Humans 101

7 Ways to Uproot Your Anti-Fat Bias

Bias against fat people is on the rise — and it’s harming our health, relationships, and self-esteem

A photo of five sculpture-like human faces.
A photo of five sculpture-like human faces.
Photo: Ozgur Donmaz/Getty Images

The conversation is always the same and no less heartbreaking for its familiarity.

After days, weeks, months of talking with their fat friends and family, a straight-size person (that is, someone who doesn’t wear plus sizes) realizes that anti-fat bias isn’t just the work of devoted bigots, bad actors hell-bent on tormenting fat people. Something has clicked into place: She now realizes that the bias lives and breathes within her, too.

Anti-fat bias is, she finally understands, something she’s been perpetuating and replicating without even realizing it or meaning to. Every well-intended weight loss compliment, every “sweetie, no, you’re not fat!” now stings. Everything she’s learned to say now feels wrong, but she doesn’t know how to revise her old scripted lines or what she’d put in their place. And it isn’t just a matter of what she says but how she thinks. She finds herself overwhelmed, longing for somewhere to start, something to absolve her of all this guilt she now believes herself to have earned.

The truth is, there is no checklist of anti-fat bias. There are no tidy steps to an escape hatch, no ejector seat to launch us out of the body-based beliefs we’ve developed. There is only the long, complex work of learning to see each other again. There is only the discipline of holding ourselves to new standards. There is only relearning how to see our humanity reflected in those around us—regardless of their bodies.

Many of us think of ourselves as egalitarians, so acknowledging any biases, even subconscious biases, can threaten our very self-image.

That work is long, complex, and soul-searching, yes, but there are clear starting points and clear measures of progress. There will be moments of epiphany and revelation, moments of divinity and eureka. But despite all that gospel, there is no moment of salvation, no benediction to deliver us from a system that has so meticulously trained each of us in its work. There is only the work of learning to love more, learning to care deeper, learning to respect one another, even when we struggle to understand.

Here are some places to start that work.

Acknowledge your anti-fat bias

It’s difficult for any of us to face our own biases — and it’s even harder when we may not believe we have biases to confront. Many of us think of ourselves as egalitarians, so acknowledging any biases, even subconscious biases, can threaten our very self-image.

But when it comes to bias against fat people, the data is clear. Fat people are less likely to be hired, with 85% of hiring managers saying they wouldn’t even consider hiring a fat woman. More than a third of medical students harbor significant prejudice against fat people — and they’re unaware of it. And, according to researchers at Harvard University, implicit bias against fat people rose significantly between 2007 and 2016. That is, anti-fat bias has been on the rise in recent years and may still be.

All of us in the U.S. (and many other nations) are products of a society that hates and fears fatness, seeking to eliminate it wherever it appears. We’ve spent a lifetime being conditioned to perpetuate anti-fat bias without question — even to justify it. That conditioning isn’t our fault, but it is our responsibility.

Start by taking Harvard University’s Implicit Attitudes Test on weight bias, which can help measure the unconscious bias that informs our thinking and actions every day. Acknowledge that those biases have likely hurt fat people, or have done something to uphold the exclusion or scapegoating of fat people. After all, most of us have done something, big or small, to perpetuate anti-fat bias. Denying that may feel more comfortable, but acknowledging our bias and its possible harms are the first steps to addressing it and doing better.

Diversify your social media feed and reading list

Anti-fat bias thrives on the idea that fat people are aberrant, that we are exceptions to a more penitent, thin rule. Anti-fat bullying and behavior are often predicated on the idea that if fat people tried harder, they could be as thin as the rest of us. But “the rest of us” are fat. In the United States, 70% of people are fat. Yet still, so many of us are trained to see fat people as a pitiable exception and a failure.

So use your media and social media consumption to build a world that looks more like ours, and that includes a wider array of bodies. Fill your Instagram feeds with fat people who are your size and fatter. Find bodies that look like yours, sure, and be sure to find bodies that don’t. Find fat folks of color, fat disabled people, fat trans people, fat people whose bodies fall outside the realm of what you’ve been taught to idealize.

Learn from fat people. Read the work of fat writers like Roxane Gay and Kiese Laymon, Julie Murphy, and S. Bear Bergman. Read closely, carefully, tenderly. Take heed of fat folks’ experiences, and notice where those experiences buck your expectations or make you want to withdraw. Learn to listen to what you’ve been taught to disregard.

Do your own research

What myths about size and weight do you hold onto? Is it that fat people could lose weight if we tried? (The odds of a very fat person reaching their BMI-recommended weight are less than 1%.) Is it that fat people are lazy, and should just get off our couches? (Over 60 studies have shown that exercise doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss.) Is it that we all just need to go on a diet? (95% of dieters regain any weight they lose — even if they call it a “lifestyle change.”) Or is it that anti-fat bias is overblown or simply doesn’t exist? (It does, and it appears to be on the rise.)

Whatever it is, chances are it’s not based in research — it’s based in a series of pervasive cultural myths that have long since been debunked or, at the very least, challenged by a broad range of medical and academic studies in recent decades. If you find yourself struggling with those truisms, go straight to the source — find peer-reviewed studies on the ways weight stigma worsens eating disorders, the effects of social exclusion on fat people, or how weight stigma may actually drive the so-called obesity epidemic. Research may not release you from your beliefs, but it will expose them as just that: not facts but beliefs. And those beliefs are often weaponized against fat people to justify our erasure and mistreatment.

Inventory how your anti-fatness shows up

This, then, is the meat of it: taking an inventory of the harms we suspect we may have caused. Spend some time thinking of how your anti-fatness shows up in your relationship to your own body. These will likely flow easily, if painfully. Think of the ways you’ve sought to change your body through diets that may have given way to eating disorders, cosmetic treatments that may have given way to dysmorphia. Think of what you’ve learned from your parents, siblings, friends. Think of how you’ve been taught to see your own body and the blame you’ve learned to heap upon it. This may be painful, but acknowledging these not as facts but as errant beliefs is a critical step to letting them drift away from you.

Now spend some time thinking about how your anti-fatness shows up in your relationship to others’ bodies. If you’ve got anything in the first column, you’ve definitely got stuff in the second column. Feeling stuck? Take a look at some of these common examples of everyday fat-shaming or this primer on anti-fat microaggressions from a weight stigma researcher.

Once you’ve done that, spend some time writing or talking about these two lists. What themes do you notice? Where did you learn your beliefs and actions? What will it take to uproot them? And what’s one easy behavior with which you might start?

Some possible starting places:

  • When a plus-size person describes themself as fat, stop objecting. Let them describe their own body.
  • Start interrupting friends who freely comment on what fat people should and shouldn’t be eating, wearing, or doing.
  • Now that you know weight loss efforts through diet and exercise don’t work for at least 95% of us, stop recommending them.
  • Find a therapist who specializes in body image work to right your own relationship to your own skin, and to work on externalizing your insecurities with the fat folks around you. The Health at Every Size registry is a good place to start.

Ask for feedback from fat friends and family members

As you are building your inventory, you will undoubtedly come up short. Each of us has learned to hide our biases from ourselves, tucking them behind justifications and squirreling them out of sight. As in any anti-oppression work, getting feedback will be important. So talk to the fat folks in your life. Ask what their body-related experiences have been in the world around them, and with you. Ask if there are ways you can better support them. Then make a plan to begin to do those things.

Speak up about anti-fat bias and challenge weight stigma

Education and introspection are good — but they only make a substantive difference if they change our actions. And too often, our cultural conversations focus on how we see our own bodies and stop short before addressing how our behavior impacts those around us.

When you see anti-fat bias in action, interrupt it. What you say doesn’t have to be perfect, nor does it need to lead to an immediate change in someone else’s behavior. It just needs to set a boundary and illustrate to those around you that you won’t tolerate anti-fatness. Remember that interrupting anti-fat bias isn’t just a matter of changing the behavior of a biased person — it also sends a powerful message to the fat people around you. Many fat people have a lifetime of experience of being publicly shamed without anyone else backing us up. Prove us wrong. If you believe that you are a safer, kinder, more egalitarian person than most, show us. Speak up.

Learn from your own defensiveness

These steps are not insignificant nor are they without challenges. You will feel defensive, mischaracterized, challenged, or maligned in the process. Right or wrong, those feelings of discomfort and defensiveness have something to teach you. What about your worldview is being threatened by doing this work? What narratives and experiences are you trying to protect? And how or why might better learning to respect fat folks’ wishes pose a threat to those narratives? Do you need those narratives to protect you in any way, or are they part of the same machine that’s hurt you, too?

Learn to listen to your own discomfort and defensiveness. It has a lot to teach you. But you can’t learn if you don’t listen.

These are beginnings, brave first steps on ground that shifts beneath your feet. They will challenge you, stretch you, nourish you, feed you. Some will come with feelings of shame, others with feelings of liberation. But all of them will lead you back to your body. And all of them will help you see fat people in ours.

Your Fat Friend writes about the social realities of living as a very fat person. www.yourfatfriend.com

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