I’ve heard the phrase ‘pleasantly plump’ way too many times to count, especially during the holiday season. The phrase is usually followed with a ‘but’: “you’re not fat, you’re pleasantly plump! but you need to lose some weight, you’ll feel better about yourself!; you need to lose some weight, for your health”. The list of qualifiers is endless.
As someone who’s been fat since I was a baby, it’s taken me less time than others to grow into my own fatness, to feel comfortable using such a vilified word to describe my body. The truth is that I’m fat, and that’s okay.
Being fat doesn’t make me any less worthy of being treated with respect. It doesn’t make me any less deserving of adequate medical treatment, nor does it make my body something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make me any less deserving of nuanced and respectful representation in the media.
And yet, living in Lebanon makes the de-stigmatization of ‘fat’ as an adjective and a lived experience all the more challenging. CNN has called Lebanon the “mecca of plastic surgery”, with women all over the Arab world and beyond traveling here to have their bodies and faces shaped and reshaped by world-renowned plastic surgeons, all in an attempt to fit a particular understanding of Beauty with a capital B. The demand for plastic surgery is so great that banks even give out plastic surgery loans to those who do not have the money to pay up front. There’s even a travel agency that targets ‘medical tourists’ who wish to modify their bodies in Lebanon.
In this kind of environment, it’s hard to imagine a wholesale de-stigmatization of ‘fat’ as a word and lived experience. The hyperfixation on appearances in Lebanon is made worse by the usual fatphobic stereotypes persistent in most mainstream media, whether local, regional, or foreign.
‘Fat’ is a word associated with laziness and gluttony. These associations are bred into us at birth, and the stigma is even worse for women. As children, we watch films like “The Little Mermaid”, where the villain, Ursula, is fat, while protagonists like Ariel are skinny and conventionally beautiful. We are warned against gaining weight by our families and doctors, lest we risk harming our health, or more importantly, risk becoming undesirable to men. All this despite the fact that, according to Harriet Brown at Slate, “losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.”
Fat stigma’s medical basis is shaky at best. However, its societal basis, especially in Lebanon, is harder to dismantle. By writing and speaking about our experiences as fat people, we can begin to expose and debunk the myths that turn “fat” into a bad word in medical and media discourses, in Lebanon and beyond.