Fat and the Fear of It

I talk a lot about how using body size as a proxy for health does a disservice not just to fat people but also to thin people who get the message that as long as they are thin they are healthy regardless of their behaviors.  I was thinking today about the similar disservice that fat stigma does to the entire population.

Being fat is an interesting experience because it is a highly stigmatized group who are thought to be able to move in and out of that group at will. (I don’t think that the research shows that at all, but I find that it’s the commonly held belief.)

Because of this, there is a general idea that the cure for social stigma directed at fat people is for those people to stop being fat.  In other words what we’re told is “Stop making people want to stigmatize you so much!”

Among fat people this this creates a couple of categories.  If we publicly agree that we deserve to be stigmatized for being fat, and we’re trying to “do something about it” in the form of attempting weight loss (aka being a “good fatty”) we can gain some provisional acceptance from the stigmatizing group.  If we refuse to buy into a thin=worthy model and refuse to attempt to conform and make our picture match someone else’s frame (aka being a “bad fatty”) then many people feel that we deserve all the hate and vitriol that they can spit at us.

We get 386,170 negative messages about our bodies a year. We are told that we can’t be attractive, sexy, smart, loved, or healthy until we are thin.  This is obviously wrong and we deserve to be treated better.

But there is one group who are affected by these things who don’t often get attention:  They are the people who are thin but spend their lives obsessed with not getting fat. They see what happens to us fatties and they don’t want it to happen to them. Some have disordered eating. Some are fixated on exercise.  Some weigh themselves every day in constant terror of being fat. Some spend their lives on diets trying to lose those “stubborn final 10 pounds”. Some miss out on experiences that they would have loved to have because they are afraid that it will make them fat or because they can never skip the gym.  Some lose their lives on the operating table getting fat sucked out of their asses.  I’ve heard that 8 out of 10 women and 6 out of 10 men are unhappy with their bodies. Women start dieting earlier (4 years old!) and stop later (or never).

So ending all the body shaming and body stigma isn’t just about making fat people’s lives better (although that alone is absolutely a worthy goal), it’s about making everyone’s lives better.  Imagine a world where we could all approach our relationships with our bodies purely from a place of care and appreciation.  A world where nobody hates their thighs, where bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that’s just peachy.  A world where people can make choices about their health rather than making choices based on the terror of facing massive social stigma.

We all deserve to live in that world. And we can all do things, right this minute to get us there.  Some example to get us started:

1.  Stop body snarking.  All of it. Right now.  There is just no reason in the world for you to comment negatively on someone else’s body.  Get your self-esteem elsewhere (how about intrinsically?)

2.  Interrupt body snarking and fat stigma whenever you hear and see them – whether it’s in your own mind or in public about your body or someone else’s.

3.  Consider approaching your body from a place of care and appreciation.

4. Consider spending the money that you would spend on diet programs on other self-care…get some massages, take classes that you’ve always wanted to take, buy a bike, hire a chef to prepare delicious foods that will nurture your body, take a trip to a spa, buy whole foods, whatever makes your body feel amazing.

5. Understand that almost everyone in our society is hurting because of the unceasing body shame and stigma. Even that person who you might think has “everything” – the perfect body, the perfect face –  may be living his or her life in terror of losing that.  Look for ways to support other people and lift them up. Today at the bank I saw a woman with beautiful long, curly silver hair (exactly the kind of hair I plan to have someday).  I told her that I thought her hair was awesome and she started crying.  CRYING. At. The. Bank.  She hugged me and told me that her friends said that you can’t have long gray hair and that she should cut it.  What the eff people?  We can do better.

6.  Rock my official shirt.  Oh yeah, I totally went there.  A few posts ago some readers asked me when I was going to have a DancesWithFat shirt they could wear. Thanks to lovely graphic design by Cristy C, I now have one. This is the first item that will help fund the upcoming Dances with Fat World Tour! Click on the image below and it can be yours.

Official Body Positive Dance Shirt shirt

33 thoughts on “Fat and the Fear of It

  1. Awesome! I want that shirt to work out in! Do you want to address the fact that larger sizes have larger price tags though?

    1. Hi Holly,

      I’m definitely not excited about it (just like I’m not excited about shirts at Lane Bryant being more than straight-sized shirts). I looked around and this was the best deal I could find but I’m absolutely open to suggestions…


  2. body snarking is terrible. I think it before I can even stop myself. And all I’m doing is oppressing myself. It accomplishes worse than nothing – I feel terrible and I end up wanting to buy something to feel better.

    Worse, I have some friends on Facebook who take photos of anonymous strangers to snark about them. Maybe I should unfriend those people.

    Thanks for your words of wisdom! We all should be “approaching our body from a place of care and appreciation.”

  3. Such a great post, Ragen! Fear of getting fat is something I’ve spent way, way too much of my life on, so thank you for acknowledging that struggle as well as the one of people who actually live under the massive struggle of being fat in our society.

    I’d also like to have the shirt in black as well (or any color besides white, which I’ll get stained in about ten minutes). I was also curious about why there were no supersized bodies on the graphic. When I look at it, in fact, all the bodies except the heel-lifter and maybe the headspinner actually look quite thin to me. A lot of folks I’d like to see dancing are WAY rounder and I’d love to walk around representing them as dancers. Some dancers/athletes I love are also in wheelchairs, missing limbs, etc. Now I’m feeling inspired. I’d love to make you an additional design as a donation toward your world tour, that you’d be welcome to use or not use as you saw fit–interested?

    1. Morgan,

      Glad that you liked the post 🙂 It would be amazing if you would do a design – maybe you could do it in pink or white or something that I can put it on a black background?



  4. This is all fantastic as usual, but I think your point #5 is the key to making people understand why fat and body stigma is so damaging to people of all sizes. Because we all know that it’s not just good enough for a woman to be thin – she’s also supposed to have big boobs but no fat anywhere else, long legs, small waist, no “cellulite” or scars or stretch marks, and so on. If you’re thin but have , say, small breasts and a flat butt, or one half of your body is noticeably larger than the other half, then it still isn’t “right” and you need to fix it with exercise or plastic surgery. This absolutely needs to stop. I think of a friend of mine, another dancer who is so beautiful men follow her down the street, who insists on always wearing high heels because she thinks her legs are too short. Believe me, no one else notices. And there’s another who was refused admittance to the National Ballet School not because of a lack of talent but because she was too busty for their tastes. It never ends!

    And I’m glad you told the woman with the beautiful silver hair how much you liked it. She needs some new friends, not a haircut.

    1. Meredith,

      That’s a really good point – we are judged on a single, rigid, impossible standard of beauty and I see it have such a massive negative effect on so many women. It seems like we are the only ones who can decide to end it…


  5. Thank you! For putting into words something I haven’t been fully able to articulate, and something that needs more discussion in our culture. Do you mind if I link to this post in one of my future entries?

  6. THANK YOU FOR MENTIONING THE THIN PEOPLE THING. I’ve had an interesting relationship with fat through my life. I love love LOVE fat men and have always respected fat people (and, well, everyone, really). But when it comes to myself….at some point when I was twelve (TWELVE) I began to have some tinges of disordered thinking about my weight. My average weight. It stuck with me, though never actually turned into any bad-for-me actions, and chipped away at my esteem for the longest time. I’ve been working to shake it for a while now, and I have some progress down…

    Your blogging has helped, just sayin’ 🙂 and i love the shirts~

      1. I agree wholeheartedly, but I do have to mention that our culture is also toxic to men. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself in the conversation heading down the road of “Anorexia [or any ED] is a woman’s disease”…I just cannot with that attitude. Just like muscular dysmorphia (“bigorexia”) is not strictly a male disorder, neither is anorexia, bulimia or any other ED!

        1. You are so very right and thanks for bringing it up! Sometimes I forget to include the menfolk since it’s outside of the realm of my experience. I’ll be more diligent!


  7. Any chance the shirts could come in 3 or 4X here??? and a 2X adds $4.00? Seems to go against everything you write about…

  8. hi ragen, is it just me or are each of your posts getting more brilliant than the last? it seems you are channeling directly from the heart. i was just at a conference on bariatric surgery where some telling and chilling points were raised that relate to what you are mentioning here…how people after surgery and extreme weight loss confess to liking there old “own” body better. also, as a nutritionist who works along the entire body spectrum of life, the topic of the life energy lost in the fear of a bad body is one that i witness daily. i just wrote about my experience at the conference in “how do you say no to a brownie?” and discuss body hate in “muse of the girl.”

    1. Thank you so much! I read your post on “how do you say no to a brownie” and I thought it was really interesting. Bariatrics is an area that definitely concerns me – both because the “benefits” statement seems to confuse correlation with causation, and because of my own experience with having doctors tell me that I should have the surgery – especially since even if I believed that it cures health problems, I don’t have any. So doctors put people at risk for really dramatic side effects (including death) sometimes with no good reason other than to change the size of someone’s body. Thanks for fighting the good fight!


  9. this post is so true! When I first realized how much I terrorized myself in order to stay thin, to get my butt smaller, to reach a flawless skin, etc, etc. and how much this all keeps sucking my positive energy, I really cried. Literally.
    That’s why I wrote in my last comment that self-acceptance is important for everyone, no matter what size they are.

    I’m only at the beginning of my journey – so far I succeded in stopping and interrupting body snarking; now I’m working of eating more intuitively. For sports, I started working out at home two months ago and found a lot of fun in it, so I’m trying not to focus on “toning” or weight loss but on the fact that working out makes me feel amazing, fitter and more energetic.

    Live is so more beautiful if you’re nice to yourself 🙂

  10. “Some weigh themselves every day in constant terror of being fat. Some spend their lives on diets trying to lose those “stubborn final 10 pounds”. Some miss out on experiences that they would have loved to have because they are afraid that it will make them fat or because they can never skip the gym” –

    This is what recently moved me off of my “diet support forum” and got me looking into myself instead of at myself. I have lost weight and maintained the majority of the loss (200+ to mid 150s, yea me, so why don’t I feel good?) over the past 6 years. But oh my goodness the struggle. And then I would look at posts from women who have lost incredible amounts of weight, who are still counting every mouthful of food and stressing because they can’t get their bodies to stay below 120 if they consume more than 1200 calories per day and/or don’t workout. I started to think about this. Do I want to exist in this manner? No. No I do not. I enjoy lifting weights and I enjoy running and biking and walking and swimming. But in the back of my mind there has been a calorie ticker that interferes with really experiencing, really LIVING my physicality. And that freaking scale. The one that will not go below 150 no matter what I do to myself (and as a not completely recovered person with an ED, I have done a LOT to myself) I further began to think…. if I were friends with a woman who had someone in her life that was constantly calling her fat and telling her she was worthless if she didn’t do X and unattractive because she doesn’t weigh Y … well, I would be telling her to dump that partner because she deserves so much better. But I let my mind (and that freaking scale) be exactly that kind of partner to ME! So I am beginning to work this thing out. I’m not there yet because gosh, I really want to be thin… I really want to be a size 6….. I really want to look at myself in a mirror and see a flat tummy and slim thighs and toned upper arms…… so I need to learn to love what I see, what I am, and stop picking at myself. 5’4″ and 156lbs has to become acceptable to me,. No, more than that. It needs to become beautiful to me. I need to learn to love how I look and feel with this body. And, oh how I would love to eat ice cream and not immediately start thinking about it turning to fat and frantically working out how to purge it before it does! How wonderful would it be to get up in the morning, strap on my shoes, and go for a run without thinking “I must go this far and run this long to burn off this amount…” instead just think about the beauty of the day and the feel of my muscles working and my breath and heartbeat and all the wonder of the ability to do something so simple and joyous. So… this is long winded but thank you for your blog 🙂 I intend to hang here quite a bit as I work through this and learn not just body acceptance but body love.

  11. i was talking with a very fit friend of mine the other day, and she was musing on the fact that, with all the time she spends in the gym, if the extra health that buys her gets her ten more years of life, will those ten years have already been spent in the gym? in other words if we spend our time trying to buy time (instead of living our lives), aren’t we going around in circles? i thought it was profound.

  12. “Women start dieting earlier (4 years old!) and stop later (or never).”

    Karen Carpenter certainly stopped dieting.

    Oh, wait…

  13. Hi, Ragen,

    I am working on an article for Love Your Body day on 10/19 for the website Gaming Angels, and I was wondering if I could reference this blog post? I think it is just the right tone for the subject. Thank you in advance!

    Beth Johnson

  14. I couldn’t help but notice, with this post, how similarly we treat fat people and survivors of sexual assault/abuse. Always with the victim blaming. Oh, you’re fat? Well obviously that you’re fault and you deserve what you get. Oh, you got raped? Well obviously you shouldn’t have worn that skirt/had that drink/gone out in public/been born with a vagina/etc.

    It’s appalling, any way you slice it.

  15. Nowadays, people start avoiding foods which are full of nutrients because of the small amount of fat in it.
    There are lots of man and women who are suffering from Lipophobia (Fear of becoming Fat).
    I really appreciate the way you write an article on this topic, I hope it will help people the way they think about their body.

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