In 2019, HBO television show host Bill Maher made this statement: “In August, 53 Americans died from mass shootings. Terrible, right? Do you know how many died from obesity? 40,000. Fat-shaming doesn’t need to end, it needs to make a comeback.”
The context and his point? If people could be shamed out of smoking, perhaps fat-shaming would make people rethink their lifestyle habits. Controversial and obviously aimed to get a reaction from the audience, the irony of Maher’s comment was that fat-shaming didn’t need a comeback — it simply never left.
Indeed, being overweight comes with its fair share of issues and health risks like hypertension, heart attack, stroke and diabetes, but research shows that where you carry the weight matters too (Google: skinny fat), and obesity has also been linked to genetics. But however you look at it, shaming is not, in any world or by any standards any kind of medical intervention.
Just ask any plus-sized person about their personal experiences, and you’ll see how damaging when someone as influential as Maher and who is on the far side of the overweight spectrum would sit in judgement and put down standards of how a person should look, live or weigh.
This kind of intrusive habits are deep-rooted in society — that thinner, fitter people are happier, healthier, and more beautiful. And fitness fads and crash diets proclaim themselves in popular media as the means towards that goal.
The stigma attached to being overweight is the leading cause of eating disorders among people who do not fall into these acceptable standards, says Aarti Olivia Dubey. The mental health therapist turned blogger and activist is an outspoken figure of Singapore’s body positivity movement. On her blog Curves Become Her, she speaks openly about weight stigma, intersectional feminism, disability and her queer identity.
This is not to say that men do not suffer fat shaming, but the expectations are different. The pressing issues here are the insistence that weight equates to health and the problematic notions such as beauty being a prerequisite to womanhood, says Dubey.
The idea that a person has to earn their acceptance in society by conforming to standards of skin tone, colour, weight, abilities or sexual preference “is inherently a racist and ableist view on beauty and one of humanity”, she explains.
“We all have been conditioned to believe that our body is not good enough on its own and that we have to subscribe to beauty standards to be worthy,” adds Rani Dhaschainey, founder of local plus-size label Curve Cult, which she launched with the objective of starting a movement of fat acceptance and body positivity in Singapore. It’s time to unlearn this, she adds.
Both Dubey and Dhaschainey have struggled with stereotypes and culturally-ingrained standards of beauty—fair-skinned, thin bodies are the gateway for a woman to find a suitable partner for herself.