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When did fat become a bad word?

When people use the word "fat," it often carries negative connotations - being uttered in hushed tones or with a disparaging undertone. But when exactly did "fat" transform from a mere descriptor to a loaded, derogatory term? Why do most people hold the belief that being fat is inherently undesirable? Because this hasn't always been the case.

 

We live in a society with a focus on weight and appearance – whether it's discussions about shedding holiday pounds, parents not having ‘junk’ in the house out of fear of their children gaining weight, or the occasional insensitive remark from a relative societal attitudes toward what is deemed an undesired body size are deeply ingrained. Some might argue that this belief is for health purposes – but study after study has shown that good health has much more to do with habits and other factors than weight (you can read more about that here). The notion that being fat is undesirable or ‘bad’ was a widely held belief WAY before BMI categorizations or any initial studies that evaluated correlations between weight and health. This belief didn't originate from health-related considerations whatsoever.

 

Our fixation on weight and appearances is a relatively recent phenomenon. Up until a few hundred years ago, being larger in body size signified prosperity (having sufficient food and physical leisure), health (being free of diseases that wasted away body fat), fertility, and a higher social status. As it turns out, about 81% of recorded human societies actually favoured larger bodies[1]! Thinness meant poverty, illness, and death. Restricting food intake in order to lose weight was an unfathomable concept at the time. Exploring some key moments in history (whereby I found a great timeline and much of these details in the book “Anti Diet” by Christy Harrison) really helps explain how this long-held notion started to change.

 

 

It wasn't until periods like ancient Greece and Rome (~700BCE-476CE) that moderation and balance became extremely important – in eating especially. During this time of modest economic success, any type of surplus was viewed as a flaw to be corrected – overeating, for example, was deemed a moral failing [2]. Contradictorily though, thinness wasn't necessarily the ideal; a larger body still represented prosperity and fertility[3]. One of the pivotal shifts toward associating food intake with weight and appearance occurred during the era of early modern colonialism.


During that time (15th-18th century), Spanish colonizers faced a lot of anxiety about adapting to unfamiliar environments and interacting with indigenous populations. Fearful of sickness, they believed that consuming the ‘correct’ European foods would protect them from the perceived health risks in the Americas[4]. Additionally, they thought that eating their European foods would help keep their physical distinctions from the people they were colonizing. They worried that consuming indigenous foods might result in their bodies resembling those of the people they were colonizing, which would jeopardize their perceived divine duty to ‘civilize’ distant lands[5]. To maintain their perceived superiority, they insisted on adhering to the ‘correct’ European foods.

 

 

Later in the 19th century, scientists started hypothesizing about race and evolution that categorized people into a racial hierarchy. They created a classification based on which groups were allegedly more ‘civilized’ or ‘evolved’. The scientists who worked on this categorization were mostly white men of Northern European descent (including Charles Darwin) who (you guessed it) decided that it was white Anglo-European males who would be placed on top of the hierarchy. White, Northern European women were just below them. Although evolutionary theory held significant importance, it was frequently used to justify overtly racist and sexist ideologies and maintain societal hierarchies[6].

 

Below the Northern Europeans, the hierarchy extended to Southern Europeans, people of colour from deemed ‘semi-civilized’ or ‘barbaric’ countries, and ultimately, Native Americans and Africans, labeled as ‘savages’[7]. To support this hierarchy, scientists also attributed certain physical traits to the groups, associating larger body types with ‘savagery’ in people of colour and linking thinness to white individuals, men, and aristocrats. The notion that fatness was linked to blackness gained traction in both Europe and the U.S. during this period[8].

 

Thinness was associated with whiteness and masculinity too – men with more body fat were deemed less masculine and morally upright. Women of all ethnicities faced unjust categorization, unfairly perceived as being at greater ‘risk’ of fatness. This aversion was particularly pronounced for white, middle-class Protestant women, who were advised that excessive eating was both morally wrong and detrimental to their beauty, as it might result in a body resembling that of African or Irish women[9].

 

This flawed belief system that placed white men at the top of an ethnic hierarchy fueled the stigmatization of fatness starting in the mid-1800s.

 

 

The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed significant industrialization, urbanization, and a doubling of the American urban population from 1850 to 1900. By 1920, cities housed more Americans than rural areas, fueled by immigration and job demand[10]. While some viewed these changes as progress, there was still widespread anxiety in American culture, particularly concerning immigration. The emerging white middle class sought dominance over new immigrants, and body size became a crucial point of comparison. The rise of a thinner ideal for the middle-class American citizen emerged as a contrast to the often sturdier, more robust bodies of immigrants[11]. Thinness became a marker of social distinction, with Americans associating their figures with refinement, modernity, and success. This cultural emphasis on a slender body image was reinforced by the burgeoning fashion and beauty industries, which promoted ideals of elegance and grace. Magazines, advertisements, and popular culture began to champion the idea that a slim silhouette was not only fashionable but also indicative of one's upward social mobility. To try and obtain that slim figure, many people did start restricting their food intake – by that time, dieting had already become widespread. One of the earliest weight-loss guides was published in 1864 by William Banting, entitled: “Letter on Corpulence: Addressed to the Public” which advocated a low-carb, high-fat diet for weight loss. Weight-loss products were becoming more and more popular as well – from creams that promised to “rub away” fat to mesh elastic garments that “reduced flesh.” This product in particular advertised that “If you are fat or fear you are becoming so, if your figure is in any way abnormal, you need the Magic Figure Mold Garment.[12]” During that time, fad diets, exercise regimens, and weight-loss products proliferated as Americans sought to conform to the prevailing societal norms.

 

 

In the 20th century, as women gained political ground, beauty standards became increasingly unrealistic. The diet industry, now very much active, played a role in diverting women’s' attention from their growing political power by keeping them focused on shrinking themselves[13]. Anti-suffrage movements exploited beliefs about body size, using posters and cartoons to portray suffragists as fat and masculine, attempting to dissuade women from joining the movement. First-wave feminists, though, also played a role in demonizing fatness by portraying suffragists as thin, white, and beautiful, inadvertently reinforcing racist and sizeist beauty ideals[14].



From the Spanish colonizers seeking a slimmer appearance to distinguish themselves from those they were colonizing, to an ‘evolutionary hierarchy’ that placed larger individuals at the bottom due to perceived notions of being coloured and uncivilized, to Americans establishing dominance over immigrants by linking thinness to social status, to using unrealistic body ideals to divert women’s attention from challenging societal norms – these represent the historical origins of how the concept and term ‘fat’ became a bad word.

 

After taking a closer look, we can see that the concept of fat being “bad” lacks substantial foundation. Yes, there are later studies that showed weight as playing a role in health conditions. But that’s never where the belief came from in the first place, and again, more recent studies are showing that habits play a much bigger role than weight when it comes to many health conditions. Therefore, if history is showing us that the bias against larger body types is predominantly rooted in aesthetics, it's crucial to reflect on this unfounded origin.

 

Given the societal upbringing and influences we have all experienced, it is perfectly normal for people to have biases against larger bodies - including their own. However, delving into the historical context reveals that the negative connotations associated with the term fat were crafted through processes such as colonization, racism, and attempts to maintain social hierarchies. By understanding this historical backdrop, we can collectively work towards dismantling these ingrained beliefs and creating a space where comments on food intake, body shape, and weight don’t exist. This way, we’ll all be able to focus a little more on well-being, and a little less on weight (and maybe be able to say the word fat without feeling bad)!

 


Works cited

[1] P. J. Brown, “Culture and the Evolution of Obesity,” in D. Kulick and A. Meneley, eds., Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005).

[2] Louise Foxcroft, Calories & Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years (Profile Books, 2011).

[3] Bradley, “Obesity,” 2011.

[4] R. Earle, “‘If You Eat Their Food…’: Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America,” American Historical Review 115, no. 3 (2010): 688–713.

[5] R. Earle, “‘If You Eat Their Food…’: Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America,” American Historical Review 115, no. 3 (2010): 688–713.

[6] Amy Erdman Farrell, Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (New York University Press, 2011).

[7] Amy Erdman Farrell, Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (New York University Press, 2011).

[8] Sabrina Strings, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (New York University Press, 2019).

[9] Sabrina Strings, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (New York University Press, 2019).

[10] Jonathan Rees, “Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States, 1880–1929,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.

[11] Harrison, C. (Host). (2017, Sep). The Truth About Diet Culture with Emily Contois, Cultural Historian (No. 121) [Audio podcast episode]. In Food Psych.  

[12] Amy Erdman Farrell, Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (New York University Press, 2011).

[13] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (William Morrow, 1991).

[14] Farrell, Fat Shame, 2011.



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