By Sama Nemat Allah
Content warning: this article contains mentions and descriptions of eating disorders and fatphobia
I waited idly in my high school’s office, as I did every day in Grade 12, for the clock to strike 8:55—my cue to begin the morning announcements.
My school’s monotonous office was a safe haven for me. It functioned as a space of comfort and tranquillity before I stepped foot into the hormones, anxiety, incurable anguish and unrequited love that make up the pandemonium of high school.
That morning, I was forced to relinquish the only place of refuge I’d come to know. My guidance counsellor approached me in the office to tell me how proud she was that I was “finally taking care of my body” and how she couldn’t believe that I was “disappearing before her eyes.”
I smiled politely. “Thank you,” I said. But what I really wanted to ask was if she thought I’d finally been saved from the fat body I was trapped in. I walked to class that morning wondering why she would ask me to fall in love with an illness that has robbed me of all pleasure, hope and autonomy.
I lost 70 pounds in three months when I entered Grade 12 as a result of an undiagnosed eating disorder (ED). It went undiagnosed because I didn’t look like someone who society believed could suffer from an ED. As spoken-word poet Blythe Baird said in her poem When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny, “If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you go to the hospital. If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story.”
A love for food cascaded through my Middle Eastern blood, but all of a sudden, food was painful and eating was unappealing. I would drink litres of water to fill my body with anything but the sustenance it needed to survive. I etched a library of foods and their corresponding calories in my mind, noting all the ways I’d have to move to make up for the gain. I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I was shrinking but I was also dying. Instead of being offered treatment, I was offered stock phrases that celebrated the way I refused to be kind to my body.
When everyone seemed to like me so much better that way, it became harder to stop starving myself.
Fat people are made to believe that it is their duty to chase thinness. This belief—which often masquerades itself as a fact—isn’t one I was born with. Rather, it was ingrained in me: instilled by reality TV that awarded contestants large sums of money for taking up the least amount of space, or promoted through Friends and Insatiable episodes that never hesitated to make fat girls the punchline of a joke. Fatphobia was sold to me in pre-packaged granola bars and through years of Weight Watchers commercials.
A love for food cascaded through my Middle Eastern blood, but all of a sudden, food was painful and eating was unappealing.
I was once unable to name the system that glorified my experiences with weight loss and disordered eating. When I attempted to recover from my ED, however, I finally learned that the systemic frameworks that fuel anti-fatness are rooted in anti-Blackness.
According to University of California sociology professor Sabrina Strings, fatphobia’s origins are not in health. Rather, the stigma was born as a means to degrade Black women in the trans-Atlantic slave trade by portraying their dispositions as gluttonous and consequently, their bodies as immoral.
Strings explains this in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Her book further emphasizes that Western society was led to favour slimness and carry aversions to fatness when the latter became stigmatized in the United States as both “Black and sinful.” By the 20th century, being thin was depicted in mainstream media as the ideal for Anglo-Saxon Protestant women.
Strings asserts that our contemporary medical system was born out of these ideologies. Our phobia of fatness and our preference for thinness, she notes, has historically been less centered on health than it’s been centered on stigma. It acts as another tool for crafting racial, gendered and class hierarchies.
When fat people are disproportionately Black and racialized in the United States, the vilification of fatness cannot be disentangled from racism.
The media’s stigmatization of the fat body has also allowed the moral assumptions at the root of anti-fatness to persist. News outlets are apt to release articles on tackling the “obesity epidemic,” equating fatness to disease. These biases and ideologies are not without consequence. Fat people receive inferior treatment by health care professionals and face deep-rooted discrimination within workplaces. Fat students deal with peer rejection in educational settings from as early as three-years-old.
Now, as a first-year journalism student, I still exist in a (virtual) space that talks about fat bodies as worthless or disposable. Class group chats trade weight loss tips like prized possessions and I’m forced to listen in fear that I’ll miss out on reminders for deadlines.
I stay silent as they talk about dieting, juice cleanses and intermittent fasting, equating weight loss with being deserving of love and weight gain as deserving contempt. I wonder if my friends know that the words they hastily exchange don’t exist in a bubble; they often leave me rethinking my breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the ways I can make myself more digestible.
The media’s stigmatization of the fat body has also allowed the moral assumptions at the root of anti-fatness to persist
My experience radicalized me because it pushed me to question why we pathologize fat bodies. Weight is not an indication of health—further still, health is also not an indication of value.
Fat bodies have not failed and thin ones have not succeeded. For us to believe otherwise upholds systems of white supremacy that need to be dismantled. Fat people deserve to be liberated; to exist as they are without barriers to receiving health care, safety, clothes or employment.
Until then, I will work on healing. I will decolonize my ideas of beauty by not ascribing to a hallucinatory ideal. I will diversify my social media to give space to fat BIPOC influencers, activists and creatives. I will commit to internalizing all the things my body can and should do besides getting smaller; walking, healing, fighting illness, hugging my sister in the morning, storing my favourite memories of my best friend. And just as importantly, I will ask myself how my fatphobia manifests in the ways I treat and view bodies that are bigger than mine. I urge you all to do the same.
Because we all deserve so much more than sacrificing our bodies, voices and power in order to mould ourselves into easier pills to swallow.