The stereotypical image of the Sad Fat Girl is one that many can agree has been ingrained in us as a culture. Generally, this trope exists to facilitate "eating my feelings" jokes and to remind people that to be skinny is to be superior — both physically and mentally. Fat is the enemy, after all, so to have fat or to be fat means that you will have to trade in your happiness for shame. Growing up, images of happy, successful fat women were scarce at best. So to be fat and happy? That has always been something of a radical concept.
As fat acceptance and body positivity movements march on, it has arguably become more and more acceptable for me to be what I've fought for for so long: Fat and happy. The irony is, however, that at this moment in time, that's not how I feel at all. I'm fat, I'm OK with it. But still, I'm sad.
To be fair, I’m more than sad: I’m struggling with anxiety and depression, as I have for most of my life. These things are hard to talk about, in the ways deeply personal issues or anything related to mental health often are. Yet as the image of the "Fat And Happy" woman becomes more visible on the Internet, society at large still seems intent on making sure the Sad Fat Girl stereotype drowns her out. For me, this often results in feeling an internal, and perhaps cultural, responsibility to gloss over my struggles with my mental health and the need to present the happiest fat girl you ever saw.
But mental health struggles in the plus size community are real, and I think they're important to talk about.
The image of the Fat And Happy person is dangerous to the diet industry, which is a $20 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone. I believe this is why the Sad Fat Girl trope exists: To remind us of the consequences of spurning diet culture and not constantly being on a mission to be as slim as possible, at any cost.
The Sad Fat Girl narrative looks like this: She's dateless and embarrassing in reality competitions and TV shows, frowning in the ads of glossy magazine "before and afters," the dowdy loner in that teen drama, and perhaps most ubiquitously in diet commercials. The Sad Fat Girl exists only as a memory of the Happy Skinny Girl in commercials. Before the herbal supplement-based weight loss plan, the Sad Fat Girl was miserable and hated the way clothes looked on her. Now, she loves her new, thin body.
To be fat and content, never mind Fat And Happy, is a sin in this context, because it removes the point of a lifetime of striving for thinness and of putting up with frozen diet foods. If you can be happy with your body, feel loved, and valuable at any size, then what's the point of buying into diet culture? Well, there is none. But at a time when the weight loss industry rakes in about $6.3 billion per year and diet culture upholds capitalism, to be fat and happy about it is to be radical.
Being fat and happy devalues the currency of slimness, or "Body Currency" as body positive author Jess Baker explains on her blog The Militant Baker:
"Whatever we choose individually, we as a country have made 'fixing our bodies' our main obsession and we let it consume our life. This happens for most of us whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. We live to give the quest towards impossible perfection (marketed as happiness) our all.So THEN after all of this, when a fat chick — who hasn't done the work, who hasn't tried to fix her body, who doesn't have any interest in the gospel we so zealously believe in, stands up and says: I'M HAPPY!... We freak the fuck out.Because: That bitch just broke the rules. She just cut in front of us in line. She just unwittingly ripped us off. And she essentially made our lifetime of work totally meaningless."
Hate for, and even disbelief of, people who are fine with their fat bodies comes from all over the place: Current fat people trying to lose weight, thin people who ascribe their value to their current bodily composition, former fat people who fear becoming fat again, former thin people who are bitter about not being thin anymore, and plenty of people in between. If someone has a hard time believing that you can be fat and happy, chances are they are personally invested in the opposite being true.
Being generally Fat And Happy overall while still experiencing anxiety and depression that have nothing to do with how I feel about my body often puts me at odds with my own self-image and my own self-understanding. I'm not sad because I'm fat, though. I'm sad and anxious and depressed simply because I am.
This is where my own internal pressure to present a positive image of what it means to be a fat girl comes from. Even with the good side of social media producing images and making the realities of many types of fat girls and women more widely available, there are still so few nuanced depictions of fat women in the media at large. Therefore, I often find myself feeling the need to unwillingly play the role of "Fat Lady Ambassador" to everyone I meet or know.
This is the privilege of individuality we afford people who are represented well. The less marginalized someone is, the more images of people like them exist in the dominant narrative, and the less their individual actions and lives are silently used to represent everyone else like them. People of color, LGBTQ people, disabled people, lower income people, and other marginalized humans live with the burden of representing their entire communities every day.
This is why, as we continue to fight for the right of fat people to be unsuspiciously fat and happy, it's extra important that we keep having the conversation about mental health and body image. People whose identities and bodies are stigmatized and marginalized are more likely to deal with mental health issues, but those mental health issues aren't necessarily always related to the reason they're being stigmatized or marginalized.
While there are biological factors that can lead to depression and anxiety, The Mayo Clinic also asserts that trauma, personality traits, and stressful situations can put people at risk of depression. LGBTQ people are at higher risk for depression, people of color are far less likely to get the mental health support they need, and Psych Central reports that people with a higher BMI are more likely to experience depression. And the stigma and the struggle that can exist at the intersections of these identities can feel overwhelming. I know that, as hard as they can get sometimes, things are still easier for me as someone with white hetero economic privilege, among others.
I understand not always wanting to feel like the girl who's "complaining" about something, or talking about all the upsetting things in this world. I also understand the appeal of being the happy-go-lucky, good fatty.
Still, it's really hard to feel positive about your body when you feel like you're always fighting with your brain. Or when you feel out of control of your body when it's subject to random anxiety attacks that are completely debilitating. When you add fatphobia and a constant stream of social media trolls and a seemingly endless loops of negative media messaging about the way you look, it can get exhausting.
However, the more I talk openly about my struggles and the more I show the frustrating aspects of my life in tandem with the joyous moments of celebration and self-assuredness, the more I give myself permission to drop the self-imposed burden of being an "ambassador" — and goodness knows that relying on an individual — all of whom are intrinsically flawed and problematic despite our best efforts and ongoing learning — to be the face of an entire group of people is a one-way ticket to disappointment.
Fat and happy and depressed and anxious aren't mutually exclusive. Other people's awful words and horrible actions can and will likely affect me while nuanced images of fat women and the complicated and beautifully complex and rich truths of their lives are still scarce. However, we can choose to free ourselves from the burden no one asked us to carry and be honest about our lives and what makes us humans. Humans who maybe aren't always happy or chill or uncomplicated. Fat and real, that's all I'm trying to be.
Image: Jodie Layne