Holiday “diet talk,” fatphobia, and who it harms

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The holiday centric fat shaming needs to end

You’re at home in December for the holiday festivities. There is a box of seasonal chocolates on your living room table. You like chocolates. Occasionally – maybe every few days, maybe every day, it doesn’t matter – you take out a chocolate and eat one. However, there is a possibility that people are watching you do this. There is a possibility that you are eating more chocolates than other people in the house, and other people notice that. Chocolate is not strictly good for you, and if you continue eating it regularly, your behaviour may cause you to gain weight. Does this introduction feel familiar to you? Does it kind of make you feel nervous? Ashamed? Me too.

Over the holidays, I wonder how many other people went to parties or sat at gatherings where people spent all night dancing around the word fat, and how many people suffered because of it. With every meal that could have been one hundred per cent enjoyable, how many people couldn’t walk away without saying something about what they shouldn’t have eaten? With every new piece of clothing that got tried on for a party, how many people couldn’t resist talking about things that should fit them but don’t, or don’t fit them anymore? And among the people who made those comments and heard those comments, how many were continuing a cycle of devaluing themselves and others? How many people had that cycle started for them all over again?

Festive gatherings are a total haven for “diet talk” – small talk about how to stay thin and cut calories – as well as “fat talk,” discussions about body and eating behaviour insecurities that beg for validation. The book Fat Talk by Mimi Nichter has been published on the topic, looking at the ways it sustains and worsens the chronic insecurity of teenage girls. While these are the people most famously affected, fat talk isn’t reserved for teenage girls or for girls and women at all; everyone engages in this talk from time to time. Moreover, most of us consider it natural and harmless, either because we haven’t been seriously affected by body insecurities or because we refuse to admit that we have.

Diet talk and fat talk give fodder to cycles of low self-esteem for everyone around us including ourselves. With fat talk, we are expressing insecurities about our bodies and eating habits so that we can be reassured we aren’t fat – and every time we do this, we reinforce the idea that fat is a horrible thing for a person to be. Every time we reinforce that, we reinforce the fear that we’re going to become fat, and so we make every attempt to avoid it, including constantly voicing our anxieties about our weight and eating to search for validation and correction. It’s an unhealthy cycle. The truth is, though, that being fat is not wrong, and it’s not bad; it just is.

More and more people are becoming aware, thanks to the fat acceptance and body positivity movements, of the existence of fatphobia: the belief that it’s bad, morally wrong, undesirable or even inhuman to be fat. The instinct of a lot of people is to scoff at this word; “how can we compare something like weight gain to misogyny or racism, when being fat is a health problem?” Firstly, we have to acknowledge that actually, things like racism and misogyny do intersect with fatphobia – black women are some of the people most likely to experience it in dangerous ways. Second, there are a lot of assumptions to unpack in that question about health, how weight loss and gain works, and how we conceptualize human value. Let’s do a reality check: many fat people have healthy lifestyles that include diet and exercise. Fat people are in fact often discriminated against, or given worse healthcare, because doctors will not look past their size. Fat people can be and are happy with their appearance as well as desired for it. Most importantly, being fat does not make a person inherently lazy, unprincipled, lacking in character or unworthy of love.

We might think that we don’t really believe such cruel things, but our diet talk and fat talk, if examined closely, reveals how often we imply them in an effort to prop ourselves and our bodies up. Fat activists do much of the difficult, emotionally exhausting work of revealing those harmful attitudes. Your Fat Friend (YFF) is one such activist, who according to their website “writes anonymously about the realities of living as a very fat person.”

On the online writing platform Medium, YFF has an article called “27 Responses to (Never-Ending) Diet Talk” where one response stands out and has been highlighted by many readers:

“I don’t really want to hear everything you’re doing to avoid looking like me.”

For anyone who is fat, especially fat people who have experienced eating disorders (because yes, fat people can and do), this line puts words to the feeling of knowing that their reality is a fatphobic person’s worst fear. To be the worst thing a person can think of – especially when that person is someone you love – invites shame and self-hatred that in many cases causes disordered eating to raise its ugly head again.

In short, over the holidays, many people with eating disorders relapse, and many people start dieting out of shame. Even those diets can be life-threatening: according to the National Eating Disorders Association, 35 per cent of people who diet become “pathological dieters,” and pathological dieting has a 1 in 4 chance of becoming an eating disorder.

The next time you feel guilty about what you’re eating, how big you are, or how much you weigh, remember fatphobia. Try reading about it, even if you’re skeptical it “really exists.” The messages you’re giving yourself about your body no matter what your size are so often based in cruelty and lies, and if you internalize those messages too much, you might start giving those messages to other people too. In the new year, remember that as much as you better yourself, you must accept yourself. Never apologize for the body that has carried you this far; no matter how much you’ve hated it in the past, it still doesn’t hate you.

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