As the festive period begins, Jennifer Hastings, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Projects & Partnerships Manager at King’s College London, explores our relationship with food and fatphobia.
At this time of year my social media feeds tend to be full of advice on how to handle food and diet culture during the holiday season. In a way this is progress; growing up I was more likely to come across magazine articles listing low fat Christmas pudding options than carefully worded support for those with a difficult relationship with food. On the other hand, it does beg the question of how diet culture has managed to permeate every aspect of our lives, even the parts dedicated to rest and relaxation.
I am obsessed with food. When people were searching for Black Friday deals, I was checking if my favourite bakery was doing any discounts. Whilst I like to revel in this source of joy (there isn’t a quicker dopamine boost than a freshly baked brownie) it, unfortunately, exists against a backdrop of capitalism and fatphobia.
We receive conflicting messages around food. Food is the centre of many scenarios and indulging is often encouraged. We show someone we care by cooking for them and we have second helpings to demonstrate our gratitude. We indulge in treats that reflect the change in season and theme celebrations around communal feasts. However, when a body begins to evidence an enjoyment of food, it is suddenly seen as flawed or a disappointment (both by the person inhabiting it and onlookers). In the book ‘Gone Girl’ there’s an infamous monologue where the main character laments the existence of the ‘cool girl’ and her requirement to display a carefree attitude to food whilst maintaining a thin physique. I’m sure this quandary isn’t limited to fiction.
A person’s weight may not be a protected characteristic but being fat (by society’s standards) certainly results in differential treatment, from spaces that only accommodate smaller bodies to life threatening medical discrimination. People can be horribly cruel to those they deem too heavy, often attempting to disguise their judgment as concern for their health. Interestingly the same people conveniently ignore the fact that fat shaming is more likely to result in weight gain than weight loss.
We also know that fatphobia intersects with other forms of oppression, such as racism and misogyny. BMI (body mass index) figures are relied on in many medical settings despite being a tool developed with only white, cis men in mind.
Access to an abundance of food is certainly its own form of privilege. However, even in the UK, the type and quality of food people can access varies greatly. If you’re juggling work and childcare on a minimal budget, a cheap takeaway may well be your best option. Jack Monroe has written extensively about the realities of food poverty (content warning for suicide), highlighting the factors that contribute to someone’s dietary choices.
It would be amiss not to reflect on the diet industry itself, which has the sole purpose of making a profit. Whatever euphemism we use (I believe ‘wellness’ and ‘lifestyle change’ are both currently in vogue), companies selling you weight loss products are not invested in their long-term outcomes. Not least because they want return customers.
My friend and I often say that it’s too late for us to dismantle our body image issues as we have already absorbed a series of patriarchal messages about how we should look. On an intellectual level we reject fatphobia however we have also (inadvertently) internalised it, using it as a lens through which to view our own bodies. This is why I am a fan of the body neutrality movement. There’s no quick fix to loving a body that diet companies and media outlets are intent on criticising, however we can shift our focus onto other things.
This approach does have limitations. A level of privilege is required, which makes body neutrality a luxury not extended to everyone. In her column Aubrey Gordon makes a distinction between how fat people feel about their bodies versus how they are treated by others. She says: ‘To be sure, self-love and body neutrality are powerful things. But they aren’t so powerful that they can divert or erase others’ harmful actions or make unjust systems more just.’ Sophie Hagen also talks about ‘Fat Liberation’ and the importance of targeting those that weaponize people’s bodies in the first place.
What does this mean for the festive season ahead of us? I am going to echo the advice I alluded to at the start of this blog- look after yourself. Where possible, fill your time with the things that bring you joy and, if you need to talk to someone, Beat (the eating disorder charity) has a daily helpline you can call. And if you feel able, challenge fatphobia when you witness it. In his book ‘The Promises of Giants’, Dr John Amaechi defines culture as ‘the worst behaviour that you tolerate’. Of course, we need a societal shift and systematic change but, in the meantime, we can at least stop tolerating behaviours that are complicit in the marginalisation of people’s bodies.