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.