Origin and definition of the concept

While the original concept of “fatphobia” (or grossophobia)[1] describes the fear of being fat (Carof, 2021), it refers more generally to the systems of oppression that, in predominantly Western and patriarchal societies, affect fat people by devaluing and stigmatising them (ibid.), and in particular minoritized people (Gailey, 2012; McPhail et al., 2016; Burford and Orchard, 2014). Such oppressions, which are exercised through various devices (media, medical, etc.), contribute to the domination of bodily ideals such as thin or hypertrophied bodies (Robinson et al., 1993), and are amplified by the digital medium, which acts as a variable-geometry sounding board.

Fatphobia was popularised in the 1960s following the demands of the US Fat Acceptance movement, which campaigned for the rights of fat people (Wann, 2009). In France, it was not until 1994 that its French-language counterpart was created with the unscholarly neologism ‘grossophobia’, which was constructed from the words ‘gros’ and ‘phobia’, and was first used by the late actress Anne Zamberlan in her book Coup de gueule contre la grossophobie (Ramsay). Made popular by the anti-discrimination activist association Allegro Fortissimo, founded by the same Anne Zamberlan, the word “grossophobia” (“grossophobie” in French) made its entry into the Robert in 2019. This act of language, which includes oral or textual utterances, certainly follows from bodily acts (Butler, 1993). The creation and use of this neologism is in fact part of a progressive awareness of the violence suffered by people who do not conform to the normalised bodies, products of social relations of gender, class, race or ableism[2], which are at the root of the phenomenon of fatphobia. Corpulent bodies are therefore inscribed in unequal power relations (Carof, 2021 p. 80): gender social relations (Gailey, 2016; McPhail et al., 2016; Burford and Orchard, 2014) because physically inferior, women, who are more subject to body diktats (injunction of the slim waist or the wearing of corsets in the 16th to19th centuries (Vigarello, 2010)), must take up as little space as possible (ibid, p. 70); of class because fatness reflects a ‘class racism’ according to which fatness is a sign of popular belonging (Bourdieu, 1979); of race because it is inscribed in a colonial and racial history (Strings, 2019; Gershon, 2019), fatphobia can be linked to the identification of fatness with black femininity, which has long been considered ‘inferior’ in Western societies (Strings, 2019); or ableism, since fat people are treated differently from the ideal weight norm (cf. below: Wann, 2009).

The origins of the slimming ideal

As a product of social and cultural construction (Butler, 1993), some bodies are systematically valorised (e.g. heterosexual, white, thin), while others are devalued (e.g. homosexual, black, fat), particularly in postcolonial Western hegemonic societies. In the latter, the thin body ideal has its origins in a particular socio-historical conjuncture, notably between the decades of 1880 and 1920, when representations associating the size of women’s bodies with wealth and fertility were transforming and declining (Rothblum and Solovay, 2009). It was also during this period that obesity was seen as a health risk (ibid.); a shift that can be attributed to economic and industrial changes in Western societies. Due to the decline of agriculture as the main economic activity, the development of new professions requiring less physical activity and the availability of food in cities, fatness is no longer a sign of wealth. Relationships were reversed and fat bodies gradually became a mark of lower socio-economic status (ibid.).

With the development of industrial capitalism and the rise of Protestantism – a belief based on the satisfaction of capital rather than hedonistic pleasure (Oliver, 2006) – religious (gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins) and medical discourses contributed to legitimising representations that victimised fat bodies. In the 19th century, the act of eating was portrayed as a carnal pleasure and both overeating and gluttony were seen as deviances to be controlled (Jutel, 2003). Extending to society (Carof, 2021, p. 39), the hygienist doctrine forces dietary restrictions to ‘fight against sedentary life, idleness and the devalued image of modernity’ (ibid., p. 158). In this context, the principles of capitalism overshadow the positive connotations associated with fat bodies. The belief that fatness is associated with weakness, sloppiness or unproductivity leads to the devaluation of fat people (Stoll and Egner, 2021). In this way, the issue of obesity and its effects on the health of individuals became so widespread in public discourse that calorie counting and body weighing became regular practices in the 19th century (Rothblum and Solovay, 2009), when the principles of anthropometry were developed (Carof, 2021). Various instruments for measuring body mass emerged, such as the body mass index (BMI) defined by the statistician A. Quételet or Dr Paul Broca’s formula which, by subtracting 100 from height in centimetres[3], aims to measure the ‘ideal’ weight (De Saint Pol, 2007). However, far from reaching a consensus, these measurement instruments are not free of strategic issues; the choice of definitions of obesity depends on economic issues (Poulain, 2009; Carof, 2021).

The medicalisation of fatness: a process reinforcing existing stereotypes

In a society that attaches great importance to appearance as an indicator of inner well-being, the medical community is not immune to these beliefs, which make thinness the basis of health aesthetics (Spitzack, 1990) and contribute to the idea that ‘overweight’ is a sign of poor health (Jutel, 2003). Obesity is thus pathologised and medicalised, defined as a problem subject to medical authorities (Stoll and Egner, 2021). During this period, the idea developed, supported by the economic interests of pharmaceutical companies as well as the creation of scientific associations and new specialties such as bariatric surgery (Carof, 2021), that “obesity” is a disease (Oliver, 2006; Poulain, 2009). Indeed, it is defined as such by the World Health Organization (Carof, 2021, p. 183).

In the following decade, the medical community even referred to obesity as an ‘epidemic’ (Oliver, 2006). However, although many studies have warned of the dangers of obesity and confirmed a link between the eating and sports habits of individuals and their health status, as well as between increased BMI and risk of pathologies (Calle et al., 2003), the alleged correlation between overweight and mortality remains controversial (Flegal et al., 2013). The epidemiologist K. Flegal shows that, depending on the case, being overweight can be dangerous or protective. Furthermore, questioning the definition of obesity as a disease, numerous studies have found that overweight people have a lower mortality rate than people with “normal weight” in the context of certain pathologies (Carof, 2021, p. 184-185). Arguing that overweight is rather a symptom of a sedentary lifestyle of premature death, they even show that thinness has a higher mortality risk than obesity (Gaesser, 1999).

Also, although studies show that fatness is not a sign of health, the pathologisation and medicalisation of ‘obesity’ nevertheless contribute to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of fat people, which are based on allegedly related characteristics such as laziness, stupidity, weakness, passivity, unhygienic or unattractive (Gailey, 2016). These stigmatising representations contribute to affecting the quality of life and mental health of fat people, who are often discriminated against in the workplace or in health facilities (Wann, 2009; Roehling et al., 2007). Fat people are sometimes subjected to discriminatory medical treatment, such as requiring weight loss in order to receive an organ transplant (Wann, 2009). Medical staff, even in the health sector, often have a negative view of obese patients, and thus reinforce the negative connotations associated with overweight, which are not without risk to life (Brown, 2006; Chrisler and Barney, 2017). This is evidenced by the misdiagnosis of obesity (Wann, 2009), which reveals the ableism that targets fat people.

Fatphobia in the digital age: a growing phenomenon

A double-edged sword (Bourdeloie, 2021), digital technology contributes – through its technical characteristics – to amplifying and multiplying discourses on fatphobic representations, but also to countering them. Based on the production and circulation of photographs, Instagram is in this respect a symptomatic platform for the territories of fatphobic representations. On the platform, circulate indeed hashtags (#thinsperation[4], #fitspiration[5], #bodygoals…) and posts that, going along with the photographs, promote thin, muscular and sexualised bodies, which enjoin to weight control and physical exercise (Carrotte et al., 2017). Beyond this, the algorithmic biases of this platform (Ekström, 2021) give greater weight to images that privilege dominant rather than minoritized bodies (ibid.), or that exacerbate gender attributes by objectifying the staging of bodies. Reproducing hegemonic standards of beauty, these signs and discourses have consequences for the individuals who are exposed to them (Tiggemann and Zaccardo, 2015). They affect both women and men[6] (Aziz, 2017). The platform, which plays a role in propagating negative stereotypes, contributes to people’s sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies (Albermann, 2022), to eating disorders (Frederick et al., 2017), and even to physical or mental health hazards. This is evidenced by the “thigh gap” trend, which encourages women to maintain a gap between their thighs…

However, against these glorifications of photographs of idealised bodies, other movements advocating for the acceptance and positive perception of non-standard bodies (Afful and Ricciardelli, 2015) have emerged online. This is the case with ‘Body positivity’, which, by promoting physical health rather than aesthetics, aspires to challenge dominant ideals of appearance to focus on an appreciation of the functionality and physiological state of bodies (Sastre, 2014). Sometimes minoritized because of their ethnic, social, racial, sexual, or disabling characteristics…, ‘non-standard’ bodies and physiques have taken over the social digital networks by means of hashtags such as #bodypositivity, #theysaid (a hashtag allowing victims of fatphobic harassment to share their experiences) or #celebratemysize (‘celebrate my weight’)… with a view to making themselves visible in public space. Yet, despite being a path to emancipation from hegemonic beauty diktats (Kelly and Daneshjoo, 2019), Body positivity is subject to criticism. Perceived as a movement that perpetuates the underlying problem of attention to appearance (Cohen et al., 2019), it is accused of bowing to economic issues (Cwynar-Horta, 2016) and ipso facto excluding minority bodies.

Fatphobia from a social science perspective

For several decades, a range of academic work that adopts an activist programme against discrimination experienced by fat people has been emerging. There is a growing institutionalisation of fat studies in the English-speaking social sciences (Rousseau, 2016). Inherited from cultural studies, fat studies area field of study that advocates the equality of all individuals regardless of their body shape (Rothblum, 2012) and examine, from a critical perspective, social attitudes towards body appearance. Researchers in this stream of thought conceptualise weight as a human characteristic that varies across populations. Following a postcolonial feminist approach, researchers examine attitudes towards fat people, focusing on the intersection of relations of domination in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, social class or sexual orientation (ibid.).

Although fat studies are not yet institutionalised in the French-speaking world, despite the emergence of significant works (Carof, 2021), interest in this movement is gaining legitimacy, as shown by the media success of Gabrielle Deydier’s French book On ne naît pas grosse, published in 2017. The emergence of these reflections in the academic and media spheres is contributing to a gradual awareness in the public sphere of the extent of the oppressive relationships that fat people experience.

To cite this notice:

Larochelle, Dimitra Laurence; Bourdeloie, Hélène: “La Grossophobie”. Dictionnaire du genre en traduction / Dictionary of Gender in Translation / Diccionario del género en traducción. Trad. Adan, Nasra . ISSN: 2967-3623. Published on 13 February 2023: https://worldgender.cnrs.fr/notices/la-grossophobie/.

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Albermann, L. (2022). The Relationship between Appearance-focused Instagram Content and Body Dissatisfaction in Young Adults: The mediating Role of Self-esteem (BA thesis), University of Twente: Enschede. Access: http://essay.utwente.nl/90970/.

Aziz, J. (2017). Social Media and Body Issues in Young Adults: An Empirical Study on the influence of Instagram use on Body Image and Fatphobia in Catalan University Students, (Master’s thesis). Universitat Pompeu Fabra: Barcelona. Access: http://hdl.handle.net/10230/33255

Bourdeloie H. (2021), “Genre-s et numérique”, Publictionnaire. Encyclopaedic and critical dictionary of publics. Published online on 05 March 2021. Access: http://publictionnaire.huma-num.fr/notice/genre-s-et-numerique

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[1] This note is based on an ongoing research project on online fatphobia supported by the GIS Institut du Genre and the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord (2023-2024).

[2] Other social relationships such as age contribute to shaping representations of fatness.

[3] A person who is 170 cm tall has an ideal weight of 70 kg.

[4] This hashtag is supposed to encourage users to achieve an ideal of beauty that is based on being extremely thin and maintaining a low body weight.

[5] This hashtag aims to encourage individuals to exercise in order to sculpt a muscular and toned body.

[6] At this stage, we are not aware of any studies on the effects of fatphobic online discourse on different genders.


body, body positivisme, body positivity, fatphobia/grossophobia, Grossophobie, minority person, personne minorée, poids, weight