We must look carefully at our society’s deep hatred of fat on a personal, societal and political level. We must question ourselves as a society when we openly and loudly criticize 70% of our population. In a society in which it is socially acceptable to ridicule and complain about people who live in larger bodies, our children are suffering from eating disorders at higher rates every year.
Eating disorders are more than fear of fat
Eating disorders have their roots deep in the psyche. They are typically built upon genetic, temperamental, experiential, societal and other factors. Often we see them in conjunction with Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But before therapists can work on the deep underlying factors of an eating disorder, they often have to address fatphobia, the fear of getting and/or being fat and the belief that being fat is both a choice and a moral failing.
Most people who have eating disorders are afraid of fat
Many eating disorders begin in pursuit of the “perfect body.” With the media focus in the last decade on the “obesity epidemic,” fatphobia has become an acceptable form of discrimination against a significant portion of our population. Almost everyone feels they are justified in shaming people who live in larger bodies.
Headlines scream at us constantly:
- The Growing Toll of our ever-expanding waistlines (New York Times)
- Obesity epidemic at new high, costs $150B a year, hurts military recruiting (Washington Examiner)
- As America’s waistline expands, costs soar (Reuters)
- Nearly half of America’s overweight people don’t realize they’re overweight (Washington Post)
People think obesity is a personal failure
Obesity is frequently perceived as a preventable disease brought on by people who gorge themselves on fast food and candy and never exercise. Obesity is seen as something we must “eradicate” and “end forever,” even though, throughout history, and throughout the world, there have always been people who are in larger bodies.
Science has different things to say about obesity than the headlines suggest
Despite all the headlines and everything we believe we “know” about obesity as an “epidemic,” scientific research suggests that we know very little about the cause of rising human weight, or its direct link to disease and death.
- People who are overweight or moderately obese live at least as long as lower-weight people, and often longer [1, 2, 3, 4].
- Pooled data for over 350,000 subjects from 26 studies found overweight to be associated with greater longevity than normal weight .
- Data on the elderly (among whom more than 70 percent of all deaths occur) found no evidence of excess mortality associated with being overweight .
- When socioeconomic and other risk factors are controlled for, obesity is not a significant risk factor for mortality; and… for those 55 or older, both overweight and obesity confer a significantly decreased risk of mortality.” 
Fatphobic headlines get more clicks
The media gains more click-throughs (which is directly linked to revenue income) when they publish articles with a fat bias. Moderate headlines and articles that present a nuanced look at fat do not garner as many clicks/revenue.
The media flagrantly appeals to our fear of fat and makes gross assumptions, extrapolations, and correlations about weight. Headlines are built to draw eyeballs and rarely reflect scientific data accurately.
Images of thin, emaciated women and bulked-up, lean men get more clicks than those of people living with average or larger bodies.
When the media drives our perception, and the media is driven by clicks, we must acknowledge irresponsible behavior in relation to fat bias.
Obesity can be linked to the diet industry
The diet industry tells us that each individual is personally responsible for their body weight and has the ability to change it. But remember that the diet industry is a money-making machine that only survives if people continue to gain weight and repeatedly pursue weight loss.
“The first thing is that you can’t believe anything that [the diet industry says]. And that’s by definition because their job isn’t to tell you the truth — it’s to make money. And they’re allowed to lie,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D., author of Secrets from the Eating Lab, in an interview with the Washington Post.
In fact, for all of the yelling about sedentary lifestyles and fast food consumption, the greatest correlative factor for increased weight may be the size of the diet industry, which has ballooned from $10 billion in 1985 to almost $70 billion in 2012.
While the diet industry is seven times larger than it was in 1985, our BMI has increased from 129.9 in 1960 to 152.1 in 2010 (17%). And eating disorders have steadily increased – in both women and men – at the same time.
Hmmm … let’s think about that.
There is no proven cause of obesity
It may surprise you to know this, but even though we all assume that obesity is driven by eating too much and exercising too little, there is no evidence for those factors as being the cause of weight gain.
- People who have higher BMIs do not eat more calories than people who have average* BMIs.
- People who have higher BMIs do not exercise less than people who have average* BMIs.
*Given that 70% of the population is “above average” BMI, the word “average” is not actually accurate. BMI is actually a bogus measurement. It was never intended to be used on an individual level.
There is no proven cure for obesity
Even if we did agree with the idea that obesity is the worst thing ever, we do not have a cure for obesity. In 95% of cases, people who have lost weight on a diet have regained the weight plus more within two years (UCLA).
Diets are not a cure for obesity, and they have tremendous potential to cause harm. With no proven “cause” or “cure” for obesity, the vitriol our society places on people who are living in larger bodies is irresponsible and cruel.
This is known as discrimination
The most common openly acknowledged and casually repeated discrimination most people engage in is fatphobia. People who live in larger bodies are openly accused of overeating, not exercising, being morally suspect, intellectually inferior, physically disgusting, and taking money out of our pockets.
But it goes beyond casual ridicule. Weight bias, stigma, and discrimination are correlated with poor medical care and lower income.
There is a word for this: discrimination.
How fatphobia leads to eating disorders
This agreement to vilify the majority of citizens in our society leads parents to inadvertently hurt their children in a desperate attempt to save them from being “overweight.”
Parents put their children on diets, both openly and surreptitiously. If they accept their child’s “high” body weight, they are attacked in articles like this one: Parents’ Denial Fuels Childhood Obesity Epidemic (New York Times).
The pressure for parents to control their children’s weight is high, and it negatively impacts a child’s self-perception.
And this is how fatphobia feeds the development of eating disorders. The hatred of one’s body is virtually unrecognizable from the hatred of one’s self. And when we hate ourselves, we turn our hatred on our bodies and starve them. Food restriction is the core behavior at the heart of anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia.
Eating disorders are about much more than weight, but we cannot ignore fatphobia as a significant contributing factor in their development. It is at our peril that parents ignore society’s hatred of fat, and we must curb our instinct to judge and ridicule people who live in larger bodies.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.
We recommend the book Two Whole Cakes, by Lesley Kinzel. It is a short and easy read that quickly and without apology explains what it’s like to live in a larger body in our society. The best part is that it’s written from a place of power, not victimhood. Kinzel writes about the political, financial, emotional, and spiritual struggles resulting from America’s obsession with weight.
Also consider reviewing: Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift, by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Nutrition Journal, 2011
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 Flegal K, Graubard B, Williamson D, Gail M: Supplement: Response to “Can Fat Be Fit”. Sci Am. 2008, 297: 5-6.
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 Berrington de Gonzalez A, Hartge P, Cerhan JR, Flint AJ, Hannan L, MacInnis RJ, Moore SC, Tobias GS, Anton-Culver H, Freeman LB, et al: Body-mass index and mortality among 1.46 million white adults. N Engl J Med. 2010, 363: 2211-2219. 10.1056/NEJMoa1000367.