Humans 101

What You Call Internalized Fatphobia Might Be Internalized Dominance

What many thin people refer to as ‘internalized fatphobia’ is a different side of the same coin

A marble statue of a thin woman looking off to the side, angrily and mistrustfully. The statue stands in front of lush ferns.
A marble statue of a thin woman looking off to the side, angrily and mistrustfully. The statue stands in front of lush ferns.
Photo: Adam Wilson/Unsplash

I know that you have learned to hate your body.

I know the messages, the images, the comments, both cruel and well-intended. I know the sinking feeling of seeing your changing body in the mirror, the sharp pain as your clothes dig into newly soft flesh.

I know it hurts, and the pain can sometimes feel immeasurable. I know it is tempting to validate that pain by asserting that you are the intended target of an oppressive system. I also know that, if you have never been a fat person, the name for that pain is not “internalized fatphobia.”

Internalized oppression is a longstanding concept in social sciences and social justice work: one that has been discussed for decades and one that transcends movements. Internalized oppression and its twin concept, internalized subordination, refer to the ways in which a group targeted by oppression begins to internalize the messages of their oppressors and begins to do the work of oppression for them.

Internalized oppression isn’t a simple matter of low self-esteem or lacking confidence. It’s a product of systemic oppression. In the Texas Hispanic Journal of Law & Policy, Laura Padilla maps out how internalized oppression takes root:

Dominant players start the chain of oppression through racist and discriminatory behavior. … Those at the receiving end of prejudice can experience physical and psychological harm, and over time, they internalize and act on negative perceptions about themselves and other members of their own group.

That is, internalized oppression isn’t just oppressive concepts that anyone can come to believe; it is a direct result of being the sustained target of discrimination and prejudice. Author and organizer Suzanne Pharr expanded on the complexities of internalized oppression in In the Time of the Right:

Internalized oppression is more than low self-esteem, which implies an individualized mental health issue calling for an individualized therapeutic solution. … The damaging effect of stereotyping, blaming the victim, and scapegoating is not only that the general public accepts such negative beliefs, but that the targets of these beliefs also come to accept that there is something wrong with themselves and their people. … It is then a more simple task to dominate them, free of the threat of organized resistance.

Internalized oppression has never been as simple nor as innocuous as “low self-esteem.” It also isn’t as simple as any person — on the up or down side of power — coming to believe or agree with oppressive ideas. Internalized oppression is an essential component of marginalizing a group of people: making them believe their oppression is deserved, normal, and natural and may even require their participation as their own oppressors.

Similarly, the Texas A&M University Office for Diversity explains internalized oppression as “the result of people of targeted groups believing, acting on, or enforcing the dominant system of beliefs about themselves and members of their own group.”

Internalized oppression is a concept that, for decades, has been used to describe the experiences of people who are specifically targeted by a system of oppression. Women may have internalized misogyny; for men, it is simply misogyny. Trans people may express internalized transphobia, but when cis people like me invest in harsh and restrictive concepts of gender, even when it includes policing our own gender presentation, that’s not internalized transphobia — it’s just transphobia. Similarly, when thin people come to believe terrible, judgmental things about fat people and weight gain, even when they extend those judgments to themselves, that isn’t “internalized fatphobia” or “internalized anti-fatness.” It’s just anti-fatness.

Internalized anti-fatness is what happens when fat people police our own behavior and the behaviors of other fat people, having experienced a lifetime of that policing from thinner people. Internalized anti-fatness is what happens when fat people strive to be seen working out and eating salads, praying that our compliance with thin people’s wishes will spare us their scorn. It happens when we tell ourselves or other fat people that we should dress to look thinner, often using more palatable code words like “slimming” and “flattering.” It happens when fat people accept street harassment, fat taxes, and medical bias as the natural and reasonable costs of daring to live in the only bodies we have. And yes, internalized anti-fatness is what happens when fat people come to believe the harsh and constant judgments that other people — predominantly thin people — hurl at us.

If you don’t experience a particular kind of oppression, it isn’t yours to internalize.

None of this means that you and other people who aren’t fat can’t struggle with your body image — many do. Nor does it mean that the way you’ve been made to feel about your body is acceptable. Your suffering is just as real and valid as anyone’s. But that doesn’t mean that your experience is the same as people who are visibly, undeniably fat — those of us who are kicked off airplanes, even as paying customers; those of us whose doctors may refuse to treat us; those of us who are laughed out of eating disorder treatment because we “look like you haven’t missed a meal in a while”; those of us who are denied jobs solely due to our size.

Yes, you can feel very real, very deep hurt. But that isn’t the same thing as being systemically excluded from meeting your most basic needs because of your size. If you don’t experience a particular kind of oppression, it isn’t yours to internalize. And despite the pain endured by many straight-size people (that is, people who don’t wear plus sizes), that pain isn’t internalized oppression.

When I share this information with straight-size people, I’m met with a cacophony of objections: “That’s your opinion.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be me.” “You don’t know what I’ve been through.” They’re right; I don’t. But those objections often come from thin women — particularly thin white women — who struggle to conceive of oppression unless we are the target of it. Many white men are inclined to think that oppression isn’t real, having escaped its crushing grip. Many white women, especially those of us who consider ourselves empathic, are inclined to think that oppression is real but that we are the target of all of it. And when we claim that space, we erase and displace the many people who are intended targets of oppressive systems: Black people, indigenous people, people of color, disabled people, trans people, and in this case, fat people. What you are feeling — that compulsion to object — might be a sign of what happens when your sense of centrality is challenged.

In some ways, the appropriation of internalized anti-fatness mimics how thin women have taken over body positivity — a largely unintentional but deeply harmful coup that took a movement rooted in radical fat activism, appropriated it for thin people who already had immense cultural power, and wrote fat people out of our own movement. Today, “body positivity” is defined more by thin women’s struggles with self-esteem than it is by the radical fat activists who paved the way for it. And now, even as fat activists work toward our own liberation, thinner women are once again asserting themselves as those most oppressed, claiming that their insecurities are “internalized fatphobia” both placing themselves at the center of a system that specifically targets fat people and simultaneously speaking over the countless fat people who are deeply, constantly impacted by anti-fatness in individuals, public policy, doctor’s offices, and more.

Instead of thanking fat activists for the work that has offered them so much or working shoulder-to-shoulder with us to build a more just world, many thin women instead appropriate our work, then write us out of it. That isn’t internalized oppression—it’s learned supremacy.

Yes, I know the fear of becoming fat and then the fear of becoming fatter. I know the urge to starve yourself, to succumb to the siren song of disordered eating just so you can meet the promise of thinness. I know the pressure that you level against yourself.

I also know the pressure you level against me and people who look like me. I know the look on your face when you see a body like mine and think, with momentary but great relief, “At least I’m not that fat.” I know the way you pray not to sit next to someone who looks like me on an airplane or a city bus. And I know the disgust you may quell when you see a body like mine with bare arms, legs, or torsos.

I know your pain. And I know that the depth of that pain doesn’t justify replicating it, visiting it again upon people with less cultural power than you. Your pain can be, and is, honored. Women who are not fat are centered in the vast majority of conversations about body image, eating disorders, and weight stigma. And now, many are displacing fat people once again, claiming “internalized fatphobia,” and once again centering themselves in a conversation about a system of oppression that specifically and primarily harms fat people.

I know that you struggle with your body image despite ostensibly meeting the beauty standard in so many ways. That dissatisfaction is part of living in this world, part of having a body. I know it hurts. But I don’t know how to explain to you that other people have different experiences, that they may have different needs, and that you may not have it the worst. I do not know how to convince you to acknowledge—regularly and readily, to yourself and others—that you can feel hurt and also hurt others. You can struggle with your body image and still benefit significantly from anti-fatness. You can dislike your body and still push fat people to the margins, even in the movements and spaces we create for ourselves. And when it comes to fat people, you often do.

You haven’t internalized fat people’s oppression. You’ve learned to keep yourself out of the line of fire.

Thin women make up the majority of doctors who have refused to treat me. A thin woman once removed a melon from my shopping cart, tsk-tsking that it contained too much sugar. Thin women aren’t the exception to anti-fatness — too often, they’re the rule.

So, no, people who have never been fat, who have never worn plus sizes, don’t have internalized fatphobia. It isn’t internalized, it’s just fatphobia.

It is not your fault that you have learned to replicate oppression. You’ve been hailed into a system that tells you your body is an accomplishment, albeit a tenuous one. Your struggle to stay thin isn’t because of oppression you’ve internalized — it’s because of dominance. Because you see the ways fat people are regarded, treated, and tossed aside and because you likely know, by and large, that is not how bodies like yours are treated.

You may yearn to stay thin or get thinner, at least in part to avoid the discriminatory attitudes and actions that are so commonly leveled against fat people. You haven’t internalized our oppression. You’ve learned to keep yourself out of the line of fire. And instead of making the world safer for all of us, regardless of size, you focus on keeping yourself small — and maintaining the dominance you’ve been taught you earned.

Internalized dominance, like internalized oppression, is a longstanding concept that transcends movements for social justice. Where internalized oppression refers to the ways marginalized people take up the mantle of our own oppression, internalized dominance refers to the ways people with privilege internalize and enact the belief that they are naturally and justifiably superior to the marginalized communities they contrast. And, according to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, internalized dominance “is likely to involve feelings of superiority, normalcy and self-righteousness, together with guilt, fear, projection and denial of demonstrated inequity.”

Learning about these concepts and learning to see your own complicity in oppression may make you uncomfortable. It should.

Microaggressions are often rooted in internalized dominance, small and piercing reminders that marginalized people need to remember our place. Sometimes those messages are coded; sometimes they’re explicit. And in a country with a self-proclaimed “war on obesity,” where so many of us are trying or have tried to lose weight, most of us have bought into internalized oppression or dominance.

Learning about these concepts and learning to see your own complicity in oppression may make you uncomfortable. It should. All of us should be uncomfortable when we realize the ways we’ve asserted our power over others. And we should use that discomfort to power our own growth — not to push painful realizations aside but to grow through them, to become better, to make new mistakes, and to grow through them too.

If this doesn’t sound like you, if you find your throat still crowded with objections, here are some examples of what internalized anti-fat dominance can look like. Read them carefully. Notice your own defensiveness and discomfort. Listen for what it’s telling you.

  • Recommending diets, offering to be “gym buddies,” or otherwise telling fat people to lose weight.
  • Insisting that your thinness is a hard-fought victory and suggesting that it should be rewarded with praise, healthier relationships, or better jobs.
  • Suggesting that fat people cover our arms, our bellies, our thighs, or otherwise offering style “advice” that suggests fat bodies cannot or should not be seen.
  • Wanting to lose weight so that you aren’t perceived or treated the way that fat people are.
  • Correcting fat people when we describe our own bodies as “plus size” or “fat.”
  • Bringing up fat people’s size and making it clear that you disapprove under the auspices of being “concerned for our health.”
  • Seeking to find a weight limit for body positivity or neutrality — finding the size at which thinner people can, once again, reject or judge fat people.

Doing these things is certainly harmful, but it doesn’t make you a bad person, at least not in my eyes. Most of us replicate internalized dominance without knowing or thinking about it. That’s how power and privilege maintain themselves: They make us their unwitting foot soldiers. After all, if fat people come to believe that we are inferior and that we need fixing, is it any wonder that thin people come to believe that their bodies are beyond reproach and that their culturally superior position is earned?

Having internalized dominance to work through isn’t an indictment of thin people’s character or goodness; it’s a reflection of a culture that reliably rewards thinness and consistently penalizes fatness. There are ways to uproot our biases and challenge our internalized dominance. After a lifetime of training, it comes to us as easily and naturally as breathing.

No, none of this is a reflection on your character. But what you do next is. So, what will you do? And who will you become?

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

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