Not all bodies are treated or represented equally when it comes to conversations concerning health and well-being. As the so-called Wellness Movement — championed by journalists, influencers and health industry professionals alike — has renewed interest in our holistic health, they have also reinforced a disdain and fear of fatness.
While body positivity activists have begun leading the way in the fight against fatphobia by raising necessary awareness about the dangers of the criminalization of fatness, they often fail to integrate the problem into broader conversations about identity. What is often forgotten is that, in addition to facilitating a system of oppression in which thin bodies reign supreme, fatphobia is also inherently interwoven with sexism and racism.
Fatphobia and thin desirability have been long-ingrained in the Western cultural consciousness. According to Sabrina Strings, associate professor of sociology at UC Irvine, the thin feminine aesthetic has permeated the U.S. mainstream since at least the early 19th century, preceding the medical alarms now raised around being overweight. By the late 20th century, concepts of fatness in popular discourse began to shift — now, not only is being overweight seen as undesirable, but also medically concerning.
In the 1950’s, post-World War II pseudoscience began to tie into the condemnation of fatness. Peter Stearns’ book, “Fat History,” explores this phenomenon, in which psychologists and experts suggested that those who were gifted and overweight “did not fulfill the promise of their early achievement.” Additionally, they argued that thinness implied psychological adjustment and that “girls get fat because they’re emotionally disturbed.”
By the onset of the 21st century, the United States entered the full-blown fatness panic that has largely defined body politics for the past 20 years, its cornerstone being the condemnation of obesity. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a press release about the obesity epidemic, with former director Jeffrey Koplan stating that “it should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic.”
Meanwhile, the prevalence of eating disorders in the United States has since increased, affecting a reported 8 million Americans in 2001 compared to the 30 million cases reported today. While these numbers are likely to have changed in part to the growing pool of knowledge around eating disorders and mental health, many professionals argue that one epidemic may have led to another — in other words, eating disorders became the collateral damage of our war on obesity.
It’s also critical to keep in mind how the ingrained preference and desire of the “thin body” is intimately connected to systems of oppression. Demarcating bodies into racialized categories due to skin color had its onset in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but that became a more challenging method of grouping by the 18th century due to interracial sex. As a result, social stratification began to rely less on skin color and instead included discourse suggesting that Black bodies were voracious and inferior to white, European bodies who could practice restraint and self-control. Body size, among other pseudoscientific claims, was weaponized as a means to reinforce racial superiority.
Late 19th-century women’s lifestyle magazines — largely targeting middle- and upper-class white women — further constructed the narrative around the danger of the fat, Black person. An article published in 1897 by Harper’s Bazaar titled “The Sorrows of Fat,” explains that not only is “fatness a most undesirable state” but that a fat woman may only be “a social success unless she burntcork herself, don beads, and then go to that burning climate where women, like pigs, are valued at so much a pound.”
Ultimately, the pre-20th century discriminatory — and arguably eugenicist — discussion concerning body weight laid the framework for the eventual medical concerns raised about obesity and fatness that we see today.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reported that Black women have the highest rates of obesity or being overweight compared to other groups, per measurement of a Body Mass Index exceeding 25. BMI is largely standardized across the medical communities as a means for assessing physical fitness, measuring the ratio of a person’s weight to their height. However, it does not account for bone density, muscularity or other genetic influences on weight, nor does it consider additional cultural or environmental influences.
Increased research and advice from medical professionals and scholars has supported that BMI is indeed a poor tool to measure health outcomes and that there are better solutions to tackling health concerns than advising weight-restrictive mandates. As for improving health outcomes across communities, research also indicates that combating systemic issues at play like minimal food accessibility and mental health resources may also bring about more effective solutions.
Studies into fatphobia, its history and its repercussions reveal the often overlooked mechanisms that enable one issue or problem to coincide with and bolster another. It also offers a poignant reminder of our flawed interpretations of wellness as we continue to grapple with a racial reckoning amid the coronavirus pandemic. Along with it, though, comes hope that an improved understanding will help fuel our ensuing fight forward.
Sophia Ceniza is a junior writing about the intersections of wellness and social issues. She is also the wellness & outreach director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Green Juice Skeptic,” runs every other Tuesday.