Monday, May 21, 2012

Two Fat People Walk Into A Bar...

...and they, too, participate in the cultural narrative of fat shame feeling both apologetic and defensive about their bodies.

Ba dum cha! ...Not funny? Yeah, I don't think so either. 

There's been a couple of really great pieces on fatness recently that I wanted to highlight. The first is by Brian Stuart, in which he discusses "fat isolation." Melissa McEwan wrote a really lovely follow up about how one can be a good thin friend to fat people. (Her piece goes into great detail about this topic, but I'm going to focus on the part that is about fat-on-fat hate.)

I highly suggest you check them both out, but here are my favorite parts. From Stuart:
In a culture of external and internal fat hatred, there is no real solidarity among fat people. Well, at least not any fat positive solidarity. There can be "solidarity" in apologetic fatness, but can such self-blaming commiseration really be seen as solidarity? Bonding in self-loathing is what has been prescribed to us by a fat shaming culture, but what about bonding through encouragement? Well, there are risks there. You see an awesome fattie out on the street and maybe you want to say "yay!" but what if they respond with embarrassment or resentment? Most of the fat people I see and interact with in my life would reject any kind of affirmational solidarity. Many would be outright offended by it! 
And McEwan:
Some of the most vicious fat-shaming ever directed at me has been by fat people who just weren't as fat as me, and boy howdy was their fragile self-esteem wrapped up in simply not being the fattest person in the room. And fat people even have their own special narratives of shaming one another, like the old "at least I'm proportionately fat!" chestnut, used to shame anyone whose fat body is fatter on the bottom, or on top, or in the torso, or the limbs, or some variation on failing to be a perfectly plump version of a thin person.
Their experiences ring so true for me.  To Stuart's point: how can there be a really prideful sense of solidarity when fat people's bodies are so shamed that most fat people feel really shitty about their membership in this particular in group? It's absolutely a conundrum. I mean, really, how can a fat person provide solidarity/support to another person who 1) might be extremely embarrassed about their bodies 2) not consider themselves in this group and/or be upset about you considering them in this group 3) have deeply internalized fat hate? As we are all taught, one of the worst things you can call a person is "fat" in our society. So you can't exactly go around welcoming others into the fat club without a whole lot of, as Stuart says, offense, resentment, and embarrassment--all stemming from the stigma and shame of fatness.

And it's that same shame that leads to the situation McEwan described where individuals are so excited to not be the fattest person in the room and they put down bodies whose proportions are different from their own. I'm pretty sure we've all heard it before. Someone is insecure about their own size so they say something to the effect of, "Well I'm not skinny but at least I can get up the stairs without getting out of breath" or "Thank goodness I can still shop in regular stores" or "I'd never let myself get that big." There's also the "If I did it anyone can!" mentality of people who have lost weight, the expectation being that if they wanted to and were able to change their bodies, then everyone else should and can do so as well.

All of this, of course, is due to the fact that we live in a culture which still highly prizes thinness and expects women, in particular, to derive their self worth from their looks. So someone can gain points by positioning themselves as at least closer to this ideal than someone else and becomes threatened when another fat person feels commonality with them.

I can admit that I've found myself embroiled in these situations--and I've been on both sides of the equation. I work to shed the internalized shame I've picked up about my body and it's a daily process. And yet, while the instances are few and far between, I still sometimes feel surprised or embarrassed when someone "fat in-groups me" (as I'll call it.)

So how can we better manage to create environments which are more accepting of body diversity? I can't say that I have any magic solutions, but there are a few things that I try to keep in mind. I'll just put them out here in hopes that perhaps they'll be of help to someone else too:

1) I am committed to steering conversations away from negative weight talk--when someone starts to take things down the mildly fat shaming path you can tell them outright you'd prefer not to discuss weight. Not everyone is a safe ally to discuss this topic with, so sometimes I just try to change the subject. Self preservation is important, so I choose my battles carefully.

2) I will shut down fat-hate--sometimes people are just outright fatphobic, and don't have a problem revealing their biases in front of a large person. So when #1 fails, I try to let it be known that I don't agree with the things that are said. Honestly, this is sometimes as small as, "not cool" because again, it's important to take care of yourself first, and I often know that a full out discussion of this nature would not be productive. But I don't want silence to imply endorsement.

3) I try to be sensitive to where other people are--I wish we could operate in a space where everyone could see "fat" as a neutral descriptor. But most people don't. So do be mindful of how your desire to reach out to other fat people could actually be triggering and scary for them. I'm not saying they should feel this way, but as Stuart points out, many just do. Let people ease into these discussions at their own pace. I think it's possible to gently build bridges and let people know they can come to you to talk about these things in a nonthreatening way, for when they are ready.

4) I strive to derive my self-worth from different sources--like McEwan said, so often these situations involve very fragile sense of self-esteem. It's really important that we have other, non physical things, that we love about ourselves. In fact, I suggest that you engage in a whole lot of self-loveBe selfish. It can be extremely liberating.


  1. One thing I find really awkward is being seated with a group of people who discuss their weight and dieting efforts for the whole time we're there. I don't want to be the diet police and shut down their convo, but I feel left out and also rebellious. I've never quite known how to address this, especially when it's several people doing it. When I try to seize on just anything else to steer the convo away from weight and dieting, it drifts back again.

    1. Yeah, I'm not sure how you can deal w/ that. Luckily, in my social circle, I'm rarely the only person present who's not into dieting/weight obsession, so I can break off into a side convo.

      Unfortunately, there's in most situations, women receive a lot of positive feedback for engaging in these types of discussions, especially among people who haven't really thought critically about these issues. Have you ever been in a situation where everyone breaks into "I hate my ____" and you're just supposed to talk bad about your body too? I hate that as well.

  2. Have I referred you to my friend's awesome project about being fat? (Apologies if I have, I am trying to spread the word and I lose track.) I think you'd dig it!

    Interestingly, I'm looking at an ad for Gastric Bypass on your site?

    1. Looks great and I hope her project is successful.

      Yeeeeeah, the ads around here are populated by Google and as such, they can often center on some really annoying stuff. Since I blog about fatness a lot, those words trigger weight loss products to show up. I try to manage what I can. I've also had this lovely gem:

      I believe that my work has a value, no matter how small, so I wanted to include ads as a way for at least a little compensation. But oh how I hate when they undermine my message.


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