What is Fatphobia?: Examples in Media, Medicine, Fashion & More
Updated: Jun 17
Trigger warning: this article will refer to topics of body image and discrimination
There are many ways in which societal standards still impact and harm marginalised people, and one of the most obvious examples is fat stigma or “fatphobia”. In this guide, we’ll be looking at what fat stigma is, how it presents itself in the media and in day-to-day life, and the impact this has on people in larger bodies.
“Fat” isn’t a dirty word
You will notice that this guide uses the word fat, instead of what some people may call a more “politically correct” term. This is because “fat” should not be seen as a slur, and we should not be conditioned to fear the term. This and many other ways are steps towards challenging fatphobia in our society.
(Some) ways to challenge fatphobia:
1. Understand that fat does not equal unhealthy.
2. Amplify the voices of fat people, especially in topics that they may be silenced (i.e. fashion, fitness, etc.)
3. Check in with yourself and biases, how do you react to fat and overweight people? Challenge why you have this preconceived image.
4. Keep your “weight loss” tips to yourself if they are not asked for.
5. Do not villainize certain foods as a “unhealthy” or “cheat meals” because it perpetuates a bad relationship with eating.
Read more about ways to fight fatphobia here.
What is Fatphobia?
In simple terms, fatphobia is a fear of fat bodies and negative behaviour towards a fat person. Some people experience internalised fatphobia and actively try to change their looks because they are uncomfortable with their bodies, while other people are fatphobic towards others by being judgmental or discriminating against people with bigger bodies.
Your Fat Friend writes in a Self-Opinion piece that the problem with using the term fatphobia is that it implies someone is scared of a fat person and excuses their anti-fatness and discriminatory behaviour as a “fear or phobia”, which are legitimate mental illnesses. The author argues that this term is problematic, as excusing discrimination under the guise of a “phobia” isn’t just damaging to victims, but also minimises the experiences of those who struggle with actual phobias and mental health issues. For this reason, they suggest using the term “weight stigma”, “fat-shaming” or “anti-fatness” instead.
Who is affected by Fatphobia?
Studies show that fat women tend to get paid less and may end up in lower-paying jobs, due to being stereotyped as lazy. Women and men in bigger bodies receive worse medical care, as doctors often immediately blame their weight as the root of a health issue, without considering other factors. Also, people who have experienced fatphobia are prone to developing depression and anxiety, or unhealthy coping mechanisms. A study by the National Library of Medicine shows how people who are overweight or have internalised weight bias reported higher levels of loneliness.
Examples of Fatphobia
These are some instances that have a root in structural fatphobic society:
1. “You look great with those pounds off” or any remark on your weight loss
We've probably all heard someone make this comment (or a variation of it) to someone; a distant relative at a family occasion, a teacher on the first day back at term or a comment on an Instagram post. While it may seem harmless and affirmative, it can also be problematic regardless of however well-meaning it may be. This is because it’s rooted in the assumption that weight loss is always a positive thing, without considering that the method of weight loss may have been very unhealthy for that person (low mood, drug addiction, disordered eating etc.). Although this comment may come from a good place and may not mean any harm, it perpetuates a person’s behaviour to continue losing weight or keep the weight off through harmful practices.
2. Medical discrimination
Assuming someone is less healthy or sick because they are bigger is a common misconception in our society. This is also present in the medical field where doctors often suggest that fat people ‘lose weight’ as the first point of call. While body mass can be a crucial indicator of someone's health, it is not the only consideration. However, perhaps owing to social attitudes towards 'fat' people, other causes for illness may be overlooked with serious consequences. Not to mention the impact this may have on someone who has a troubled relationship with food and is at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.
3. Fashion double standards
Fashion as a statement and self-expression mechanism is very important, yet many fat people feel limited by the thin and slim-dominated market. An article by Glamour reports that 68% of of women shoppers are plus-sized, but the fashion industry has a significantly smaller percentage of plus size people working within it. The author says this can be fixed by giving more plus-sized people a seat at the “fashion industry table” and making brands more inclusive.
This is also present in the growing “thrifting and second hand” era, where plus sized shoppers have more difficulty finding apparels that fit them. And even when they do, the clothes may be unfashionable or not in the best state. At a time when thrifting is seen as a more eco-friendly option, many shoppers find themselves in the conundrum of spending an excessive amount of time trying to thrift their wardrobes and being limited by the options in these retailers. Options are limited, but apps like Vinted and Etsy, and websites like Thrift+ are making efforts to make this easier.
Once clothing is made available to them, fat people often experience stigma or are called “brave” for choosing to wear something that people are used to seeing on a smaller body. It’s a lose-lose situation, which leads many people to feel self-conscious and hide behind baggy clothing in order to avoid comments or looks.
4. Online abuse
Online, there is a new trend of “Concern Trolling” which refers to people offering unsolicited advice and criticism about a person’s weight, disguised as mere “concern for their health”. This can be damaging to the user receiving these comments because assumptions are being made about their health and wellbeing based on their appearance, without knowledge of their actual health conditions, current mental health, or lifestyle choices.
Users also hide behind the anonymity of internet personas to make fun of fat people. Psychology Today explains that this behaviour is excused in people’s minds and our weight-obsessed culture by the assumption that being fat is a choice, and that people should strive to achieve a certain body image that has been imposed by societal standards of beauty.
Fatphobia in entertainment
In many movies and TV shows, the fat friend is typically a sidekick to the protagonist and serves as comic relief. They rarely get their own storylines or action unless it is tied to the protagonist. The fat friend can be more extroverted and confident than the protagonist, aware that they are fat but don’t care to change their appearance (Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, for example) or they are introverted, and the protagonist serves as their support network (e.g. Sam in Game of Thrones).
This trope uses the “fat friend” as an accessory to the protagonist and strips them of any agency. Conceptualising fat people as binaries, either extroverted and confident or introverted and in need of support, translates to our conception of fat people being two-dimensional. It may lead overweight people to not feel represented in the characters they see and lead to people reducing complex humans to simple binaries.
There is also a recurring trope of remembering that someone used to be fat, and although they have lost weight and are now thin, they themselves are fatphobic and disgusted by how they used to look. For the millions of Friends-lovers out there, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. The childhood obesity of the now petite Monica, played by Courtney Cox, is the butt of many jokes in the series. Seeing this comedic portrayal of fatness in the media can be very harmful, as using someone’s body image for laughs dehumanises them. Especially when these types of image-related jokes are mainly about making fun of one specific body shape. “Fat bodies are funny”; that is the message that these types of scripts and entertainment pieces perpetuate.
There is also the problematic portrayal of the once fat person who has “overcome fatness”, but still finds the subject triggering. Often this internalised fatphobia is an unchecked mental illness which the entertainment industry plays off as character-building, but can be very harmful for viewers. For example, the storyline of Quinn Fabray from Glee who used to be fat but had cosmetic surgery to change her appearance. She eventually changes her name and moves to a new school to “leave Fat Lucy behind”. Hannah from Pretty Little Liars was also a fat kid and deals with an eating disorder but is now thin and “attractive”, which means her internalised fatphobia is swept under the rug. This type of portrayal shows viewers that it is okay to overlook body-image issues if other people have accepted you, which can be very harmful and toxic mindset.
The narrative around fat people needs to change. Some movies such as Isn’t It Romantic? have already shown more examples of fatness being embraced and not presented as a defining factor in a character’s storyline. This helps viewers feel better represented and uplifted by the positive or even neutral representation, while also de-villainising fatness and breaking down stereotypes that reinforce fatphobia.
Fatphobia in music
Even the music industry is plagued by fatphobia. There is an underlying belief that fat singers must be limited to ballads and slow tempo music, assuming that they are too unfit to perform a more lively number. The fat singer tends to be depicted as sad and melancholic, and when they don’t adhere to this expectation, they’re seen as “brave” (i.e. Lizzo). There’s even the common misconception that all opera singers are fat or obese, which is completely untrue but has been popularised by the age-old phrase, “it’s not over till the fat lady sings”, and by comic depictions of fat singers in opera, such as Richard Wagner’s Fat Lady in Götterdammerung. This is direct evidence of how the media can perpetuate and reinforce biases, in this case fatphobic ideas and views, onto our real world.
This misrepresentation is harmful because it results in us judging someone by their looks instead of their abilities to perform. It means that people with bigger bodies are seen as “good for opera and ballads” while people who are “fit” are suitable for more upbeat music. This is also a result of the stereotype that fat people are not “fit”, a word which is thrown around as a synonym to being skinny rather than healthy.
Remember, all bodies are beautiful. This guide does not praise behaviours of malnutrition and bad eating habits that result in weight gain, but rather wants to emphasise that being fat should not be a synonym for being unhealthy or lazy. Your body size does not define your health, and what you weigh is nobody’s business but your own. If you are on a weight loss journey, make sure you are doing it for yourself and your health, and not societal demands or critiques of your body image.
If you’re currently struggling with body image and eating difficulties, here are some great organisations which might be able to help:
• Talk ED
Edited by Evie Townend & Amy Watts