[TW: fat-shaming, smoker-shaming (is that even a thing? Google doesn’t think so…)]
NB: I am using the terms fat and fatty in a personally nonjudgmental way, because I think euphemisms are annoying and obscure the point. I use the term fatty (meaning “a fat person”) exclusively in conjunction with words like “shaming” or “persecution,” but I do refer to overweight people as fat people – I am aware that fat can be a very loaded term, and I am not deploying it unmindfully, but at least in my brain fat people is a less pejorative designation than obese people.
My first post was going to be about sexual violence and rape culture, but it’s difficult to write, and I read something today that I feel compelled to respond to, mostly to work out what I think, and perhaps stir up discussion that will make me think deeper.
Today, I was reading Fannie’s Room archives when I came across an article from October 2010 entitled “Stuff Progressives Do: Use Very Edgy Rhetorical Devices (That Marginalize the Marginalized).” I’m totally with her that marginalizing the marginalized is not okay, even if you identify as part of a marginalized group as well. And I want to state very strongly also that I’m severely not cool with fat-shaming, taunting, and the media’s portrayal of thin-as-good and fat-as-lazy-and-bad. I have fat friends and skinny friends and friends in between, and they’re all pretty even on the jerks:sweethearts and genius:idiot ratios. I do not think in any way that it’s appropriate to judge someone’s moral character or personality by their physical appearance, including weight (although I do admit to a bias towards assuming that thin women are mean. I’m working on it!).
On a personal note, I rank at obese on the BMI, although I’m 6′ tall and have shoulders as broad as my dad’s, so saying I’m “big-boned” is not a euphemism. I’ve also been called “hippo” and “elephant,” and usually do feel like a bull in a china shop. I’ve wanted my whole life to be thinner, and even at most dedicated, eating smaller, healthier meals and exercising every day, not much of the weight came off. I’ve hovered around the same proportions ever since I got my breasts, and I’m becoming mostly okay with that.
However, I am uncomfortable with the narrative of the Shakesville post quoted in the post on Fannie’s Room (this is a post about many posts):
“‘Anti-obesity’ will remain functionally indistinguishable from ‘anti-obese person.’
How about an ‘anti high-fructose corn syrup’ campaign? How about an ‘anti feeding families shitty food is cheaper than feeding families healthy food’ campaign? How about an ‘anti farm subsidies’ campaign?”
While I think it is sadly true that anti-obesity campaigns do give a message that ends up with people linking a moral value to weight, I don’t think that anti-obesity campaigns are inappropriate things for the country to have, and I don’t think in and of themselves they constitute fatty-persecution. I have no idea how or if we could ever decouple efforts to reduce the rates of obesity from fat-shaming. Human nature being what it is, I doubt it. But it is not true that all fat people cannot lose weight if they exercise and eat a healthy diet of appropriate portions, and I do not think that fat:skinny as queer:straight, as woman:man, and whatever other identity juxtapositions you might have. (I point out that the Shakesville post does not make this comparison and I am not claiming it does.)
For some people, who are fat and cannot lose weight no matter the diet and exercise, and some people choose to be overweight and/or are comfortable with their fat bodies (power to them!), and there are fat fit people, I would say that the fat:skinny::marginalized:marginalizer analogy is valid (I am anti-fat-shaming, remember?) I would also argue that for many situations, an analogy to smokers and non-smokers is more apt.
Yes, someone else being fat does not give me lung cancer, but it doesn’t encourage me to eat healthy amounts and foods or exercise. I’ve had friends who flat-out told me to eat more so they don’t feel bad about the amount they are consuming, as if my portion size was a tactic I was using to shame them. Obesity, and particularly morbid obesity, are concretely and scientifically linked to health risks, especially when they correlate, as they often do, with lack of exercise and unhealthy diet. Obesity does put a strain on our healthcare system. My parents are both doctors, and I cannot tell you the number of times they have come home frustrated because their patients or patients of friends and colleagues have come in to get expensive medications for medical conditions for which weight reduction is a much more effective and safe remedy or treatment. These were patients that repeatedly ignored the doctors’ instructions to watch their diets and exercise. Our health care system could save millions of dollars, and probably no few lives, by putting a little more effort into preventative care like encouraging healthy diet and exercise. I met a heart specialist once who was morbidly obese and rode around on a scooter. He was a colleague of my mother’s, if I remember correctly, and people around the hospital had attempted multiple times to bring up his deteriorating health, but he ignored them. He did not have any disabilities or health conditions that caused his obesity, but he did have several conditions as a result of his lifestyle and obesity.
Frankly, it reminds me of smokers. If I had a dollar for every time someone came up to me and said “Don’t smoke, smoking is bad for you, god are you stupid?” (REALLY? I HAD NO IDEA! OH GOD YOU SAVED MY LIFE THANK YOU THANK YOU!), or stole my cigarette, or chopped my cigarette in half with scissors while I was smoking it, or poured a beer into my cigarette pack, I would have enough to buy myself a really nice piece of jewelry (I was only a smoker for five years, among a mostly smoker-neutral population, or I would have more). Honestly, it was bizarre sometimes, but understandable. Even when I was angry about the smoker-shaming and the direct ruining of my personal property, I did understand that these people were acting out of concern for my well-being. I didn’t (and wouldn’t, if I were still a smoker) mind not being allowed to smoke indoors, I didn’t mind people asking me not smoke around them – I think that’s totally appropriate, because second-hand smoking is harmful, people are allergic, and to some it just smells really bad. Of course proximity to fat people is not like second-hand smoke, I’m just pointing out that a majority of people think it’s appropriate to legislate to that degree on one threat to public health, but even a non-legislative anti-obesity campaign directly fatty-shames? There has to be a difference between fat-shaming (which is what people do when they take an anti-obesity campaign and draw a moral conclusion about fatness) and working to get people to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy weight. Just like there’s a difference between making laws about where someone can smoke or putting warnings on cigarette packages and berating me verbally and destroying my cigarettes.
Now, there are always going to be a set of people, I think, who will smoke. Similarly, there will always be a portion of the population who are fat. However, anti-smoking campaigns and smoking laws have raised a lot of awareness and convinced a lot of people who are capable that they should quit smoking. Legislation relating to obesity issues should always be directed at companies that make unhealthy food, schools that take away recess time, and other institutions that create an environment that promotes unhealthy lifestyles, but anti-obesity campaigns can make a difference and have a place, just like anti-smoking campaigns.
While fatty-shaming is much more widespread and vicious than smoker-shaming, I think the point stands: not-fatty-shaming should not mean that we condone obesity and do nothing to combat it. Melissa McEwan writes:
“How about an ‘anti high-fructose corn syrup’ campaign? How about an ‘anti feeding families shitty food is cheaper than feeding families healthy food’ campaign? How about an ‘anti farm subsidies’ campaign?”
Now, I would be totally down with all of those – but the fact remains that, while not all fat people are unhealthy, many are, and the fat is part of the problem. Addressing obesity directly allows the campaign to address multiple causes of obesity under one umbrella. “Anti bad diet and sitting around all the time watching TV” campaign isn’t really a very good title. And I think childhood obesity is a huge problem, because these are kids, not adults, who are dependent on their parents and/or caregivers to provide them with food, who need to go out and exercise and play but aren’t given the message (and sadly, sometimes, the safe spaces) to do so. I would say that sitting back while your child becomes obese is in the same family with smoking around your child – while body sizes and weights will naturally vary, what we’re seeing is not healthy metabolic differences between individuals but societal trends. And seriously, if you think we don’t need to keep people fit so we can have an army that is full of people at the necessary fitness level to do their jobs, you are far, far more optimistic about the future than I am.
I had a friend who was fat, in particular had the belly fat associated with higher risks of obesity-related diseases, and developed Type 2 diabetes, and told me he had diabetes over a giant plate of cheese and gravy fries, but it was “okay” because he was just going to “inject a little more insulin and I’ll be fine.” After that, when we met up for meals, I tried my best to choose restaurants or cook meals that were smaller portions of healthy things, but he eventually got angry at me for doing this, insisting that he would just regulate his diabetes with his medication and changing his diet was “too much hassle” and “unnecessary,” although finances were not an issue for him.
So, while I agree with Fannie and Melissa McEwan that fatty-shaming/bullying and fatty-hating culture is undeniably wrong, (and with Fannie that Tisinai’s “satire” was horrible, because fatty-shaming does play a role in suicides, even if Michelle Obama’s not responsible) it’s a bit…I can’t think of the word I want, but I think it goes too far to argue that anti-obesity campaigns are persecution and shouldn’t exist. I think we need them, I think they are appropriate, and I don’t think that they use the label anti-obesity purely to save the feelings of the corporations and business interests behind unhealthy foods and industries that promote sedentary activities (though we could certainly use a big healthy dose of corporation-shaming, could we not?). There is a difference between saying fat people are worthy and valuable and saying that excess fat is worthy and valuable.
All that said, I’m totally open to other opinions, discussion, and even accusations of inaccuracy/insensitivity. Just be polite, hey? Little Waving Adipose begs you to be civil.