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The harmful effects of fatphobia


Fat-shaming has become so endemic that most of us fail to question it anymore. The fear and loathing that fatness engenders is striking. News publications, magazine articles, and various podcasts enforce the stigmatization of fatness, which labels overweight people as lazy, unmotivated, and undesirable. This weight stigma discredits fat people’s experiences because of the negative social meanings attached to being overweight or obese. Society has a compulsive need to bracket some traits as healthy, i.e. eating clean and being physically active, and other traits, such as having a sedentary lifestyle, as unhealthy.

However, we never look at the pains an individual might have had to go through to achieve society’s "ideal" body type – they may have starved themselves, undergone numerous eating disorders or over-exercised. This doesn't bear much weight, though, because today, what matters is how neatly an individual fits into society's beauty standards.

Hegemonic culture suggests that diet culture is the avenue to a healthy life, and that thin bodies are good bodies. A century ago, societal beauty standards were also a major issue. For example, the 1900s explored the "Gibson girl," a woman that was emblematic of the then-ideal of beauty, with an almost non-existent waist. This is in line with Naomi Wolf's idea of the "beauty myth" – an unreachable cultural ideal of feminine beauty that has persisted for so long.

Today, body image affects men as well as women. Most industries value fashion-thin, athletic people as the ideal body type. The constant pressure on social media to be “lean,” coupled with leanness being associated with masculinity, has proved to be nothing short of problematic and damaging.

Fat-shaming and fat-phobia are biases against fat people, which may manifest virtually and/or in person. These individuals may experience discrimination based on their body weight, which often leads to barriers in promotion, a wage gap, and lower quality healthcare.

One form of discrimination women face is healthcare discrimination, but many women have long been concerned with their weight, and now young girls are, too. This is because the media has long promoted women to be slender and shapely, and anyone falling outside this hegemonic ideal is "othered." Many women are thus more likely to face disordered eating, overexercising, and depression. Statistically, over 20 million women today face eating disorders.

In good news, many women are now more open in revealing their ongoing battle(s) with trying to control their body size. They share experiences that challenged their perspectives and advice on how to push back against the pressures to conform to the ideal body standard. This is evident with ex-Love Islanders such as Malin Anderson, who came out on social media and slandered the unrealistic body standards that the show promotes.

In contemporary culture, only cursory and surface-level beauty standards are taken into account. Society, by and large, doesn’t question the toil (physical and mental) a person potentially underwent in order to achieve an ideal body type.

With that being said, some people do not take into account why others may be overweight or obese or understand that their ability and mental health may be a major factor of their body type(s). Finding the motivation to go and exercise may sometimes be taxing. Additionally, eating disorders can often lead people to feel fatigued constantly. It is extremely ironic that social media, such as Tiktok, that perpetuate mental illnesses through portraying athletic bodies as ideal(ised) are also the sites that congratulate people when they starve themselves to become "skinny."

Similarly, sociological studies mention the importance of ability and the privilege that comes with living in a thin body. In our culture, disability is often rendered invisible and when it is visible, it is restrictive. The privilege of ability often goes unnoticed because we take for granted the fact that we are not impaired physically or mentally – this idea of "normality" associated with able-bodied people makes it seem as though everyone has equal opportunities.

However, this is not the case. Ableism permeates society as prejudice against disabled people and often disadvantages them in many areas such as employment discrimination or poverty. Additionally, in Western society, there is an obsession with increased muscle mass and decreased body fat amongst men and women. In contemporary culture, masculinity is often associated with "lean muscle" and decreased fat. However, not all men can endure the quest for the ideal body type, considering disabled, transgender, underweight, and overweight men may not be able to. For men who lack toned muscles and a lean body type, they may experience muscle dysmorphia, which is a belief that a man is too small or insufficiently muscular. This often leads to a vicious cycle of pushing themselves beyond their capabilities, which inevitably impacts anxiety and can lead to obsessive behaviours towards exercise and eating. Through this one example, we can see that body-image issues are not restricted to women only.

Additionally, both sexes are concerned with fat. For most men, fatness is equated with effeminacy because masculinity is defined by leanness, and although contemporary body standards have evolved from size-zero waists, many women still desire to appear youthful and slender. For one thing, we know a lot more about standards of female beauty in other cultures than we know about similar standards for men, in large part because the patriarchy created those standards in the first place. In contemporary society, this has led to the rise in cosmetic surgeries such as breast enlargements and butt implants, which are a few of the many procedures women can undergo in order to appear desirable (in society’s eyes, that is). Men today are increasingly opting for cosmetic surgery (such as penile enlargement surgeries) as a way to feel more youthful or desirable. In order to achieve a masculine ideal, they need to appear more virile in comparison to other men. Evidently, modern and unrealistic standards of beauty today are one reason why women and men opt for body-altering surgeries. Many men and women are willing to undergo the pain, risk, and financial burden necessary of these cosmetic surgeries to reach idealized tropes of masculinity and femininity.

Ultimately, I believe that unrealistic beauty standards forced on women and men are one of the reasons that fat-shaming and fat-phobia are so prevalent in society. The media often disseminates unrealistic messages to individuals about ideal body types; people who do not fit these idealistic, cookie-cut categories are excluded from society. I really admire something the fat singer Lizzo said: "I owe it to the people who started this to not just stop here. We have to make people uncomfortable again so that we can continue to change." As Lizzo suggests, there is lots of work to be done. We all need to be cognizant of the harmful effects of fatphobia and diet culture create, and work towards dismantling them.

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