The Ugliness of Fat Shaming

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday July 23, 2016

Philip Barragan is a big guy. The Los Angeles County administrator, who is in his late 40s, tops the scale at 400 pounds. But he's quite happy with his life, thanks. A recently published novelist whose first book, "Fatizen 24602," details a dystopian society where fat citizens are forced into concentration camps, Barragan wed husband Mason Arrigo about 18 months ago. But his healthy self-image and body pride were a long time coming, stunted by the poisonous, bullying behavior known as fat shaming. Perhaps most disturbingly, those within the gay community - a place where diversity should be celebrated - were often the ones doing the shaming.

"I remember this time when I was younger," Barragan, who is Mexican-American, recalls. "I was with some friends. Everyone was having a great time. I walked by this group of guys, and they were telling fat jokes. Someone yelled out, 'Time to go see Richard Simmons!' and I turned around, and they were laughing at me. At that point I didn't really have the vocabulary to respond. It took a while to grow a thicker skin." The founder of now defunct Girth and Mirth Long Beach, which was part of a national network of organizations providing big gay men a safe space in which to socialize, Barragan has many such stories. "I have a friend who was in a supermarket," he continues. "He is a very large man. And this person went up to his cart and started taking food right out of it, saying, "This is not going to help you lose weight.' "

There is no doubt that society as a whole indulges in this kind of behavior. After all, fat is one of our last taboos, a stigma so pervasive that shaming it has become a kind of sport. Race and disability are no longer safe subjects for ridicule (unless you're Donald Trump), but fat shaming is A-OK. And according to a recent study published in "Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity," within the gay community fat shaming may be not only accepted but also actively encouraged. More than a third of gay men, researchers say, have experienced anti-fat bias, many of them people who would not be considered overweight by body mass index standards. Additionally, not only are romantic partners commonly rejected on the basis of weight, "gay men," it was found, "expect other gay men to show these anti-fat biases when looking for a romantic partner."

"People feel like they can say things about my weight," Barragan confirms, "and in the gay community I have experienced those kind of comments with a bit more venom and a bit more ugliness. It's often a group of gay men that ridicules someone fat ... pointing them out, laughing, making them the circus act, their entertainment. It's unfortunate that happens, and it just seems meaner in the gay community than it does in the community at large."

The Blame Game

But why do so many gay men revile fat? San Francisco mobile applications worker Bradley Varnell, who weighs about 350 pounds and happily declares that "fat stands for fat and tasty," has a provocative idea. "There is a really good book out called 'The Velvet Rage,' " he notes. "And it speaks about how gay men realize as they're developing that they're different than people around them. And for some reason that is not OK. So even after we come out of the closet, we have this internalized feeling that we are broken. I think image is so important to so many gay men because they feel that they're already not normal, if you will, so therefore they need to look the best, be the best and have the best. They are pushing themselves to prove that 'Hey, I'm a person of value.' "

Of course, should you find fat shameful, whether you view a fat individual with pity or scorn at least somewhat depends on whether you think bodies become fat due to genetics or poor lifestyle choices. If nature is to blame, sympathy comes more easily. Believing nurture - or simply a fondness for consuming too many calories and carbohydrates - the cause makes blaming the fat person much easier. As author, public speaker and self-proclaimed "chubby chaser" Dan Oliverio posits in his book "The Round World," it's essentially the same logic that has been used against the LGBT community for more than five decades. If being LGBT is a choice, the old story goes, than those who choose it must be held responsible for their actions.

The practice of gay thin men shaming gay fat men, in much the way the entire LGBT community has been shamed by the straight world, is nearly as ironic as it devastating - though not quite. "Big gay men embody a multiply marginalized group, stigmatized for their size and sexuality," says Jason Whitesel, assistant professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Pace University and author of "Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma." "It is poignant that the worst injury inflicted upon gay big men is body shaming coming from gay society. Big men are rendered second-class citizens in the gay community for being fat. They are also rendered third-class citizens in the heterosexual world for being gay and fat."

"By the way," Whitesel adds, "I intentionally use the word fat, which is simply a descriptive term, rather than obese or overweight, which are judgmental, medicalized terms that carry negative connotations."

The consequences of fat shaming, both on the individual and society itself, are profound. Poor body image has been tied not only to anxiety and depression but also eating disorders, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. And no wonder. "At the individual level," explains Oliverio, "the idea is that if you're fat, you should expect less. You should expect less happiness, you should expect less sex, you should expect less interaction - an expectation of less. That diminishes human beings. And when we diminish people, we ourselves are diminished. As a body builder, I feel the ripple effects of fat shaming because if I go to pool party and I've gained 10 pounds, that's something I have to worry about. I have less freedom in my body, even though I'm not fat, because of fat shaming."

A Butch/Femme Double Standard

If thin-obsessed, perfection-preoccupied gay men are wont to fat shame, what about gay women? The prevailing stereotype of fat lesbians who are indifferent to physical appearance persists. It's borne along on a toxic tide of misogyny, homophobia, sexism and even questionable research, the latter resulting in statements like "lesbians have more than twice the odds of being overweight." (Published in the paper "Overweight and Obesity in Sexual-Minority Women: Evidence From Population-Based Data," that particular statistic was gathered from a sample size of just 87 gay women.)

Pigeonholing to the contrary, stresses Toronto-based body-image advocate Jill Andrew, lesbians most assuredly do care about their body image. And unfortunately that makes them just as capable of fat shaming as gay men. "As humans we all invest in various performances to make ourselves ready for the outside world," Andrew, cofounder of Body Confidence Canada Awards, details. "Lesbians are not immune to this. We care about our clothing, our body shapes and weight; we think about grooming rituals and hair maintenance, and for some embodying our sexuality is also evident in how we identify - i.e., femme, butches, studs, stems, etc. Queer women also live within rigid social definitions of femininity and masculinity. So while we can say that the queer community is home to plenty fat activism, body-acceptance movements and resistances against mainstream beauty ideals, we cannot exempt queer people from also perpetuating some of these stifling beauty ideals either."

"For instance," Andrew continues, "I've found that there is sometimes more acceptance of a fat 'butch' or 'stud' as opposed to a fat femme. So one could argue that when a queer woman embodies more of a masculine appearance, her weight isn't as negatively judged, but when a queer woman embodies more of a femme appearance, she is additionally judged under sexist, thin-centric, heteropatriarchal gazes still very present within the lesbian community."

Fat shaming is ugly. It's cruel. It hurts the shamed, the person shaming and society as a whole. The entire LGBT community - for so long marginalized, threatened and under attack - should be above fat shaming. We should understand that sexuality is just one vibrant color in the diversity rainbow, and whether respect is given should never be contingent on body size. If we don't, we continue to disempower our brothers and sisters, the very people we should be striving to elevate.

"If you disempower people," Oliverio concludes, "You disempower yourself, and pretty soon you live in a world where everyone is not as good as they should be. And that's a fiction. People are as they are. When you start talking about how people should be, you're not dealing with reality: You're dealing with some sort of opinion. We all lose power when that happens - and what I mean by power is the ability to find value and fulfillment in our lives and with the people in our lives."

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.