"Fat Derangement Syndrome" Puts A Name To Something We Know & Hate

Photo: Courtesy of Sarai Walker.
Although he had been dead for decades, Jim Morrison said something a few years ago that shocked people. He wasn’t speaking from beyond the grave, but in a long-lost 1969 radio interview, recently re-broadcast. During the conversation, after being questioned about his larger body, Morrison defiantly declared: “Fat is beautiful.”

It’s not difficult to see why this old sound bite was picked up quickly by news outlets and spread across social media. One of history’s biggest sex symbols saying that fat is beautiful was newsworthy. It was a radical statement at the time, and it’s radical now. If the modern-day equivalent of Morrison — whomever that might be — said something fat-positive, you can bet people would pay attention.

As a fat person, I felt a thrill when I heard Morrison’s quote, and I shared the link on Twitter: “Jim Morrison says fat is beautiful.” In under a minute, without anyone having had time to read the interview or even think about it, a friend tweeted back. She was abroad at the time, in another time zone thousands of miles away, but couldn’t resist commenting. She responded immediately that being fat is unhealthy, that it causes high blood pressure and other health problems.

Seeing this response from a friend, I was instantly deflated. Our culture is filled with nothing but contempt for fat people, who are usually portrayed in negative and dehumanizing ways. The Morrison interview was one great thing in a sea of hate, and I was hurt that my friend didn’t recognize what it might mean to me. Instead, she had reached out from the other side of the world to slap me down.

I was still somewhat new to fat acceptance at the time, and I didn’t fully understand why she had responded that way. She was as outraged as if I’d written, “Let’s give heroin to kindergarteners!” Besides her disregard for my feelings, which wasn’t characteristic of her (otherwise, we wouldn’t have been friends), there was another curious thing: She didn’t comment on Morrison’s belief that fat is beautiful. Instead, she raised the issue of health, which was something I hadn’t mentioned. Also strange, she seemed to think she was sharing new information with me. She apparently believed that I, a fat person in my late 30s, had never heard the claim that "fat is unhealthy." That despite the global obesity panic and daily media headlines framing every fat body as a ticking time bomb, I had been skipping along merrily through life, completely oblivious to any of this — until she arrived, superhero cape fluttering in the breeze, to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Haven’t you heard that being fat is unhealthy?”

In the years since, I’ve experienced this response too many times to count. It’s a routine and exhausting part of my life. In 2015, with the release of my novel, Dietland, I began to deal with it on an even larger and more public scale. As I’ve become more involved in the body-positivity movement, I’ve experienced it in multiple countries, in live radio interviews, and in packed auditoriums. The comment sections beneath interviews with me are bursting with it. The reaction to anything fat-positive follows a familiar pattern, and anyone who speaks about fat acceptance knows it well. I call this response “Fat Derangement Syndrome.”

I liken this syndrome to becoming a werewolf. A werewolf, by day, is a normal human, but under the full moon, he turns into a frothing-at-the-mouth beast — a beast that must attack. People with Fat Derangement Syndrome undergo a similar transformation, but their “full moon” is any positive (even neutral) comment about fat. The ideas that it’s okay to be fat, that fat can be beautiful, that humans come in all shapes and sizes, that all bodies have equal value, that fat people can be healthy, and so on, unleash the beast.

Regardless of whether the offending statement is health-related, the response is inevitably health-based. Topics as varied as, say, fashionable plus-sized clothing for teens, a fat triathlete, or Gabourey Sidibe’s latest movie, can trigger it. The most common responses are ones like my friend’s: “Being fat is unhealthy,” or “fat people are at a higher risk for (fill-in-the-blank disease),” often alongside assumptions that fat people have psychological problems and never exercise or eat healthy food. Never mind that fat people have heard these condescending statements countless times before — a person with Fat Derangement Syndrome is suffering from derangement, and therefore must present this information as if it’s brand new. Only then can they retake their human form.
Photo: Courtesy of Sarai Walker.
You might think that these people are the usual bigots and bullies, but as with my friend, this is not so. Many of those I meet are otherwise critical thinkers and compassionate people. In fact, those from the liberal and even radical side of the political spectrum are often the most maddening: While most bullies understand they’re driven by a disgust for fat, this enlightened crowd considers themselves to be operating from a well-intentioned place.

The reasons for Fat Derangement Syndrome are as varied and complex as the reasons for fat hatred, about which whole books are written. But at the heart of it is this: We’re conditioned to believe that fat is bad, one of the worst things a person can be, and that one’s size is entirely controllable. Therefore, the wayward fatty who dares to say something positive about fat must be put in her place.

“Health” is a vague, politicized term (often used synonymously and erroneously with “thin” or “fit”), and its definition will vary depending on who’s defining it. Yet it sounds scientific and therefore irrefutable, not to mention noble — hence its efficacy. “You might think your fat body looks great in a bathing suit,” the fat-hater says, “but you’re going to die soon!” Whether someone looks great in a bathing suit is a matter of opinion, but you can’t argue with death — or so the thinking goes. The person with Fat Derangement Syndrome believes (consciously or not) that injecting health into any discussion of fat is a way to shut down the conversation with a “gotcha!” — whether it’s done maliciously or in a way that seems borne of genuine concern.

Fat Derangement Syndrome goes hand-in-hand with a profound lack of empathy. The fat body is always on public display, open to critique and comment. Therefore, a fat body is routinely subjected to lectures, judgments, and insults — from family, friends, or complete strangers. It ceases to matter whether the commenter is a bully using health to legitimize their hate, or someone who thinks they’re well-intentioned. This automatic response contributes to the negative chorus that surrounds fat people at all times. Having empathy means imagining what this feels like. But when it comes to fat people, empathy is rare.

If it’s important to you that fat people know they’re fat, you can rest assured that we do. If it’s important to you that fat people hear that fat is unhealthy, we do. I promise you, it’s impossible to live in a fat-hating culture as a fat person without being constantly informed of these things. You can feel confident that, when most fat people hear Jim Morrison say fat is beautiful, they don’t believe it, because they’ve been told they’re ugly and unworthy of basic respect. Your job is done. Fat Derangement Syndrome isn’t about fat people, after all. It’s about you.