When I first met my boyfriend, everything seemed to be going well. We had both studied psychology, shared a similar sense of humour and loved trying the same new restaurants. I had been single for a long time – a conscious choice I’d made whilst I completed my PhD studies, I should add – so being a new relationship was fresh and exciting.
He had recently qualified as a psychotherapist, and seemed to share my passion for mental health and wellbeing. We would have lively conversations about health behaviour change, the relationship between our mental and physical health, the failure of dieting and the value of intuitive eating.
When I was asked to speak or write articles about these topics, my boyfriend always appeared supportive. I sometimes spoke about my work with clients, where I coach people to eat and exercise intuitively, and he seemed to champion the approach. Sometimes we disagreed about the small details, but I thought we were on the same page.
Unfortunately, his fatphobia soon started to emerge. Animated conversations became arguments. Critique turned into condemnation. Philosophical discourse transformed into personal attacks. Our once quiet and relaxing evenings together now resembled a slanging match interspersed with long, awkward silences. After seeing him, I started to feel a sense of relief, rather than excitement about the next time that we would meet.
“Despite my concerns, I tried to carry on as normal. I cared about him deeply and I wanted to make it work”
On one occasion I was left in tears after a barrage of criticism for my advocacy of a Health At Every Size (HAES) approach. Why? He told me that my previous experience of suffering from an eating disorder had made me biased. Instead of recognising my own story was a driving force to help others have the healthy relationship with food, exercise and their bodies I struggled to find, he resented my rejection of diet culture.
Despite my concerns, I tried to carry on as normal. I cared about him deeply and I wanted to make it work. He promised to ‘be more careful with words’ and I accepted that as enough. After becoming listed in a body-positive fitness directory, which I hoped would allow people wanting help to find me more easily, I couldn’t wait to share the news with him. Instead of celebrating with me, he made fatphobic comments about the Instagram page associated with the directory. He said I was irresponsible for not helping those in larger bodies to lose weight, instead of supporting them to accept their bodies and tune in to their internal cues.
I was taken aback, and I was upset and angry – not only at his derogatory comments, but the realisation the situation wasn’t going to change any time soon. We weren’t on the same page. We weren’t even reading the same book. It was at that moment that I decided to end the relationship. I felt an instant wave of relief but also a sense of sadness. We had been together for over a year and I had anticipated that our relationship would last much longer.
He asked if there was anything that he could do to change my mind. I thought about it, but I knew the answer was no. Whatever he said, it wasn’t going to make anything better in the long-term. The gap between us was permanent, and I think we both knew it.
“I was ignorant about the stigma and bias faced by those in larger bodies. I realise now this was the result of my thin privilege.”
I haven’t always been so outspoken about fatphobia. If you’d have asked me what the term meant a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to give a very good answer. Like many people, I was aware of other forms of discrimination – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism – but I was ignorant about the stigma and bias faced by those in larger bodies.
I realise now this was the result of my thin privilege. People don’t make assumptions about my health, fitness and character in the same way they do those in larger bodies. Add that to the combination of being white and middle-class, and I can move through the world in a way that those in marginalised identities cannot. I don’t have to worry about being overlooked for a job. I can navigate public transport with ease. I’m able to buy clothing easily from any high street shop.
Discovering fatphobia was a light bulb moment for me. I was shocked and appalled to read the harmful consequences, for both physical and psychological health. This includes a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, mortality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Learning this made me passionate about sharing it with others, while acknowledging my privilege, and it is something I continue to raise awareness about.
With constant messages about the ‘obesity epidemic’, fatphobia is continually reinforced. Dieting is accepted as the status quo, particularly for women. Being thin is put on a pedestal as the ultimate embodiment of health, happiness and success.
Just like other forms of discrimination, fatphobia is not always immediately obvious. It might take the form of a ‘fat joke’, praising someone in a larger body for being ‘brave’ if they wear a bikini, using the term ‘flattering’ to describe clothing that is perceived to hide fatness, complimenting weight loss or treating the word fat as an insult, rather than just as a descriptor.
“Fatphobia is an uncomfortable topic... But tackling fatphobia is a collective responsibility.”
Fatphobia is also an uncomfortable topic. The vast majority of people do not like to think of themselves as bigoted, or want to acknowledge that they might have caused harm to another person by their language or behaviour. No able-bodied person wants to admit they’ve been given an easier ride in life as a result of their size.
But tackling fatphobia is a collective responsibility. That means being vocal about it when we encounter it: when an individual is denied appropriate medical care on the basis of their weight, when a person in a bigger body is shamed for their food choices, or when clothing retailers refuse to make clothes in larger sizes because of fears about how their brand will be perceived.
This also means challenging the systems of oppression which create and maintain it, whether that’s the diet, cosmetic, beauty, medical, and mass media industries – really all structural elements of capitalism. And it means elevating the voices and experiences of those in larger bodies, whilst acknowledging the other aspects of identity which intersect.
You don’t have to ditch your partner like I did to fight fatphobia – but you cannot remain passive. Progress only comes from people standing up and taking action. It might feel uncomfortable, awkward and even pointless but it’s up to all of us to bring about true body liberation.
Emma Green is a freelance writer, personal trainer and health psychology PhD. Follow her on Instagram at @emmafitnessphd
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