Diet culture perpetuates ‘fatphobia’

Janhavi Nemawarkar

Coming into college is highly stressful for many students, and new foods and more demanding schedules may cause some students’ weights to fluctuate — leading some to resort to dieting to combat the much-dreaded 15 pounds.

Our culture has normalized the belief in the power of dieting. Magazines are plastered with diet tips that promise “Quick weight loss! Easy steps for a summer body! How to lose the pounds in problem areas!” But this cultural obsession with dieting has harmful impacts — not only medically, but also in perpetuating “fatphobia” and size discrimination. 

In the long term, dieting has actually been found to have harmful medical effects. The American Association of Pediatricians recently released a report on the prevention of obesity and eating disorders. The report collected research that found that dieting, or caloric restriction with the goal of weight loss, was actually associated with higher levels of weight gain and development of eating disorders in the long run. Especially among young people, prospective studies found that while medically supervised weight loss can be beneficial, unsupervised dieting tends to have the opposite of its intended effects. Not only that, the report discovered that parental discussion about weight and dieting is linked to higher incidences of the child actually becoming overweight or developing eating disorders.

Even beyond promoting unhealthy practices, our society’s fixation with weight loss and thinness perpetuates size discrimination and “fatphobia.” Fatphobia refers to a set of attitudes that our society holds about fat people: that they are lazy, unmotivated and unhealthy. When we congratulate someone for losing weight, we see their achievement as a testament to their motivation and drive — which incorrectly spreads the idea that fat people simply haven’t worked hard enough to lose the weight. And slowly the false, harmful belief that weight loss is an indicator of work ethic is suddenly insidious.

Size discrimination has material impacts — fat people are less likely to receive promotions at work, they make less money for the same amount of work and are likely to experience weight bias from teachers and classmates.

We defend these attitudes by claiming that weight is an indicator of health, and that promoting health (which seems to manifest itself as shaming fat people) is important. But research has revealed that the distinctions between normal, overweight and obese as outlined by the Body Mass Index are actually arbitrary, and some reports suggest that the evidence supposedly connecting obesity with higher incidences of mortality or diseases is unclear and perhaps exaggerated. While more research continues to bring new information to this field, it is imperative that we continue to encourage widely agreed upon healthy behaviors such as eating lots of fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly, but remember not to conflate health with weight loss. 

So if you find yourself stressing about the freshman 15, remember that your health — whatever that looks like — is far more important.

Nemawarkar is a Plan II sophomore from Austin. She is a senior columist. Follow her on Twitter @janhavi97