Review: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat

I read Aubrey Gordon’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat a few weeks ago, and it was deeply healing for me. And if you are a fellow fat person considering reading this, it’s a great read, but this review really isn’t for you.

Instead, it’s for the more conventionally sized people who are both living in and helping shape a world that is culturally disgusted by fat people, and it’s a fantastic primer on institutionalized fatphobia with a relative emphasis on the US (since that’s where the author lives).

The book isn’t a book of personal anecdotes; it is instead focused on the ways that we systematically target and harm fat people. It is, however, sprinkled with a number of personal stories from the author’s own life where she was harassed by strangers, and in some cases she talks about sharing these experiences with her friends, only to be met with skepticism or utter disbelief.

But I can pretty well assure you that she’s not lying about her personal experiences, and I say that because I’ve had experiences similar to these. I’ve had total random strangers approach me on the street and offer up workout advice, or just yell an insult from a moving car as I’m walking to work.

And lest you think it’s just randos that do this kind of thing, one of my earliest memories of being reminded that my body is different dates back to second grade, when an older kid was making fun of me for being fat, and when I approached a guidance counselor about it, his response was “okay, and you think you’re skinny?”

Even good friends aren’t immune from this. Friends are tactful enough not to ever directly criticize me for being fat, but they will quite eagerly explain to me how much they don’t want to gain weight.

But I digress. This book isn’t about individual aggressions or microaggressions toward fat people, and this review isn’t about my experiences.

The book uses these personal stories as a good jumping off point to better understanding the deeper issues, though, and it does dive into some of the excuses people give themselves for mistreating fat people and explores why they’re total bullshit (my favorite trope: when people decided to use concern for one’s health as an excuse for fat shaming).

But the issue of fatphobia goes more deeply, and in this book you will learn some of the ways it’s baked into our society. It discusses public spaces whose designs are hostile to fat bodies. It covers the massive industry behind dieting and explains that it’s not only almost completely ineffective, but in many cases actively harmful to our health. It covers the obstacles fat people face in getting healthcare. And it covers the fact that in the mainstream, making fun of fat people remains a completely acceptable practice, even a practice people will fervently defend when they’re called out about it.

I strongly recommend you give this a read, but as with any book that introduces you to issues of social prejudices, the world’s not going to get better by you reading this book. And even if you take the lessons from the book to heart and you examine your own behaviors to eliminate your own fatphobia, there’s still an entire world and culture that very much is happy to continue with it. And even if you take it a step further and take a strong stand against fatphobia, speaking out when you see it, it will remain an uphill battle, and you’re likely to just be depressed by the inertia you see when you tell someone they’re being fatphobic.

It’s a book that ends with some discussion of what a better world might look like, but it’s a book without a happy ending. There’s a good chance you’ll feel worse after you finish reading it. But reading this is a good first step.

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