It’s a Big Fat Deal
How Schools Teach Contempt for Fat People — and What We Can Do About It
Illustrator: Favianna Rodriguez
“Why don’t you try losing some weight?” whispered my 7th-grade student. Even though it was a whisper, it sliced through the air, and tried to cut me down. Those words tried to take me out of myself, out of my adult teacher self, and tried to put me back in the place of a sad and scared fat 12-year-old kid in the lunchroom. Thankfully, I’m strong and thick, so while I was shocked, I stayed standing.
I will never escape people attacking my fat body. I will never be old enough, accomplished enough, or ever have enough authority where my soft, fat, round body won’t be a point of vulnerability and attack. Even in the position of teacher, I’m still a fat teacher.
You probably already know this, but America hates fat people. America hates fat people. Hating fat people is a national pastime. It’s in our movies, our shows, our books. It’s in our jokes, our attitudes, our stares, our judgments. It’s in our fashions and our foods. It’s in our values, our religions, and our spiritualities. And it’s also in our schools.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a home that valued fat people. I came from fat parents, and my mom especially was fat positive. There were no scales in our house and she didn’t permit our family doctor to weigh me. She ordered magazines about fat acceptance, full of pictures of big round beautiful people out living big round beautiful lives. As a fat kid, I belonged in my fat family. We were all fat, and it was normal for me.
But all the love and acceptance from my family was not enough to make school a safe place for me, back when I was a student and even now as a teacher. When I was a fat kid, I was teased by other kids relentlessly. Teachers preached weight loss. I couldn’t fit into the attached desks. I couldn’t fit into the orchestra uniform, and I had trouble fully participating in PE. Now, as a fat teacher, I can’t sit at the table at staff meetings because I don’t fit. I can’t wear a staff shirt because there isn’t one in my size. I can’t escape the comments, barbs, and harassment about my fat body from my colleagues and my students. There are always these reminders that I do not belong.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do a lot better by our fat students, colleagues, and community members. But I need to say this first: Fat kids don’t need you to save them from being fat. They need you to save them from your own feelings about fat and our fatphobic culture. I was teaching a workshop for teachers, when I was still a student teacher, about fatphobia at schools and what teachers can do to help their fat students. We’d been working through stigmas and attitudes about fat people, sorting comments into categories of fat hate, fat assimilation, and fat acceptance, looking at statistics to unlearn harmful stigmas about fat people, and examining curriculum for examples of fat hate, when a teacher asked, “But how do I talk to my fat students about their weight? How do I do that supportively? Or are you suggesting that I don’t?”
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “You don’t.”
We’re going to start easy with things that you can see, the parts you can change tomorrow, right now, and then we’ll get into the harder stuff — how you need to re-read your curriculum, look back over your lessons, and think more about the words you use in class. Then I’ll tell you my big fat dream for fat kids everywhere.
Fat people, including fat children, have different physical needs and considerations, depending on size. Universal design encourages normalizing people doing things in different ways; the more we can normalize different students’ and staffs’ physical needs, the better it can be for everyone. Just like the curb cut on the corner of a sidewalk allows access for wheelchair users, but also benefits all kinds of other people like people with strollers, carts, canes, or anyone who has trouble stepping up or down, the adjustments we make for fat people in physical spaces can end up helping other people too.
Seating arrangements — Desks and tables need to have enough space between them to allow fat bodies to move between them. Are your desks so close together that some people have to turn their bodies to squeeze through? Is there enough room between rows for someone’s chair to be scooted back if needed? Is there space for kids who can fit only one of their legs under the desk to swing another leg out sideways? This can also be helpful and needed for wheelchair, cane, and crutch users.
Seats themselves — I want to burn every attached desk I see. I remember squeezing my fat body into them in middle school and high school, the edge of the desk cutting into my stomach, my belly fat spilling over onto the already small top of the desk. Not enough room to breathe. Not enough room for my arms or my worksheet, not enough room to write. Not enough room to learn.
You may not control what desks you get in your classroom, but if you have attached desks, you also need some free-standing desks or tables and chairs. Some fat kids won’t want to use these, because they may not want to stand out or appear different, but having them as an option is necessary. Make sure the chairs you have are sturdy with a high weight limit. Sitting directly on the floor can also be uncomfortable for some fat bodies. If students sit on the floor in your classroom (like in some primary grades), have options where students can sit low to the ground and be included without having to be all the way on the ground, like cushions or low benches. If you ask students to sit criss-cross applesauce, know that not all fat legs can bend like that and encourage all students to sit in ways that are comfortable for them. They may take up more space this way, with legs splayed out, arms everywhere, but that’s OK.
School uniforms, PE shirts, band/orchestra/choir uniforms, etc. — Any time specific school-provided clothing is required for students, there needs to be a wide range of sizes available (beyond 3XL) and a plan in place for a student who doesn’t fit those sizes. There will always be someone a size larger than the largest size of anything you have, and you must be prepared to accommodate and clothe them. I was lucky enough to have a mom who advocated for me and insisted that a special vest be custom-made for me for freshman year orchestra, but not every fat kid has a mom like that. So you can be the advocate for those fat students instead. It’s not right that the rest of the choir is in shiny blue dresses, but the fat student is in a plain blue dress they had to buy at Walmart. It’s not OK for all the kids to get the school T-shirt for the class field trip, except for the fat kid. Everyone deserves to belong, and everyone deserves to belong in the same clothes as everyone else. It should not be on the student or the student’s family to request a special accommodation for size. Consider, too, if clothing is being given out as a prize or reward (like T-shirts at a school assembly): Are sizes available for everyone? It would be sad and disappointing to win a fun prize in front of all your friends if you can’t actually use it or wear it. Just another way that you don’t belong.
Field trips and size/weight limits — Some schools get to take really fun field trips and do amazing things like whitewater rafting and ropes courses. Some schools get to fly on planes for school trips. When planning field trips and special activities, find out weight limits and accommodation options for different activities so that everyone can be safely included.
I went on a whitewater rafting trip as a student teacher and I had to ask the guide if I would sink the boat. This may sound funny, but these are real considerations for fat people. And I did not sink the boat, but we did put one fewer person on the raft with me. My mentor teacher had also called ahead to make sure I could try on a wetsuit in advance to make sure it would fit me. (Wet suits come in bigger sizes! I didn’t even know!) He was such a good ally to me. You can be this ally for your fat students. If a field trip involves special gear, will it fit them? How can you find out? What is your plan if it doesn’t fit them? If a school trip involves plane travel, will all students need only one seat, or will some need two? How can your school accommodate all students?
Does your field trip involve a lot of walking? Some fat people need to take breaks when walking and exercising, so encourage slowing down and taking breaks and honor your students’ limits if they can’t walk far. If a lot of walking is part of a field trip, make sure that students know in advance how far they’ll be walking and have an alternative if students can’t walk that far.
Challenging Fatphobic Culture
We live in a fatphobic culture, and we have to be intentional about challenging it in our classrooms. Fat people are exposed to fatphobia and body shaming in every area of our lives. Schools can work to eliminate fatphobia in the schools’ culture.
Curriculum — Many curricular materials overtly teach fat hate. Examine your curriculum and screen it for fatphobia before bringing it to your students. Math lessons that teach proportion with how many chips someone eats and how fat they get perpetuate the harmful stereotype that all fat people are binge eaters. English and language arts lessons that frame debate and argument with topics like “Should we ban junk food in schools?” often lead to harmful portrayals of fatness as something to be avoided at all costs. There are endless examples here, but start questioning your curriculum’s messages about body, weight, and food — often very explicit ones. Do fat people seem bad, or does it seem that fatness should be avoided? Then it’s fatphobic.
Look at novels in your classroom library — are fat characters written only as sidekicks, jolly friends, the “before” picture in some garbage redemptive story about weight loss? Are fat characters presented as tragic, their fatness being a symptom of some underlying character flaw? Or worse, are the only fat characters presented evil, lazy, and stupid? This was my experience growing up. I remember searching through books, movies, TV shows for any character who looked like me, was fat like me, and all I could find was Jabba the Hutt, Ursula the Sea Witch, Ms. Trunchbull the evil teacher in Matilda. Everyone deserves to belong in books and stories. Everyone deserves to see positive representations of themselves, and fat kids especially need this to counter the harmful stereotypes they encounter daily in the rest of the world.
Look at the images in your picture books, classroom, and lesson materials. Are there any fat people? Are they positively portrayed? Having a wide range of body types, sizes, and shapes can encourage students to view fatness in a more neutral way, as one of the many wonderfully naturally occurring differences in humanity.
In your own talk — How you talk about your own body matters. How you talk about what you eat matters. However you feel about your body and what you eat needs to stay with you. I don’t have enough room in this article to break down all the ways and reasons you need to work on your own fatphobia internally, but if that’s something you struggle with, be wise enough to keep it to yourself. Don’t let your own issues with your body leak out onto your students. It’s not helpful or setting a good example to discuss dieting with students, at all, ever. You’re not setting a good example — you’re setting up eating disorders. Even small throwaway comments like “Ooo, I wish I could have that, but I’m watching my sugar after the holidays!” teaches kids, including fat kids, harmful messages about what bodies are valued and healthy. And how you talk about other people’s bodies matters too. Keep your comments about other people’s bodies to yourself. Pointing out perceived weight changes in other people, including in other adults at school, reinforces valuing bodies based on size and shape.
How you talk about fatness matters, too. If you’re too scared to say the word fat, and instead dance around it with words like “overweight” or “obese” or “plus size” then experiment with saying the word “fat” in a neutral way. Many fat people find the words “obese” and “overweight” offensive, and prefer the word fat. Fat is in fact a neutral word!
Interrupting fatphobia in your classroom — Sometimes kids say really messed up and mean things about fat people. And adults let it fly because often they agree with it, or they don’t consider how it impacts the other kids in the room, including the fat students. There’s an idea that it’s mean to call someone fat to their face (which is, in fact, a neutral descriptor), but if kids make fat jokes, do you let it slide? Interrupt body shaming and fat hate in the moment when it happens.
When my student made the comment to me about needing to lose weight, I stopped class and we addressed it as a whole class. “Look, I’m an adult, so I am secure in who I am and my feelings are not hurt,” I remember telling the boy. “But what I don’t like is that other people might hear you say things like that and feel bad about themselves. Other kids at this school. It’s not OK to make comments about other people’s bodies.”
My own students have often said harmful, hurtful, ignorant things about fat people right in front of me because in many ways we don’t see fat people — either we don’t see them, or we don’t see them as fat. “Oh, that one guy on the show who ate McDonald’s every day and was about to die and was like 400 pounds?!” my student, Paul, shrieked, laughing and joking with Derek.
“Paul. I’m right here,” I said. “Your teacher is fat!”
“Nooooo, you’re not fat!” he answered, trying to reassure me. What he was saying was I wasn’t all of the things our culture associates with fat — he was telling me he didn’t see me as one of those fat people: lazy, disgusting, abhorrent, stupid, evil, greedy. He saw me as a person, with positive qualities. In our fatphobic culture, humanity and fatness are mutually exclusive.
“I am fat,” I insisted, gently. “I’m fat, and I don’t eat McDonald’s every day and people don’t die from being fat.” I wanted to tell him that in fact I weigh 400 pounds, but I wasn’t quite ready for that much honesty. “I know people who are 400 pounds and they don’t eat McDonald’s every day and they’re fine, it’s not a big deal.” I was trying to stitch humanity to fatness for him with these words.
It horrifies me because I hate to think that if they’re saying this in front of me, their teacher, who they mostly like, what are they saying in front of fat kids in our school? What are they saying to them? So if you hear it, interrupt it and stop it. Help teach your students that fat people are people.
The Nightmare and the Dream
This article isn’t supposed to be about PE, because there are whole books and dissertations on the harm that traditional PE classes do to fat students. But I also can’t not address it, because when I spoke with my adult fat friends about what they would have wanted different about school, PE was the loudest, most consistent answer. It’s because it’s often the place at school where the biggest wound happens for fat kids. And even if you’re not a PE teacher, you need to know about what is happening to your fat students. You need to know what a nightmare it can be for fat students.
The rest of school is teaching fat kids all the ways they don’t fit and don’t belong in the community. In PE they learn that they and their bodies don’t belong to themselves, either.
Changing in locker rooms amidst stares from classmates, eyes like knives dragging across bellies, thighs, fat rolls. Standardized fitness tests that we have to perform and fail publicly, the failure of our bodies quantified and recorded, all the ways we can’t and don’t measure up. The physical education we receive is not about what our bodies can do, about the joy of living and moving in our bodies, but about how our bodies are shameful failures. And so many fat people learn to disassociate from their bodies, cut themselves off from their bodies. They learn to drag their bodies around with them as baggage, instead of living in them. They learn that movement is not for them, exercise is not for them, their own bodies are not for them. Their own bodies are something apart from them, something to be changed, fixed, cured, through the punishment of exercise and diet.
I wasn’t able to heal my relationship with my body until I was an adult. I had to learn that my fat body could move in ways that felt good. I had to learn that I deserved to exercise in ways that weren’t punishment for being fat, that exercise could be a celebration of all that my fat body was. I wish I hadn’t spent years being cut off from myself.
I wish my PE teachers had normalized people doing activities in different ways. I wish I had been taught that sports don’t have to be competitive, that there don’t have to be winners, that walking is OK, that taking breaks is OK, that moving in a different way that works for your body is OK. I wish I had a private place to change. I wish the PE clothes fit me better. I wish my PE teachers had seen me as a person. I wish all my teachers had seen me as a person. I wish I had belonged at school and belonged to myself.
And here’s the dream. I want a world where fat kids belong at school. Where they fit physically into the classrooms, desks, uniforms. Where they fit in the community, are valued and respected for exactly who they are. And I want a world where fat kids can belong to themselves at school, where they get to live in their fat bodies, exactly who they are.
My sweet friend Kyle jokingly said that all fat kids should be automatically assigned to a nurturing lunch lady who will take them under her wing and look out for them, make them feel safe. He’s joking, but . . . can you be that lunch lady for your students?
Your fat students need you to see them as people, full people, perfect people, embodied people. Your fat students, fat colleagues, fat community members, need to know that they belong at school, that they belong in their community, and that they belong to themselves. That is the big fat deal.
For My Fatties
By Katy Alexander
For my people, my fatties
Our thunder thighs
Our bountiful breasts
Our arm rolls, back rolls, belly rolls, thigh rolls
Our dimples on our cheeks, and knees, and cheeks
Our glorious fat feet
Our chubby fingers
Our sweet double, triple chins
For my people
Big beach babes in bare-it-all bikinis
Who eat ice cream, bravely on park benches where everyone can see
Who break chairs
Who take up space
Who lift the armrest in movie theaters
And on planes
Who get whipped cream on their coffee, anyway
For my people, my lovely fat people
When the darkness seeps in
For my people
Who are stuck with
Fatcalls on the street
Who put up with
Doctors who refuse to touch us
People who would rather die than be like us
Loved ones who want to change us
Employers who want to fire us
Our fat, lazy asses
Surgeons who want to cut, trim,
Dietitians who want to drain us
Of our love, body, and money
A world that wants us
To stop existing
For my crying fat people
When the darkness seeps in
Self-loathing in front of the mirror
Who want to stop feeling
For my fatties who say, “Screw it!”
And dance and swim and hike and kayak and canoe and snowshoe and ski and play soccer and wrestle and do yoga and run marathons and lift weights and play football and win Olympic medals
And delight in their physical perfection
For the fatties who are ALSO perfect
With high blood pressure, asthma, heart
disease, who use mobility devices, who have depression and anxiety and eating disorders
Who say, “Yes, I have diabetes and it doesn’t make me any less of a person”
Who deserve health care and respect
Because there are no bad fatties here
Because the shape of our health is as varied and miraculous and infinite as the shape of our bodies
Who all deserve to live
And my fatties who say, “Heck yeah!”
Who flirt and kiss and fall in love
Who break hearts, who tantalize and tease
Who make love and make babies and make homes with fat families
Who create community and create safe harbors
For my fatties who can’t say the word fat yet, you too
For my fatties who comfort
With warm soft love
“Diet Industry Dropouts”
“Team Still Fats”
“I’m Fat, Let’s Party” queens
We band together, we hold each other
And sing the stories of our bodies with love