Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra

BroadAgenda

Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Actually, body positivism is empowering women to live

Nov 29, 2023 | Trauma, Activism, Body, Eating, Commentary, Equality, Opinion, Education, Gender, First Person, Popular Culture, Feature

Written by Liz Allen

‘Get out of the way, you fat fuck’. These are the words a young bloke yelled at me from his moving car as I walked across a carpark in suburban Canberra. He swerved his car toward me, I assume to scare me. I was scared. His words still make me feel like I have less rights to exist, to occupy space, because I’m fat. This was over ten years and twenty kilograms ago. Unsurprisingly, this guy’s insult and near miss didn’t motivate me to lose weight. Being called a fat fuck only served to reinforce a deep shame I feel about myself.

I am fat, he’s right. But I’m not alone in my fatness. And body positivity helps empower me to live a life worth living.

That’s exactly why it made me boil with rage when I read MP Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah quoted in the media a few days ago saying body positivity is “…normalising weight gain in young women and then this can lead to cascading problems.” (If you can’t access that article linked directly above because of the paywall, try this one.)

Most adult Australians are overweight. In fact, fatness is now so common that 75% of blokes and 60% of women have a body mass index exceeding what is considered healthy. You read that right, more men are overweight than women – you wouldn’t know this from the depiction and disgust heaped on women’s fatness in popular media, though.

The proportion of Aussies considered fat is only set to increase, because as we age the propensity for being overweight increases. And Australia is an ageing population. Excess weight peaks for men around mid-later life and for women after menopause, but the rate of fatness is highest across all age groups in adulthood for Aussie men.

I deliberately say fat. I once hated the word. I have come to appreciate the importance of disarming the pain that comes from being called fat by reclaiming the word.

Women experience fat shaming even when not overweight. The social construction of what constitutes fatness is highly gendered, leading to incongruent notions of what we might consider overweight. Men perceive their weight to be in the normal range even when fat, but the reverse is true for women who tend to believe they’re overweight even when not. In other words, women have been taught to hate their bodies…of any size.

Fat stigma stops people from seeking needed health care, and prevents impacted individuals from engaging in practices that might promote things like physical activity. Overweight people experience, on average, just over 11 instances of fat stigma every two weeks. Hate about one’s body from partners, loved ones, media, and strangers. It’s stigma that’s harming fat bodies, not the self-esteem building that comes with body positivity. Fat stigma actually encourages binge eating and demotivates people from being physically active. Being in a fat body is even associated with income penalties.

Disordered eating and body dysmorphia plague young Aussies. I’ve personally known two young women who died because of restrictive eating disorders. Eating disorders run in my family and I have seen first-hand the way anorexia and bulimia take hold and wreak lifelong havoc among young girls. I’ve also had a loved one die from obesity-related issues. Fat or thin we all just want to feel good about ourselves and live a good life. Fat shaming harms us all.

Body positivity doesn’t promote fatness, it’s not toxic positivity. Body positivism recognises the complex contributions to being overweight and is a counter-to and a calling-out of fat stigma.

I haven’t always lived in a fat body. Throughout my primary school and early teen years I had a very athletic figure. I had never struggled with weight and was one of those kids that could eat whatever and never put on weight, in fact sometimes I was underweight. I played representative netball and competed in regional athletics competitions for sprinting. I still recall the last time I competed in a race. I was around 13 and preparing to run when an older boy approached me and told me he was excited to see my breasts move as I ran. I never competed again.

Excess weight accumulation is not an easy as the simplistic mathematic lie we’re told: surplus calories in over too few calories expended in physical activity. Sure, food and exercise are part of the equation, but it’s more complicated than this. Poverty, geography, culture, stress, and food scarcity are all associated with excess weight.

My weight gain started following traumatic experiences of child sexual abuse and the experiences of severe adversity associated with poverty and homelessness. My fat body is a testament of survival.

Plus size woman smiling at surfing.

Dr Liz Allen believes it’s structural inequalities – not body positivity – that’s harming us. Picture: Adobe Stock 

Australians, like the rest of the world, are leading increasingly harried lives. We’re busy. We rely on convenience; whether it’s cars or meals. Stress and time poverty collide in the perfect storm of weight gain. But weight gain isn’t a sign of personal weakness of failing, it reflects wider social trends that point to structural issues. Contemporary society is making us fat.

Medical specialists tend to see only fatness in clients, overlooking the person within. You might go to a doctor about a neurological or gynaecological life-threatening issue only to be dismissed and told you’re fat. This has happened to me. Medical professionals overlooked my humanity (and my health) because their hate of fat bodies blinded them from seeing me.

Body positivity isn’t killing women; poverty, gender inequality, and discrimination are.

Body positivism isn’t about seeking to be fat or normalising fatness, it’s about not perpetuating harms unto oneself. Society provides enough hate towards fat bodies as it is. And, no, body positivism isn’t a sexual feederism fetish.

So why don’t I just lose weight? I’ve tried. Diets, pills, exercise – been there done that. No weight loss, but I learned to hate myself more alongside debilitating headaches, kidney issues, and homicidal agitation. At a recent GP appointment my doctor looked me square in the eye and said ‘trying to lose weight now is causing you more harm, let’s put this off for another time’.

Every day I have to reassure myself I’m worthy and that my fatness isn’t all there is to me. Body positivity grants people like me the self-esteem to cope with stigma. And, no, body positivism isn’t keeping me fat – life is keeping me fat. Give me the time, financial opportunities, and access to the right resources then maybe the fatness might budge.

It’s beyond time action to support – rather than condemn – fat bodies is normalised by investing in policies that address the core issues that give rise to fatness. Fat stigma is a good place to start.

  • Please note: Picture at top is a stock photo. 
Dr Liz Allen

Dr Liz Allen is a demographer and social researcher at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods. Liz’s PhD investigated the individual, family, and neighbourhood contributions to child overweight and obesity in Australia.

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