Living with Lipo[il]literacies: Why the “fat = unhealthy” myth is damaging our discussions of health and well-being.
By Natalie Jovanovski.
We’re told as children to never judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to our bodies – and other people’s bodies – that’s all we’re ever encouraged to do.
An unfortunate part of living in a culture that magnifies the importance of our appearance, (promoted largely by the fixation on the thin-ideal) is that we learn to read bodies for signs of health and well-being simply just by looking at them. From the magazine aisle to the doctor’s office, body-shaming messages are part of the wallpaper of contemporary Western culture, and they are used as a way to normalise the notion that “fat = unhealthy”. Some have referred to this phenomenon as ‘lipoliteracy’.
‘Lipo’, the Greek word for ‘fat’, coupled with the word ‘literacy’, directly translates to the reading of body fat or the ‘fat’ body. Coined by Mark Graham, ‘lipoliteracy’ is a term used in sociological research to refer to the evaluation of a person’s health based on the superficial reading of their weight and shape.
In The ‘Fat’ Female Body, Samantha Murray refers to ‘lipoliteracy’ as a phenomenon that affects women more than men in Western societies. Focusing strongly on the way that lipoliteracies occur within medical institutions, Murray uses the example of Irvin Yalom, a prominent US physician who found the appearance of the ‘fat’ female body as repulsive and an affront to female sexuality, as an example of how lipoliteracy truly is culturally ingrained. Indeed, how many of us have heard a GP prescribe weight-loss for illnesses that have nothing to do with body-weight at all?
Evidence of lipoliteracy is also found widely in the media. One of the most recent examples is of a documentary by controversial British TV personality Katie Hopkins called My Fat Story which aired on TLC. In the two-part series, Hopkins is shown repeatedly – and unashamedly – making superficial judgements about people’s health just by reading their body fat, and unsophisticatedly moralising their bodies throughout the process. Indeed, Hopkins does little to empathise or respect the extent to which ‘fat’ is stigmatised in our culture, even when her own body is judged erroneously based on its shape and size.
There is also a feigned condescending concern for ‘fat’ women, prevalent in much of the medical and pop cultural discussions. The more the “fat = unhealthy” message is spread, the more it becomes normalised as the ‘truth’. But lipoliteracies aren’t accurate readings of health and well-being. Rather, they emphasise how lipo[il]literate our culture really is, and just how far society has to go – to change the way that we think about our health and well-being.
After all, what is left out of lipo[il]literate messages that define the way we think about bodies? An in-depth understanding of how our body-shaming culture demonises certain body weights/shapes, and misunderstands how health should be measured and defined.
This is not an article that argues that the ‘fat’ body cannot be unhealthy, or that ‘thinness’ automatically translates to being unwell. This is also not an argument that it’s impossible to read some people’s bodies for signs of health and well-being. Rather, what is being highlighted is that the lipo[il]literacies that circulate throughout Western culture, such as those promoted by the medical profession, the media, and even everyday social encounters, are damaging to the discussions that we could be having about preventable illnesses and diseases.
Personalising the issue with unsophisticated comments akin to schoolyard bullying (i.e., “fatso” or “frog legs”) is not going to lead to progress, nor is masking the judgements in a faux-medicalised narrative. Instead of making lipoiliterate judgements, we can instead focus on what is truly productive for health, like examining the social, reinforce cultural, gender and class factors that lead to poor health outcomes.
Indeed, an important part of tackling a ‘lipo[il]literate’ culture involves both being aware of and challenging these messages when they occur. This involves actively asking ourselves – and those around us – questions such as: When was the last time you heard a lipo[il]literate message? And how do you think we should tackle this issue as a society?
If you are ready to ask some difficult questions about how we read our bodies, and the bodies of others - what are some other questions we could ask that untangle the pernicious culture of lipo[il]literacies we currently face?