We need to talk about fat shaming

Journalist Laura Capon knows what it’s like to experience fat shaming. Here she tells her story and reveals her hopes that one day soon, weight trolling itself will be the taboo

‘When I pictured the Halloween party, I didn’t see myself sobbing alone. But there I was, standing outside, purple, sweaty, synthetic wig in hand, staring at the reflection of the London Eye in the pitch-black Thames and desperately trying to hide my tear-stained face.

Ten minutes earlier, I’d been dancing with my friends, purple wig intact, throwing my body around to Billie Eilish and not giving a damn who was watching. But when I went to get G&T top-ups, I was reminded that despite the costume I was wearing, I’d always be seen as nothing but fat to some people.

I was waiting at the bar, alone. I saw him coming towards me and I just knew (I can’t tell you how, but when you’re fat you develop what I can only describe as an “abuse radar”). I put my head down and stared at the floor, but it was too late. He came face-to-face with me. If I were half the size, I might have thought he was going to kiss me, but instead he shouted “fat c***” in my face with so much venom, I could smell the pint he’d just downed and feel his warm spit on my cheeks.

As he ran off, I could feel the shame heating up my body, untouched G&T shaking in my hand. Acquaintances and friends surrounded me, asking if I was OK, shouting, “How dare you!” at the stranger whose five-second meeting with me will live in my mind forever.

That’s when the panic set in.

“He must have been so drunk/Oh, don’t worry about it,” said my friends, who were so outraged by his behaviour they didn’t realise that the thing that hurt me the most was knowing they witnessed that. Which is why, despite being in the kind of pain that makes you want to curl in the foetal position and sob, I needed to distract them from what just happened. I felt like the Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is pulled back and everyone sees him for what he really is. I couldn’t hide any more. My friends knew I was fat.

An acceptable bias

You see, while we are in some ways more “woke’” than ever, fat shaming is the one area where society still seems to turn a blind eye. Donald Trump might be the only president to be impeached for a second time, yet when CNN anchor Anderson Cooper called him “an obese turtle”, my entire Instagram feed re-shared it, praised Cooper and laughed at the comparison. Despite everything Trump’s done, being overweight is still up there.

When Adele lost weight, fat women were accused by the media of attacking her for no longer being someone they could look up to. But it wasn’t her weight loss they were upset about. It was how it was reported. Suddenly, now she was slim, she was “gorgeous” and “stunning”. Newsflash: Adele has always been beautiful. Society just assumes you cannot be those things while being overweight.

One of the most painful things about fat shaming is that it often comes from the same supposedly compassionate people who are so conscious of other causes in society. People are (rightly) vocal in condemning attacks on someone for their race, religion or disability, but that same sense of injustice is nowhere to be seen in regards to weight, despite the fact that our excess pounds could be caused by medical issues (such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, which I was finally diagnosed with in my twenties), medication side-effects, depression or anxiety. Not to mention that no one needs to justify their size to you.

When Tess Holliday, size 26, featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan – and larger women dared to feel that acceptance might finally be coming – the magazine was accused of “celebrating morbid obesity” by Piers Morgan. But, ask yourself, why does a fat person simply existing promote anything? If that’s the case, should we check the cholesterol and blood pressure of all cover stars, along with checking if they smoke, have unprotected sex or do drugs?

Growing pains

Sadly, every time the body positivity community takes one step forward, the internet takes it three steps back. Take 19-year-old Billie Eilish, who openly admitted that she adopted her signature baggy clothes style because she “hated” her body.

Despite that, when the paparazzi caught her off-guard wearing a strappy top and shorts, someone on Twitter turned her into a meme. “In 10 months, Billie Eilish has developed a mid-30s wine-mom body,” they wrote.

I’ve been overweight since my late teens and know all too well that comments such as these have a lasting impact, whether or not you’ve won five Grammy Awards like Billie. I’ll never forget a drama performance in school where a boy decided to ad-lib. We were acting out a plane crash, but in our rehearsal we never practised the bit where he blamed that crash on my excess weight. I don’t know who I hated more – him or the drama teacher who asked him to explain why he did it in front of the whole class.

If Tess Holliday had been on the front cover of Cosmo when I was at school, would I have been so vulnerable to these attacks? Maybe if I could have come home and danced to Lizzo in my bedroom instead of Britney, I might be filled with a little less self-hatred.

Unlearning your prejudice

In fact, being slim has really only been the desired body shape for Western society since the 19th century, when links first started to be made between weight and health. Throughout history, scarcity of food meant that corpulence (to use an old-world term) was positively celebrated, as it represented wealth, power, fertility and good health. Just take a look at the paintings of artists such as Titian and Rubens if you want proof that beauty hasn’t always been measured in kilograms or inches.

Unfortunately, of course, things have changed a bit since the Renaissance. So while we may no longer be collapsing on a daily basis due to constricting corsets, larger bodies are still hugely underrepresented in popular culture, as Edie Stark, therapist and eating disorder specialist, points out. “It’s rare that we see someone who is in a fat body on a TV show. If they are, their storyline is usually around weight loss, or they’re used as a punchline.”

Edie says there are actually two types of fat phobia: internalised and externalised. Internalised fat phobia manifests in things like a fear of gaining weight, restrictive dieting, and shame or fear around body changes within yourself. Externalised fat phobia relates to how larger bodies are treated by others.

“Externalised fat phobia is common on social media,” Edie says. “‘Trolling’ or ‘concern trolling’ is where someone is doing the things they love and people make comments, such as ‘you’re promoting an unhealthy lifestyle’, and make assumptions on their health based on body size.”

Not only are these comments mentally harmful, but they’re also groundless. “Weight is not a behaviour and it is not a conclusive determinant of someone’s health,” says Edie. “People of all body sizes can be healthy, and remember, health is not a moral obligation for anyone.”

Which is exactly why I’m so grateful to the women who are putting themselves up for criticism in order to change the way that fat bodies are viewed by society. People like the print magazine’s cover star, Nyome Nicholas-Williams, who successfully challenged Instagram’s nudity policy after they kept removing her photos – the message previously being it’s OK to post naked images if you’re slim and White but not if you’re fat and Black. Women like US pop star Lizzo, who twerk on stage in their lingerie to remind you that fat bodies can be sexy. And Tess Holliday, Callie Thorpe, Jessamyn Stanley and Ashley Graham, who prove that you can have a larger body size and be on the cover of Cosmopolitan.

I’m not here to justify my weight, or any fat person’s weight, to you. I don’t know why we should have to. I’ve lived with the shame of my size for 34 years.

I know I’ll be fat shamed again, but I hope that by sharing my story alongside other fearless women, it’ll soon no longer be accepted by society.’

Laura’s body-positive insta faves

Edie Stark @ediestarktherapy: A licensed therapist and eating disorder specialist, who breaks down the toxicity of diet culture.

Jessamyn Stanley @mynameisjessamyn: A yoga teacher and body positive advocate who will make you want to move your body, whatever your size.

Dr Joshua Wolrich @drjoshuawolrich: An NHS doctor fighting weight stigma and fake health news online.

Find Laura on Instagram @laucapon

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†Dr Joshua Wolrich’s book, Food Isn’t Medicine, is published by Vermilion.