Fat-shaming is part of our culture and overweight people are bombarded by the narrative that they need to be thin in order to be accepted, says US writer Aubrey Gordon – aka Twitter phenomenon ‘Your Fat Friend’, in her new book
Why is anti-fat bias still okay? Why, when we disapprove of and legislate against discriminatory behaviour towards other social groups, does fattism and fatphobia continue to get worse? Why does it remain acceptable to treat fat people differently — that is, negatively, dismissively, judgementally — from straight-sized people?
From “you’re going to die” and “no-one will love you at your size” to “have you tried paleo /keto/Overeaters Anonymous/do you work out/were you abused as a child?”, fat people have to contend with all kinds of unsolicited intrusion and interrogation. Some of it is well meaning, but a lot of it is just downright mean. And guess what — it doesn’t help. If it did, nobody would be fat.
‘Straight-sized’ is what American writer Aubrey Gordon (37) calls those who are not fat or very fat. Gordon, the formerly anonymous creator of Your Fat Friend on Twitter, has just published What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat. She wants to address the fact that the conversation about fat is only ever framed by words like ‘risk’ and ‘epidemic’, and how fatness is represented in the media almost exclusively by before-and-after tropes, boot camps, biggest loser programmes, fat-shaming, active discrimination, and the endless concern for fat people’s health.
Speaking from her home in Portland, Oregon, Gordon — warm, charming, funny and direct — calls this ‘concern trolling’.
“It has become the job of straight-sized people to police the health of fat people,” she says. “What we are missing is that registering concern increases focus on my body — that I am always only my body until I get thin. This in turn triggers obesogenic processes.”
In other words, reminding fat people that they are fat via concern, ridicule, too-small airline seats, unavailable clothing sizes, being treated like an idiot by doctors, can create feelings of alienation, isolation and stress. This in turn may trigger self-soothing, which can mean using food. Fat people know they’re fat. As TV presenter and actor James Corden puts it: “If making fun of fat people made them lose weight, there’d be no fat kids in schools.”
Gordon is, and always has been, very fat — she’s currently around 24 stone. “I do not struggle with self-esteem or negative body image,” she writes. “For me, my body isn’t good or bad, it just is. But for the rest of the world, my body presents major problems.”
And it is the reactions of others to her body, rather than her body itself, which prompted her to write her book.
“Strangers’ interjections about my body, food, clothing and character are a daily feature in my life as a very fat person,” she says.
She recounts tiny, daily details of her life, like how a passing stranger in a supermarket reached in, uninvited, and removed a melon from Gordon’s shopping basket, citing its fructose content. Can you imagine what that would feel like? “I have never become accustomed to the complete lack of empathy from so many around me,” she adds.
Gordon rejects the “pornography of suffering” that fat bodies elicit, as well as the “near ubiquitous cultural dogma that fat people are duty bound to become thin before asking to be treated with respect and dignity”.
Her point is that her fat body is nobody else’s business. When it comes to fat, she says: “We are rarely honest about fatness, and how deeply differently we are treated as fat people and thin people.
"We have spent decades browbeating fat people. It’s very human to admit biases — there is no point in denying them, because they exist, but we need to lean into them and accept them, and then work from there.”
While both fat and thin people may struggle with body image and self-esteem, for fat people, it doesn’t end there.
“Fat people face overwhelming discrimination in employment, healthcare, transit, the treatment of eating disorders, and more,” she says. Body image is the least of it.
Gordon advocates for fat justice and greater awareness of fat bias — not for more dietary advice, the names of bariatric surgeons, psychologists, gyms or personal trainers — just a basic recognition that fat people are more than their bodies and should be accorded the same dignity and respect as thin people. That thinness is not godliness, despite what our culture screams at us.
Being fat does not desexualise people, nor does dating fat people mean you have some kind of feeder fetish. That fat people are not automatically unhealthier than thin people, as anyone who has ever seen Lizzo’s frenetic, athletic live shows will attest; or as actor Jameela Jamil tweeted: “My whole damn thin family has diabetes and high cholesterol and problems with our joints … stop concern-trolling fat people.”
Asking Gordon about her statement that “anti-fat bias, not fatness itself, may be fat people’s greatest health risk”, she explains how harassment and discrimination produces cortisol, increases blood pressure, and leaves fat people in permanent fight or flight mode.
She calls this “minority stress”. It deters her from visiting health care professionals, because she says no matter what she presents with — an ear infection, an ingrown toenail — there will be a lecture about weight. She cites a Harvard study that shows 80pc of people have anti-fat bias. Fatness is the number one cause of bullying at school.
Gordon also explains how our current system for assessing how much we should weigh is not fit for purpose, as she walks us through the history of the body mass index, which was created in Belgium the 1830s using a handful of white European men, excluding women and people of colour, and therefore unrepresentative. It is still widely employed today, despite never having been originally designed as an indicator of health.
“It needs to be tossed on the junk heap of historical pseudoscience, alongside hysteria and phrenology,” she says.
Gordon wants a world where people are “judged on their actions, not their bodies”. Yet fat ridicule remains acceptable within the mainstream. Time magazine captioned a cover featuring fat US politician Chris Christie as “the elephant in the room” and political commentator and comedian Trevor Noah still makes jokes about “fat chicks”.
“If you are willing to shame the bodies of the people you disagree with, body positivity and fat acceptance aren’t your values. They’re your hobbies,” Gordon adds.
She asks that straight-sized people be fat allies in three ways, and would like something more than neutrality, acceptance and tolerance, which she says sound like “meek pleas to simply stop harming us”. Instead, she asks that straight-sized people “not buckle under the weight of their own discomfort, to stay in the conversation long enough to learn, and to take proactive action to counter anti-fat bias and help defend fat people”.
She says wryly: “Anti-fatness may not make sense to straight-sized people. It doesn’t make sense to me either.” Yet she has “learned to anticipate it everywhere”, which means living her life in a state of permanent hypervigilance — even in North America, where fat bodies are commonplace. “Anticipating and avoiding fat-calling is baked into every aspect of my life as a fat person,” she writes.
My own experience as a fat person whose weight fluctuated over 20 years between a UK size 12 and a UK size 24 — I was what Gordon terms “small fat” — was that, like Gordon, I tried everything I could to lose weight and maintain weight loss. Nothing ever worked. In 2018, aged 51, I finally had a gastric sleeve procedure — cheaply in Estonia — and have been straight-sized ever since.
Basically, instead of accepting myself as fat, I caved to society’s expectations of what my body should look like and paid a man to remove most of my stomach.
I prefer being a size 14 to a size 20, but recognise that what I did to achieve permanent weight loss is not something everyone could, would or should consider doing. Is weight loss surgery something Gordon would ever contemplate?
“That seems like a very strange response to me,” she says. “Rather than hold people who treat me badly accountable, I should spend $50,000 that I don’t have, on a high-risk procedure to mutilate my stomach, because people don’t like or approve of my body?”
And yet we still regard fat people at best as a problem to be solved, at worst as a social group to be dehumanised, dismissed and invalidated.
This has got to change, she says, by looking inward and shining a light on our own ingrained, deep-rooted prejudices, so that we perceive fat people as people — people who happen to be fat. And to stop the othering of fat bodies, because it’s catastrophically unhelpful and horribly unkind.