*The word fat in this article is used as a neutral descriptor of bodies, but acknowledges the intent behind fat shaming to be hurtful and discriminatory.*
Ahh, remember those fond and formative years of the early 2000s … record scratch. Remember being bombarded with media from all directions with content devoted to fat shaming? Remember waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store and seeing the magazines plastered with insults and calling out how much weight a celebrity had lost or gained? Looking back, though, a lot of those people that were constantly being publicly bullied for their weight … weren’t actually fat. We’ve established that body shaming is completely horrible, but what about fat shaming people who aren’t fat?
While it doesn’t compare to the harmful magnitude of fat shaming real fat bodies, body shaming those in smaller bodies is its own special brand of gaslighting that’s used as a method of societal control. It’s an insidious form of misogyny, and a seemingly more “comfortable” way to address body shaming that bypasses the experiences of actual fat people. Tell us in the comments all the things that give you “the ick” about fat shaming people who aren’t fat.
When body shaming those who aren’t fat, especially in a very public way, it sends a not-so-subtle reminder to the audience that the worst thing a person can be - is fat. Even the threat of becoming fat is a stain on a person’s character. Body shaming is more often directed at women (thanks patriarchy), and so the threat becomes even more intense. This is a calculated method of misogynistic control through perpetuating the fear of being fat. It is a constant reminder to be small - physically, politically, in relationships, in everything you do. And if you are small, the alluring promise is that you will be desired, you will be happy, and you will be respected. But is that true?
In 2002, Howard Stern had an interview with Anna Nicole Smith that some of you may remember. At the time, Smith had been Playboy's “Playmate of the Year”, starred in films and tv shows, and had landed her own reality series on E!. By all accounts, seeming to be desired, happy, and respected. However, Stern felt the need to inform Smith of her size, saying, “The way you dress, I don't think you're aware that you're a heavy-set woman." Smith replied, “I know I'm a big woman, so what?" However, Stern began to convince Smith to weigh herself live on air, to see if he had guessed her weight correctly. She refused repeatedly, but continued to be berated by Stern and another male co-host to “just get on the scale”.
It was very clear in this moment that, regardless of anything she had accomplished, the worst thing Anna Nicole Smith could be was “fat”, and that since she was being accused of such, her rights to command and consent for her own body were stripped.
But Anna Nicole Smith was not fat. And neither were Jessica Simpson, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Tyra Banks, Kelly Osbourne, the Kardashians, Kate Upton, America Ferrara, Jennifer Hudson, or many other celebrities that were “accused” of being fat. Most of these women had gained weight with pregnancy or throughout the normal course of life, becoming midsize at most (and therefore maintaining levels of privilege not afforded to folks in higher weight bodies).
The layers of fear mongering persisted though, prompting every day people to ask themselves, “If it could happen to someone who looks as perfect as she does, what chance does someone like me have?”. In this way, it sets the standard for “the ideal body” at an even smaller, more unrealistic size. It allows people living in privileged bodies to claim an experience that is not fully theirs, and amplifies the anti-fat bias against folks in fat bodies.
Let’s get down to business. The reality is that in 2023, fat shaming a non-fat person garners more sympathy and outrage than if an actually fat person was fat shamed. If someone who is not fat is fat shamed, there is an outpouring response of people who cry out with claims of body positivity/neutrality and that they do not deserve to be maligned. An actual fat person being body shamed is more often met with resigned agreement and blame. In a way, fat shaming those who aren’t fat is a way that we can sit back and validate that fat shaming exists, without acknowledging that it actually happens to people in larger bodies and leads to concrete forms of discrimination. Therefore, the experience of fat people is continually bypassed.
Commenting on anyone’s body size or shape, especially in a derisive way, causes hurt and harm no matter what someone’s actual size is. But specifically fat shaming people who are not fat creates a dangerous message that not only being fat, but the threat of becoming fat, is enough to strip a person of their right to body autonomy. This message is even more dangerous when directed at people who identify as a woman, as yet another way to chip away at their rights. But none of this messaging is actually as damaging as the real discrimination that real fat people are dealt - that's what we need to focus on.
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