I guess I need to put the disclaimer right up front.
In this post, I talk about my personal reaction to fat politics and the fat acceptance movement. I take examples of what self-proclaimed fat activists have written, and I tell you my reactions to their ideas. In no way is anything here meant to be a personal attack on fat girls, fat boys or even the idea that you can be fit or happy while being fat. I think you can be happy being fat (and unhappy being skinny) but the fat movement brings up a lot of questions for me, and I don’t love the answers.
Last week I watched the episode of Insight looking at fat politics, entitled Fat Fighters. I don’t often enjoy Insight, but this was a topic fairly close to my heart. As usual, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with how the program dealt with the issues. But leaving that aside, I want to talk a bit about fat activism and fat sympathizers.
The ideas floating around the fat blogosphere key off the concepts used to describe other forms of oppression – race, gender, sexual orientation. The discourse goes “I am fat, the media portrays fat as a negative, people at disgusted by my body, therefore I am oppressed by society. If only we learned to accept our fat,and teach others to accept our fat, we would be happy”.
But being fat is not the same as being a woman. You aren’t born fat – you become fat and you continue to be fat. To some extent being fat is a choice – for some it is a deliberate choice to gain weight every day, for others it is a choice of omission. By failing to restrict food intake and exercise adequately, you become fat. This is probably why so many people equate ‘fat’ to ‘failing to care for your body’. Being fat indicates that you are over eating, or under-exercising, and some people see that as a deliberate failing.
I say this as someone who was fat until, oh, 6 months ago when I started to exercise in ernest. I had exercised previously, but never made a dent in my weight, and contented myself with being somewhat fitter, if not thinner. When I honestly examine my attempts at exercise – I know I fell short. I never worked as hard as I could have. And I ate back all the calories I expended in exercising, plus more on top. I made excuses for myself, and I undermined any success I had.
I was never happy being fat, but I was happy otherwise. I didn’t let my body hold me back from doing what I wanted to do. I have never been particularly interested in sports, and so being fat suited me and my lifestyle.
But I look at posts like this one by Renee Tessiere, and it is impossible to think this woman is happy with her life. She mind-reads, she hears people commenting about her, she avoids eating while in public because she fears judgement. But fat politics tells us that Renee’s anxiety is caused by society’s lack of fat acceptance and rather than being a product of her own mind.
I really question this. If someone is so anxiety-ridden that they can’t go to a shopping mall without hearing the thoughts of others play inside their head, then they need to stop and address whatever is making them anxious. Is that anxiety caused by other people not accepting fat, or is it caused by the fat person internalising fat-hatred and assuming that other people hate fat? I think it is the latter.
So if you are unhappy being fat, what do you do?
Lots of the fat activists make it out that all you need to do is accept yourself as a fat person, and make peace with your fat to be happy. Kate Harding says we are kidding ourselves with fantasies like these:
When I’m thin, I’ll have no trouble finding a partner/reinvigorating my marriage.
When I’m thin, I’ll have the job I’ve always wanted.
When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.
But she goes on to conclude that the answer to overcoming this type of thinking is to just accept being fat and revel in it. Anyone who is saying “I need X in order for my life to begin” is making excuses not to live – whether X is thinness, a husband, a car, a great job or whatever. As the Beatles said “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”. However I think Kate is substituting hatred of fat with love of fat – she is still obsessed with fat and body image.
Kate even says
even after I’d gotten thin once, found myself just as depressive and scattered and frustrated as always
. She is unhappy – and weight isn’t the problem, but she still sees it s the problem. But now she rejects thinness as her panacea, and instead says the problem is with society not accepting her fatness. She reverses the way she thinks about her fat, but still sees it as the problem. Kate touches on the real issue with this gem
the Fantasy of Being Thin … is about becoming an entirely different person
But instead of working to change herself, she insists that her unhappiness is due to a lack of fat acceptance by herself and society. Instead of digging deep, we get a shallow analysis and the unsurprising reversal of thought, from “being fat is a problem” to “I refuse to acknowledge any problems with being fat”.
The mind of the fat activist is full of thoughts about fat. They are the ones who care about fat and casting every action as a fat rebellion. “What does ‘society’ say about fat, what names are people calling me as I waddle down the street, can people see my bottom jiggle?” I read fat activist blogs and all I see is a victim mentality.
Dr Charlotte Cooper demonstrates this beautifully in her post about media stitch ups. While she claims to be a smart woman, she details several occasions where the media have taken advantage of her and made her fat politics into a joke. (Sorry I have very little sympathy for anyone who is still naive about the British media machine). Dr Cooper is a victim. A big, fat victim. I feel for anyone who can take this image of themselves and see it as an image of power. Dr Cooper’s eyes are downcast, as though in shame. Her body is plastered with signifiers of reclaimed shame – her fat, her homosexuality, her limp hair all challenge us to declare her ugly, so the sympathetic creature within us declares her beautiful instead. Her zines are supposedly being drawn forth from her c*** (or so she says) rather than from her head. She reduces herself to a body, a shamed body, denying her intelligence and creativity with this photo. By publishing this, Dr Cooper participates in the politics of reducing fat people, women and gays to the functions of their bodies – the very thing that she complains about ‘society’ doing to her.
(And to top it off, she is “… really depressed by comments here referring to jealousy of my body,”. Really? Learn to take a complement! Learn to take a little fun in life! Something tells me that ‘society’ isn’t what’s making Dr Charlotte Cooper unhappy.)
I supposed I’m just no longer interested in reducing women to their body parts. I am past the politics of making women identify themselves with their bodies, and only their bodies. Women need to stop being complicit in these politics that value bodies over minds, that value states of being (fat) over the capacity to create change.
I guess its not just women. Men are getting into fat politics too, but the women are what really interest me. As a woman on the tail end of feminist politics, I’m familiar with the ways women are cast (by themselves and others) within political dialogues. I’m familiar with the ways we analyse and analyse and analyse the world, and always end up the victim. Smart feminists end up over-worked, confused and completely paralyzed by over-analysis of every aspect of their lives. Not to mention the continual need to cast women into the role of victim in order to validate the continued existence of feminism itself.
So no, I don’t agree that fat people are victims (any more than other people are victims). Very thin people also get comments about their weight. Very tall and very ugly people also get comments about their appearance. If you want to talk about me when I walk down the street, that’s your choice. But I choose what I take on board. I choose how I react & whether I internalise what others chuck at me. Some people are rude and ill-cultured. So what? Some people are lovely when you give them a chance.
People are amazing. They have the capacity to be many different things to different people, and the create sweeping changes over a lifetime. So why fixate on identifying with a body type & a BMI, and building your identity around the premise that you are a victim because you’re fat? You may change one day. Society is changing right now – populations are getting fatter, magazines are slowly becoming more inclusive of bigger body types – hey how long has it been since Rosanne started on tv?
Oh wait, the fat politics tells us that diets don’t work, so you are best off not even trying to lose weight. So you accept that fat is great, that you will never be thin (or possibly you will, but only for a fleeting moment). You build your life around being fat. You accumulate fat friends. You create an attitude of confrontation toward anyone who isn’t in the fat club. That just reinforces what you expect – that non-fat people don’t enjoy your company and you are better off socializing within the fat fraternity. What do you do when your fat friend says she wants to lose weight? Are you supportive? Or do you tell her she has been brainwashed by the media? I really disagree with any politic that requires you to commit to a particular state of being… forever.
Hey, maybe I just fear commitment.