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Just Admit That You Hate Fat People

If you’re offended by a fat woman wearing clothes, it is you that needs to look in the mirror.

The Three Graces, plus-size by today’s standards.

Some time ago I wrote about the supposed balance between public health messages and fat acceptance. I say it’s a supposed balance because the two things aren’t actually at odds with each other. But, as happens so often, this argument has reared its monstrously ugly head again and we need to address it. It would seem that a fat person has drawn attention to themselves in a positive way, and people are outraged:

Just a selection of the predictable comments.

Cosmopolitan made the “controversial” decision to have plus-size model Tess Holliday as their cover girl. Again, when I say “controversial”, I mean it’s actually not that controversial. But plenty of people sure think it is.

The commonly espoused justification is that people are concerned about the message it sends to an easily-influenced public. And how could that be bad, after all they’re just thinking of the greater benefit to humanity, right? I’m unconvinced. We have a paradox around body size, with fashion models getting thinner and the general population getting fatter.

Our culture is thin-obsessed, yet ordinary people don’t measure up to this standard. Super-slender and airbrushed to implausibility is the aspiration we pursue, yet while it seems to get us buying more product, it doesn’t encourage us to change ourselves. We’re buying a piece of that aspiration, not putting in any actual work to achieve it.

Marketing and advertising execs think they know what we want, yet they are just repeating a formula that’s worked before, without really knowing if it’s the formula doing the trick or if we’d be buying their stuff anyway without it. Their version of aspirational is the only one we’ve tried, so we can’t say how effective it really is.

A recent study has shown that thin models make women feel bad about themselves, but good about the product — seemingly demonstrating that aspirational thinness works. But other studies contradict this, and the consensus within the fashion industry is not matched by the view in academia.

The claims that large models like Tess Holliday promote an unhealthy body image are ridiculous given our recent history. For decades there have been warnings that the ubiquity of ultra-thin models could harm those predisposed to eating disorders, yet these fears were downplayed and largely ignored. We see one, just one, fat model and everyone’s up in arms. I can’t help but think we’ve either not thought this through, or it’s not about caring for the nation’s health after all.

In defence of those who say they are genuinely making this claim, it is very easy to be drawn to explanations that seem to make sense, or more accurately, confirm our prejudices. It’s not great, but we do know why these erroneous beliefs occur. As evidenced by the comments on Twitter (I only read them for journalistic purposes; I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home) the problem runs deeper than just a misconception. This concern for impressionable minds and waistlines is often an excuse to air objectionable opinions about fat people.

Statistically speaking, those making these comments have a reasonable chance of being classified as overweight themselves, perhaps revealing their own self-loathing. We are said to have an “obesity epidemic” in the West, but there is no evidence that larger fashion models are anything to do with shifts in the size of the general population. The overwhelming majority of models are at the thinner end of the scale and yet the public are still getting heavier. While the current trend may sell clothes, it’s not influential enough to affect our lifestyle.

Fat-shaming is illogical. We might make lifestyle choices that contribute to putting on weight, but there are also factors beyond our control. And even if we can lose some weight, we don’t all want, or need, to — some people’s best version of themselves is “overweight”, for other’s it’s some other category. Yet obesity is framed as a modern-day sin, subject to the disapproval of the mainstream media and popular society. It’s so ingrained that the sight of one fat body has people losing their minds.

It’s an acceptable prejudice, with public health messages being co-opted to bully others. If people were really that bothered about other people’s health, they wouldn’t use fat-shaming because we know it doesn’t work. They would have more impact on our health if they campaigned for better healthcare, poverty reduction and improved living standards. But those things are hard work, and it’s much more satisfying to blame an individual for the inequalities that run deep in our society. Tess Holliday isn’t the problem — we are.

Plus-size modelling has become more visible in the last 10 years, and there is more clothing choice for women larger than a UK size 18 (US 14). But objectors to this often miss the point, claiming that this visibility has made obesity “acceptable” and “normal” (it is both acceptable and normal). There is a supply-and-demand issue, but it’s the other way round: retailers and designers are responding to the changing size and shape of their consumers, meeting a demand that has increased independently of what’s on the catwalk.

“I don’t believe stores should stock clothes below or above a certain weight. They should be made to feel uncomfortable when they go in and can’t find a size.”
— Jamelia

Retailers are not moral arbiters, and fat is not a moral issue. You might as well disapprove of people getting taller, or living longer — it won’t change a damn thing. Fat people exist, and society on the whole is fatter than it once was. Our health and nutrition have improved in numerous ways, and one consequence of this is that there are also more people who are classed as overweight. The factors behind this aren’t all things that we can easily control, and banning images of larger women is unlikely to make a shred of difference.

Tess Holliday’s cover shoot has elicited a visceral response from many people, and they feel an urge to broadcast their opinions. But their arguments are not as strong as they claim, and they don’t really care about other people’s health. Some are sincere about their hatred of fat bodies, but others will dress it up in faux-concern and moralising. The public health argument is irrelevant — what we are talking about is that people of all sizes should be represented and respected. Usurping the moral high ground with worries over other people’s health is a neat trick that absolves people of shame for their prejudices and elevates them to a superior status.

We have grown used to treating fat people with mockery and disgust. We don’t want to be like them, so we distance ourselves by publicly denouncing them — even though we are nothing like the skinny ideal we seem to worship. It’s just like buying a piece of the aspirational thinness when you purchase a pretty dress — it’s a declaration that you’re better than those “other” people. Fatphobia is the product, and you can get it for free.

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