Articles about fatphobia and fat positivity have been making an appearance in my social media feeds fairly regularly of late. One in particular struck a chord, describing the impossibility of the “thigh gap”, a coveted beauty feature apparently only available to those of us with “splayed thighs”.  This was one of a number of features I pursued with vigour, embarrassingly, through most of my teens, with an array of ridiculous diets including the Heart Foundation Diet (which unsurprisingly has nothing to do with the Heart Foundation), the Marshmallow diet (you only eat marshmallows), The Atkins diet, The South Beach diet and a number of others including detox potions, fast days, and bizarre food combinations. Spoiler: they didn’t result in me gaining a thigh gap, or, in fact, being any thinner at all in the medium term. Of course, it should have been obvious that the thigh gap is a piece of digital trickery. It’s just that I hadn’t had cause to research the science of thighs. Laziness, failure to think things through, and a desperate need to believe in the hope that if you work very very hard, one day you might get to feel good enough for a few minutes lead to an acceptance of such things more easily than we might be ready to admit when we are eventually confronted with the obvious reality.

Despite this long battle with my body and much misery accompanying my fatness, I have never really come around to being on the side of “fat positivity”. I believe that aesthetics matter, that being able to control the image you present to the world is a positive thing, that a body you have created is more authentically ‘you’ than the one you happen to have been born with, and that there is nothing wrong with competition. The fact that there are inevitable losers is just part of life.  All of this seems very much at odds with the underlying philosophy of fat-positivity and I have therefore, until now, moved my beak out of this discussion with a dismissive eyeroll. In recent years, however, fat moralising has started down the more disturbing route of treating fat people like we are the cause of a horrifically expensive plague generated by our lack of self-control. This is a change that seems somewhat perverse given the extent of the health costs of fat shaming.

The general media assumption seems to be that the cost of fat-shaming to people’s health is simply that some people develop eating disorders such as anorexia, but since there are far more people suffering from obesity related problems than anorexia, fat shaming is likely to be helpful because it will give people extra motivation to be thinner, and therefore healthier. The problem with this is that it doesn’t. People aren’t necessarily healthier just because they are thinner, and constantly being shamed about your body isn’t particularly motivating.

Thinking through all the personal anecdotes of health choices people have made generates the following:  I can think of at least three people at school who took up smoking as an appetite suppressant. I can think of two more who didn’t give up because they were putting on weight. Three people in my school became so severely agoraphobic because of weight related bullying that they had to leave school before their GCSEs, and at least one of them has not been able to complete any further education in the six years since because the damage to her mental health has prevented her from being able to leave the house for sustained periods. A number of people gave up sports because they felt that it generated an ‘unfeminine’ amount of muscle. My own foray into crash dieting, and otherwise screwy relationship with food and my body in general, has had an unquestionably more negative impact on my body size, and health than a more accepting approach is likely to have generated. Crash diets generate binges; shame generates secret eating, and a tendency to try to suppress hunger until you are ravenous before immediately scoffing a whole pizza.

By contrast, I can think of only a handful of people who adopt a healthy lifestyle for the sole purpose of being slim. Those that are able to do so do indeed succeed at both being slim and being healthy. But this relies on a metabolism and body-type that allows them to achieve an “attractive” body-type whilst being healthy. For many people, achieving the levels of thin required to be attractive means pushing their body outside of what is healthy. And that’s OK. Just as long as we’re not pretending it’s healthier.


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