I was recently briefly quoted in a New York Times article called “Fighting Fat Discrimination, but Still Wanting to Lose Weight” and subtitled “Is it OK to be “body positive” while striving to be thinner?” For the record I was interviewed at length by the article’s author Abby Ellin, who was clear from the beginning exactly what kind of piece it would be. I’ve received a lot of questions about it, so I wanted to address it here.
In order to keep this post to some kind of reasonable length, I will be discussing the personal stories and the original questions of the article. I’ll leave the issues with the studies included, the misidentification and missapplication of the concepts of Size Acceptance and Body Positivity by some interview subjects, and the appalling behavior of some of the “healthcare professionals” for a possible future post.
The thing that strikes me in the opening paragraphs is how easily we blame body size for things that happen to people of all sizes. The subject wants to walk a certain distance without becoming out of breath. She wants to walk around New York City in the summer without “sweating to death.” She wants to climb Machu Pichu.
There are people of all sizes who sweat their asses off when it’s hot in NYC. There are people of all sizes who get out of breath quickly for all kinds for reasons – some of which are changeable and some of which are not.
The issue here is that if a thin person says they want to be able to climb Machu Pichu or walk farther without becoming out of breath (after being tested for underlying issues) they would be given options and programs to increase their strength and stamina. But when it’s a fat person so many people (even including doctors) go immediately to “change your body size” even though there are thin people with the same issues, and even though there are plenty of people much heavier than this woman who are marathoners and ultra-marathoners, and who’ve made bigger climbs than Machu Pichu.
Now, fitness by any definition is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely within our control, and adding healthism and ableism to fatphobia never improves the situation. Still, when it seems normal for a fat person who wants to be able to walk farther to attempt to change their body size (knowing that almost everyone gains back their weight and manygain back more than they lost,) rather than working on strength and stamina, that’s a good example of how pervasive fatphobia is and how much it hurts fat people by sending us on an endless pursuit of a smaller body instead of living our best life in the body we have.
People are allowed to do and believe what they want with their bodies – including risking their lives to be thin and blaming whatever they want for their circumstances, but those choices don’t happen in a vacuum. There is no way to promote or participate in intentional weight loss without perpetuating fatphobia, because the idea that a smaller body is a better body is at the root of weight stigma. That is a simple fact.
People are still allowed to attempt weight loss regardless of the lack of efficacy and risks involved, and power and privilege can play an important role here – thin privilege is real and, especially for those who are part of multiple marginalized communities, this may be a battle that they don’t want to fight. (Because of the intersection of fatphobia and transphobia in healthcare for example, trans people may be forced to attempt weight loss in order to be granted access to necessary healthcare procedures.) Those with more privilege are not in a place to judge those decisions.
Intentional weight loss is harmful to fat people in that it perpetuates fatphobia, there is no denying that. How much additional harm a person does depends a lot on how they choose to behave if they manage (however briefly) to move out of the oppressed group. Do they revel uncritically in their newfound thin privilege? Do they adopt the language of diet culture? Do they change the story of who they were when they were co-opting Size Acceptance language, now aligning themselves with the demands of diet culture that they renounce their formerly fat body – moving from “body-positive” to “body negative” in a single bound?
Do they gleefully post before and after pictures (making it clear that they always believed that a thinner body was a better body)? Do they brag about doing things like shopping in “normal clothing stores,” abandoning the principles of size inclusion and the people who can’t shop there with them? Do they accept praise from those who were committed to shaming, stigmatizing, bullying, and oppressing them until their demands – that this person become less than they were – were met? (The people who will continue to mistreat others in the group that this person has, at least temporarily, moved out of.)
There are people who have chosen to do the difficult and painful work of liberating themselves from diet culture – to not risk their lives and quality of life with dangerous surgeries and diets. The Size Acceptance community is a social justice community that has limited resources with which to fight the crushing oppression of global weight stigma. As such, we can and should have spaces absolutely free of weight loss talk, that do not offer support or resources to those attempting weight loss.
So for people to insist that they should be allowed to use those spaces for comfort and safety – co-opting Size Acceptance language and using limited community resources -while they desperately try to move themselves out of the oppressed group (by supporting diet culture, which is at the root of our oppression) is an issue – especially since the people in Size Acceptance community who deal with multiple marginalizations are often the ones who are the most harmed by fatphobia and weight loss talk in these spaces, and weight stigma in the world.
It’s also an issue for foks to publicly, uncritically, embrace their personal weight loss attempt and still claim to be Size Acceptance activists. If someone doesn’t want to be fat (in some cases, is willing to risk their life to be less fat,) it’s difficult for them to advocate effectively for fat-positivity.
To me as a queer woman, it feels a bit like someone coming into a queer-positive group and insisting that it is their right to discuss and get support for their desire to become ex-gay, to use the group’s work and resources and co-opt the group’s queer-positive language all the while claiming to be a queer-positive activist.
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ONLINE WORKSHOP: Talking Back To Fatphobia
We’ll discuss options for dealing with the fatphobia that we face as we navigate the world – from responses that encourage a dialog, to responses that encourage people to leave us TF alone, with lots of time for Q&A and a pay-what-you-can option.
Details and Registration: https://danceswithfat.org/workshop-talking-back-to-fatphobia/
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