Written by Emerson Karsh.
Art by Lu Fuhrmann.
When my twin brother and I were seven years old, he asked my mother when my father was going to give birth. My dad had always had a large belly — and as kids, we did not have the understanding that bodies came in all shapes and sizes, or that a person’s biology determines pregnancy. So, my brother saw a big belly and assumed it was a baby.
My mom then explained that my father was not carrying a baby, but was, instead, medically “overweight.” This was the first conversation about my father’s body that I remember. My mother did not intentionally say negative things, but they had been divorced all my life. No matter how hard she tried, no conversation about him was spoken in a neutral tone.
After this talk, I started to gradually recognize more instances in which my father’s weight and lifestyle were mentioned off-handedly by members of my family. Soon enough, the seed of fatphobia was planted.
I began to notice all the things my father did that diet culture shamed — and societal fatphobia was becoming solidly ingrained in me in the process.
In middle school, I moved to Boulder, Colorado which has long been considered one of the “healthiest” cities in the U.S.. I call Boulder “white, wealthy, and healthy,” as it feels like everyone is a walking Patagonia commercial. At the time of my move, there was also a large political campaign happening in the city seeking to tax soda in order to deter shoppers from purchasing it. Diet culture’s war against soft drinks was peaking, instilling in me the notion that soda is “bad” and that cutting it out could automatically lead to weight loss.
This is one of the many narratives created by diet culture that assigns virtuousness or villainy to food and drinks. My father loves Diet Dr. Pepper, and as an angry middle schooler who was struggling with her own developing body, I started to listen to the messaging. I grew angry at my dad for being a “bad” person and continuing to drink it. I began to notice all the things my father did that diet culture shamed — and societal fatphobia was becoming solidly ingrained in me in the process.
When I entered college, I talked about my father so rarely that my freshman-year roommate didn’t know I had a dad.
Resentment, shame, and anger towards my father continued to grow, but I could not figure out why. By high school, I never wanted my friends or my partners to meet him. My high school boyfriend of three years never met him. To this day, my best friend of nine years has had less than five interactions with him.
When I entered college, I talked about my father so rarely that my freshman-year roommate didn’t even know I had a dad until she met him when he came to visit the following year. This was when, at long last, I introduced him to my friends after experiencing something of a revelation during the fall semester.
Our culture upholds a narrative that fat people are undeserving of love and happiness.
I was enrolled in a class called the “Politics of Physical Appearance,” which analyzed standards of physical attractiveness and cultural conceptions of bodies. There was a week dedicated to fat studies, and this is when I first learned the term “fatphobia.”
In these discussions, lectures, and readings, I came face-to-face with the stereotypes, medical mistreatment, and legal policies that threaten fat people’s lives. I also began to understand how my own fatphobia had deeply affected my relationship with my father. I realized that our culture upholds a narrative that fat people are undeserving of love and happiness, and that I too had been wrongly taught as much growing up.
We didn’t specifically discuss fatphobia, but I think he suspected the shame and embarrassment I had been harboring.
All my life, my dad has been overweight, and the comments my family, my friends’ parents, strangers, and I have made were suddenly swirling in my mind. I knew I had to work on my fatphobia in order to have a relationship with my father, so I threw myself into books and online resources, sitting uncomfortably with it all.
I had never actively wanted my actions to insinuate that I was embarrassed or ashamed of my dad, but my silence and distance related exactly this. I remember walking home from the class and calling him for the first time that semester.
On this phone call, we didn’t specifically discuss fatphobia, but I think he suspected the shame and embarrassment I had been harboring. He likely knew it had been there for a very long time. I decided to invite him to my sorority’s father’s weekend as a first step to healing. My dad is not a very talkative man, but I later learned from my mother how pleased he was to be involved in my life.
As I nourished my relationship with my father, I realized the amount of shame I had projected onto him all my life because of how society was telling me how to react to fat people.
When my father came to visit that weekend, we watched football together, tailgated, and simply spent one-on-one time with each other. Most importantly, I introduced him to my friends and my college life. At almost 20 years old, this was the first time in my life that I spent more than three hours alone with my father. It ended up being one of the most rewarding weekends of my college experience.
As non-fat people, it’s critical that we address our fatphobic biases.
As I nourished my relationship with my father, I realized the amount of shame I had projected onto him all my life because of how society was telling me how to react to fat people. Thankfully, the voices through which I shamed my father for how he lived started to fade. The comments from my family and strangers never went away, but the amount of worth I put onto them did.
As non-fat people, it’s critical that we address our fatphobic biases. For me, the process was slow at first. It began with catching and changing my own thoughts about my dad’s weight, his habits, or his diet. Then, I could change my words. Eventually, I grew more confident combatting the fatphobia I witnessed daily.
Small ways we can do this is by cutting out unsolicited advice or commentary on people’s diets, bodies, or fitness routines. If we do have to speak about health, we can leave weight out of the dialogue. We can ask people for consent before discussing things like weight loss. We can interrupt conversations surrounding fat people’s figures, noting that other folks’ bodies are not our concern. During movie nights with friends, we might consider pointing out when a scene or character is fatphobic, just like we would if it was sexist, antisemitic, or racist. These little actions can start a bigger discussion with those around us regarding what is normalized that shouldn’t be normalized.
We must also recognize that, chances are, we’ve probably hurt the fat people in our own lives. Then, we must try to do better by them. Last summer, my dad and I went on a road trip to a national park. He was overjoyed by the entire experience. It was the most time I have spent with him since that prior father’s weekend. I also try to call him consistently while I am away at school.
If I had not learned the term “fatphobia” and begun to address my own, I am not sure where my relationship with my father, or my own body, would be today. It is hard — and so damn uncomfortable — to address the hate we all hold, but it is essential in order to grow and strengthen our relationships, and ourselves.
About The Author
Emerson is a senior at the University of Kansas studying psychology and human sexuality. She is a columnist on her campus and would love to continue to write personal essays about her life to inspire and reach others. Her main dream is to become a sex and kink educator to help those experience healthier, safer, and more pleasurable sex lives. Emerson founded and runs the kink educational Instagram account, @thekinkeducator.