On the choice of “fatphobia”

Lindley, a fat white woman with shoulder-length hair and glasses, stands in a garden wearing a dress and holding a pair of garden clippers. She's smiling mischievously.

Sometimes a stray comment or post on social media will spark something in my mind, and suddenly I have an opinion on it.

This time it was a comment on a fat activist’s Instagram post informing the activist that they shouldn’t be using the term “fatphobia” because “people aren’t afraid of fat people, so it’s not a phobia” — a very common response when fat activists speak and use that term.

I get why people prefer using other terms over fatphobia, and you do you, but I’ve had doctors who couldn’t force themselves to touch me and people starve themselves not to look like me, so maybe lay off on “It’s not a phobia.”

Fear of fat people, fatness and becoming fat is not a rare occurrence: it’s aimed at fat people every single day, especially for those of us who are very fat.

It’s true that the single word fatphobia isn’t a full description of every experience fat people have. There are lots of other terms available to use — fat hatred, anti-fatness, weight stigma, weight bias — and each one is a bit different.

But I’m not down with fat activists being pestered about language by people who haven’t done deep work of their own.

There are a few reasons I get salty about nitpicking of fat activism language:

1. It can play into, and be a reflection of, the stereotype that fat people are unintelligent and lack deep thought. It assumes that fat activists don’t say exactly what we mean.

2. When that nitpicking is done by academics, as it often is, it gatekeeps activism away from less-educated, and often more-oppressed, people.

For example, fat academics often police less-educated fat activists and insist on the word fatmisia, which lacks an obvious pronunciation and means nothing outside of academia.

3. Every liberation movement builds on the movements and concepts that have gone before it. The majority of leftists and progressives don’t believe that fat people are a marginalized group. 

When a fat activist attempts to connect fat oppression to concepts and language used by other groups, it’s easy to accuse us of “stealing” from those groups, because we’re not *really* oppressed.

Depriving us of words can be a way of shutting fat people up about their oppression while maintaining a veneer of devotion to social justice.

4. And finally, being constantly nitpicked by both open fatphobes and people who should be our allies drains us of energy and leaves us less able to fight for equal rights and justice.

I recently did an equity read for a client on their book draft. I won’t give identifying details, of course, but this book is much needed and it was a pleasure to review.

As I read, though, a pattern developed. The author kept making statements, in a book intended to be fat positive, that implied that being fat means being doomed to a lifetime of terrible treatment and unhappiness.

It quickly became clear that the author, despite all the work they’ve already done to make peace with their own body and work through internalized weight stigma, was terrified of fatness and being fat.

That’s fatphobia. It doesn’t make them a bad person — at all! — and I’m only pulling it out to examine here because it’s such a good example of a fear of fatness.

I’m delighted to say that this client was genuinely grateful for having that pattern called to their attention, and will be revising the manuscript. Having that pattern pulled out into the light may also help lead them further on their own body acceptance journey.

The language I use in my own work shifts with my purpose and my audience, and I’m sure it will continue to evolve over time. I’m just not down for being lectured on fatphobia not being an accurate term when I see it every day.

Lindley, a body liberation and positivity activist, sits at her laptop in a room with pink walls.

Let’s change the world together.

Every Monday, I send out my Body Liberation Guide, a thoughtful email jam-packed with resources on body liberation, weight stigma, body image and more. Once per month, you even get stock photos. And it’s free.

Hi there! I'm Lindley. I create artwork that celebrates the unique beauty of bodies that fall outside conventional "beauty" standards at Body Liberation Photography. I'm also the creator of Body Liberation Stock and the Body Love Shop, a curated central resource for body-friendly artwork and products. Find all my work here at bodyliberationphotos.com.