“If You’re Fat, Then What Am I?”

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about body image and eating disorders. I can’t even begin to address all of them here. But there’s one I’ve been thinking about lately–that problems with body image are caused solely by comparing yourself to unrealistic standards, and can be solved by simply comparing yourself to the “real” bodies around you instead.

First, a disclaimer–I’ve never had anorexia or bulimia. However, I’m not entirely out of my depth here. Had I gone to see a psychiatrist at some point prior to this year, he or she would probably have taken note of my obsessive calorie-counting, severe dietary restrictions, compulsive weight-checking and fat-pinching, and general conviction that I was “fat,” and diagnosed me with something called “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or “EDNOS.” This means that one doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any of the eating disorders, but is definitely disordered nonetheless.

(For the record, I’m much better now.)

Anyway, one thing I remember very vividly from my years of thinking I’m fat was one particular response that I often encountered. Some people (mostly other girls), upon learning how I felt, would respond with this: “If you’re fat, then what am I?”

Now, I understand exactly where this comes from. Many of my peers were probably insecure, too, and it makes sense that they would be reminded of their own insecurity once I mentioned mine. Since I was indeed thinner than many other people, that response makes sense on some level. If I’m fat, they must be obese!

But it doesn’t really work that way. It would certainly be convenient if people’s self-concepts were always rational and based on reality. But the very definition of mental problems is that they’re distortions of reality–they’re unrealistic. That’s why grief after the death of a loved one isn’t considered a mental disorder, but depression is.

And that’s exactly why “If you’re fat then what am I” is not an effective response. At the time, I didn’t give two shits what other people were. It didn’t enter my thought process. In my case, my conviction that I was fat was mostly caused by cultural factors; namely, the fact that Russians are fucking preoccupied with beauty and weight. Absolutely preoccupied. It was also caused by years of ballet lessons, my depressive personality (which magnifies personal flaws), the belief that I could lose 10-20 pounds and still be healthy, fear that guys wouldn’t find me attractive if I had folds on my stomach, and many other causes.

For other people with body image and eating issues, the causes may be different. Some people develop the feeling that they’re unable to control their environment, so they control the only thing they can–their body. Others may start out actually overweight, start to diet and lose weight, and find that they’re addicted to the feeling of getting thinner. Others develop an overwhelming guilt whenever they eat, especially when they eat unhealthily, and they start to purge after eating. Some may have friends who constantly talk about their bodies’ flaws (remember Mean Girls?) and start to think the same way.

Whatever the causes are, these issues are much too complicated to be defeated by a simple glance at someone who weighs more than you.

Of course, “If you’re fat then what am I” also fails one of the most basic requirements of being a good listener–don’t change the subject to yourself. If your friend feels crappy and needs to talk to you, don’t make it about you. If your own issues are making it difficult for you to listen, tell your friend that. Sure, they might be disappointed that you can’t listen to them, but that’s much better than how they’re going to feel when you take their pain and turn it into a conversation about you and your weight.

It’s easy to resent people who, according to you, “should” be perfectly happy with their weight but are not. I can’t say I don’t get a twinge of annoyance whenever I witness a girl much smaller than me freaking out about her weight. But then I remind myself that she’s not me. Poor body image seems almost like a cliche among young women these days, but it’s so much more complex than you might think.

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Fatism and Going to Extremes

Discrimination against fat people is a problem. People who are overweight are often judged to be less competent, less intelligent, and more lazy–not to mention less attractive–than people who are of a “normal” weight. They face discrimination in the workplace, and there are some jobs for which they are unlikely to ever be hired at all.

It’s only natural, then, that a movement has sprung up to combat “fatism”–and that’s awesome. What bothers me, however, is the tendency of anti-fatism activists to deny the fact that being severely overweight has negative effects on one’s health. I hear a lot of “weight has nothing to do with health” arguments these days, and this sort of denialism is simply dangerous. Obesity is a problem in America, and it does put you at increased risk for a lot of health problems, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • breast and colon cancer
  • osteoarthritis
Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, I feel like its prevention is something that should be taken seriously.

Regardless, denying these health problems does not help anyone, and admitting that being obese is unhealthy is not tantamount to justifying discrimination against obese individuals. After all, one’s health is one’s own business, and not taking care of your body shouldn’t result in being discriminated against.

It worries me when social movements respond to a problem in society (such as fatism) by taking the extreme opposite view. This happens a lot with progressives. For instance, noticing that our society has pervasive and restrictive gender roles, some claim that gender is entirely socially constructed and has no basis in biology whatsoever. (Apparently these people never noticed that men and women do actually have at least one very noticeable biological difference.) Some note that homophobia is rampant in society, so they insist that heterosexuality is actually constructed and unnatural, and that same-sex relations are the only “genuine” ones. Similarly, some people think that because discrimination against fat people exists and discrimination is wrong, therefore, there is nothing whatsoever bad or unhealthy or in any way undesirable about being overweight.

But being fat isn’t the same as being part of other marginalized groups, such as being a woman, being gay, being transgender, or being Black. No reputable scientific study has ever found that being gay or transgender is in any way unhealthy or abnormal (except, of course, in the statistical sense). No reputable scientific study has ever found that women or African Americans are inferior in any way to men or Caucasians. But our entire body of medical evidence shows that being severely overweight comes with significant hazards to your health. This is something that is simply true. Regardless of whether you think BMI is a good measure of obesity, and regardless of how easy or difficult it is for you to lose weight, being obese is unhealthy. Does this mean that discrimination against fat people is okay? Hell no. But it does mean that obesity is something that should be discouraged.

Incidentally, some of the things that anti-fatism activists consider discrimination simply aren’t. For instance, when airlines ask obese people to buy two seats, guess what–it’s not because they just don’t like obese people. It’s because if your body requires more than one seat, then you should have more than one seat–in which case, it follows that you should pay for more than one seat, because it wouldn’t be fair to give some people a second seat for free. Furthermore, it would be unfair for a person who paid for a seat to effectively receive only half a seat because the person sitting next to them clearly requires part of theirs. Does it suck to have to pay more to fly if you’re fat? Yes. But in that case, lobby for airlines to make seats bigger, not to give you permission to use half of another customer’s seat.

Also, companies that provide incentives for their employees to exercise/get down to a healthy weight/whatever are not being fatist. They’re doing two things: 1) encouraging their employees to be healthier, and 2) saving themselves money by reducing lost productivity due to medical problems and by reducing the amount they have to pay as insurance. Fact: being healthier and not obese reduces medical expenditures. Similarly, doctors who recommend that their obese patients lose weight are not being fatist. They are being doctors. I am terrified of the day when doctors are prevented from dispensing sound, evidence-based medical advice for fear of offending someone.

Regardless, it is, in fact, quite possible to discourage obesity without promoting eating disorders, obsessive dieting and exercising, and holding oneself to an impossible standard of beauty, as the mass media does. Conflating  efforts to discourage obesity with efforts to promote unhealthy behaviors or stigmatize fat people is intellectually lazy. There is, for every issue, a solution that is healthy, reasonable, and benefits the greatest possible number of people. Just because that solution is extremely hard to find doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s there, and I can guarantee that it is almost never at one extreme or the other. It’s usually somewhere in the middle.