We all know the feeling: bags are checked, travel snacks have been purchased, and the beach and a margarita are just a flight away. And that’s the best-case scenario. Maybe you’re on your way to a last-minute professional conference on a Saturday morning and have a dreaded middle seat. Whatever the scene, the reaction is the same: You board and cringe when you realize that the very, very large man in row twenty-three is your seatmate for the next three plus hours.
Or maybe it happens when you’re thumbing through the latest US Weekly with the cover screaming about the latest celebrity who seems to have put on twenty pounds, or when you watch with disdain as an obese woman at the grocery loads up her cart with junk food.
I’d bet good money that most of us have partaken in such fatist thoughts.
Fatism is prejudice against overweight people. It’s everywhere: many stores don’t carry larger sizes; the stereotype that all fat people are lazy and dumb; our preoccupation with weight in celebrity culture has reached new heights. But the most insidious kind of fatism lives in our thoughts—those subtle, daily judgments that crop up when we encounter an overweight traveler or marvel at unflattering photos of Jessica Simpson. Fatism is the belief that overweight people are lazy, gluttonous, and lack motivation or willpower. That somehow they have chosen to be the way they are and, therefore, deserve our judgment.
This thinking is both cruel and ignorant. First of all, more and more research is showing that weight is controlled by several factors, many of which are out of our control. Genetics, chronic illness, food allergies: all of these affect our ability to maintain a healthy weight. The overweight man next to you on the bus may be taking anti-depressants that slow metabolism. The obese woman using a scooter may have plenty of self-control but also a debilitating thyroid condition that leads to excessive weight gain.
And then, of course, some of them may be overweight from personal choice. I know firsthand how our actions can affect our bodies, not only from my work as a Body Image Coach but also from my own experience of being obese for the first twenty-five years of my life. Raised in an abusive household, I used food from an early age to fill my emotional emptiness. Consequently, I was severely overweight by the time I was ten years old. My struggles continued as I added alcohol and drugs to the list of substances I thought could make me happy, or at least make me forget my pain. And, of course, none of them worked. They only led to more self-loathing. By age twenty-four, I was headed to an early grave.
And you know what saved me? Love.
I met the first true love of my life when I was twenty-four, and she loved me not because of or in spite of my weight, but because of who I was. She showed me that I was worthy of love, and it was from her that I learned I had to love myself. I had been fatist toward myself for all those years. I judged myself for what my body looked like. I told myself I had no self-control. I ignored the psychological damage that had gotten me to the point that I would binge eat until I passed out. I was shamed into going to weight loss clinics by my mother. I saw the dirty looks people gave me, and I heard the people I thought were my friends call me “the fat one.”
None of it worked. The only thing that worked was self-love.
I realized I had to let go of my fatism toward myself if I was going to get better. And so I did, very slowly. I let go of my judgments and focused on what I could love about myself. Thankfully, I was able to let the weight go; I lost 100 pounds over the next year. I found a healthy place for my body, and I have worked to maintain it for over twenty-four years, not through strict regime or self-inflicted punishment, but through self-love.
Don’t get me wrong; being anti-fatist is in no way endorsing obesity, which is an incredibly serious problem facing many across the world. But judging and shaming those who are overweight will do nothing to help them or us if those judgments are self-imposed. Love and compassion are the best ways to help. And that doesn’t mean indulgence. If you’re overweight, loving yourself isn’t allowing your eating habits to bring on Type 2 diabetes.
It means treating your body with love and respect and doing what is best for it (which will absolutely differ from person to person).
So the next time you encounter an overweight seatmate, release your judgments and, instead, try compassion. Maybe treating him well will give him the confidence he needs to face his own problems. This starts with showing yourself the same compassion. According to the Social Issue Research Centre, eight out of ten women at any given moment are unhappy with what they see in the mirror.
How can we show love and compassion for others if we can’t do it for ourselves?
Every day, when you see yourself in the mirror for the first time, repeat an affirmation about your inherent worth or find a part of your body you love for what it does, not for what it looks like.
First we find self-love, and then we find love for each other.
Fatism (along with many other ‘isms) will hopefully become a thing of the past.
Weight Release & Body Image Coach, Laura Fenamore, is on a mission to guide women around the world to love what they see in the mirror—one pinky at a time—so they can unlock the secrets to a healthy weight and start loving their lives as soon as possible. Having overcome her own battle with addiction, obesity, and eating disorders, Laura released over one hundred pounds twenty-four years ago, beginning her on a journey to guide other women to live more joyous, balanced lives. Laura believes that self-love and self-care is where the transformation begins. Learn more about Laura at OnePinky.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.