Dear Virgie: Why Are People So Mean to Fat People?
People are mean to fat people because they are bigots. Our culture uses the language of fatness to articulate other cultural anxieties around gender, race and class.
I recently got harassed because of my size twice in one week. And it leaves me asking: why are people so mean to fat people?
It really, really sucks that fat folks risk harassment every time we leave our home. I know I feel like I am always ready to be pointed out, laughed at, or outright mocked. This leads to anxiety, hyper-vigilance and sometimes self-isolation. I am bummed that that happened to you.
It’s important to know that the mean behavior you’re referring to is a manifestation of bigotry. Bigotry is always about projection and fantasy.
“Fat” and “thin” are contrived, socially constructed categories. Stigmatized categories are created so that members of the dominant culture can project all the fearsome qualities that they themselves possess onto others with less power. They then fantasize that the group is either terrifying or inferior (or both) and act out of a paranoia of their own contrivance.
So, people are mean to fat people because they are bigots. Furthermore, our culture uses the language of fatness to articulate other cultural anxieties around gender, race and class.
There is a long history of the belief that fatness is caused by an undisciplined relationship to food. There’s also a long history of the belief that people who are perceived as undisciplined with food are immoral. The truth is the relationship between food and body size is very complex, but in our culture that complexity is flattened for the purposes of discrimination and the maintenance of archaic ideologies.
We live in a culture that believes that you can control morality through food. And we also live in a culture that believes that you can tell someone’s morality by looking at their body. Obviously these kinds of linkages are absurd. Nevertheless, there are a number of cultural realities that make little sense but that we accept as a society without question.
I think that the United States is uniquely obsessed with morality, purity and innocence. Purity, innocence and morality are transposed onto thin bodies. There’s nothing inherent about that connection, but we maintain it through cultural mythology.
Furthermore, it is that claim to purity, innocence and morality that we have used for centuries to explain our campaigns of violence and genocide. It is all a myth, but it is a myth that the country must believe in order to maintain its unethical history and behavior as justified. It is a paranoid fantasy that costs many people their lives and their happiness.
Bigotry is an ideology that illogically positions certain people as superior or inferior to others. A lot of people believe that fatphobia is not a form of bigotry, but rather is a form of concern. A really significant sign of bigotry is the presence of double standards. There are many examples of a fat person and a thin person exhibiting identical behavior, but the fat person experiences negative judgment while the thin person experiences either no judgment or receives accolades. I’m thinking of wearing sweatpants or yoga pants in public — fat people are considered too lazy to be dressed properly, while thin people are presumed to be doing exercise.
Think of all the times that fat people have been judged for eating anything in front of others while particularly thin people who eat a bunch are considered adorable. Or think of the ways that fat women’s bodily functions are policed. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a thin woman being called cute for burping while knowing that if she were a fat woman that the exact same behavior would be considered unacceptable and crass. There are many examples of this double standard and they are indications of bigotry. The thing about bigotry is that it positions the targeted group as naturally inferior and less than human.
It’s important to recognize that there is a structural element to people’s fatphobia in order to truly understand others’ capacity to be cruel to us. It is their responsibility — not yours — to do better and be better people.
I hope this helps.
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help those who are ready to break up with diet culture, and started the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight.