank you for sharing it. As a woman who has been overweight much of her life, I relate to it. The memories of bullies in grade school excluding me from games at recess etc are still clear in my mind. The little “well-meaning” comments from thin relatives. I admire people who are happy with their size, no matter what. With that, I still wish I could lose 35 lbs. Aspects of my health would improve and- maybe I wouldn’t be invisible. The world will always judge us on appearance, it’s just a fact I don’t see changing. There’s nothing wrong with nourishing & comforting one’s body. But I also don’t want to commit the sin of gluttony. I’m seeking balance and discipline, better health for myself (not necessarily thinness).

    • LMA says:

      Thank you so much for what you shared. Children can be just awful to other children. I wish my adult self could have been there when bullies were being so unkind and awful to you. I’m a grown woman and I still feel and remember those experiences myself. So it’s said, I think there is so much value in considering how we can address or remove systems that privilege certain types of bodies over others or treat people like they are invisible (like you talked about) vs. people who are being hurt by those systems being pressured to change their bodies to fit with those systems. The system should have to change, not your body. I also feel like comforting your body in whatever form is best for you – whether that’s food or whatever it is, isn’t gluttonous. We’ve been taught it is, but it’s not. We would never say “It’s okay to take a hot bath, or a long walk in nature, as long as it’s in moderation.” We would never say that (hot baths and long walks in nature are wonderful!). It’s the same with food. The problem is that food and fatness are so stigmatized, we’ve been taught it’s even a sin – gluttony – to use it as a form of comfort. You are not invisible and you deserve to be seen. Thank you again for what you shared. Sending so much love, LMA

  4. Eliana Massey says:

    This piece is so important. Thank you for writing it!

  5. Chiaroscuro says:

    Thank you! I agree with you about how harmful this kind of behavior is. I have also been noticing a lot of this type of messaging, and am not sure how to respond when I see these kinds of comments online. Do you have suggestions?

    • LMA says:

      This is such a good question. I think often about how I can express those concerns. I think simple and direct is a good way to go. “I understand you might be feeling insecure about your body right now/I’m not sure if you realize this, but that’s actually a form of fat phobia, and that’s not okay. It hurts people in fat bodies” and then send some kind of resource. You could send this piece, or direct them to the work of someone like Sonalee Rashatwar. Her Instagram account is reallly, really helpful.
      https://www.instagram.com/thefatsextherapist/

  6. Mary says:

    This is an important piece. What you’ve written here needs to be known. I was just at the point where I had come to love and accept my large body as mine and as a manifestation that I am a survivor and, yes, I’ve needed a lot of comfort over the years that I simply was not getting elsewhere and other ways weren’t available.

    Then this pandemic hit. Both the fat shaming social media and the reports that people with a high BMI are more likely to experience mortality and morbidity should they get this disease. I know that high BMI isn’t the only factor. I know that race, zip code, the biases of the members of the medical profession and the fact that people with high BMI are likely to be shamed by society and that can impact a person’s immune capabilities are all factors. What I would appreciate are some links to some scientific articles with hard data regarding this specific virus saying that it isn’t all just about BMI.

    • LMA says:

      Thank you so much for what you shared. Appreciating the comfort nourishment of yummy food is such a human and normal thing. I think we’ve been so accustomed to pathologizing food and fatness in any form, we’ve made people feel so bad and wrong for knowing their bodies and what feels good to them. Eating and being nourished by yummy food that tastes good and comforts you is a legitimate form of comfort and self-care, period. Your body deserves to be cared for, and food is such an important part of that, and it’s so comforting. You were listening to your body and what you needed and that is wonderful, intuitive self-care.

      I have noticed those research reports as well. They are shaming and extremely unhelpful. I am a social scientist. There are some major concerns with research linking BMI to COVID-19 risk, hospitalization, or death. I hope it’s okay I organized my ideas in a numbered list.

      1. Many fat activitists and some scientists have talked about the fact that the concept of BMI is a fat phobic, oppressive, scientifically inaccurate way of measuring health. There is a brief discussion of that here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-bmi-an-accurate-way-to-measure-body-fat/

      2. There are many researchers trying to very quickly understand what is happening with COVID-19 and potential risk factors. Because this is unfolding in real time and there is such a concern about getting information, many of the research safe guards that are normally in place aren’t (e.g., the participants aren’t being studied over an extended period of time, the research isn’t always peer-reviewed, the sample sizes are small, or fundamentally flawed as it relates to drawing large-scale population conclusions, etc.).

      3. What is being measured as BMI statistically may not be actually even measuring BMI – it may be measuring different aspects of fat phobia such as fat stigma, weight cycling, and the other factors you mentioned – things like socioeconomic status, access to medical care, stigmatization received in medical care, etc.

      4. All the issues noted above with using BMI aside, research that “shows” a link between BMI & COVID-19 is is only correlational or descriptive, meaning the two are related (not that one causes the other) or is describing groups of people, but again, many sample sizes in research on COVID are flawed right now in the rush to produce research and understand what is going on. This post explains these issues very well and has a lot of helpful content related to medical issues and fat phobia: https://www.instagram.com/p/B_Tvgfql8WC/?igshid=1m3fx1rmw0au3

      Keep in mind, no research study can describe your experience perfectly or anyone’s experience perfectly, and these types of “findings” are happening within the context of fat phobia. Even if every study showed they were linked, that only means they are related to each other (not that one causes the other, and not that one causes the other in every situation for every single person).

      I hope this helps! Sending so much love and solidarity.

  7. Lauren says:

    Fat phobia is so insidiously ingrained in our society, it feels like we’ll never move past it. I find myself overweight for the first time in my life, and it is breathtaking how much the thought of losing weight has consumed my every waking moment. Even though I walk dogs all day long, and have restricted my calories more than ever before to an unhealthy and unsustainable amount, the only thing my doctor thought to suggest as a remedy to symptoms most likely brought on by stress was to “lose 5-10 lbs.” I have vowed to be accepting and encouraging to all body types, but it’s not so easy to do with my own body.

    • LMA says:

      Oh my goodness, thank you for what you shared here. What you described with your doctor is not okay. I can’t tell you how angry it makes me this still happens with doctors in 2020. It’s okay if it’s hard to accept and be gentle toward your own body – with all of the fat phobic garbage we’ve been taught our whole lives, how could it not be hard? Your body deserves nourishment and gentleness and compassion and kindness. It’s okay if that’s a process. Working through these things is so, so hard. I hope you were able to see the mantras I wrote (they are linked above). One of them has to do with our bodies changing and evolving throughout our lives. It’s okay if your body has changed, and it’s okay if it takes time to process what’s happening. Sending so much love and compassion and comfort to you, LMA

  8. Heather says:

    Love this. So many good things in here for me to wrestle with.

  1. May 22, 2020

    […] mantras are associated with a blog post on fat phobia and our changing bodies during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are applicable other times, […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.