Why do we love fat cats and dogs but discriminate against fat people?

The internet loves a chonky boy — unless he's an actual boy, in which case the internet would like him to know about the risks of diabetes, thank you.
Image: Jennifer Steketee
Santa Fe Animal Shelter veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Steketee holds Meow, a 2-year-old tabby at the shelter in Santa Fe, N.M. on April 19, 2012.Ben Swan / Santa Fe Animal Shelter via AP file
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By F. Diane Barth, psychotherapist

An odd contradiction has snuck into public view. Many people feel free to criticize anyone in the public eye (or out) who is seemingly above a certain BMI (even though that’s a poor stand-in for health) — just look at anything from President Trump publicly fat-shaming one of his own supporters at a rally to Jillian Michaels concern trolling Lizzo’s health because of her weight. But at the same time, we are all making goo-goo eyes at pictures of obese animals.

Cats, dogs, hamsters, raccoons, penguins and even a small owl so fat that she couldn’t fly have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media sites. So what makes us love looking at fat animals but so hostile to bigger humans? And is there a connection between the two?

Psychotherapists have long recognized that one of the reasons that humans derive such comfort from pets is that we attribute to them many of the loving, gentle and kind emotions we long for — but don’t always receive — from other humans. We call dogs our “best friends,” we see puppies and kittens seen as innocent and loving and we assure ourselves that the love of an animal is both pure and unselfish.

Even when we put an animal on a diet, we feel sympathy for them. “Poor thing,” one friend said about her dog, who was under a veterinarian’s order to lose weight. “She looks at me with such sad eyes, I feel like I’m being cruel when I don’t feed her more. She doesn’t understand.” We identify with a kind of sweet innocence in our pets — even when they’re trying to manipulate us into giving them more food.

When I asked Cynthia Medalie, a fellow psychotherapist and dog-lover in New York City, about the phenomenon, she said, “We tend to project our best selves onto our animals. We see in them the love and goodness that we don’t always allow ourselves to put out into the world.”

“And,” she added, “since we see that in them, we can be our best selves with them in return: We can give them the love and tenderness that we sometimes can’t give to other people.”

Meanwhile, fatness has been given many external meanings in our culture. Great Barrington, Massachusetts psychotherapist Claire Rosenberg reminded me that, in common vernacular, a “fat cat” is a wealthy, powerful person with everything going for them — a holdover from a time when only the wealthy could afford to be obese, whereas, in the modern age, our food system and tertiary economy increasingly mean that only the well-to-do can truly afford to be thin. So maybe we imagine these overly chubby animals as representing wealth, contentment and self-satisfaction — qualities we might long for and, even somewhere deep inside, secretly believe that we, too, feel.

But in our culture, we also have many negative feelings about the causes of people’s weight and obesity, which we project onto fat animals’ owners. Even on sites intended to allow people to coo at chubby cats, some viewers have expressed outrage at the owners who they believe overfeed their darlings — even though the causes of a pet’s obesity might be as complex as a human’s.

And, of course, there are sites specifically dedicated to the effort to help pet owners with weight reduction-plans for their pets, since, as numerous concerned pet owners and vets tell us, fat animals may not be healthy animals.

So there’s a conflict between what one writer calls two competing truths: on the one hand, we think fat cats are adorable and, on the other, we worry that their excess weight might be harming them — and we look for someone to blame for being insufficiently disciplined in a fat animal's care, just as we tend to make moral judgments about overweight people.

Jean Petrucelli, the director of the Eating Disorders, Compulsions & Addictions Service of The William Alanson White Institute in New York City, told me that we do attribute (sometimes without thinking about it) a dark side to obese animals. She said that “people gawk at things they feel horrified about and often can’t look away — our society has new rules for what is considered scandalous and what is normative — and the ante keeps getting upped.” We don’t just think fat animals are cute — even if they are — but part of the attraction to stories about them is that we are scandalized by the humans who “allowed” them to get that way.

It seems like, in the end, our attraction to stories about fat pets is just another facet of our outrage and public shaming of the people who we consider to be fat, based on our projections about fatness. As fatness has increasingly been attainable by the middle class and then the poor, we have increasingly attached negative qualities to first fatness and then to the people who are fat, eventually criticizing them for being something we either ignore or don’t like (or wouldn’t like) in ourselves.

And, increasingly, we fat-shame out of so-called concern for another person’s health, as fitness guru Michaels did with Lizzo and as people do with fat animals, in part because we feel like we’re safely discussing our negative feelings about someone else’s body rather than projecting bad feelings about ourselves.

But whether you’re in love with pictures of fat animals or repelled by them, whether you think it’s good to celebrate all of our bodies or think it’s only okay to like thin ones, remember the old maxim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not what you see that causes your feelings; it’s what the images represent to you.