Fat panic. Ever heard of it? I like to think of it as the extreme mindfuck our society is preternaturally preoccupied with. It is one of the systems of oppression men and women find themselves targeted by whether they know it or not. It is the phenomenon that causes people far and wide to become so obsessed with the idea of being thin – or being fat – that they will stop at nothing to expend all possible resources – time, money, energy – to either lose weight, or to ensure they never get fat. Because of course, there is nothing worse in the world than being fat: this is the central theme associated with fat panic.
It’s not simply enough to say fat phobia, although that is also a legitimate term. However I don’t feel that ‘phobia’ describes it accurately enough. Young people are starving themselves to death, men and women commit suicide or go insane over their perceived body image, and it is all perpetuated by media, family and friends on a regular basis. My definition of insane? I have two of them: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results; and doing the same thing over and over, knowing full well nothing is going to change.
To keep it personal, I will say that I grew up the eldest of four. I was neglected and put in a role of caretaker, prematurely, for younger brothers and sisters, and ultimately my parents as well. I struggled with emotional and mental distortions (which I didn’t know then, obviously) as a result of having to make it all up as I went along. As I got towards the end of elementary school I had begun to gain weight and people started taking notice. I was as heavy as some of the bigger boys in my class. I would like to enter at this juncture that I did not have a problem with my body at this stage in my life. It was only when other people started commenting in a way that was meant to shame that I started thinking there was anything wrong with me. I was always active – in fact I still remain more active than most people I know. I always played sports. In the winters there was toboganning, in the summers there was biking, hiking, and swimming. However, that is not what people chose to see. I was a big girl, and that is what defined me to most people.
I am of the persuasion of folks who has been blessed with stretchmarks from about the age of twelve, which sadly was long after family members started telling me that if I didn’t watch my weight I would never get a boyfriend. Yeah. Cuz that’s useful information at the age of eight. Most of the girls I knew at school were on crash diets in grades five and six. That’s age 10, roughly. That’s pretty young to already be obsessed with being fat, and being thin.
I spent high school fending off obnoxious comments. Granted, there weren’t many of them, because mostly I didn’t put up with anybody’s shit. They would try, I would shut them down. But it hurt that people refused to see my body for anything other than an object, some kind of twisted status symbol. I developed an eating disorder by the time I entered high school, first compulsively eating to try to gain control over what I was told was out of control, and eventually becoming bulimic. When I think about this now I am filled with anger and a feeling of betrayal. Nobody ever thought to tell me there was nothing wrong with me. My body was never validated. Everyone was in on it: friends, family, teachers, health professionals, media…
Back to my story. I bottomed out around the age of seventeen. My hair was falling out. I was rail-thin (which on my frame looks sickly). I couldn’t keep anything down. I was cold all the time. But I got positive feedback on my appearance from people who didn’t know me, and even some who did. I had certain girlfriends who stopped talking to me because their boyfriends or love interests were suddenly paying attention to me, attention that I didn’t ask for and certainly didn’t want. I was crying all the time. I had what I thought I’d always wanted and I’d never felt more lonely in my entire life. Some of the wonderful side effects of being thin in this culture (especially being previously fat, though this is certainly not a prerequisite): when I lose weight my friends stop talking to me, men can’t keep their hands off me, and women call me a slut. And we all know how society loves to shame sluts. So I’m either fat or a slut. (Goddess forbid I be both at once. That just defies too many principles for this culture to wrap its collective warped mind around.)
I experienced a severe episode of mental illness right around this time and as a result ended up gaining all the weight back, plus some. The friends began talking to me again. My mother switched tracks – again – from ‘you’re sick, something’s wrong with you’ to ‘you’re gaining too much weight, something’s wrong with you’. I spent all of my twenties in an absolute frenzy of self-hatred over my body, always trying to lose weight, battling with bulimia. And yet it was perfectly normal. I remember finally breaking down and confessing that I was bulimic to my younger sister one time, when I was at the breaking point. Her response: ‘It’s okay to watch your weight. I do it from time to time. No big deal.’ And I think that conversation was the turning point for me.
I bottomed out again, this time with addiction, in my late twenties, and ended up in a recovery house for women. It’s really been since then that I’ve been able to articulate what’s happening, both inside my body and outside of it. At first I noticed that my eating disorder was rampant as ever, even though I’d told myself I was done with that way of life. What I began to realize, for the first time ever, is that this was not simply a self-imposed pattern of destruction. This was also culturally imposed. It wasn’t as simple as me being this autonomous entity anymore. I began to understand, through a loving and wise spiritual community and through my foray into activism, that it is largely systemic. Not only is it the messaging and programming we receive from our culture, but also the messages and programming our parents, teachers, and loved ones received (and continue to receive) informs how they participate in fat panic.
Here’s what I’ve noticed about fat panic: it’s like money. There’s never enough. You can never be too worried about it. You can never be too thin, until you are, and then that’s open for discussion as well. See, it’s not just fat people who are affected. It’s everybody with a body and, last time I checked, that includes everybody. How does this apply to mental illness? Here’s perhaps a better way to look at it: how is it possible to feel of sound mind, body and spirit when something about us is intrinsically un-okay, and we are under near-constant assault over it? This is different things for different people, but it bears mentioning that each of us who live in this culture are likely to feel oppressed in some way by any system that is so overwhelmingly all-encompassing.
Want to see someone lose their shit? Tell them you’re on a mission to accept your body as it is and renounce media-driven beauty standards. Bonus points if you are fat; that really freaks people out. I’ve been doing this myself lately: refusing to buy into the bullshit standards imposed on people in our culture. I will not diet. I will not go to the gym twenty three times a day. I will not sit there and pick at a salad when I’m hungry. I will not judge others for their food choices, wardrobe choices, or the way they look in general. I like to believe that there is more to a person than just how they look. The sad thing about this is that it’s a work in progress. As much as I’d like to be able to flip a switch and make the last thirty years of fat resistance training disappear, I can’t. And so a lot of the old shit is still in there, bumping up against the new. It’ll take some time. But I believe the only way through is, well, through. To the best of my ability, I refuse to participate. I will not comment when I see that someone has lost weight, even if they want me to. I will not react favorably when someone tells me that I have lost weight and in fact I will sometimes tell them that I don’t appreciate having my weight commented on at all, thank you very much. I wear what makes me feel good, even if it’s something that fat people are routinely told not to wear because it makes us look fat.
I have to work double overtime to undo the shit that’s been done around fat panic. I really feel that there needs to be solidarity around this. I, for one, am tired of people approaching me and telling me that all my problems (of which they have no carnal knowledge) are related to being fat; that I am, in fact, fat (only they don’t mean it in the same way I do); that I am basically the scourge of the Earth, and all sorts of other things. I say, let’s all stand up and make it not okay to comment on anybody’s body, for any reason, if we don’t have express permission to do so. If there is anyone else out there struggling with fat panic and body image distortion, try to get in touch with others who are sharing in the struggle. Here are some resources to help you: