Fatphobia Is Ruining My Female Friendships

It’s challenging to love your own body when the women you love and admire can't stop upholding an unrealistic ideal of thin.
© Rick Elkins via Getty Images

My story begins like so many others: A baby girl is born. The girl grows up watching the women she loves most battle their own bodies, punishing them for never being quite thin enough. They try fad diets, extreme exercise programs, absurd levels of calorie restriction, and some even resort to “magic” potions and pills. Yet, no matter what they try, the weight loss they achieve is often unsustainable and never enough. The girl reaches puberty, ends up hating her own body and repeats the cycle.

But not forever. Here’s where my story takes a turn.

My wholehearted belief that I had to be thin to be worthy coupled with some traumatic life events to transform my common diet tactics into a full-blown eating disorder. Before I knew it, I was running half-marathons, severely restricting my calorie intake and struggling with binge eating. I kept it going for almost a year until I fractured my leg from over-exercising. I realized that I was no longer in control of the monster, and I found a mental health professional who specialized in disordered eating.

During my recovery, I gained over 40 pounds, enough to send me from borderline “overweight” to “obese.” The very thing that I feared most had become my reality. Luckily, with the help of my therapist and lots of hard work, I was beginning to see that “fat” was just a word. I learned that I could be beautiful, confident and happy at any size.

The problem is that my self-acceptance doesn’t mean that anyone else has to unpack their own ties to fatphobia and diet culture.

Initially, I feared that my partner would no longer find me sexy if he knew I might be this size forever. Yet, loving my own body seemed to ignite our sex life in a way that my thinness fueled by self-loathing never had. I worried about navigating a world that failed to show positive representations of fatness in pop culture, but I’ve been able to find plenty of fat babes who are living their best lives.

What I never expected to struggle with is how my female friends’ fatphobia triggers all my old thoughts of unworthiness.

Women are often told that men and the media are to blame for unrealistic beauty standards. That is only a partial truth. The people who have internalized these messages the most and work to uphold them as if it is their full-time job are often women.

I have attempted to unpack my own fatphobia, destigmatize the word “fat” and disengage from diet culture. But when I turn to the women around me and tell them I’m uncomfortable with the judgmental comment they just made about another woman’s body or their own body, or when I ask them to consider not using the word “fat” in a derogatory manner, they mostly get defensive and angry.

“What I never expected to struggle with is how my female friends’ fatphobia triggers all my old thoughts of unworthiness.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a group of friends, and we were exchanging horror stories about exes. In response to a particularly terrible story, one of the women said that she hoped the ex in question was fat now. Is fat the worst thing we can wish upon a person?

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people about women who were wearing clothes they “really shouldn’t have been” because of their weight. Who says they can’t wear something that they like that makes them feel good? Maybe they don’t dress primarily for their body to be consumed by someone else.

A thin friend of mine regularly tells me how gross and “fat” she feels, treating the two words as if they are interchangeable. I sometimes wonder what she must think of my body if hers is so undesirable. Even though she is mostly a delightful person, I’ve found myself spending less time with her and her self-loathing.

Several of my dearest friends and family members are personal trainers or work for wellness companies that focus on weight loss. Over the years they have periodically invited me to try their products and systems. Every time they bring it up, it feels like they are telling me that I’m not good enough. Surely I want to lose a few pounds, I mean, look at me, right?

Even when they aren’t targeting me directly, they are sharing things on social media meant to encourage people to buy their products. Sometimes it feels like they are saying “Hate your body? Miserable in your own skin? Are you a gross fat person? I can help with that!”

Thin and fit are great too, but only if the motivation aligns with healthy personal goals, doesn’t come with a price tag of your self-worth and doesn’t uphold the idea that fat is inherently bad.

As a result of all of this and in an effort to protect myself, I’ve had to put up mental and emotional walls with the people I love the most.

Fatphobia and diet culture permeate our society, our beliefs and our language. The message is clear: Fat is gross, thin is virtuous, and if you are overweight, it’s only because you lack self-discipline. I realize that my friends are swimming in this culture and struggling with their own body issues. I understand that internalized fatphobia is incredibly difficult to unpack. I know that I still have my own work to do.

Yet, it’s challenging to love your own body when the women you love and admire, the ones you aspire to be like, can’t accept their own gorgeous bodies or stop upholding the unrealistic ideal of thin.

What they don’t realize is that the judgmental comments they make about others or themselves tell me exactly how they feel about my body. And not all that long ago, my life literally depended on learning to love my body.

So please know that when I challenge your fatphobia and commitment to diet culture, I am only continuing to try to save my own life. And if you’re able to listen, it may help set you free as well.

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If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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