The following is a guest post by Kelly Hogaboom who writes and tweets with great wit and candour about rad stuff like feminism, non-punitive parenting, body image, cooking and sewing, life and love (and much else besides).
These days I’m a pretty hearty soul. I have a fair degree of equanimity that has been hard-won. Still, I’m only human. And as I pen this I’ve just returned from a lunch date with old family friends. I found myself, quite suddenly, stuck in a corner (literally and figuratively) while these old friends argued toward me about
If you’ve spent any time in the social wellbeing or social justice spheres you might have a more nuanced view than the mainstream media regarding: obesity (childhood and “regular”, ha), “healthy” food, and epicurean snobbery waged against the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. I hardly blame anyone who might read Michelle Alison’s piece, linked above, and find their belief system challenged – after all, most conventional wisdom out there is full of ableism, orthorexia, classism, adultism and mommy-shaming -
and more important to me, at root really, a profound lack of compassion and open-mindedness.
This conversation was no different. Within seconds I heard about “personal responsibility”, people who “sit around all day feeling bad about themselves and playing video games”, and the cheapness of whole grains – all this and more by a group of middle-class people eating a fifteen-dollar-a-plate meal of cheesy pizza, salads loaded with ranch dressing, and pop. I should note the video game comment was uttered by a man who misheard my mention of the [US] “Farm Bill”
as FarmVille – and who admitted he didn’t know what the Farm Bill is.
It would almost be funny if it wasn’t such tired, depressing, and well-trod ground.
Never lost on me is sameness of the script with which some of these parties speak. They will often cite a female ancestor who supposedly fed an entire family on just pennies and fed the neighborhood besides. They often require those the most marginalized or disadvantaged to eat and live a certain way, and be exposed to scrutiny and lectures they themselves do not practice nor endure. During one such conversation a friend of mine, a mother of one and an at-home wife to a man earning six figures, espoused the economy of beans and apples while slicing into the peanut butter pie made with full-fat organic ingredients and Gran Marnier (I shouldn’t have to tell you she underquoted the price of bulk beans and apples… because she doesn’t have to know those prices, naturally).
These conversations have thus far broken my heart but never more so than today, given I work quite regularly with recovering alcoholics and addicts and I see the hard work that goes into survival – and I hear the experiences of low-self worth they’ve often internalized. Many of those I work with got life’s start in the most profoundly disadvantaged circumstances (poverty, abuse of all horrific varieties, neglect from parent/carer, etc), and who today are working against many odds and in a temporary or semi-permanent state of Survival Mode – making the meetings that sustain them, shuffling court dates and problems with the law and job re-training, all while living on a fraction of what my partner earns and without an at-home partner (like myself) to soak those beans and slice those apples and knead that bread. (The confidentiality of this volunteer work is sacrosanct enough that, even writing off my home blog, the circumstances of my small-town dictates I don’t cite too many specifics.)
Suffice to say I am regularly exposed to and work hand-in-hand helping these individuals (I am a recovering alcoholic as well) – not all of whom can’t afford expensive food – and I see them as Human Beings doing their best – after all, longterm recovery from addiction and alcoholism is Personal Responsibility at a profoundly deep level. To think of the casual hate these people endure when standing in line with their packets of ten cent Top Ramen or with a bag of Arby’s for dinner just sucks.
Now, I’m not saying anyone at the table today was particularly hateful. It’s just, despite hearing these kinds of vitriolic arguments in public spaces and online I was still, somehow, caught off-guard to hear these thoughts echoed by my friends. I let myself get sucked into an argument I’ve in the past found deeply unproductive. Was it wrong I spoke up about my practice of compassion, and from my direct experiences working directly with those living on cheap food? No. Where I went wrong was to forget a lesson I’ve been served before: you cannot argue compassion into someone.
You cannot argue compassion into someone.
What can I do next time, besides committing this lesson to memory? Well, in my best self I would have retained a curiosity as to why these people felt so angry about those who “eat unhealthy”. I would have listened a bit more and been less quick to talk. Yes, I may think I know why these people said the same things I’ve heard so many times before, but today I didn’t ask questions but rather assumed The Usual Suspects: a buy-into the prevalent spiritual and emotional formations of Scarcity, the myth of the United States as a meritocracy, the desire to Other those less fortunate and therefore operate on a false sense of security, and perhaps the injudicious consumption of mainstream media with it’s obsessive and unproductive riverflow of War on Obesity rhetoric. Yeah, I might be most the way right about what I was hearing, but now I do not know if I was correct or incorrect – because I did not listen.
As an epilogue: I did end up feeling a bit better shortly after this lunch gone awry. Back in the car with just my own children I felt rattled for a moment as I turned over my engine. But sitting for a minute the deepest experience of gratitude washed over me, because I have a few assets: including my two children and the human beings they’ve evidenced themselves to be. They are, today, entirely generous, whip-smart, and so incredibly less likely than I to let others’ angst affect their values and their practice of love. It might sound like I’m veering into bragging about my parenting; I’m not. My children and their compassion aren’t supplied here to justify my performance as a mother – I am relating that they give me a great deal of hope. They are two human beings who evidence great intelligence, a desire for right speech, a commitment to friendship, and, often, a peace that passes human understanding.
Two human beings who, today, hug my drug-addict friends and my middle-class grouchy foodies – beings who all suffer in their own ways – with earnestness, deep affection, and a profound spiritual centeredness.
I might not always get it right. But I have some pretty good mentors to help me along.
For those of you in Melbourne, a heads up: tomorrow night (2nd August 2011) you can come and see me (and a bunch of other rad fatties and feminists) speak about Feminism and Fat at Cherchez La Femme.
I hope you can make it, we’d love to see you!
Cross-posted at Feministe
‘Gosh, she’s sooo heavy!’ is not really an exclamation you want to hear uttered by someone as they lift your child onto their lap. Especially if that someone is loved and respected by your child and in a position to influence her. And when you are a fat mother, and a feminist, and that person is a relative (whom you love, but don’t always understand), it makes for a pretty tense moment. Which is fucked up, I realise, because my kid is heavy, and remarking on it shouldn’t be any different to remarking on her eye colour. But it is.
My daughter, for the record, is not ‘obese’ or fat. Not that I should have to state that here, since it’s not anyone’s business nor particularly relevant. (Really, I shouldn’t have to, and I’ve written and deleted that sentence multiple times, but I do state it because I know some of you are wondering and I know that, sadly, in this ridiculous climate of obesity panic and parent-blaming, it’s just going to be that way). She is, however, tall for her age and she has a large head and solid limbs. She’s strong; she has heft.
I was like that as a kid. I thought I was hu-ugely fat by the time I was a pre-teen but photographic evidence shows me that I was not. The fat came later, long after the bullying began.
People who comment on my daughter’s solidity don’t necessarily see her as fat, with all the judgement and stigma that unfortunately implies, but we know that young children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to experiencing weight messaging as a hit to their self esteem . And I know that as a fat parent, I am doubly scrutinised. The shape and weight of my child is, for some, tied directly to the strength of both my morality and my parenting skills. It’s also true that as she grows, my child will comprehend the stigma that is attached to having a body like mine and, because stigma is awful, she may fear it falling on her. Whatever kind of body she grows into, she may suffer because of other people’s lack of sensitivity and compassion, as well as the general public’s lack of real knowledge of the relationship between fat and health. That hurts to know.
I was once told that I had an obligation to become thin (as if I could just choose to be and, voila!) because my kid will grow up looking at me and thinking that fat is a way to be. As if, somehow, she would catch my fat, no matter how our family lives and eats and moves and no matter what her genetic predispositions. (This person assumed, as many do, that thin is objectively healthier and ‘better’ than fat.) Some people think children should be kept from the terrible knowledge that contented fat people exist because that would, by some sorcery, mean that the notion of fatness would never occur to them and they would always remain thin. Some people just don’t believe fat parents can possibly provide a healthy home. Some people think parents of fat children are by definition lazy or incompetent or unloving. Some people are ignorant. Some people are arseholes.
Some of those people have been in the media this past week talking about a study which, it has been widely reported, recommends that very fat children be removed from their parents and put into foster care. One of the problems with this is that the study has been widely misrepresented: have a read of this break-down by Dr Samantha Thomas if you’re interested. I’m not in the least surprised that the media haven’t been more accurate and sensitive in their handling of this ‘news story’. That’s par for the course when it comes to ‘obesity’ and they do love to parade us fatties as cautionary tales. Unfortunately, what could have been an opportunity for some serious discussions about systemic barriers to good health and the ethical problems with performing gastric banding surgery on minors, became a great big festival of fat hate with a large helping of mother blaming. Especially poor mothers, cause they’re really easy to hate on, apparently.
Opportunities for bonus misogyny aside, childhood obesity is a juicy story, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to conveniently forget the facts. In Australia at least, rates of ‘childhood obesity’ have plateaued and we’ve known that for a few years now. On the other hand, rates of body dissatisfaction and unhealthy behaviours like yo-yo dieting are increasing in young people. But it’s far easier to scapegoat parents — most often mothers who are more typically charged with cooking and shopping — than to consider some of the nuance here. There is a strong case to make for changing the story from one about ‘childhood obesity’ to one about ‘childhood poverty’ (because yeah, fat kids can be undernourished kids) but that would involve facing up to some ugly social inequality and who wants to hear about food deserts when we could see a glossy grab about how Happy Meals are killing our children, amirite?
Hyper-awareness of childhood ‘obesity’ leads to shit like the absolute violation of privacy and trust that is public weigh-ins and fat shaming in educational settings. It increases the stigmatisation and bullying of fat kids but apparently not even prominent anti-bullying advocates give a shit about that, so would should the media?. Unless the bullied fat kid ends up in a viral video, and then the mainstream media will run stories about how he responded to that bullying the wrong way.
I know some readers may see this as contradictory: one minute I’m saying that kids are everyone’s responsibility and then the next I’m saying that we shouldn’t subject them and their families to undue scrutiny! Oh my!
But actually, I ask people to care about children and young people and about mothers and parents, and that implies reserving snap judgements. I ask people to approach parents with compassion, to educate themselves enough to understand the pressures that families face, to realise that individual circumstances vary, and to recognise that systemic barriers to ‘good parenting’ and ‘lifestyle choices’ exist. This complements an acknowledgement that children have the right to live free from abuse and bullying, from undue coercion and from deprivation. And it makes it harder to keep foisting the responsibility for society-wide health concerns onto individuals.
Whatever your beliefs about fat and health (and hey, I know you’ve got ‘em), you’ve got to acknowledge that stigma is harmful. There is no value from a health-promotion perspective in further stigmatising fat people, and certainly not fat children. Most people can’t self-loathe their way to permanent thinness (and certainly not to good health). Fat hate won’t amount to a positive contribution to society, no matter how many ‘reality’ TV shows imply otherwise.
My kid is three years old and she’s already learning what it means to have a heavy body in the midst of ‘obesity’ panic. You cannot tell me that’s for her own good.
I currently have a hideous cold, and it’s the second in a month.
This isn’t in itself particularly remarkable: humans get colds, I’m a human. It’s winter. Some cold seasons are worse than others.
But I’m second-guessing myself. This happens each time I become ill, or each time I have an injury or an ache that takes more time than usual to go away. My self talk starts up: why am I so unhealthy? What is wrong with my body? My body isn’t as good as other people’s. Maybe I need to eat more broccoli. Maybe I need to eat less broccoli. Maybe I need a new mattress on my bed. Perhaps this supplement will help. If I just went to the gym a bit more regularly… if I just (ding ding ding here it comes) lost some weight. No, scratch that, I know that’s not the answer. But maybe if I did go to the gym a bit more… et cetera et cetera you get the idea.
Thing is, it’s just a freakin’ cold, people.
It is possible that I’ve been cold-prone lately because I’ve been tired and a bit stressed and yes, I haven’t been to the gym so much because I’ve got a problem with my foot and I’ve been busy and also, life. So it’s not outside of the realms of possibility that I could positively influence my levels of immunity and general health by taking better care of myself.
But, it’s just a freakin’ cold. It’s not a moral failing. It’s not an existential crisis. It shouldn’t make me feel this bad.
Living in a fat body (which is pathologised) and a cis woman’s body (which is frequently pathologised, particularly when it comes to reproductive system related happenings) and a mentally ill body (which is pathologised), is it any wonder that I feel anxiety about my health? And, living in this culture which tells us all the time that good health is a sign of good character and something which anyone can achieve if they just try hard enough, it’s hard not to feel like an epic failure when one doesn’t exhibit a ‘healthy glow’.
For me, this seems to be a fairly old pattern. Mistrust of my own body and, perhaps more importantly, my ability to manage my own body, runs deep.
I have no doubt that this is in large part because of fat stigma. The message we receive from the media, popular culture and even medical discourse about fatness is that it is a sign of lack of control. It’s a failure of willpower. It’s greed. It’s a literal overstepping of bounds.
One of the problems with this as that feeling as though your body is unmanageable and unruly actually makes it far harder to take steps to manage (for want of a better word) your health. It takes away any external incentive to take care of yourself (why bother if everyone thinks you’re unhealthy anyway?) whilst simultaneously destroying your internal motivation. It does this by encouraging you to hate yourself.
And guess what? Hating yourself can make you sick. It’s also seriously lacking in fun.
I’m not saying that an end to self-loathing is a cure for the common cold. But it’s pretty obvious to me that as a society we have come to a place of collective mistrust of our bodies. Any birth choices or breastfeeding advocate can sense this. And some of the people who are most vulnerable to internalising negative messages about their bodies (and to lose confidence in their ability to take charge of their own health) fat people, especially fat children. (No surprise then, that fat people are so often infantilised by media messaging, too. Grow up and take responsibility for yourself, fatty!)
We have come to this terribly contradictory impasse where we are simultaneously told to ‘take responsibility’ for our health and weight and discouraged from trusting ourselves or listening to our own appetites or bodily needs. The result is a horribly sizeist, healthist, ableist way of thinking and a truckload of stigmatisation.
And feeling guilty for having a freakin’ cold, people.
I’m trying to resist that mess, but it’s not easy. Sometimes, kindness towards oneself is actually the harder road to take.
There is a lot of talk, on this blog and around the fatosphere, about how public health campaigns consistently fail to be either effective or sensitive when it comes to weight-related topics. Basically, it’s a sad state of affairs when this fatty has to think back to the 1980s for a campaign that was both engaging and non-shaming (I’m thinking of that cute Life Be In It ad with the family who sees the frog and ends up doing incidental exercise.)
So I think it’s important to articulate – or at least explore – what a Good Public Health Message might look like.
Since learning about HAES I’ve become a collector of health brochures. I scan the leaflets in waiting rooms, looking for overt fat-shaming, mostly. Sometimes, rarely, I am pleasantly surprised.
Recently I encountered this at my chiropractor’s office
(apologies for the crappy picture)
Description: a pamphlet titled ‘An Active Spine is a Healthy Spine’ with the web address www.juststartwalking.com.au. The image is of a pale-skinned woman wearing exercise clothes and holding a water bottle.
I can’t really vouch for the Just Start Walking campaign – I haven’t been part of it. And I’m not here to sell you chiropractic care or an exercise routine.
But I want to talk about this because their leaflet impressed me. The text places all the emphasis on health and functionality, with important references to the cheap & (relatively) accessible nature of walking as exercise. It clearly aims for a wide audience, with images of people aged from early childhood to old age, and guidelines for starting slow with a ten minute stroll each day. And the bulk of the copy is about health, not weight.
Obesity is mentioned as a possible consequence of inactivity and weight loss is mentioned as a possible benefit of walking, but this is done in a matter-of-fact way and without, I feel, undue emphasis. The overall impression is one of concern for improved wellbeing over any panic about weight and that is quite unusual and refreshing. (Frankly, I suspect the day when generalist health information can completely skip the near-obligatory – and potentially lucrative – mention of ‘obesity’ is still a long way off).
I don’t believe individuals are morally obligated to be ‘healthy’, but I do think governments and medical/healthcare organizations are obligated to promote wellbeing.
We desperately need positive, sensitive and sensible, health information to start replacing the shame-and-blame rhetoric about the ‘obesity epidemic’. I don’t know if ‘just go for a walk’ is a message that is new to anyone, but it’s one of the few Health At Every Size compatible campaigns I’ve seen.
What do you think good health messages look like?
I had a haircut for the first time in months yesterday, and that meant sitting in the feminized space that is a suburban hair salon and being offered dog-eared magazines.
I’ve never been a major consumer of women’s magazines but I was relatively familiar with them in the past; at school we shared issues of Girlfriend and Cosmopolitan around the dorms, and later I had the spare change for a glossy, gossipy bit of escapism from time to time. Even after I became so fed-up with the sexism and sizeism (and the bunch of other isms) underpinning mainstream magazines that I no longer spent money on them, I still had regular hair appointments and colleagues who’d bring stuff to thumb at lunchtime. The fashion, body, health and behavioural coding in these publications was familiar and, though I actively questioned it, insidiously normalized.
What I mean is, even though I thought it was demeaning to be presented with yet another ‘article’ on some famous woman’s weight fluctuations, on some level I accepted that kind of discourse as normal. Ubiquity lent it a sense of inevitability.
Lately there has been less time for haircuts but also, thanks to the paths blogging has led me down, an even keener media literacy when it comes to body policing and misogyny.
And I have to say, when I was confronted with publications where every cover story is – surprise! – about a woman’s weight ‘battle’, I realized how thoroughly I have moved beyond the normalization of such commentary. In fact the word that sprang to mind was ‘alien’ — these images and articles are alienating, yes, but now they also strike me as foolish, disturbing and truly bizarre.
Hyper-vigilance about the weight of not only ourselves but complete strangers is not, and happily does not need to be, normal. It is disappointing that celebrities continue to answer invasive and pointless questions about their weight, eating and exercise habits but downright infuriating that media outlets continue to demand these responses as fodder for their body-obsessed publications. And, to once again employ a word that I try to use sparingly, it is bizarre that in 2011 we accept the submission to such scrutiny as a normal part of a famous woman’s job.
I used to flick through those magazines with either disdain, vague envy or mild annoyance. Yesterday I chose not to even glance through more than a few pages. I was bored by the same old conflicting and constraining messages. Excluded by the homogeneity. Confused by the failure of the media to find new, modern discourses.
But mostly I felt happy. I no longer need to perform the standard magazine flick-through as part of my engagement with femininity or fashion. I know what those publications are offering, I know I don’t want it, and I know where to look for what I do want.
This doesn’t mean I don’t consider the media to have a responsibility to represent diversity and consider body image concerns (they do, and they’re failing to live up to it much of the time). We need change. Saying ‘if you don’t like it don’t buy it!’ is a pretty disingenuous approach to the problems of sexist and body-shaming media.
But yesterday was a reminder that I personally don’t like it, so I don’t buy it. I don’t emulate it by policing the bodies of others, famous or otherwise. And that feels pretty good, actually.
*This post will follow on from a previous entry, which is here.
Club Troppo has posted a bit of a link round-up of the response to John Birmingham’s Biggest Loser article. You may want to have a little look-see. (You may know of some other relevant pieces that are also of interest; feel free to drop a link in the comments but please do add fat-hate or ED trigger warnings if warranted.)
I have many long posts swirling around in my head but time and weariness demands (relative) brevity. So here’s a pretty basic message.
Fat acceptance does not kill anybody.
Let’s imagine for a minute that I and other body acceptance bloggers and Health At Every Size researchers and promoters are completely wrong. Let’s imagine that fat bodies cannot be healthy and fit. Let’s imagine that the US Surgeon General is recklessly ill-informed:
VIDEO TRANSCRIPT Doctor Regina Benjamin, an African-American woman wearing the uniform of her office as Surgeon General, addresses the camera. She says: Hello, I’m Dr Regina Benjamin, the United States’ Surgeon General. Two thirds of adults and nearly one in three children are overweight or obese. As a result, our nation has high rates of diabetes and other chronic illnesses. The good news is, we can be healthy and fit at any size or any weight. As America’s family doctor, I want to change the conversation from a negative one about obesity and illness to a positive conversation about being healthy and being fit. So let’s start with making healthy choices. Eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly, and have fun doing it.
Right, so you’ve ignored everything Dr Regina Benjamin has said and everything I’ve said about my beliefs about health and you are convinced that a fat person cannot be a fit and healthy person. And, presumably, you also think there is some kind of moral obligation to be healthy.
How do people become healthy? How do healthy people live?
Perhaps, they exercise.
Perhaps, they go to the doctor regularly and insist that they receive sensitive and skilled care.
Perhaps, they eat competently.
Perhaps, they have mental health support.
Perhaps, they belong to a community which helps them to advocate for their own health and wellbeing.
Perhaps, they help their children to develop healthy relationships with their bodies, too.
Not everyone who is fat is interested in participating in fat acceptance or using a Health At Every Size approach to weight, and that is okay. As individuals, we all ought to have bodily autonomy and make our own informed decisions about our bodies, including and especially how we eat (or ‘diet’) and how much exercise we do and how we ‘manage’ our weight (or let it manage itself). Free free to read this back to me if you ever hear me say otherwise. (Hint: you won’t.)
But for the people who do participate in FA/HAES, or even just come across a little of our message, there is absolutely nothing to endanger them.
What often stops fat people from doing all the healthful things that I mentioned above? Much of the time the answer is fat stigma. (This is not the only answer: socio-economic barriers and social isolation are two more main factors but they are both enhanced by…well, stigma.)
When fat people are abused simply for getting out and walking (and they are, please go read this post, it’s important and not an unusual story unfortunately) there is little incentive to actually keep going. It’s hard to take care of your body when you face bullying and disdain every day. What fat acceptance does is provide support and encouragement for people so that they can keep on walking. Fat acceptance is not giving up.
A lot of people tell me I’m deluded. To that I say: just because I have a different opinion to you and make different choices does not mean that I am stupid or ignorant.
So I won’t say that John Birmingham* is deluded for saying that fat activists
need smashing flat when they try to redefine obesity as normal. They’re killing people as surely as the shareholders of Benson and Hedges.
He’s entitled to his opinion.
And when I kill someone with my activism, when size acceptance hurts people more than it helps them, when fat activists start pulling people off treadmills and force-feeding them deep-fried Mars bars, he’s welcome to smash me as flat as he likes. (Hint: it ain’t gonna happen.)
*by the way, this isn’t really about Birmingham. His opinions on this are popular, and not particularly novel. So this post is less a rant aimed at an individual man and more a blanket statement refuting what I am rather sick of hearing. Thanks for indulging me, if you’ve read this far.
In some ways fat bodies are our current culture’s dumping ground for fear and loathing: we are the go-to places for thrashing out anxiety about consumption and excess, death and disease, work ethic and individual responsibility, boundaries and restraint, ugliness and beauty. Fat bodies are politicised — even politicians literally use fat as short-hand for bad, wrong, excessive. Fat bodies are ridiculed, dehumanised, demonised and charged with meaning.
All of this is, perhaps, largely academic. I’m a fat activist, of sorts, but most days I’m not overtly doing activism. Most days I’m buying bread and milk and taking my daughter to playdates and watching Dexter and, you know, living.
Except my life is lived in this body, which is fat, and when I am buying my bread and milk etc. I am visibly fat and when I am existing I am inhabiting a politicised body.
Today writer John Birmingham had a column in the Brisbane Times about The Biggest Loser. He gave this nod to fat acceptance:
Obesity is an intensely politicised topic… Traducing someone’s character, or mocking them for their weight, isn’t far removed from doing the same things on the basis of their skin color or ethnic background. Grown-ups should be above it.
He also mischaracterised the fat acceptance movement, I think, as angry and somehow ‘dangerous’ as well as misguided about health. But that’s not what I want to write about. What struck me most about his piece was the admission that he views the “freakshow” elements of The Biggest Loser as useful parenting tools.
I wanted [my kids] to feel disgust at the carefully calibrated circus presented for us by the program’s producers. Why? Because as a parent fresh fruit, oatmeal for breakfast, drinking lots of water, and playing sport rather than Nintendo DS, is a hell of a hard sell. The grotesque obesity on display in Biggest Loser makes explaining the benefits of good nutrition and exercise that much easier. Harsh and ugly, but true.
You know, I have some sympathy for Birmingham’s position as a parent who is trying to instill healthful habits in children who are presumably bombarded with “junk food” advertising and the lure of screen time, like the rest of us. Bean is very active, in touch with her natural appetite, and in love with the existence of fresh fruit but she is also not-yet-three and so I willingly accept that what has been a breeze for me may require more conscious effort in coming years (although I am of course hoping that our early approach will continue to help Bean have a healthy and peaceful relationship with food and activity as she grows). I certainly don’t feel that modeling any kind of body-shaming — of her body or others’ — will ever form part of my parenting strategy. Fat-shaming children is harmful and I know I could never be convinced otherwise, despite how hard I work not to be overly judgmental about the parenting decisions of others.
But, to be frank, I find it quite chilling that the “grotesque obesity” played up for the cameras on ‘reality’ TV could be masquerading as a fable for children in homes across the world. Look kids, you don’t want to be so big and wobbly and disgusting that they put you on television, do you? Chilling because it normalises fat stigma and body shame (wouldn’t it be better to normalise diversity and acceptance?) but also because it is a reminder, to me, that some people are looking at me and feeling grateful that they aren’t like me and fearful that they could be.
I am a walking cautionary tale.
When I raised this concern with John Birmingham on Twitter, his response was
Maybe it’s not about you.
Obviously, his piece was about The Biggest Loser, a particular kind of “freakshow”. Me going to the shops to buy my bread and milk? Not so freakshowish, admittedly. But I am still there, I am still visible, I still jiggle, I still have a double chin, I still look fat enough to be a folk devil.
Fatshion bloggers sometimes find their images reblogged as thinspiration by people who are engaging in disordered eating and looking for fodder to increase their fears of becoming fat. People in public places like swimming pools snark and gossip about fat bodies around them and barely feel the need to disguise their disgust. A friend on Twitter, Jennifer Gearing, mentioned this afternoon that Birmingham’s article “reminds me of time stranger told his 5-6yo she didn’t want Maccas or she’d look like me.” That’s right, children, fear and pity that fatty over there, and thank your lucky stars it’s not you.
There are so many problems with taking that approach with children. (I shan’t list them all but, um, how about these: what if your child grows up fat? what if your child develops an eating disorder? what if your child becomes a rude and judgemental body-snarker?) One really big loser of a problem is that the fatty over there is a human being. The fatty on your television screen is a human being. Human beings have emotions and a need to be treated with respect. We also have diverse histories and reasons for being the sizes that we are; we have individual stories that you can’t read from just looking at us.
My fat body is not your punch line, it is not your entertainment, it is not your grotesque freakshow, it is not your life-lesson.
I happen to think that many kids could learn a thing or two from people like me, beyond a cautionary tale. But until our culture starts valuing people for what they have to give and not what they (apparently) have to lose, a lot of people will fail to see that.
And exploiting that failure to see human beings instead of “the obese” isn’t edgy and it isn’t even productive. It just hurts.