More Than Just Bullying: How Fatphobia Is a System of Oppression and Why Skinny Jokes Don’t Compare

More Than Just Bullying: How Fatphobia Is a System of Oppression and Why Skinny Jokes Don’t Compare

By Kristen Rogers

When it comes to beauty standards in Western society, it’s no secret that thin is in–and it has been for quite some time. Advertisements have encouraged women to shrink themselves in order to be considered attractive for more than a century. Marketers have urged women to lose weight and remain thin by any means necessary–no matter the health risks or implausibility of the proposed methods.

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Early 20th century marketers claimed that soaps could help women lose weight. Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives.
The Victorian era is largely associated with the practice of corsetting. But willfully ingesting parasites was also supposedly a weight loss fad during those days. Image courtesy of

Let’s be honest: our society is afraid to be fat. And because of this, fatphobia– the fear or dislike of fat people or fat itself– is rampant. Consequently, a dialogue about body positivity and the rejection of fat-shaming is underway in pop culture. The increased visibility and vocalness of fat people–women especially–has brought much awareness to the issue of sizeism in recent years. But the conversation about size discrimination is being hijacked by thin women who claim they have experienced comparable bigotry. While thin people may experience bullying or unwelcome commentary about their bodies, they are not systematically shut out of parts of society because of them. And it’s time to debunk the myth that sizeism is a two-way street filled littered with personal insults–it’s a form of oppression.

When you see thin people in film and television, they aren’t all playing the same character. Yet, fat people in media are constantly typecast as the “fat, funny friend” or the character with no love interests. Fat people are constantly seen as less than and undesirable. And we as a society have come to accept that–even in today’s increasingly “conscious” society. Fatphobia seems to be the last remaining acceptable form of discrimination amongst so-called “woke” individuals.

Fat people have an entire fatphobic system set up against them. The average American woman wears a size 16. Yet, a size 16 is considered “plus size”  and therefore isn’t carried by the majority of women’s clothing retailers. The societal disdain for bigger bodies is already evident in the lack of access fat women have to clothes in general; it’s even more apparent in the nature of the clothing that is available to us. Sexy and fun clothing is typically reserved for smaller bodies, and fat women are routinely instructed to dress in ways that mask their fatness, rather than embrace their sense of personal style–a privilege many thin people take for granted.

When a fat person goes to the doctor and voices a complaint, they are likely to be dismissed by biased providers, who don’t care to truly examine the fat patient’s concern. They simply suggest that the patient’s problems wouldn’t exist if they would just lose weight. Various studies like this one published by Obesity Reviews in 2015 have concluded that health care providers’ tendency to view obesity as an avoidable, self-induced risk factor impedes their ability to effectively treat obese patients.

Furthermore, when it comes to career endeavors, fat people are susceptible to being passed over in favor of thinner candidates. Fat folks also earn less than their thinner counterparts because of negative stereotypes associated with fatness. A study published by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that participants rated feeling higher levels of disgust when viewing an obese subject than they did when viewing non-obese subject. Participants also indicated the character traits they associated with each subject, ranked their willingness to socialize with each subject, and their overall attitude towards each subject. The results showed that participants found the obese subject to be more disgusting and less competent than the non-obese subject, and researchers concluded that behavioral traits associated with obesity such as laziness and gluttony may have contributed to the judgements participants made.

The effects of fatphobia are also pervasive on social media. Think about the last time you saw a fat person go viral. Were people mocking the individual? Were people leaving laugh reactions and emojis? Was the person in the individual presented as undesirable in some way? Were people in the comments suddenly doctors who could tell all about this person’s health by just looking at them? This is fatphobia. And fat people are the butt of every joke.

The consequences of fatphobia are more dire than those of the everyday kind of bullying that thin people can experience. Unlike skinny jokes, there is an entire system of oppression working against fat people. It’s valid to be upset about people saying rude things to you. It’s also valid to be enraged that people feel entitled to scrutinize your body. But someone telling you to eat a cheeseburger is minuscule in comparison to being denied employment, promotions, unbiased health care, clothing options and positive media representation because of your size–all of which are well-studied obstacles for fat people navigating a thinness-obsessed culture.

And if you’ve never noticed or you deny any of the things mentioned in this article, chances are you’re thin.



  1. Great post! I have been on both sides, fat and skinny, so I can relate. As per your closing statement, certain people will never understand because they’ve never been “on the other side”. I find it shameful and unnecessary to compare struggles instead of saying “hey, I get it; I’m sorry; I recognize my harmful behavior and I’m going to make some changes.”

    Another thing is certain fat people actually don’t mind being fat! They are comfortable and confident with their size yet are overlooked + judged just because their weight makes conditioned people uncomfortable. Because, let’s face it, all fat people want to be skinny and love unsolicited advice to become so.

    Again, great post. Thank you

  2. Such a great discussion. I wish we could change our language around food consumption, food labelling and body size. When did food start being labeled as ‘bad foods’ and ‘good foods’?

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