Reader Kele sent me this question (and gave me permission to blog about it!)
A friend of mine, who is herself fattish, shared a screenshot on Facebook today. I commented that in a way I understood where the poster was coming from, but I didn’t like the fat shaming aspect at all. My friend responded that she “didn’t mean to body shame, but when she hears the phrase ‘fat ass,’ her mind automatically translates it to ‘lazy.'” I told her equating fat with lazy is exactly body shaming, and she asked me to explain why! I did my best, but I have to say it’s so obvious to me and I was so confounded that a smart woman would pose the question that I’m not sure I did a great job.
I have found that this is a common problem. One of the ways that marginalization of fat people is kept in place is through this kind of “stereotype and substitute” situation. Instead of stereotyping all fat people as lazy (which is bad enough), people just start to use the terms interchangeably.
A good example of this was that ridiculous “fattest thing you’ve ever done” things which was actually just story after story of people who ate a lot one time. That’s not “being fat” that’s eating a lot one time, and if there’s anything that meme proved it’s that people of all sizes do that.
Stereotyping like this creates issues in a number of ways:
First, it creates situations where behaviors are considered fine for people who look one way, but not for people who look another way. For example, consider the likely reaction to a sitcom scene where a thin girl who has just broken up with a significant other is wearing sweats and no make-up, eating a gallon of mint chocolate chip from the container and squirting whipped cream into her mouth. Now imagine if it was a fat girl doing the same thing. This type of stereotyping creates appearance-based double standards, and that’s bullshit.
It can create intersectional oppression for fat people who also deal with issues of racism/healthism/ableism that may come with stereotypes/preconceptions of laziness. Also it leads to “lazy” (by whatever definition) fat people being treated dramatically worse than “lazy” thin people, when neither is really anybody’s business.
This meme is particularly irritating to me because speaking out against celebrity shaming is important, and this totally botches it by employing the terrible strategy of fighting celebrity body shaming with fat body shaming. Based on this meme I might get the idea that it’s ok to shame celebrities as long as you are thin and eating kale chips in an uncomfortable chair. That’s not how we make things better.
This kind of stereotype/substitute also creates a situation that encourages people to project their shame about behaviors in which they engage onto fat people to try to make themselves feel better. If they feel like they eat too much or don’t get to the gym enough they can lash out at fat people, and then feel better about themselves. But fat people don’t exist to be punching bags for thin people with self-esteem issues, and using us that way is unacceptable.
Finally it takes an adjective that accurately describes people’s bodies, and turns it into an epithet used to shame and bully. That, in turn, contributes to a climate of bullying and oppression in which people, like Kele’s friend, actually forget why it’s not ok to stereotype type people or substitute a behavior for an appearance.
Here are three easy steps to prevent this:
- Don’t confuse body size or appearance with behavior
- Don’t use an adjective that describes a group of people as an insult
- Think before you meme
Speaking of memes let’s see if we can’t make some improvements:
There, fixed it!
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