THEY LIVE: Internalized Oppression As a Side Effect of External Oppression

“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor that is planted deep within each of us.” – Audre Lord

Melissa Toler and Isabel Foxen Duke recently wrote brilliant articles that touched on the subject of internalized oppression. In sociology and psychology, internalized oppression is a phenomenon in which members of marginalized and oppressed groups begin to use the oppressor’s methods against themselves. For instance, a member of a marginalized group will begin to believe negative stereotypes of him- or herself, and those stereotypes become a part of this individual’s negative self-talk and personal beliefs.

I’m sure so many of you can relate to believing that your body isn’t good enough and that you need to change it. You’ve been programmed to believe that you need a tighter, firmer, smaller body.

Are you familiar with the term “socialization?” Socialization refers to the life-long process of learning to behave in a manner that is acceptable to society. We have been socialized (by advertisements, media, fitspo, diet talk and fat phobic messages) into thinking that it’s normal to dedicate the majority of our “time and emotional energy” to being smaller. In other words, we’ve been brainwashed by environmental messages.

From Isabel Foxen Duke “Intro to Body Image Work:”

Internalized oppression is why the diet-industry is so profitable, and has grown so rapidly over the past several decades—it is essentially, our commitment to pleasing our oppressors; our agreement that we are not good enough the way we are; our belief that we must tireless work to achieve thinness, or perform “correct eating” or else . . .

That being said, combatting internalized oppression comes with it’s own unique challenges in that—by definition— we don’t always see fatphobic messages as oppression, but rather believe these narratives to be fundamental truth. Challenging these messages (that is, coming up with the counter-arguments to these messages) is where the help of a trained professional or trusted advocate can be helpful, specifically someone with education in size justice issues.

As Duke says, a major challenge to fighting internalized oppression includes the fact that we often take fat phobic messages at face value. We don’t see through the messages, or challenge them or question them. We merely swallow the oppression and give it life inside of us. How can we deprogram our internalized oppression if we fail to recognize the toxic messages that we consume via social media, social interactions, magazines, television, billboards, etc.?

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could simply put on a pair of sunglasses that allowed us to see the subliminal messages hidden behind every magazine, billboard, TV commercial and Instagram account? Wouldn’t it be cool if these glasses allowed us to see the ill-intentioned, powerful members of society–the ones who deliberately manipulate the masses for their financial gain–for who they really are?


For now, let’s slip into the world of science fiction–a world in which skeleton-faced aliens walk among us, intent to dominate our world. For those of you who have seen John Carpenter’s satirical film, They Live (1988), you may recognize this story line. As I watched it last night, I found myself in awe at how eerily relevant this horror/sci-fi film is.

Here’s a brief synopsis: A drifter discovers that the rich and powerful ruling class are skeleton-faced aliens, concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo via subliminal messages in mass media. This drifter stumbles across special sunglasses, which allow him to see the subliminal messages that surround him.

A billboard, which ordinarily displays a slender and bikini-clad woman, screams ”marry and reproduce” whenever he wears the sunglasses. The newspapers and magazines bear messages, such as ”consume,” “conform,” “do not question authority,” “stay asleep,” “buy,” “spend money” and “obey.” Dollar bills actually say, ”This Is Your God.” What’s more, the glasses enable the drifter to see the true identify of the rich and powerful members of society. Wearing the sunglasses, he recognizes that these people are skeleton-faced ghouls, who spread their toxic messages everywhere they go. Watch this this scene.


The people in this film are “living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep.” I couldn’t help but associate this state of consciousness with the state so many of us are in when we have not yet rebelled against diet culture. Like Toler states in her article on The Health At Every Size® Blog, we live in a “racist, patriarchal, capitalist” culture in which the subliminal messages in our environment include the ones featured in the They Live movie, PLUS “stay small” and “hate yourself.”

I feel that once we have immersed ourselves in the Health At Every Size® (HAES) movement, we too have stumbled across these special sunglasses that allow us to see through the metric crapload of bullshit that our culture attempts to ingrain in us. When we have accepted the truth of HAES, we can finally become aware of the manipulation and injustice that is rampant in our culture.


We have a 65 billion dollar diet industry that attempts to convince us that dollar bills are our gods. Why do you think that individuals are penalized in a myriad of settings, including the workplace, healthcare facilities and educational institutions? One study showed that “very thin” women earned $22,283 more than women of average weight, and that “very heavy” women earned $18,902 less than women of average weight. In this money-hungry culture, extra weight costs extra dollars, and when we agree to accept this discrimination and refuse to question authority, we please our oppressors . . . we please our skeleton-faced authority figures. Like Toler brilliantly says, “diet culture dishonors our humanity by demanding perfection, undermining body autonomy, overriding our body wisdom, and ignoring body diversity.”

It’s time that ALL OF US put on our metaphorical sunglasses and SEE that our external environment is designed to brainwash us into hating not only our bodies, but also hating other people’s bodies if they do not measure up to our culture’s beauty ideals. Our society persuades us into purchasing any diet plan, diet pill, diet book and/or exercise plan so that we can invest our valuable time and energy into staying small and remaining subservient.

WAKE UP! The second we stop accepting our culture’s subliminal (and explicit) messages at face value, we can begin to disable the power of our external and internal oppressors. Unfollow and unsubscribe from fitspo social media accounts, weight-biased websites and magazines. We don’t need anyone to tell what to eat or how to exercise. That’s what our inner wisdom (our cravings, our hunger and fullness signals, our bodies’ desires to rest or move, etc.) is for.

If you are struggling to trust your body’s signals and reject diet culture, I encourage you to find a HAES-informed professional who can help you learn to accept your body and unlearn the diet mentality. Immerse yourself in the HAES and body positive movements. Here are some awesome books, blogs, online communities, people to follow and podcasts to help get you started in creating your own special anti-diet culture sunglasses:

DO NOT obey!!!!

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