Fatphobia Hasn’t Gone Anywhere

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Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, when scientists were trying to frantically deduce how the disease was spreading, when we were rushing to buy masks and figuring out which “essential” businesses were still open, director Taika Waititi offered what would be one of many problematic celebrity takes.

As deaths climbed and hospitals became short on ventilators, he suggested that the pandemic was “the perfect opportunity to get motivated, workout and come out of this absolutely shredded.”

Three days earlier, actor Vanessa Hudgens also dismissed the dangers of the virus, saying that “even if everybody gets it, like yea, people are going to die, which is terrible, but like inevitable.” Both statements became defining views of the pandemic for many: that the most vulnerable of us should be left dead, particularly if you were disabled and especially if you were fat.

“During the pandemic, we heard over and over and over again that the people who are most susceptible to COVID are fat people or people with preexisting conditions or people with diabetes and diseases that we normally associate with being fat,” said Imani Barbarin, a writer, public speaker and disabled advocate. “We became extremely obsessed with who has the ‘perfect body’ or, rather, who’s genetically superior. This is kind of like saying, ‘I am worth living and I don’t care because I’m not one of the worthless people that are susceptible to dying.’”

“To me, personally, that stuff is always going to exist,” Barbarin continued. “I hope it goes away. But we live in America where people live on a currency of attractiveness. And thinness.”

We are in an annoying-ass time loop — for all the strides we’ve made talking about body positivity and calling out fat-shaming, the pandemic made it clear that fat bodies are still seen as expendable and undesirable. Fatphobia never went away — it’s been here all along.

Perhaps that’s why I was especially disturbed by a piece in the Guardian by Rebecca Shaw earlier this year where she “smells a whiff of 2000s fat-shaming in the air.” The piece takes a swipe at Brendan Fraser’s role in “The Whale” and looks at nostalgia and media in a way that ignores much bigger issues.

Calling this period of time a “sudden return” to Y2K-era fatphobia is a bit of a misnomer. Fatphobia did not somehow leave cultural and societal consciousness. It merely evolved, as most societal ills do. The entities — industries focused on diets, fitness, wellness and beauty — that benefit from it merely adapted and perverted the body positivity movement.

Lizzo performs at Qudos Bank Arena in July in Sydney, Australia.
Lizzo performs at Qudos Bank Arena in July in Sydney, Australia.

Lizzo performs at Qudos Bank Arena in July in Sydney, Australia.

Once again, it dawned on me that people — even fat people — are still so woefully uneducated about the influence of fatphobia in the media and how underprepared we are when it comes to dismantling it. Pop star Lizzo has been known as a fierce advocate for self-love and body positivity and has often clapped back at fatphobia online and IRL. So for many fans, it came as a shock when three backup dancers filed a lawsuit against the “Truth Hurts” singer alleging a hostile work environment where they were subject to sexual harassment, weight shaming and physical threats. Lizzo has denied the allegations.

What wasn’t as shocking to me was the online reaction to the lawsuit, especially in the way of racist and fatphobic comments directed toward Lizzo. After news of the lawsuit was released, the internet was awash with fat-shaming remarks, as trolls have seemingly found joy in posting cruel content about the singer. The lawsuit created an easy entry point for fatphobia to thrive once again.

Fatphobia is serious business. Though at this moment, I find myself absolutely sick, and I do mean sick, of educating people about it, particularly as a fat Black woman. That irritation reached a new level at the end of last year when “The Whale” premiered and then throughout its subsequent Oscars campaign. Because, as per usual, people were focused on the wrong things.

My take on the matter is that a lot of fat white people — who were perhaps hoping a fat actor would have been cast in Brendan Fraser’s role — had to contend with the fact that the actor doesn’t care for any of their parasocial feelings toward him and seemingly didn’t see an issue with donning a fat suit. Those Fraser fans presumably felt betrayed and that they were denied quality fat representation.

Brendan Fraser in
Brendan Fraser in

Brendan Fraser in "The Whale" in 2022. Critics called out Fraser's use of a fat suit for the Oscar-winning film.

Sydney Griffin, a writer and esthetician who is also known as SydneySky G on social media, had choice words about the hullabaloo surrounding Fraser and “The Whale,” highlighting how Hollywood will never pass up a good opportunity to exploit or humiliate someone — particularly a fat person.

“Honestly, I find him to be a victim,” she said, referring to Fraser. “Because y’all wanted to humiliate him in order to let him back ‘in’ Hollywood after what the fuck he said about [being sexually assaulted].”

“Also, where was this heat for so many other recent fat suits in movies? Especially Black ones?”

That’s an apt point, considering that fat Black women have long had to contend with the invention of fat suits as a “comedic” device. Specific movies that immediately come to mind include “The Nutty Professor,” “The Klumps,” “Big Momma’s House,” “Norbit” and all Tyler Perry films that include the beloved “Madea” character. All are drawing from a particular type of caricature: The Mammy.

Other modern-day examples of egregious fat-suit usage include Chris Hemsworth’s “Fat Thor” in “The Avengers: Endgame,” Jared Leto’s Palo Gucci in “House of Gucci,” Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Colin Farrell’s Penguin in “The Batman.”

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 2020.

Colin Farrell as Penguin in
Colin Farrell as Penguin in

Colin Farrell as Penguin in "The Batman" in 2022.

Fictional fat representation aside, the complete erasure of the COVID-19 pandemic has a huge role in what I’d call a “fatphobe’s renaissance.” Early on in the pandemic, colloquial terms like “Covid 15,” “Corona 15” and “Quarantine 15” — referring to weight people would presumably gain as cities and countries locked down — began to assault my sensibilities and my various social media timelines. Some assumed that such terminology would be restricted to its usual unserious places, like Urban Dictionary. Rather, these terms were adopted and perpetuated by doctors, medical journals, universities and researchers. A cursory search on Google earlier this year revealed a barrage of articles and other think pieces providing tips on how to “lose the Covid 15;” other pieces provided unhelpful insight about “preventing the pounds from packing on.”

Dan Hastings, deputy foresight editor at the Future Library and a lover of fashion journalism, pointed out the racial aspects of this shift and commodification of fatphobia.

“I firmly believe this is a backlash to the 2020 resurgence of Black Lives Matter. As Da’Shaun L. Harrison explained in their book ‘Belly of The Beast,’ anti-fatness is rooted in anti-Blackness — rejecting the curves that Black women are known for is a way to rally against BLM and dehumanize Black women and the individuals they give birth to as a whole,” he said.

Hastings especially had choice words for the role the Kardashians and a culture of “Blackfishing” have played in this conversation.

“Returning to Y2K also means returning to predominantly white beauty standards,” he said. “It’s infuriating to witness how women like the Kardashians spent the 2010s stealing aesthetics from Black and [non-Black] women. And now they get to take off the costume and return to their roots.” 

Then came 2021, and with it a draconian agenda in a fatphobic and ableist playbook. The New Zealand Herald brought us news of a “novel” device to combat the obesity epidemic. The device utilized two magnets to stop fat people from opening their mouths to consume solids. Named the DentalSlim Diet Control, the device is fitted by a dental professional to the upper and lower back molars, utilizing magnetic devices with custom-manufactured locking bolts. The result allows the wearer to only open their mouth by 2 mm. 

“The main barrier for people for successful weight loss is compliance and this helps them establish new habits, allowing them to comply with a low-calorie diet for a period of time,” lead researcher Paul Brunton said about this medical torture device. 

Brunton’s usage of the word “compliance” in the aforementioned article is amusing. As is his confident declaration that the adoption of a “low-calorie diet” is what keeps that pesky weight gain at bay. More than one doctor has gone on record stating that extreme calorie restriction does not work in the long-term (and to be clear, I don’t support their usage of the term “obesity,” nor their panic about the propaganda machine that is the “obesity epidemic”). The body’s homeostasis will be disrupted by what is essentially starvation and will almost always fight back to slow or prevent any additional weight loss by dropping one’s metabolic rate or making a person even hungrier. So, not only are Brunton’s observations leading up to the development of DentalSlim Diet Control erroneous, but it is also rooted in the age-old notion that fat people are greedy and gluttonous with their food and it is their lack of self-control that leads them to be so fucking fat.

The complete erasure of the COVID-19 pandemic has a huge role in what I’d call a fatphobe’s renaissance.

But the absurdity doesn’t stop there. He goes on to add: “The fact is, there are no adverse consequences with this device.”

Mind you, this bright and shiny idea of shutting one’s jaw to prevent unwanted weight gain is not new. It is merely a remix of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s trends of wiring one’s jaw shut — which carried consequences, according to the researchers who developed DentalSlim Diet Control, such as vomiting, the risk of choking, developing gum disease and developing “acute psychiatric conditions.” Not to mention that in all of Brunton’s alleged expertise, the connection between dental health, gum disease and one’s overall health is never explored. Cavities, gingivitis, receding gumlines and more affect our health in a very big way.

Digestion itself begins in the mouth and that is both proven and recognized by osteopathic medicine and eastern wellness. When patients are unable to absorb the nutrition needed for the continued health of their bodies because of a defunct idea that extreme caloric restriction is necessary, we are no longer talking about health.

No, we are talking about the (aesthetic) disgust we have for the fat bodies that don’t fit the norms of respectability in society. We can see this additionally demonstrated in the concern we show for the dental havoc that is created through the continuous exposure of acid on dental enamel when bulimic patients consistently regurgitate the contents of their stomach. But none of this concern is granted to fat people so desperate to be acknowledged in their humanity that they turn to torture devices.

Clearly, we are stuck in a cursed time loop that no one wants to learn from.

The “heroin chic” look of the ’90s is making its way back into popular culture, as certain celebrities are reversing body modifications or popularizing old-but-somehow-new modifications, such as buccal fat removal, to appear, once again, as though they are wasting away.

Diet teas, waist trainers, weight-loss gum, cleanses and plastic surgery are promoted all over social media. Drugs originally formulated to treat diabetes, like Ozempic, saw nationwide shortages once people started taking them for weight loss. In addition to this, Eastern “wellness” practices have been appropriated and perversely morphed into more weight-loss advice.

An Ozempic needle injection pen. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An Ozempic needle injection pen. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

An Ozempic needle injection pen. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

To be clear, the aforementioned weight loss tools have existed for a long time and are not new. The difference is that these things shifted from being peddled by celebrities like, let’s say, The Kardashians, to everyday people who have pivoted to becoming influencers. As one might suspect, Instagram was — and continues to be — at the center of these more modern and, quite frankly, heinous ad campaigns that push these fatphobic body ideals. If it wasn’t influencers trying to psychologically pry open your mouth and force-feed you the grainy contents of these slimming teas, then it was multiple, aggressive exercise/weight loss advertisements bombarding you in between your friends’ IG stories. Which is quite farcical, since most of these influencers often neglect to mention that their weight loss stemmed from cosmetic surgery, rather than the pills/teas that they are claiming did the trick.

Where Eastern “wellness” is concerned, its bastardization in the name of fatphobia has been even more sinister. Adrie Rose, a former sex worker, freelance writer and photographer, homed in on the corruption of [Eastern] wellness and the act of renaming troubling fatphobic trends of the past.

“Wellness has been commodified in a way that makes me really sad. As someone that is now on the other side of so many health issues, I’m really struggling to find a routine that works for me — and doesn’t cause me unnecessary distress,” Rose said. “I just feel like so much of this conversation has to start with the fact that we have rebranded early 2000s diet culture, and we are just giving it fun new names — literally diet culture by another name.”

“If I never hear the words ‘intermittent fasting’ again, it’ll be too soon. I never want to hear about keto again,” she continued.

All because being curvy isn’t in vogue anymore. And yes, “curvy” is coded here, especially because I would be amiss if I did not point out that “heroin chic” hails the return of an aggressively white beauty standard. In threading this needle, one can really begin to understand how none of it ever really went away.

I should mention that whiteness as the supreme beauty standard — with some fatness sprinkled in — even weaseled its way into the modern “body positivity” movement. While the movement was founded by Black women and non-men, whiteness entered (and with it commodification), and before one knew it, a radical movement was once again derailed in favor of timid pleas for “representation,” rather than the dismantling of fat discrimination. White women like Ashley Graham and Tess Holiday were soon propped up as “body positivity” icons and soon the voices of Black women and non-men were drowned out completely. And now that whiteness was in the room, it did not take long for thin white women to co-opt “body positivity” entirely and steer it back into a direction that made it quite easy for the resurrection of the “heroin chic” era.

With all that probably not in mind, The Guardian article ends with the directive: “If you’ve never spoken out before against fatphobia, now is the time. We need you to open your skinny mouths.”

It’s a presumed noble yet misguided request that once again ignores all of the anti-Blackness that has fueled today’s fatphobia.

It ignores how a three-year-and-counting pandemic aided this dark return to “heroin chic.” It still allows fat white people to get away with having bad body politics rather than becoming committed to killing the fatphobe in all of us. It lays waste to entities and industries that collude to erase us — the fat and the disabled — from existence.