“Being fat is a choice. If fat people don’t like how they’re treated, they should just lose weight.”
For those who believe fatness is a choice, its solution is clear: simply choose to be thin. But when fat people do attempt to choose thinness, through dietary changes and exercise, it paradoxically increases the likelihood that we’ll gain back more than we lost. A well-known 2016 study of former contestants on The Biggest Loser found that their precipitous weight loss permanently suppressed their metabolisms, making weight loss and maintenance extraordinarily difficult as time went on
A 2013 research review found, in 75 percent of its studies, engaging in dieting behavior or the pursuit of weight loss was a predictor of future weight gain. Even when we try to become thin, many fat people stay fat or get fatter.
The monolithic belief that fatness is a failure, and that failure to become thin is the result of individual choices, is clearly inaccurate. But some fat people do choose their fatness. Some fat people identify as gainers, whom writer Bruce Owens Grimm calls “fat on purpose.” Gainers are often pushed to the margins by anti-fatness and body positivity alike because of our cultural certainty that fatness is a choice, and the wrong choice. Grimm describes his experience as a gay man and a gainer as one fundamentally shaped by shame: “It’s what kept me in the closet. It’s what made me afraid to be fat, made me keep those secrets from the people closest to me. It’s part of what has made me feel that I don’t fit in the world, a world that doesn’t necessarily want to make room for queer people or fat people, so a queer fat person is sometimes too much for some people.”
“Any fat person can become thin if they try hard enough. It’s just a matter of ‘calories in, calories out.’”
Calorie counts and labels, it seems, have always been shaped by social anxieties about fatness. And while those labels do reflect the number of calories in a particular food, they don’t reflect their caloric availability: the number of calories our bodies can actually metabolize from those foods. University of Cambridge researcher Giles Yeo asserts that understanding caloric availability is central to understanding the science of weight and metabolism. “Caloric availability is the amount of calories that can actually be extracted during the process of digestion and metabolism, as opposed to the number of calories that are locked up in the food.”
That is, while a food may have one hundred calories in it, our bodies may be able to digest only a portion of those. Accordingly, Yeo argues, every calorie count on every nutrition label and restaurant menu is, at worst, false and, at best, misleading.
Ultimately, there’s a lot we don’t yet know for certain. We don’t know precisely why some people are fat and others are thin. We don’t know why weight loss is so limited in the short term, or why the vast majority of those who lose weight cannot maintain that weight loss for more than a year or two. The worlds of nutrition and weight loss are full of unanswered questions. Nearly all available weight-loss interventions are ineffective for most people, most of the time. But each drives toward a proudly exclusionary vision of a world without fat people. And each presumes that fat bodies are broken and must be fixed.
“Fat people are emotionally damaged and cope by ‘eating their feelings.’”
Looking at a fat person and drawing the conclusion that they have “eaten their feelings” is a judgment of someone else’s character or life experience based solely on their appearance. It does not allow fat people to tell the stories of our own bodies. And more than that, it assumes fat people’s bodies need explaining and those around us are owed an explanation for our deviant size. At the same time, this framework of “emotional eating” puts no onus on those demanding an explanation for fat bodies—those who are standing in judgment of us. It is straightforwardly judgmental to look at a fat person and invent a story of how our bodies came to be, how they must be a result of our broken brains, broken willpower, broken lives. It is straightforwardly judgmental to presume a fat person has experienced trauma or mental illness, then hold those imagined traumas and mental illnesses against them. We look to fatter people longing to judge them, and we do.
When we pass those judgments under the banner of “emotional eating,” we use a broad and imprecise brush, often painting over more complex scientific findings and even unrelated conditions. We apply a scientific framework—utilizing our limited and oversimplified knowledge of some research—to lend legitimacy to the judgments of fat people that we were already going to make. We base our interpretation of fat bodies not in compassion, liberation, or support, but in the expectation that we are owed an explanation for the existence of fat bodies and that that explanation should further illustrate the perceived wretchedness, failure, and brokenness of fat people.
“Body positivity is about feeling better about yourself, as long as you’re happy and healthy.”
It’s hard to have a body, especially in a world that so deeply reviles fatness, rejecting it wherever it appears. All of us deserve to find peace in our own skin. But we cannot claim to be body positive and then promptly begin to gatekeep who can and cannot be part of the movements and frameworks that have brought so much healing to so many. Body positivity that fails to interrogate biases and systems of oppression will replicate them. Thin, white, nondisabled people will continue to proclaim their body positivity while simultaneously excluding disabled people, fat people, black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color under the banner of happy and healthy.
Those same thin, white, nondisabled people will continue to proclaim that they “feel fat,” using fat people’s bodies as props to illustrate their own anxieties and insecurities, without regard to how that impacts the fat people around them. Body positive influencers will continue to peddle expensive wellness remedies that serve as both a signifier of wealth for those who can afford it and a barrier to participation in body positivity for those who can’t. And body positivity will continue to demand happy and healthy of its constituents, perpetuating healthism and excluding chronically ill and disabled people. Over time, the term body positivity will come to mean less and less, becoming more and more diluted until it means nothing at all. In the process, it will also continue to be wielded as a weapon against the very communities that brought it into being.
This crescendo of bias in body positivity has been growing for years. As a fat person, it’s exhausting to witness. It’s exhausting to see so many fat people pour so much work and energy into a movement that provides so much healing to so many, including thin people, and then watch those same thin people take their healing, claim the movement for their own, and slam the door behind them. It’s demoralizing to watch the work of fat people be appropriated and defanged for the comfort and affirmation of the very people it seeks to hold accountable. And it’s deflating to watch movements rooted in fat activism be appropriated to bolster the profits of corporations like Dove, Halo Top, and Weight Watchers. A body positivity that allows these cycles to persist will, ultimately, advocate only for those who can weather them, those with the power and privilege to remain unaffected by their harm, unmoved by those who are.
“No one is attracted to fat people. Anyone who is has a ‘fat fetish.’”
Anti-fatness exists in relationships, but not because, as so many wrongly believe, fat people are somehow categorically unlovable and undesirable. The prevalence of anti-fat bias has led to a popular misconception that no one is attracted to fat people, and the only ones who are must be predatory or somehow damaged. It has led to labeling of nearly any attraction to fat people as a “fat fetish,” regardless of the nature of that relationship or how the fat person or people in it feel. Indeed, fetishes can be part of satisfying, consensual relationships.
Predatory sexual behavior targeting fat people is a problem, yes, and it should be addressed without further driving stigma around sex, sexuality, and kink. Similarly, some fat people who don’t experience romantic or sexual desire are met with insistence they have simply failed to attract a partner, likely because of their weight, and are now offering up asexuality as a kind of excuse. It’s a response that is profoundly dismissive of the identities and experiences of fat asexual people. Stigma of fat sexualities means that our own narratives of our bodies and desire—or lack thereof—are frequently rewritten by those around us. Many fat people can, and do, engage in kink. Many fat people can, and do, identify as asexual or aromantic. Still, their accounts of their own sexualities are erased, rewritten by reductive assumptions about what fat people can and do desire.