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Fat Shame: Interview with Dr. Amy Farrell

In the first post of our Fat Shame series, Kim Buesser talks with Dr. Amy Farrell, a professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and author of Fat Shame, a book which demystifies fat stigma in America by following its history across the globe. Below is a transcript of Kim’s conversation with Dr. Farrell. Interested in reading more about Dr. Farrell and fat shame? Check out our post in the Eating Mindfully blog on Psychology Today, which synthesizes some of Dr. Farrell’s work, as well as other fat activists.


Kimberly Buesser (KB): What exactly is fat shame, where did it originate and is it seen across other cultures?

Dr. Amy Farrell (AF): I am an American historian, a US historian, so that is my area of study. My research provides evidence that certainly by the middle of the 19th century, fat shame and fat stigma were significantly at work. Many people date the beginning of fat shame to the 1920s, but what was occurring then, was the burgeoning existence of the diet and advertising industry. We have a lot of records of fat stigma from the 1920s, but actually, the stigma associated with fat started much earlier. The reality is, as we go back in time, we can find examples in Shakespeare’s work of people being made fun of because they are fat, and fat being seen as a sign of either ugliness or of greediness. Certainly, we can see this in biblical passages. We have a problem where we presume there was some time when fat was really always considered beautiful and always valorized, and that is simply not true. I do not think the evidence supports that. The reality is though, it wasn’t until we had a culture where more people could be fat, that fat became such a prominent, comparative cultural thing that was demonized. There are still certain cultures that do value fatness. In the anthology Fat an Anthropology of an Obsession, there is a great essay on fat as a sign of beauty among women. With industrialization, in the US, England and France, fatness became a sign of not just the “fat cat,” but also of an inferior person. That also originated out of the travel writers and anthropology scholars who identified those people who were fat as primitive. In my own work, I discuss Sara Baartman, who was the most famous of the Khoikhoi women and exhibited as a freak for her unusual body type. One of the aspects of her that was really commented on about Baartman, as well as in society in general, was fatness as a sign of her inferiority. It was a kind of perfect storm, that kind of thinking within theology, within anthropology, and with the fact that more people could become fat, so that is wasn’t only just the wealthy who could actually become fat in the western world, led to this sort of thinking and ultimately feeble conclusions about fatness.


KB: Do you feel that fat shame is uniquely a women’s issue or do you feel men struggle with it as well? How are their experiences different; especially with the female body ideal that is promoted in the media, which is different from the male ideal.

AF: I wouldn’t say it is only a women’s issue,; men certainly struggle with fat shame. There is a difference though; the tipping point where women start experiencing fat discrimination and fat shame, within themselves and through other people projecting it onto them, is at much lower body weights than when men would start to experience it. There is a certain idea of being a big man that protects men from fat shame for a while. I wouldn’t say that men are not subject to fat shame. It is just that the tipping point is somewhat different between men and women. There is some evidence that gay men experience fat shame at lower weights than heterosexual men as well. I don’t know that there is evidence of them being discriminated against in terms of internalized feelings of fat shame.


KB: Do you feel that women and gay men experiencing fat shame at lower body weights than straight men is related to the “male gaze”?

AF: Yeah, that makes sense in thinking about the history of our ,nation, with the body being represented for the pleasure of men. The other thing that is interesting in that is that some of the most prominent fat activists, people who have really organized their life work around, or have dedicated part of their life work to, resisting fat stigma and articulating a new sense of the fat body or health at every size, often emerge out of lesbian communities. That is not to say there is not fat stigma in lesbian communities, I am not saying that at all, but I am saying that it’s quite interesting to note the extent to which these communities have been a key source of fat activism, fat acceptance and resistance to fat shaming.


KB: Why do you think our country is so heavily invested in the “fat is bad” message? This message seems to be supported by all levels of our society, from the diet industry to doctors and practitioners.

AF: It is the compliments of two, possibly more, but at least two key forces. One is there is a huge profit incentive for us to be focused on the fat is bad message. We have no means of making fat people thin. Yet, if you can create a situation where everyone perceives themselves to be “at risk” of being fat, then you really have created a huge, and never ending supply of people who are going to want to buy products, and get into systems, and do things that cost money in order to loose weight or to keep themselves at a smaller weight. The profit motive cannot be underestimated. We also have very strong, deeply rooted ideas that fat is bad and that fat is a sign of an uncivilized, primitive body. Those ideas are so strong and those ideological roots go so deep, that it makes it really hard for us to actually see or think clearly about fat. For instance, a few days ago there was an article in the New York Times about how the presence of fatty liver seems to be increasing. What I noted in that article is not until the very end of the article a number of experts were noted saying the existence of fatty liver disease is rising among slender children. That information was buried in the article, with the headline reading Obesity Linked to Fatty Liver. And here is another case where we don’t know what’s going on with this fatty liver, we don’t know why it sometimes seems to be a benign condition, and sometimes it seems to turn into something that is a dangerous health risk. It does not seem to correlate perfectly with obesity, and certainly there is no evidence that it’s just obesity that is the cause of the disease. This shows an example of how we can’t think clearly, because we already know that “fat is bad.” Sometimes when we already know things so clearly, the evidence will come to support those conclusions regardless. In the same way that when we as a culture knew that women were inferior to men, all sorts of science came to support that theory. Science, history, theology, everything came to support that, when we knew that people of African origin and Native Americans were inferior to Europeans all sorts of evidence came to support that theory. We are looking at a similar sort of situation here. That’s why I am so happy you are talking to me, because I would like more scholars and scientists to read my work and to be paying attention to how culture affects the way they are thinking, and seeing the evidence.


KB: What steps do you feel we still need to take to reach societal body acceptance? Where are we falling short and where are we excelling at these goals as a society?

AF: I’ll go with the bad news first. I don’t see any letting up right now of the cultural script of “fat is bad,” with the goal to loose weight, and how in doing so one will become more healthy. We have a rise in bariatric surgeries and the pharmaceutical and weight loss industries are flourishing. In an economy where people are worried about their jobs, people will submit even more to these messages in order to feel in control, and to give themselves a leg up in the job force, as they may rightly perceive that they will be discriminated against because of their weight. There is a real belief that we can endlessly remake ourselves with medical processes and surgery. That’s where we need to culturally take a step back and think through our relationship to our bodies. Just as environmentalists tout there are limits to growth, and that there are certain ways we need to exist with the planet, there might be limits to how we can remake our nature, and ways we should peacefully accept ourselves. Our bodies are not objects to be endlessly remade and remolded. If we do believe we can remake and remodel ourselves, we will be lead down a path of tremendous ill health, and we will create situations where discrimination can flourish, and where other problems our culture is facing get ignored.

The good news is that we do have active fat acceptance, Health at Every Size, and fat activism movements. The minute you have people speaking up, and speaking up in so many different ways, you have the potential to see a paradigm shift. It’s a little bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes; for instance the Association for Size Diversity and Health is made up of a lot of nutritionists, psychologists, social workers, people who are dealing with patients and clients who have eating disorders. They realized they were prescribing the same kinds of behaviors to fat patients that they would have identified as disordered eating in thinner patients. On their own, they came to the conclusion that it was crazy. There is hope in social movements and in the fact that people can think for themselves, and think about what it is that we are doing with our own understandings of our bodies. So that’s the good news, I really think there is a possibility for a paradigm shift. The field of fat studies is growing. The relationships between scholarship, social movements and the medical industry changing might not all go in a straight line, but there is pressure on it, which is essential for change at all.


KB: Is there some way we can get these ideas of fat acceptance to doctors?

AF: Yeah, I certainly think so. I feel it is a matter of getting the idea of cultural fat shame and fat stigma into medical schools, so that the younger population can be challenged in their thinking. Appealing on a number of different levels is really important, so that physicians in the medical industry can see how culture is influencing their thinking. Therefore, the medical professionals might actually look at the studies more carefully and not just read the headlines, which are often very misleading. It is imperative to push the first mandate for a position, which is first, do no harm. The pressure to take pharmaceutical “solutions, ” have surgery, or even just a mandate to diet, which often causes disordered eating, are harming patients. Pushing for real clarity on who is profiting from our medical situations is pertinent. We need to have stronger rules and regulations about cover writers for journal articles that are actually being written by pharmaceutical companies. We need to look at the interlocks on the Obesity Task Force where we see it is really the industry that is filling up positions on the force. We need to take a strong look at that in regards to fat as well as all aspects of our health system so that we can actually trust the treatment we receive as patients.

Health care has a rhetoric that people are individually responsible for their own health. A couple things we need to be thinking about is what is happening on the cultural, societal level. It is important that individuals pay attention to their own bodies, and resist when doctors are telling them to do something that they know is wrong. That is when ideas like mindful eating, really paying attention to ones own body and how one actually feels when eating certain things, can really make a difference. If we put the same energy into mindful eating and body acceptance, then we could really become a healthier society. Those are things that will lead to greater individual health, which require cultural changes.


KB: What are ways for people to get involved in this movement?

AF: There are many things for them to do. For one, I would encourage them to become more educated. They should read my book, and some of the other great books out there now. The Fat Studies Reader is an excellent text, that would be a great place to start learning about the subject as it offers a range of ideas and perspectives and a sense of all the different scholars who are working on this. I recommend looking up Health at Every Size, especially if you are a practitioner, to see a whole different kind of paradigm about health and body size which challenges so many of our preconceived ideas. Health at Every Size also provides support for individuals interested in taking a different approach. Often it is hard to take a different approach if you are feeling like you are the only one within your community doing something new and different. Whether it is your family, your counseling office, your social work office, or your hospital, seeing that there are other groups of professionals who are thinking in new ways is really important and helpful. Taking advantage of those opportunities to bring in speakers or to speak up when you see problems is essential to spread the message. In my own area, the director of our health and wellness foundation has been really responsive to my concerns about programs that were doing much more fat shaming than they were supporting health. They have brought me in to give talks and share new ideas and other approaches that people might want to consider.

I also want to mention that pointing out the fat shaming that is going on within ones own head and within ones culture is essential step to eliminating the stigma. Taking time to wonder if whatever it is that I’m seeing is the result of the obesity, as a medical term, or is it a result of fat stigma and discrimination against fat people, is necessary in order to tackle this issue.

Kim Buesser is an undergrad student at New York University studying Nutrition. She is currently interning with Dr. Alexis Conason. Before entering college, Kim danced as a trainee at Boston Ballet. During her ballet years she danced at many prestigious schools including the Jacqueline Kennedy Onnassis school at American Ballet Theatre, and for many important people, including the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Upon changing paths, Kim found her passion of helping people use food to fuel their bodies, which was inspired by an eating disorder she fought under the pressures of the ballet world.

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