I’ve been told to avoid association with other fat people my whole life, out of fear, I guess, that the proximity might draw (extra) attention to the terrible fact of my size.
So spending a weekend with a group of exclusively big people at my first fat-activism conference, in Oakland in 2010, was a life-changing experience. We ate, talked, went to workshops, and floated in an enormous pool together. As the weekend progressed, however, something curious happened. Why is she here? I’d think, a little judgmentally, eyeing an attendee. Does she know she’s not fat?
But a few weeks after I returned to San Francisco (a city with the lowest average body weight for women in the country), I met up with one of the women I’d judged as “not fat” in Oakland — and I barely recognized her. In the conference space I’d assumed she was about a size 10, but as the train doors opened and I spotted her across the street, I realized she too was a size 18 or 20. Like me, she was the kind of fat that gets noted with alarmist, death-adjacent adjectives on medical charts. I felt a flash of guilt for my judgment, and even more, I wondered what was up with my brain. How could I not see what was right in front of me?
Turns out, it really was my brain. The occipital cortex, which is responsible for visual processing, adapts to different landscapes, and research suggests that exposing people to images of bodies of different sizes can change the way we assess weight. When researchers showed participants manipulated images that made their bodies look thinner, they rated other photos where they looked thinner to be “more realistic.” When shown images of their bodies looking heavier, they did the opposite. A similar study concluded that women’s perceptions of the ideal body were “easily malleable by exposure.” And still another study found that participants with “normal BMI” that were shown images of fat and not-underweight people reported feeling more satisfied with their size than those shown images of thin people with lower-than-normal BMI.
Most media normalizes an uncommon body type…