Fatphobia, or the discrimination and prejudice against individuals based on their body size, is a pervasive issue in our society. To fully understand and combat this problem, it’s essential to explore the historical context in which fatphobia has its roots. This blog post will delve into the historical evolution of weight discrimination and the societal factors that contributed to its prevalence.

A Complex Relationship with Fat

Throughout history, body weight has held a variety of significance. In some cultures, such as ancient Greece, a fuller figure was often celebrated, symbolizing wealth and prosperity. For example, sculptures of Aphrodite showcased curvier figures, while the concept of “kalos kagathos” celebrated physical and moral beauty as intertwined (SOURCE: The History of Women’s Body Shapes)

However, it’s important to recognize that even in ancient societies, there was no universal consensus on beauty or body ideals. In contrast, ancient China valued thinness, and ideals of beauty varied among different cultures and regions.

The Middle Ages: Famine, Feast, and Class Distinction

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The Middle Ages saw a significant shift in attitudes towards body size. The availability of food was often precarious, and periods of famine were common.

As a result, larger body sizes became associated with prosperity and social status. Paintings and sculptures from this era often depicted well-fed individuals as the upper class, with excess body weight symbolizing wealth and success (SOURCE: Once Fat Was Fat and That Was That)

Renaissance: Changing Beauty Standards

The Renaissance marked a transition in beauty standards. As art, culture, and trade flourished, a new ideal of beauty emerged. The “Rubenesque” figure, named after the renowned painter Peter Paul Rubens, celebrated voluptuousness and sensuality (SOURCE: Merriam Webster).

While this shift embraced curvier figures of white women, it also marked a cultural shift towards the objectification of the female body.

This time period is also when we see the start of slavery and the objectification and beastification of the fat black body as well as the reinforcement of the white European thin body as the “ideal” for the “feminine shape” and most “appealing” body type to white European men.

Some great resources for learning more about this are Sabrina Strings “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia” and Da’Shaun Harrison’s “Belly of the Beast”.

Industrialization: The Birth of Diet Culture

The industrial revolution and the subsequent urbanization brought about significant changes in lifestyle and diet. As people increasingly moved away from physically demanding work and towards sedentary jobs, concerns about health began to surface.(SOURCE: The Long Lasting Effects of the Industrial Revolution).

Diet culture emerged in the 19th century, promoting restrictive eating patterns and the pursuit of a slim figure. The first diet book, “Letter on Corpulence,” written by William Banting in 1863, popularized low-carb diets and set the stage for the diet industry to flourish.

20th Century: Medicalization of Fatness

The 20th century saw a significant shift in how society perceived and approached fatness. Medical professionals began categorizing fatness as a disease and focusing on its perceived associated health risks.

This perspective laid the groundwork for weight discrimination, as individuals living in larger bodies were increasingly told their body size was a health concern (SOURCE: Regarding Obesity as a Disease).

The mid-20th century marked the rise of the diet industry and the proliferation of weight loss products. Celebrities and media played a significant role in promoting slim figures as the ideal, leading to the reinforcement of fatphobia in popular culture.

The 1980s and 1990s: The War on Ob*sity

In the 1980s and 1990s, the “war on obesity” gained momentum. Governments and health organizations began campaigns to combat ob*sity, reinforcing negative stereotypes and stigma surrounding larger body sizes.

This period saw an increase in dieting and the rise of extreme weight loss measures, such as bariatric surgery. (SOURCE: What’s Wrong With the ‘War on Obesity?’).

Contemporary Society: The Impact of Media and Advertising

Today, we live in a society where media, advertising, and social media play a powerful role in shaping beauty ideals and promoting fatphobia.

The media frequently portrays slim white cisgender bodies as the ideal, perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and contributing to body dissatisfaction and discrimination.

The fashion industry, in particular, has faced criticism for its exclusionary practices, with limited representation of diverse body sizes. However, recent years have witnessed efforts to promote body positivity, diversity, and inclusivity in the fashion world.

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The Intersection of Fatphobia and Gender

It’s crucial to acknowledge that fatphobia is often intertwined with gender bias. Society often subjects women to harsher scrutiny regarding their body size, promoting unrealistic and often unattainable beauty standards. This can lead to heightened discrimination against women with larger bodies.

Intersectionality is a key aspect of understanding fatphobia, as individuals experience discrimination differently based on factors such as race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic background.

The Health Implications of Fatphobia

While addressing the historical context of fatphobia, it’s essential to consider the health implications of weight discrimination. Fatphobia can have detrimental effects on both physical and mental health.(SOURCE: Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and outcomes for patients with obesity

Some consequences include:

  • Mental Health Issues: Individuals experiencing fatphobia may suffer from low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders.

  • Avoidance of Healthcare: Fear of judgment and discrimination may lead individuals to avoid seeking medical care, which can have serious health consequences.

  • Delayed Diagnoses: Stigmatization can lead to delayed diagnoses and treatments as healthcare providers may misattribute symptoms to an individual’s weight.

  • Reduced Quality of Care: People who experience weight bias are more likely to receive subpar healthcare and face discriminatory practices from medical professionals.

  • Weight Cycling: Frequent dieting and extreme weight loss measures promoted by fatphobic culture can lead to weight cycling, which is associated with adverse health effects.

Understanding the historical context of fatphobia is essential for recognizing its roots and addressing the harmful effects it has on individuals and society. By examining how beauty standards and perceptions of body size have evolved over time, we can work towards dismantling the discriminatory practices and attitudes that persist today. Promoting body positivity, diversity, and inclusivity while challenging unrealistic beauty ideals is a crucial step in combating fatphobia and fostering a more inclusive and accepting society.

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