Why Isolation Could Create More Fat-Phobia: 7 Ways To Combat Fat Shaming

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Why Isolation Could Create More Fat-Phobia: 7 Ways To Combat Fat Shaming
Health And Wellness

By now, most of us are tired of being inside because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. No matter how much we know it is necessary, it still feels burdensome.

But because most of us are good at heart, we are doing the best we can. No one wants more deaths or sick people and, least of all, to be the cause of such catastrophe.

Furthermore, we hear that good is coming out of our communal efforts: fewer deaths, pollution is going down, and, in some parts of the world, it is rumored that some countries are finding common grounds and building policy across political lines.

Politically, some may be healing profound differences.

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But for all that goodness, I am worried that this pandemic may leave us with more fatphobia and a more fat-shaming in society than we already have at present.

It may be due to fear, anxiety, or just not having clearly thought out the meaning and consequences of our actions and feelings.

You may be asking yourself how a pandemic could create a more fatphobic society.

Why am I raining on the parade of a better world after COVID-19? I assure you that I, too, want a better world for all after the pandemic, including overweight and fat people.

To begin with, let me explain the meaning of the two terms I am hoping do not become further entrenched in our society: "fat-shaming" and "fatphobia."

Although they are connected, the concepts are different from each other.

What does "fat-shaming" mean?

You are fat-shamed when you are told — overtly or covertly — that you are fat, with the underlying understanding that fat is bad. Or, God forbid, that you may be gaining weight or have gained weight.

People who are moderately overweight or not at all (according to our social expectations of body size) may still feel the ugly venom of fat-shaming.

Fat-shaming usually happens verbally or in writing. At this time in history, it is happening with memes or in a joking manner.

In April 2019, a study called Shaping the Body Politic: Mass Media Fat-Shaming Affects Implicit Anti-Fat Attitudes evidenced what we, psychotherapists in the field, know and have witnessed in our offices for the last 25 years.

Fat-shaming harms people — it leads to anti-fat attitudes.

When fat-shaming is done to celebrities, the shame trickles down to us mere mortals. We become more afraid of fat and more aware of the need to not be fat, or we will incur or the wrath of those who fat-shame.

As a psychotherapist working with body image and eating issues, it is my firm belief that fat-shaming serves none: not the fat, nor the thin.

Why? Because when fat-shaming happens, the victim of the joke or comment feels awful.

Even if the joke is not targeted to someone in particular, we still feel that it might apply to us. If the idea is for the person to stop eating, we all know it does not happen.

The person who is fat-shaming is not free, either. One can always end up on the other side of the joke.

Fat-shaming leaves us all feeling trapped and paranoid. The outcome is that we begin to not trust our bodies.

We begin manipulating how, when, and what we eat. We may end up messing up the natural cycle of hunger and satiation. We may develop eating issues or even an eating disorder. 

The definition of "fatphobia."

Fatphobia does not involve any one person in particular and it is not targeted to any one individual. But it happens on a bigger scale than fat-shaming because it involves an entire group of people.

This stereotyping is considered discrimination. And as such, it is based on a blind-unproven idea, not on rational thinking.

The notion of fat people being less than their thinner counterparts has been ingrained in our minds and it is not an examined belief for most — "Fat people are..."

A fatphobic society believes fat people are lazy, dirty, lack self-control, are ugly, unable to exercise, or have regular lives.

Unfortunately, these beliefs do happen at institutional levels as well: work, schools, gyms, and medical offices.

When institutions uphold fatphobic beliefs, they may blame a fat patient for a disease that a thin person would not be blamed for. 

Another example is the assumption than a fatter person could not do as good of a job as a thin one based on their weight.

Now that we cleared up the difference between fatphobia and fat-shaming, how can COVID-19 leave us with a more fatphobic society?

Here are 4 reasons the coronavirus pandemic may create a more fatphobic society.

1. We need to laugh!

Humor is healthy and allows for people to let out steam. However, humor is also a way to bypass anxiety.

Sometimes we laugh at things that are not funny or at situations or events that make us anxious and uncomfortable. We laugh as a way to deal with them. When someone falls, we crack up hysterically.

Fat is another example of something that makes us anxious. We laugh, but we would not want to belike the portrayed person in the meme. And we forget that many people have the body types depicted in those jokes.

2. We distance ourselves from anxiety.

When humans are anxious, we try to put what makes us nervous far away from ourselves. For instance, if going to the doctor makes us nervous, we may forget the appointment and not show up.

Having a disease lurking outside your house while you have to be inside with no escape from the situation is anxiety-provoking, to say the least.

However, we are resourceful and we can find a group of people we can distance ourselves from without feeling politically incorrect or mean. We can even feel virtuous in separating ourselves like this. 

3. Fear is a powerful sentiment.

We all have felt fear in our lives. The fear of not belonging to the right group of people is very powerful. This fear is at its peak during adolescence.

However, in my many years of experience, such fear does not ever go away. Why? It is what has kept humans alive since we were in cave-people.

Belonging to a clan and making sure the enemy was outside is a powerful tool that helped us survive.

In today's pandemic, we feel that we must survive, too. Unconsciously, we need to belong to a group — the right one. We must leave the wrong people out. Fat people, unfortunately, seem to be a good option to leave out.

4. We are aggressive.

When people are inside their homes for a long time, they become like rats in a lab: They start to feel aggressive with each other. Lack of space does that to living things.

Thank goodness we are not rats, so we do not bite or kill each other! But we do feel aggressive, nevertheless.

Human beings have many means to deal with their aggression; putting down others with jokes is a way to do it.

So, what are the strategies to stop fat-shaming and become less fatphobic?

We must address and examine our feelings and change our actions. We need to practice feeling certain positive emotions, instead of indulging in negative and judgemental ones.

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Here are 7 ways to combat fatphobia and fat-shaming.

1. Focus on positive emotions.

There are many constructive emotions we need to draw from during this tough time.

Productive emotions are joy, happiness, love, gratitude, calmness, and compassion. These feelings might make navigating this quarantine easier.

Positive emotions are an antidote to anxiety and fear, which are, in my understanding and opinion, the culprits of sending memes that make fun of an entire group of people.

2. Nurture yourself and others.

Nurturing ourselves and each other may be expressed in different ways. But we all need it, especially at this point in history — fat people, too.

Some fat people eat compulsively or binge. Some do not. If you hinder someone's path to well-being by upsetting them with a meme, you are not helping to nurture someone (or yourself).

Could you find a meme that says that all body types are accepted? That all of us are maybe having some difficulty with our eating or with something else?

3. Cope with fear and anxiety.

These two emotions are going to pop up in our daily lives, especially with a virus that feels like the phantom enemy. Acknowledge both feelings. Do not try to put them aside as unimportant.

Ask yourself what your worst terror is. What is making you nervous? Maybe it is gaining weight. Or perhaps it is living with bad habits. 

It is normal to feel these emotions. Do not cast them aside. If you do, they will come up again. Separating yourself from fat people will only make you more anxious about the possibility of becoming fat yourself.

4. Develop awareness.

Developing awareness means realizing what is happening around you and inside of you.

You may be part of the change; you may be a part of a better society if you chose not to send a meme or a joke about fat people, even if you think it is funny.

We find some things funny because they make us feel safe. Find safety in other ways, and you may become part of a better society.

5. Cultivate acceptance.

You are not perfect and neither am I. No one is. There are things you may not be able to accept right now. Fat may be one of those things.

Maybe some extremely fatphobic people had someone large or fat bully them when they were kids. Or maybe they had an abusive parent or step-parent who was fat.

These people conflated fatness with being bad. You may not be able to accept fat, but you can stop a cycle of abuse.

6. Empathize with others. 

Just put yourself in the shoes of a fat person. Trust me, many if, not all, of them would have lost the weight if they could have done so. Many are not living happy lives in their large bodies. For many of them, life has not been an easy journey.

Fat people come in the same flavors as thin people. Some are awful and some are good, kind human beings who feel insulted when they see their body types made fun of continuously.

7. Be compassionate.

The key strategy for society to become less fatphobic is compassion. Compassion for all human beings, no matter their size. After all, you do not feel differently about a Chihuahua and a Great Dane based solely their size.

Compassion is the key to your happiness with your own body, as well. Do not forget it. This is not an easy task but it's doable.

If we manage to feel curiosity about ourselves and others instead of fear, if we can summon the desire to truly understand the experience of another human being with a certain body type in our society. When we stop judging, we will be able to stop fat-shaming and create a less fatphobic society.

If we can use our imagination to envision someone else's life, we will not hinder their well-being. By sending fewer jokes about fat people you will also feel less anxious about your bodies and fatness.

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Iréné Celcer is a psychotherapist and an author working and living in Atlanta, Georgia and Buenos Aires, Argentina. For more information, visit her website.