Eating Disorders and the Racist History of Fatphobia

Suad Abdoun //

TW: Eating Disorder

One of the most heartbreaking things about being a woman is growing up and being told that your body in its natural form is not desirable and thus you have to change it. I remember being in middle school, not thinking twice about my weight, stretch marks, or cellulite. I went to high school during the rise of social media, and the Instagram ideal for what a woman should look like was suddenly so prevalent. I internalized negative messaging that yielded insecure thoughts about my body and its appearance. Because of this, like so many other women, I developed an eating disorder. I didn’t identify it as an eating disorder until I went to college and realized that my relationship with food was really unhealthy. It isn’t healthy or commonplace to memorize the number of calories in an apple slice, to say the least. An eating disorder can be something that never really goes away. It may always remain prevalent in your life. I never realized how many women are affected by it until I lived with a bunch of girls my age and it became clear that it was something we all struggled with at some point — in the past or still actively. In a college campus survey, 91% of the women admitted to controlling their weight through dieting. So where did this all start?

Fatphobia has long been prevalent in our society. Ultimately, it is a racial issue as much as it is a feminist issue. Fatphobia can trace its origins back to slavery. During the growth of the slave trade, Europeans felt that they needed to establish the enslaved people as “the other”, and skin colour didn’t suffice. European women specifically went from the full-bodied standards of the Renaissance to a more slender shape during the Atlantic Slave Trade. The reason for this reversal was because they perceived African people as sensuous people who celebrated food and sex. They felt by adopting this thin standard of beauty they were effectively contrasting themselves from their African counterparts, and representing their Christian nature of purity and self-control. 

A 19th century illustration from Fearing the Black Body, titled The Hottentot Venus in the Salon of the Duchess of Berry, by Sebastien Coeure.

These ideas have permeated our society and serve to marginalize BIPOC today. An example of this is the medical standard for weight and BMI measurement. Studies have consistently shown that black women are healthier at a higher weight than white women, yet we still use measurements like BMI that don’t account for environmental, regional factors and bone density. There is a consistent narrative that black people are unhealthy. A perfect example of this is Lizzo who regularly posts meal ideas and recipes on her TikTok. She is vegan and frequently cooks and eats what would be considered healthy food but people still body shame her and say that she is unhealthy because of how they perceive her weight. There are many other women who hold their weight differently and don’t eat food that would be considered “healthy” but they are not body shamed because their body is considered acceptable. 

In the last few decades, a movement of body positivity has emerged but it is unfortunately very lacking and doesn’t do much good. The dietetic field is oversaturated with affluent thin white women who promote intuitive eating and an almost toxic ideal of body positivity. Lizzo posted a TikTok supporting body neutrality, which is the idea that you don’t have to feel pressured to always love your body, you can just accept it as is. She was heavily criticized by “body-positive” activists and nutritionists who called her fatphobic. When asked about the body positivity movement she called out its problematic tendencies saying “Now that body positivity has been co-opted by all bodies, and people are finally celebrating medium and small girls and people who occasionally get rolls, fat people are still getting the short end of this movement.”

This is problematic because this type of retaliation silences marginalized voices and harms the people that the movement was originally designed to support. As the queen herself, Lizzo stated there is an influx of pictures on Instagram of thin and standard sized women posing to show that they don’t have flat stomachs. And while this is beneficial in breaking down the standards of social media perfection, it nearly eclipses the voices of the larger, marginalized women who are most affected by fatphobia. 

So what can we do about it? I think the most important thing regarding this subject is to be mindful of what spaces you are taking up and actively support and uplift each other. There needs to be a broader conversation about the prevalence of eating disorders in young female demographics, without the aspects of shame and personal blame. It’s unfair that there is so much guilt and embarrassment surrounding a mindset that is indoctrinated in our minds by society.  I will be doing my best to remove the stigma in my mind and to decolonize the way I think about my body and promote beauty standards that represent people of all shades and sizes. 

Bibliography:

  1. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/893006538
  2. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/20/893006538/fat-phobia-and-its-racist-past-and-present
  3. https://anad.org/get-informed/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/
  4. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2021/04/12/lizzo-takes-issue-body-positivity-being-co-opted-fat-women/7195862002/

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