5 simple ways you can be kinder to fat people

With so much attention on body image in the LGBTQ+ community and on dating apps, it's time to look at the ways we interact with each other.

James O'Hagan smiling sitting in front of a mic
Image: James O'Hagan

Body image is a hugely triggering topic of conversation, I would doubt there is a person alive who doesn’t have inhibitions or hang-ups about some part of their physical appearance, however for people who are visibly larger this experience is magnified by negative stigma and society’s hostility towards fatness.

Since I first spoke out about my personal experiences with body image I’ve developed a much-heightened awareness of the subtle ways in which weight-shaming, fatphobia and weight-based bias saturate virtually every aspect of the way we interact with each other.

In most cases these micro aggressions are unintentional, the result of thoughtlessness or a lack of understanding. However, using negative stereotypes of fat people reinforces discriminatory and harmful attitudes toward people deemed to be overweight and has real world consequences in employment, education, health care and social settings.

We live in a society where being fat is often instinctively and automatically equated with being lazy, greedy, unmotivated, unattractive, or lacking self-discipline. I believe that almost all of us are fatphobic, I definitely am, growing up in an overwhelmingly fatphobic society it would be incredible if we weren’t.

And so, I have put together this five-point list of how you can start to be kinder to fat people.

Fat isn’t a feeling, nor is it an adjective for something negative

As members of the LGBTQ+ community, we know that language is powerful. We are used to needing to educate others of the damage that harmful and derogatory language can have. We’ve run campaigns, told our stories on TV shows, and even had Lizzie McGuire create a public service announcement to share how repeatedly hearing the word “gay” used as an insult negatively affects a person’s self-esteem,

When someone widely considered to be slim or ‘average’-sized broadcasts across social media that they are ‘feeling fat’ as shorthand for any number of negative feelings it has the same impact. Calling yourself fat to express unhappiness with your body sends a message to fat people that there is shame in the shape of their bodies.

Stop using imagery which depicts fat people in stereotypically negative ways

If a picture paints a thousand words, next time you’re about to share a meme with a fat person in it think about what those words might be, and then think about how a fat person might feel about having them said directly to them.

Examine the overall message being sent by an image you’re choosing. Is the fat person just a symbol for laziness? Or an unhealthy lifestyle? Or stupidity?

As well as sending a direct message to fat people who see these kinds of images that their bodies are to be mocked and shamed, the underlying message reinforces negative stereotypes and contributes to discrimination toward fat people.

Remember fit DOES NOT equal athletic/toned/slim

Research is showing that excessive use of dating apps has a huge mental health cost, the obsession with looks, physique and sex has a massive price for all users, and while we have seen a move away from unapologetic fatphobia in these spaces it hasn’t gone away it’s just taken a subtle shift from directly stating ‘No Fats’ or ‘Not into Chubby Guys’ to asserting a requirement of ‘fitness’ or being ‘into the gym’

This repackaged fatphobia isn’t fooling anyone, people of any body type can be fit. Let’s face it, if you’re on any one of a thousand hook-up apps you’re probably not looking for someone to do the Beep Test with. This surreptitious use of coded language is heard loud and clear by everyone who reads it. Particularly fat people for whom the damaging assumption that fat = unhealthy is faced in much more high stakes scenarios than online dating.

Also, while we’re on this point – if a fat person is unhealthy. So what? This doesn’t give you permission to be cruel or judgemental to or about them.

Stop commenting directly about weight loss (or gain).

In a recent Instagram post actor Jonah Hill asked his followers to stop commenting about his body. Regardless of the intention, he politely let people know that reading comments about his body online – positive or negative – was not helpful and didn’t feel good.

We are so conditioned to see a reduction in a person’s size as a positive that we assume that the only way a comment about weight loss will be received is positively. However, for many people who have spent a lifetime ashamed of their body the moment of validation and affirmation is short lived, but the feelings of discomfort, shame, guilt and fear that your worth is tied to your appearance is hard wired in.

We are used to being judged and criticised by how we appear in the world, so before you make a comment about your perception of a person’s weight loss, ask ‘What Would Jonah Hill Do?’ and remember – it’s not helpful and doesn’t feel good.

Stop telling people they are attractive even though they are fat

When I have spoken about body image issues I have accumulated after years of being measured against a physical ideal which I didn’t meet, well-meaning people emerge from the woodwork to reassure me that they do in fact think that I am attractive.

When a person expresses something which has caused them pain or made them feel inferior it is natural to want to reassure them of their value, but backhanded compliments such as this, while not coming from a negative place, imply a deep conditioning that there is an automatic equivalence between being fat and being unattractive.

At no point did I say that I feel unattractive, but by owning my size or acknowledging my weight there’s an assumption that I must.

Negative attitudes towards fatness are built into our society and everyone, fat or thin, suffers because of it. We are all pushed to be at war with our bodies, weight gain is a sign of failure and accepting a fat body is seen, as a commenter on my previous GCN article said, as “the equivalent of laying down and dying”.

The only way to change this is to challenge the stereotypes and assumptions we all carry, stopping assuming we have a better idea of what a person should be doing with their body and beginning to unlearn our Fatphobia by listening to fat people, following fat artists and activists and educating ourselves.

If you want to educate yourself further on this topic I recommend:

Following the Fatzine or Scottee. Listening to the Fad Camp or Maintenance Phase podcasts.

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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