Trigger warning for discussions of fatphobia, negative body image/body dysphoria and disordered eating.
The word “fat”, in all its various (and overwhelmingly negative) connotations, often brings to mind specific images and types of people. There’s the funny fat person; the insecure and self-hating fat person (most often a teenaged or early-twentysomething girl); the “obviously unhealthy” family dining together at McDonalds or exercising slowly and with effort in the gym or in the park.
Thinking about these various controlling images (to borrow a phrase from Black feminist author Patricia Hill Collins) that shape the way media, the medical and fashion industries, and most of American society view and judge fat people got me thinking: what methods do I and other fat people have to counter these stereotypes? Where do they come from, and what do I do when I or other people just happen to fall in line with those stereotypes? The answers, of course, are complicated. Below are some common stereotypes about fat people that really seem to get to me and the ways I deal with them both internally and externally.
Fat = Unhealthy
I could write forever on why equating being fat with being unhealthy is fallacious and hurtful to fat people on the social and medical levels, and I wouldn’t be the first writer to do so. Yet a simple Google search of the words “fat” and “health” rarely produce fat-positive results, but rather, millions of hits linking to articles on “the obesity epidemic” and ways to lose weight “for health”.
I, and countless other fat activists, call bullshit.
I don’t need articles from CNN or Time citing studies on why being fat doesn’t automatically make a person unhealthy: I have a lifetime of fluctuating weights, eating and exercise patterns and general levels of health and well-being to cite regarding how a person can feel fat and healthy. I haven’t been healthier when I’ve lost weight due to high levels of stress and caffeine intake around midterms and finals and lost weight because of it; I certainly wasn’t healthier when I limited my meals and daily caloric intake to lose weight when I was younger because I hated my body. My legs are more muscular now than they’ve ever been, and I weigh more because of it–and I feel better in my body now, with all my pounds and cellulite, than I ever have in my life. And the fact remains: even if I work out all the time and only eat the healthiest foods, I am still going to be fat/curvy/thick/voluptuous/whatever because that’s how my body is.
All of this pertains only to physical health, and not only is the mental health of a fat person as individual as the mental health of anyone else, it also is impacted much more by fatphobia and fat-shaming. But that’s a topic for another article.
All fat people want to lose weight and are lazy if they don’t
To discuss health and weight in the same context is common for those who argue against “the acceptance of obesity”, and the argument always makes one of two assumptions: fat people hate their bodies and want to lose weight so that they can be “healthy” and “happy”, or they are lazy and don’t care about their health because they are “choosing to be fat”. It’s a discussion I’ve had with everyone from my parents to hostile strangers on the Internet, and they are often either alarmed or angered when I make the simple assertion that not all fat people are actively trying to lose weight. They become even more aghast when I explain that it’s not about laziness, but rather because many of us are comfortable enough with our bodies and have spent enough time hating them. This isn’t a blanket statement that all fat people who aren’t attempting to lose weight are comfortable and happy with their bodies all the time and don’t want to change them at all–like everyone else, we have complicated relationships with our bodies because there are a million ways that people, and women in particular, are conditioned to believe that there is something wrong with the ways our bodies are and that our bodies are not ours alone and that our bodies are the weight of our worth (pun intended).
Rather, it’s a statement of reality: there are plenty of fat people who don’t want to lose weight, for whatever reason, and in my experience, I’ve never met someone who was fat and not engaged in weight loss methods because of laziness. That certainly hasn’t been the case for me. And people who don’t try to lose weight because of “laziness” (very poorly defined in these discussions) aren’t any worse than anyone else.
Some types of fat are hotter than others
Here I attempt to tread a very sticky subject–that of body shapes and different patterns of distribution of fat and how they relate to perceived attractiveness.
When it comes to the extremely problematic and fallacious “real women have curves” meme, the proponents of “curves” as a basis of attractiveness (most of whom I assume to be men) seem to all be in silent agreement about the type of curves that constitute beauty–large breasts, small waists, wide hips, large and round butts, and “shapely” thighs that taper downward towards the ankles. I remember as I grew into my body and my figure feeling only slightly left out of this equation because I don’t have big breasts–but I was assured by my “admirers” that even though I “lacked” that specific variable, the rest of my body shape fit in well enough with the Beyonce-Shakira-Scarlett Johannson-Catherine Zeta-Jones type of voluptuousness to be considered “hot”.
It didn’t take much growing up to learn that only minor variations were allowed within that strict view of “curvy” and “alternative” beauty. Yes, the way my fat body and other people with hourglass figures and large butts and large breasts are shaped is beautiful–but to claim that “curves” are the route to fat attractiveness is not only exclusive to those who don’t happen to have that body type, but also entirely wrong.
Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But there is absolutely nothing that is inherently more attractive about any specific body than any other–people can be pear-shaped or apple-shaped or none of those weird fruit comparisons and be hot; people can have big tummies and fat arms and narrow hips and flat butts and small breasts in any order and combination and be hotter to me or to someone else than all the hourglass figures in the world. Equating specific body types and physical attributes to someone’s attractiveness isn’t just shitty and wrong–it’s purposefully narrowing one’s propensity to be attracted to all kinds of hotties that don’t fall into the either/or categories of thin and “curvy”.
Fat people don’t get laid and fat girls are “desperate”
It’s amazing to me that in 2013 there are still vast subsets of the population that believe that the sexual lives of fat people (particularly fat women) are achieved by desperate measures and a take-what-you-can-get mentality. I have no need to go into detail about the kinds of bile a lot of young men spew regarding the sexual worth of fat girls–it suffices to say that there is a disgusting belief among men of all ages that fat women must put out to get laid.
I choose to delve into this intertwined realm of fat-shaming, slut-shaming and misogyny with humor and incredulity. My sex life and the sex lives of countless fat hotties that I know constitute the living proof that that stereotype is just patently false. Again, I don’t need to go into detail about my personal life to prove that I have a lot of reasons for knowing that this misconception is wrong as hell. It’s so wrong that a fellow writer for this blog wrote a book about it. Not only do babes like me, my friends, Margaret Cho and innumerous others get laid, like, all the time–we all have-gasp!–individual standards of who we will and won’t fuck that vary from person to person and change throughout our lives. It’s almost as if our sex lives are comparable to those of people who aren’t fat. Imagine that.
These are, of course, just a few of dozens and dozens of stereotypes and misconceptions about fat people in our culture. For more rants like this, check out my previous article in this “Fat Girl 101” series about what I’ve learned from being fat, my article about how I decided to start wearing crop tops, my musings on sex, fat feminism and rejection and future articles about in this same vein.
Written by Noor Al-Sibai
The featured image is a still from the short documentary film The Fat Body (In)visible.