Let’s Talk About Fat-Shaming

Uneasy about how to talk to your students about fat-shaming and related issues like body image, phobias, public health, and bullying? Here are some resources to start the conversation.

Many of us have been taught to be ashamed of our bodies. Society and media teach us that the “ideal” body type is thin and fit. Anyone outside of this type, especially people with larger bodies, are ridiculed, made fun of, or put down, leaving them to feel shameful or self-conscious. Fat-shaming prevents us from being confident and loving ourselves—and others—as we are. At its worst, fat-shaming can lead to dire consequences, such as depression, anxiety, and, even, suicide.

In this “Let’s Talk About” edition, we provide resources to help your students honestly reflect on their biases toward fat people as undesirables and to get them talking about fatphobia and fat-shaming as systems of oppression that we need to collectively resist. 

How to Use This Collection

Suggested below are steps to a thoughtful and meaningful discussion with your students about fat-shaming and its impact on their personal lives and in society. Choose what is appropriate for your class.

  1. Have students complete a pre-survey (optional).
  2. Review the glossary to establish a baseline of understanding terms used to describe fat people and the bias they face. 
  3. Choose at least one YES! article and another site’s article for a robust compare-and-contrast activity. 
  4. Use the discussion questions—or craft your own—to gauge your students’ understanding and opinions.
  5. Have students complete a post-survey (optional). 
  6. Explore curriculum if you’d like to dive deeper.

NOTE: Talking about bodies can be uncomfortable. There may be students in your class who may feel self-conscious or vulnerable if there is a discussion about fat-shaming and how obese people are treated in society, including your school.  Proceed with care and sensitivity. You know your students best.

Some Tips for Talking About Tough Topics

Good conversations are deliberative. They encourage reflection, understanding of different voices and perspectives, and respect for complexity. They also take time.

We recognize that talking about tough topics—such as race, immigration, and, even fat-shaming—with your students may be uncomfortable, not necessarily age-appropriate—and may not even be allowed in your building.

Rather than debate an issue, “deliberative dialogue” has students exploring a topic together from multiple perspectives. Eventually, students may gain clarity on their personal opinion and the class may even come to a resolution.

Special thanks to Devin Hess of UC-Berkeley’s History-Social Science Project for his framing of—and commitment to—deliberative dialogue.

How might you and your students have a deliberative dialogue?

Provide a safe environment. 
If you choose to have this discussion, it’s important to provide a safe environment where students can voice their opinions honestly without fear of being judged or silenced. In your discussion space, while you may wish to welcome controversy and passion, be careful that this energy does not spill over to “othering” students and out-of-control vitriol.

Keep the armor off.
Think about making these discussions about discourse, rather than debate. As John Esterle of The Whitman Institute, explains one enters discourse with vulnerability and their armor off. They listen with the mindset that they might change their minds. Whereas one enters a debate with their armor on. They listen to prepare their rebuttal and to win the argument, not to understand.

Allow students to explore issues from different stakeholders’ perspectives.
Your students can get to clarity by understanding the experiences of the people who are impacted by the particular issue. Have them assume the mindset of the stakeholder to gain introspection and empathy—even if it’s a point-of-view they would disagree with or can’t relate to.

Be careful of the questions you ask.
You don’t want to invite topics or specifics that target or insult someone in your classroom or feed into fake news frenzy, like “The Holocaust is a hoax.” Think about the conversations you don’t want in your classroom—this depends on your students. Do ask questions that get all students talking and diving deeper into understanding.

Shut down conversations that are hurtful and ignorant.
When the conversation strays to hurtful and perpetuating ignorance, reconnect dialogue to the content.

Bridge divides with key questions.
Your students can take a position and still appreciate other perspectives. When the room is boiling with disagreement, ask your students: Where is there common ground? What are the aspects of the divide? Where is there no compromise?

Own your politics responsibly.
There’s an assumption that teachers need to be neutral. Not true. Take responsibility for your position and share it, when appropriate, professionally and respectfully. Look at the issue beforehand and provide direction for a positive, deliberative discussion

More resources for guidelines on difficult and deliberative conversations:
Deliberative Discourse Planning Guide (UC-Berkeley History-Social Science Project)
Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations (Facing History)
Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond Teaching Tolerance (Teaching Tolerance)

Glossary

Body image: How someone thinks about their own body. This can range from positive feelings like body positivity to negative beliefs like body dysmorphia. 

Body shaming: Criticizing or commenting on someone’s body in a harmful, shaming way to ultimately make someone feel bad about themself. 

Fat acceptance: A movement started in the 1960s to make America’s policies more inclusive of size and advocates for the rights, humanity, and dignity of fat people.

Fatphobia: Fear and dislike of fat people. Consciously or subconsciously avoiding fat people out of fear or disgust.

Fat bias: Implicitly or explicitly thinking about or treating fat people as lesser, as different. Fat bias has serious social, cultural, and even medical implications, for example, fat people receiving inadequate healthcare. 

HAES approach: The “health at every size” approach accepts and respects the diversity of body shapes and sizes as the basis for medical treatment. It does not rely on BMI (body mass index), weight or size as determinants of health, but instead looks at emotional and spiritual factors, along with conditions where people work, live, and play.

Reading Materials

YES! Articles

Taking the Shame Out of Fat-Shaming

The Fear of Fat: Our Last Acceptable Bias

Here’s What Fat Acceptance Is—And Isn’t

How to Decolonize the Way You Think About Your Body

How a Stock Photography Project is Confronting Fat Bias

Outside Articles

The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI (Medium)

The Beauty Myth for Boys (NY Times) 

The Price of Being Fat (Teen Vogue)
This article is part of Teen Vogue’s “The F Word” series that celebrates what it means to be fat.

The Latest Diet Trend is Not Dieting (The Atlantic)

Curriculum

Reshaping Body Image (Teaching Tolerance)—analyzing current social norms on body size and appearance, including the impact of fat bias.  

Discussion Questions

  1. Reflect on a time when you were made to feel bad about your body. What was the situation and how did you respond? Where do you think the “shamer’s” ideas about bodies came from? If this has never happened to you, describe a time when you made fun of or felt disgusted by someone’s body size. Why do you think you felt this way?
  2. When was the first time you heard the word “fat” or heard someone described as fat? How did that shape your view of fatness? 
  3. Body-shaming is the act of humiliating someone based on their size. How are fat people treated differently than skinny people at the doctor’s office, in the workplace, and in relationships?
  4. Have you noticed fatphobia—discrimination against fat people ranging from insults to delayed medical treatment—in your school or community? How might you be an ally to fat people and help change fatphobic beliefs?

Like what you see? Discover discussion guides on other tough topics.

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