It is time to challenge fat shaming on campus

The double standard when it comes to bodies and our self control is all too evident

“My body, my choice” was one of the great rallying cries of the Repeal movement. Bodily autonomy is one of the most important battlegrounds for any kind of freedom-based ethos, and step by step we’re getting there. The “tattoos and piercings are unprofessional” mantra is dying out, and we’re passing legislation to allow trans and nonbinary people the same self-determination that cis people take for granted. However, there’s one area of bodily autonomy that the whole world needs to do better with: the size of bodies.

Given that it’s the 21st century, I’m going to assume you’ve heard of rape culture – that the  commodification of women’s bodies and men’s sense of entitlement to them is so pervasive that we have to consciously tune in to notice it. But here’s a new idea, linked to rape culture through the commodification of bodies, but still separate from it: diet culture.

How young were you when you or one of your friends or siblings first went on a diet? How many of us can honestly say that we’ve never experienced disordered eating? How many of us don’t know anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder? Have you ever said, “Wow, have you lost weight?” as a compliment, or decried, “Ugh, I can’t believe I ate that whole slice, I’m so fat!” or asked, “Do I look fat in this?” when what you meant was, “Do I look bad?” All of this is diet culture, which is a multi-billion euro industry worldwide, dedicated to making people feel shitty about themselves in order to sell us a “solution”.

Dana Sturtevant, registered dietician, points out: “The diet and cosmetic fitness industry has a 95% failure rate, and thrives when customers blame themselves instead of their flawed approaches. This industry’s survival depends on you coming back for more, again and again and again.” Diets don’t work, and not only that, yo-yo dieting is actually more harmful to the body than maintaining weight, even if that’s heavier than what’s fashionable. Human bodies are way more complicated than “calories in, calories burned.” Bodies come in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of reasons to be that way, so concern-trolling fat people by saying that they should “just lose weight” if they don’t like being body-shamed isn’t just victim-blaming crap – it’s flat-out wrong.

There are many reasons why people are fat, from genetic factors, hormonal imbalance or prescription medication, to body image, self-esteem and stress issues. But there’s also an underlying class factor that’s frequently ignored: unhealthy food is often cheaper than healthy food, both financially and in time. When you’re cash or time poor – or both, as many working poor and working-class students are – healthier choices just might not be feasible. The fast food euro menu is cheap and it doesn’t cut into the few minutes you have to get a meal; preparing a salad takes expensive, perishable ingredients and time to prepare it. It follows that the “obesity epidemic” – framed as a massive surge in the personal failure of people to just not be fat – is actually a cunning political feint to shift the blame for policy failures to the poor and marginalised.

Fat-phobia, a self-perpetuating social ill, has become so acceptable that it’s socially acceptable to make gross blanket statements without fear of contradiction. On August 4, the University Times published an article that was intended to be about the lack of healthy food options on campus. It’s a real problem, especially for those with food allergies, and I would have applauded a piece that offered thoughtful critique, even without offering answers. But the writer did neither.

The UT article begins with an anecdote, apparently lifted from the Sunday Independent about an unruly body: a patient so obese that they are too heavy to be weighed on the hospital scales! There’s no context, no follow-up, no compassion: just a human being being treated as a shocking rhetorical flourish. Fitzpatrick continues, offering the usual fear-mongering body mass index-based (BMI) “clinical” definition of obesity, despite the fact that BMI has been repeatedly debunked as an “inaccurate and misleading” measure for health, before reaching the statement that UT saw fit to make the featured quote on social media:

I don’t mean to be a killjoy, I enjoy a macaroon or a pastry with my coffee as much as the next person, but a struggle with willpower when it comes to food is a huge issue faced by people who are classified as overweight or obese.

This infantilising body-shaming has no place in responsible media; student publications have a particular responsibility not to actively harm their audience. Early adulthood is a critical time for personal development and forging an adult identity. For an SU-funded publication to put out a condescending message like UTs is irresponsible at best, especially given the inadequacy of mental health resources on campus. Do you feel the need to preach about the “healthier personal choices” to everyone you see mid-afternoon with a bag of cans? Or to the huddled masses in the doorways to the Arts Block, trying to dodge the rain while getting a nicotine hit?

Fat is not a failing. It’s an adjective, like short or tall, hairy, blonde, or brunette. And sure, maybe those of us who are fat could do with looking at some of our choices, but maybe some thin people could too – but that shouldn’t be up for public debate.