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