Why Is It So Hard to Spot Fat-Shaming in “Polite Society”?

Fat-phobic compliments or jokes may be well-intentioned or just ignorant. That doesn’t mean the implication isn’t any less harmful.

It’s closing time.The lights come on at the Trader Vics on Sheikh Zayed Road.

I take a long deep sip from the bowl of bright pink rum, fruit and ice that I’m sharing with my friend. She is a thin light-skinned beautiful woman. No doubt, her looks attracts the attention of a man — who sits at our table, completely uninvited. 

He takes the long straw out of my friend’s hand and starts drinking from our massive conch shell. 

No doubt, he thinks this is supposed to be charming.

My friends and I are appalled. But for some reason (erm, patriarchy) we say nothing. 

He’s talking a lot. It isn’t riveting stuff – but then again at 3 a.m. after a night of drinking and dancing, nothing truly intelligent could or should be expected to be said.

I’m getting annoyed. So, I interrupt him.

He looks at me and he says to – ‘You know, you are beautiful. But… you need to lose a little weight.’

I raise my eyebrow – hot in the face, open my mouth to respond – but he cuts me off raising his fingers to show a tiny pinch”

‘Tab, tab, tab not a lot of weight. Just a little. Shwaayyyyyyyyy! Shwaaaayy! Just a little weight.”

I’m hurt, furious and lost for words.

I smile. I cringe. I smringe. 



Fat-shaming is a way in which our society demonizes and punishes being in a larger body. 

Fat-phobia, fat-shaming is built into the world we live in. 

Fat shaming is a way to make a person feel unworthy, unwelcome and unwanted. Fat-shaming is a great tool for furthering oppression and capitalism. 

Fat-shaming is also a result of an internalized sense of shame and unworthiness.

Fat-shaming is dangerous – especially for people socialized as women.

Fat shaming is insidious, omnipresent and blunt. Sometimes, fat shaming isn’t as obvious…but just as nefarious.

Consider this next story.



Three years later – I’m in a yoga class, when I hear a woman say:


“Is that Alfonoso?”

A huge orange fluffy cat has plopped down next to me. 

I turn around to see a woman asking the yoga teacher ahead of me, if this is indeed Alfonso – the island’s favourite orange Fat Cat. 

The yoga teacher takes a closer look and says… 

“No…this isn’t Alfonso. Alfonso – is much much bigger. This cat is the After picture in Alfonso’s Before and After.”

Polite laughter ensues.

The woman behind me walks up to the cat. She takes a closer look and say –

‘Nah, actually – this is the midway point in the before and after series.”

They laugh. 

I smile. I cringe. I smringe. 


I can’t quite place it – but something in me is feeling prickled.


30 minutes later – we’re halfway through the series for this class. 

Standing with our legs wide apart, bending at the waist as we bring our elbows or heads down to the ground.

The teacher says –


“Now, if you have long lovely legs like Ana over there, So-Totally Not-Jealous Ana – you can take a wider step.”


She offers a cheeky laugh. Ana’s entire body is smiling with the compliment.

I smile. I cringe. I smringe. 



I leave this class. I’m feeling uneasy. Why am I so bristled by this comment about Alfonso the Fat Cat? 


Nobody said anything about me  – it was by no means a personal attack. And yet – I feel slighted…

Unlike that moment in Trader Vics – nothing happened in the yoga shala. 

No one looked at me and told me “I was beautiful but…”

And yet – I still have that deep uneasy feeling.


My sister helps me unpack the incident. The Before/After “joke” s part of a larger conversation that there IS an ideal body. 


The subtext behind the Before/After… is that there needs to be improvement.

The supposed-compliment about our fellow practioner’s long legs – is sending the message about the Ideal body. 

Even though the teacher is phrasing it as a compliment – it is coming off as microaggression to everyone (myself included) who have ‘short’ legs.’

The environment in which these comments were made IS important. Context matters. 

This comment being made within the context of a yoga class filled with thin white women in LuLuLemon pants – further solidified that feeling of hostility towards anything other than thinness. 


Whatever the mode of fat-shaming, here are some truths I hold in my heart:


Fat-shaming makes us ALL feel unworthy. Whatever the intention of fat-shaming maybe – the result is consistent. It makes all of us feel less worthy. 


Fat-shaming is subtle and complicated. It is intrinsically linked to our culture, value-system and jokes. Like the yoga teacher – fat-shaming isn’t always directed to a single individual. Nor is it an insult. Sometimes, fat-shaming can be directed at a large group – sealed with smile. It takes awareness, questioning and context to call it out. 


Impact OVER Intention. While I may never know the true intention of the yoga teacher or the man at the bar…I do know the impact. The impact is a feeling of unworthiness. Fat-phobic compliments or jokes may be well-intentioned or just ignorant. That doesn’t mean the implication isn’t any less harmful.


A note about fat-phobia, fat-shaming and the wellness industry.

After spending a lot of my life inside gyms, yoga shalas and bootcamps in Asia over the last four years… I’ve experienced the very real harm instructors who don’t dismantle their own fat-phobia can create. 


The reason this behavior is so HARMFUL is because it is disguised under the umbrella of ‘health’. We have honest well-intentioned people coming to so-called wellness spaces to feel good in their bodies. Instead of receiving support, they get shamed. They pay actual money for shame and ridicule. 

How much more nefarious can these systems be?


I realise that so many of these teachers haven’t really understood or unpacked what it means to love and accept yourself. Part of it is because of they’ve been rewarded for regularly punishing their own bodies. Part of it is because of the incredibly toxic patriarchal fat-phobic world we all live in.

Health professionals’ internalized misogyny and fat phobia seeps out of them like toxic waste. No, this isn’t about saying the right thing or saying the wrong thing. It is not about political correctness or creating an inclusive environment by saying scratch phrases like – “All bodies are welcome here’. No, this is about members of the wellness industry GENUINELY challenging with a critical lens the definitions of health. 


Why am I writing about Fat-Shaming?

I’m not a personal trainer or nutritionist. I am someone who is committed to liberation. 


Liberation to me – is the feeling of pride, joy and ease in your body…no matter the shape, colour or size. Liberation is freedom, sexuality and expression.

Fat-shaming is an essential tool of oppression, capitalism and misogyny. It is a way we keep people (especially women) feeling dissatisfied with themselves 


And so it is CRUCIAL to call out fat-shaming. 


Why? The object of fat-shame, like all kinds of shame, is to silence the other. Calling out fat-shaming stops that. 


Speaking about that man at the bar publicly – shifts the energy for me. This becomes a Him-problem…not a Me-Shame. 

We need to sharpen our skillset by reading more, talking more and listening more.


Editorial village credit: Thanks to Fiona Proctor for revisions and input on this piece.


Eva writes about creativity, social justice, spirituality and feminism. She is a Pro-Justice storytelling coach who supports social justice conscious entrepreneurs, leaders & visionaries in speaking up after years of conforming and playing small.

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