“Fat or thin, the entire American population has internalized this idea about fat being terrible,” Averill told me. “They’re overexercising and undereating and living in a constant state of fear and panic about this horrible, hateful thing we must avoid at all costs. So if they allow someone else to say ‘It’s OK to be fat and you should stop being mean to fat people,’ their entire life of self-torture is a waste.” ― Harriet Brown, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do about It
Today we’re gonna talk about the social hierarchy of weight and size.
Sometimes referred to as fatphobia, weight stigma, or thin privilege (all aspects of the same hierarchy), the social hierarchy of weight and size is based on the simple principle that being thin is good, and being fat is bad.
The “ideal” body size and shape has varied dramatically across genders, races, cultures, and eras, but in modern western culture, we pretty much all learned that thinness indicates a person who is healthy, beautiful, of high moral character, and worthy of happiness, success, respect or belonging — while fatness indicates a person who is unhealthy, ugly, shameful, representative of poor moral character, and unworthy of those same things.
In short, we learn that because the shape and size of a person’s body is supposedly “in their control” (false), and that being thin is better than being fat (false), we can tell a lot of information about someone based on looking at them, including what kind of person they are, and how they deserve to be treated.
Like all social hierarchies, this one is built on a system of biases and beliefs, both conscious and conscious, about what weight and body size mean, which is shared so ubiquitously across our culture that it seems to be self-evident and perhaps even encoded in our DNA.
“Of course being thin is better than being fat, everyone says so! It’s healthier and more attractive! Even children can tell you that!”
But the significance we currently attach to weight and body size isn’t encoded in our DNA at all, and is instead a direct result of fatphobic biases and beliefs we’ve been conditioned to believe.
If you don’t think you’ve been impacted by fatphobic social conditioning, consider the fact that until around the 1920s, being thin was actually considered ugly and unhealthy in our culture, while having a large, plump, round body was considered the height of beauty, health, and high social status. (At the time, having a fat body meant the person had enough money to eat well and avoid hard labor, and having that amount of money meant the person was high-status.)
Body size diversity still existed back then, but the meaning that was attached to body size in everyone’s minds was the complete opposite of what it is now.
Thanks to a variety of factors that changed history, including a rejection of repressive Victorian prudishness, the body-baring fashion trends of the flapper era, and a shift in body ideals designed to uphold white supremacy, we’ve come to associate thinness with beauty and status over the last hundred years or so.
Nowadays thinness symbolizes positive attributes like success, virtue, purity, health, wellness, intelligence, discipline, and self-control. At the same time, fatness has come to be associated with negative attributes like poverty, ugliness, laziness, a lack of intelligence, and failure, all of which signal that a person has low social status.
As the meaning we attach to body sizes has changed, so has what we find attractive and desirable, and what we find disgusting and abhorrent. (And yes this means what we find attractive is far more socially conditioned than biologically driven.)
Despite the fact that this social hierarchy was reversed only a hundred years ago, the anti-fat bias is so deeply entrenched in us by now that it’s actually blasphemous to consider an alternative. According to a 2006 study by Rudd University, people of all body sizes exhibited significant anti-fat biases and preferences for thinness, with nearly half of the more than four thousand participants reporting they would give up a year of their lives in order to avoid getting fat, and thirty percent reporting they would rather be divorced than fat.
I mean, wow.
Another study by researchers at Complutense University of Madrid showed that kids who grow up in western cultures idealize thinness from a young age, while disparaging fatness across the board, and most people nowadays are afraid of getting fat and/or want to lose weight. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), nearly half of all Americans (more than half for women) surveyed between 2013 and 2016 had attempted to lose weight in the previous year.
But if we think about the fact that the weight and body size hierarchy could be flipped completely upside down one hundred years ago, then we can see that there is nothing inherently more preferable, beautiful, healthy, or good about thinness, and nothing inherently undesirable, ugly, unhealthy, or bad about fatness. We only think there is because of our modern anti-fat biases and associations.
That said, knowing that we’ve been conditioned into believing something doesn’t do much to chip away at the fact that we still believe it. That’s the power of social conditioning.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, we’ve all been conditioned to drool when a bell is rung. In our case however, there are two bells. One bell is thinness, and we’ve been conditioned to respond with admiration, acceptance, respect, positivity, and a feeling of warmth, trust, and attraction toward thin folks. The other bell is fatness, and we’ve been conditioned to respond with disgust, rejection, disrespect, negativity, and a feeling of coldness and contempt toward fat folks.
Also, once a message has been internalized (which often happens in childhood before we’re aware of it), we tend to disregard the role of social conditioning completely, and feel like we just have an individual personal preference. No matter what they learned growing up, it might feel ludicrous to suggest to someone who feels like they simply prefer to be thin, or prefer to date thinner partners, that their preferences are the result of biased social programming.
People are often more likely to imagine they formed their personal preferences in a vacuum, and that they’re able to separate their individual preferences from their social conditioning using logic, but research doesn’t bear that out. Social conditioning isn’t an issue of logic or intelligence, it’s an issue of unconscious association, implicit biases that often feel like “intuition,” and our hard-wired desire to connect and belong.
So while it feels like we “just like who we like,” we in fact like who we’ve been taught to like through exposure, messaging about what is good and what is bad, and the formation of unconscious associations and biases.
The problem with noticing our own social conditioning however, is that it’s like asking a fish to notice water — its pervasiveness makes it feel like reality. And it can be very difficult to make it visible to the people living in it, especially to those who aren’t negatively affected (aka thin people, in this case).
All of this means we’ve all been conditioned to uphold the social hierarchy of body size, despite it being an absolute and complete fiction, and despite it causing massive physical, mental, and emotional harm to folks in larger bodies.
In this way, fatphobia is akin to racism, sexism, or homophobia.
Despite it being based on nothing but harmful lies, we’ve all been conditioned to automatically uphold the social hierarchy of body size without question. Fat folks are taught that they deserve the discimination, disrespect, marginalization, and violence they get for being fat, and thin folks are taught that they deserve the praise, respect, celebration, opportunities, and privilege they get for being thin.
The big difference however is that racism, sexism, and homophobia have all become socially passe (to various degrees) in recent history, while fatphobia and thin supremacy are still very much socially celebrated and upheld.
Which means that it’s on each of us as individuals to seek out more accurate information, and dismantle those biases inside ourselves. We must radicalize ourselves out of hate by fully exposing and uprooting the fictional roots of this dangerous social hierarchy.
If you want to explore and unpack this fiction for yourself, I highly recommend the following resources: