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Ariyike Olayiwola: Leaving Behind the Fatphobia Culture

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“They mock me a lot ma’am. When I bring chocolates or snacks to school, I have to eat them in the toilet; otherwise, they will remind me that I’ll soon slump and die of obesity. They don’t do that to the slim girls even when they eat more than me.”

That was the telltale of a teenage girl that spiked my cognizance of the extremity of this absurd culture of fatphobia. Before that moment, the attitude towards fat people seemed unobtrusive to me, except in times a mouthy person wants to score points against their word-sparring partner who is fat, but the street’s rule is that nothing about your appearance is sacred during a word-spar. And so, I had reckoned that the attitude was – at its extreme – displeasing, not threatening. But there I sat, dumbfounded by this revelation. Clueless as well on how to comfort this sweet girl whose eyes pierced through mine, expressing a more explicit emotion than words her mouth could form while searching for reassurance. I later settled for a hug.

I had come to research for my thesis, the body-image perception of these young girls and how it influenced their lifestyles and dietary intakes. This interest was driven by the fear of what effects these trending, forceful and idealistic body images might have on young girls. Fatphobia, in that extreme way and in a secondary school, was not exactly what I expected to find.

Or, maybe I was kidding myself as I, once a fat teenager, had my experiences too. I think it was so traumatising that I had to bury them deeply; I barely remembered how much ridicule I faced as a teenage girl within the walls of a school, and beyond. Words like elephant and orobo were thrown at me in distasteful ways by fellow students. Kai! Teenagers can do ‘cruel’ just fine.

Perhaps, the underdevelopment of emotional intelligence influences it. The adults never failed to tell us our intelligence wasn’t fully formed, this is why as hurtful as the taunts were, I was pretty informed to excuse it as childish. But what to do when it was adults publicly shaming you with the same words? And, as a girl, they never failed to threaten my likelihood of being attractive to boys. They were adults who swore they knew better and acted better, but alas!

I also think the trauma was too much to handle. I tuned out for a long time as I became immune to this crude culture and oblivious to its progression.

Hence, my shock upon recognising how bad it has gotten. “We threaten fat people with death now?” I blurted out after a long silence that housed a telepathic communication that conveyed the reassurance and calm she needed. I could tell from how she pranced to her class after the hearty ‘thank you”’I got.
I, on the other hand, was left apprehensive about the consequences that accompany this culture. It was a reopening-of-old-wounds moment for me and with the resurrection of the hurt, came every detail that I had dismissed. I could flip through every conversation, action, and expression that carried this bias. I felt guilty for not being a better shoulder to lean on for those who hinted at the mental stress this culture was causing them. Most interestingly, I could finally pinpoint the root of my dissatisfaction with any body size I found myself; for me, there was always something I had to work on.

I could deduce these and a few other consequences in a short while and the thought that more people –young girls, inclusive – are stuck in it was not pleasing to know.

I have never understood the need to discriminate against fellow people in the first place, more so based on natural characteristics such as physical appearance or genetics, and further, instigate a reproval on them. Fatphobia, also known as fat shaming or weight stigma, is an especially weird concept. If other physical features aren’t uniformly defined, why must weight or body size be? And what threat, logically, could a larger body size/higher body weight pose to another person that has to be dreaded, shamed, and vilified?

It is disturbing to see how people are being reduced to a social identity, judged by the stereotypes tethered to that identity, and treated with contempt, rather than considered as real persons with rights to human dignity. In the case of fatphobia, it is believed that fat people are greedy unhealthy-food eaters, inherently diseased, lazy with a lack of self-discipline, unattractive, and to an extent, intellectually challenged. And so, they are subjected to varying degrees of reproval.

It can be subtle, like family members or friends serving you smaller portions of food, or sending articles on well-being, diet, and healthy living. Nasty, like cab drivers refusing you a seat in their cabs, job owners refusing you a job on faux concerns of sluggishness, or that random person with something rude to say each time you walk by. Add the “I said what I said” self-acclaimed online analysts, and you won’t need a knife to pluck out a beating heart.

It can also be brash, like the fashion industry. Here, the inspiration for fabulous clothes and styling disappears on the sight of anything beyond a size 8, or a figure 8. And in conjunction with the media, the definition of beauty, elegance, and sexy is strictly confined to smaller body sizes. Unethical, like certain medical practitioners dismissing a patient’s symptoms as the consequence of being fat – even when there could be six different illnesses that present similar symptoms – and withholding treatment or advice until weight is lost.

One would think being fat is criminal. At least it is what I thought when I returned home to four missed calls and ten messages in the space of six minutes from a friend who had gotten a diagnosis of a health struggle she has had for years. “Finally, I got someone who listened enough to explore other possibilities,” her last text read, with ‘finally’ in bold and capital letters. It was hypothyroidism; a rather life-threatening condition that could have been diagnosed earlier if the previous doctors didn’t dismiss her prominent symptom – fatigue – as her punishment for being fat.

It is rather unfortunate to find the medical/health field reinforcing this stereotype that labels fat people as diseased. Of course, as a public health nutritionist, I am well informed on the relationship between having a larger body size/higher weight and the risks of certain diet-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease. I am also informed on other risk factors that could also be responsible for these diseases and obesity — so should anyone in the medical and health field. Enough studies have shown that stress, environmental pollution, and certain lifestyle choices like smoking, heavy alcohol intake, and inactivity are as dangerous as poor dietary intake. There is also a basic knowledge that we all cannot be of the same size, biologically, just as we cannot be of the same height. Some people are naturally smaller or larger, neither of which is inherently unhealthy. And we cannot rule out the influence of hormones on women’s health. This knowledge invalidates the theory that claims a person’s body size is strictly a reflection of their eating habit or self-discipline, so it’s baffling how this stereotype dwells among some practitioners.

Unfortunately, the crude actions of some medical practitioners and the lack of detailed information from nutritionists and dieticians on diet and healthiness, have paved the way for biased individuals and opportunists to misconstrue diet, promote their ideal body preference, and extensively, justify the stigmatization and bullying of fat people.

Being healthy is not a state strictly reliant on body size, and the scope of “diet” and its therapy is too broad to have its use limited to weight loss. The nutrients in food do not just cater to weight, it is for the proper functioning of the whole body, and the misinformation is of a great disservice to slim people as it is to fat people. People with smaller body sizes can as well be at risk of diet-related diseases.

Bullying fat people as a motivation to lose weight from concerns of unhealthiness is just a show of meanness and dishonesty. What is unhealthy, instead, is the extreme and quack measures used in slimming down, eating disorders, depression/anxiety, anti-socialness/isolation, and low self-esteem – all as a result of the pressure and mental distress from societal stigma and bullying to fit a celebrated ideal. Unfortunately, what’s ideal is subjective and variable; we all don’t fit in on that basis. What a rather pointless culture, fatphobia is!

I gave that sweet girl the usual advice to love herself and be confident in her body, but isn’t it high time society does better too? Accord fat people the dignity as humans to exist at their discretion and pleasing, for starters. That’s the real healthy!



Featured image: Rodnae Productions for Pexels 

Ariyike is a writer with a flair for adding value anywhere, to anyone, at any time, be it with content creation, creating awareness towards personal or collective growth, or simply tickling a fancy to bring forth smiles. She doubles as a Public Health Nutritionist. She can be contacted at @riyiola_ms on Instagram and Twitter.

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