On dieting and the illusions of common cause

As the debate over Fat Acceptance continues to roil at Feministe and less Sanity Watchers friendly destinations, I've been really troubled by what strikes me as concern trolling from a lot of quarters about how fat acceptance is too intolerant of dieters. There is always an example of some dieter who was attacked by fat acceptance. I've blogged about this form of self-made martyrdom in the past and its distressing to be reminded of how they are using the privileges of the status quo to make an absurd point and being taken seriously. What they are out to do is push the buttons of people unsure of what to think about fat acceptance. They craft a false "backlash" narrative to fits into people's expectations of fat activists so few question it. Of course we're attacking dieters. I mean, we aren't celebrating them, right? So we must be meanly attacking people for just discovering that they shouldn't be fat. The credulous never stop to realize that this backlash is already being described from the moment the diet martyr speaks out on the matter. That when criticism does come, its for the attacks the dieter makes on fat acceptance, not for their personal choice.

I think people are free to make common-cause with Fat Acceptance on the issues they agree with while reserving the right to disagree on other issues, but over the years the people who have this split view on fat acceptance have often spent far more time attacking FA over what they don't agree with than allying with it on what they do. I feel like many just give lip service to opposing fat discrimination while their only expressed interest is in demanding Fat Activists celebrate dieting. Its like they want to propose to agree to disagree but then only care about the disagreement. I've often seen this as proposing Fat Acceptance become a movement of the lowest common denominator. Anything too challenging shouldn't be expressed because it will upset the sensibilities of those who disagree with us.

Isn't that what we want, though? I'm not saying tone isn't a valid concern, but at the end of the day, challenging the status quo has to be a core part of our purpose. I'm reminded of gay activists who pressed on issues of gay marriage while many people would express "concern" that this wasn't prudent and they should limit their advocacy to smaller goals. I was one of those people 15 years ago. Today, I feel I was utterly wrong and am extremely grateful that the gay rights movement didn't listen to those voices. That instead, they challenged people to think differently.

If FA abandoned its stance on dieting, it would no doubt win many converts but if we aren't challenging them to go further what progress can we win? I think the reason FA focuses so much on personal acceptance over political acceptance is that one must come before the other. By the time the gay rights movement was focusing confronting social and legal boundaries, there was already a significant threshold of personal acceptance within that community. Especially among those politically motivated. I'm just not at all convinced that fat acceptance can get to that place without advocating for acceptance on the individual level. Its nice to say in theory that discrimination is wrong no matter what and I certainly agree, but we aren't the architects of the prejudice against us. On some level, we must confront the internal justification of the stigmatization of fat people. I'm happy to find common cause with groups that think that anti-discrimination efforts need not be joined with self-acceptance and even those who outright oppose self-acceptance. I still think it is important, though, for the common cause not to be the only cause. I don't expect the common causers to agree with me, but I don't think its wrong to expect them to respect that I will disagree. Otherwise, I have to question if they seeking common cause or just trying to be reductive towards my beliefs.

The idea that fat activists are marginalizing anyone is a tough for more to respond to because it strikes me as a bizarre inversion of the power structure in our society. I think its a reminder of how far we still have to go but also of how important it is to maintain our struggle. We may be powerless, yet others still feel the need to fear us. In a way, I almost find that encouraging. No matter how stigmatized and marginalized we are, the status quo remains ill at ease with us. We'd be doing something wrong if the status quo didn't find reason to keep pushing back against us. We just have to keep pushing right back against them.


Brian said...

Yeah, the title sucks. Happens when I repurpose overly involved blog comments into blog posts.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how I have seen in various blogs, the need to placate dieters, over and over again. I don't get this. When I was dieting, I wasn't really very fat accepting, even though I was against fat discrimination. When I have my bouts of self-doubt and occasional self-loathing because of fatness and I'm tempted to diet (I think many of us do, even the "hardcore" fat activists do), I know I'm going through a not especially fat accepting phase. Fat acceptance is the way it is, whether I agree with it or not. I think fat acceptance always has a way back for people. I don't know. Every time I fall, and feel like I can't be fat accepting anymore, I get back up and read another FA blog and feel better. I'm confused by the idea that FA is "oppressing" anybody. At the heart of FA is kindness, but there are principles, which are really hard for people to take on (hell, they are still hard for me!) but they are there nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

I have conflicting opinions on this.

I think that it's incongruous for someone to say on one hand I support ending fat discrimination, but then on the other hand to buy into the implicit message within dieting that says "fat is bad". I think it's one thing to make healthy choices for the sake of one's health, it's another to make those choices in the name of weight.

I think it's a tough subject; so many factors at play. For instance, I fundamentally believe that the body should not be political, in the sense that people should be able to assert their body autonomy. Therefore I support the right of FA folk to diet; but I DO NOT support diets in principle. I don't stand for the way oppressive forces construct diets as positive things (i.e. as medically helpful), when often they are SO HARMFUL. I feel like the construction of diets as healthy and morally superior takes the agency out of decision making for people.

I also think that a danger comes in allowing the diet mentality to infiltrate the movement. But then on the other hand I'd hate for us to try and dictate what people can or can't do with their bodies, since to me, that freedom is definitely a key thread within FA and fat politics.


Meowser said...

People can diet all they want. I mean, for Maude's sake, there are probably millions of blog posts out there about people dieting, and that's not even getting into Facebook and Twitter and professional publications. Does anyone actually think I go around to all their blogs and go, "Neener neener, your diet won't work" or "You're betraying all fat people by dieting"? I mean, please. I couldn't do that even if I wanted to; I do have to sleep, work, all that jazz.

Shit, I don't even have the time to take down all the people who put down other fatties for not trying to lose weight. Again, we're talking millions of articles here, who has the time? Yeah, if the subject comes up in a place where I'm a regular, I am going to say something. If the subject comes up from someone who has been a leader in the FA movement in the past, I am going to say something. But the very idea that I could actually prevent weight loss by not giving my blessing for them to diet...I don't get it. When did I get that much power?

I keep saying it: If you're meant to be a much smaller size than you are (or were), there's not a damn thing I could possibly do to stop you, and I don't really care to expend a whole lot of energy trying.

Anonymous said...

"But then on the other hand I'd hate for us to try and dictate what people can or can't do with their bodies"

I have never once seen anyone try to dictate what people should do with their bodies in FA. In fact, quite the opposite, FA posts are quite common asserting that everyone is supportive of "dieters' rights" I see constant tip-toeing around the subject. Because apparently dieting is a threatened activity that a very few marginalized people in FA have the power to stop.

No one can take anyone's right away to diet.
If there was some legislation tomorrow being
formed, that tried to take away "dieters' rights" I'd fight against that completely. If there was some institution out there that really tried to forcibly stop people from dieting (schools? employers? idk) I'd fight that too.

Rights aren't in question. What I will speak out against is the theory behind dieting, over and over again. I can disagree with dieting, and form a coherent argument, without advocating that people should have their rights taken away. I can say "hey I don't think dieting is a good idea, because of x, y and z" without dictating what anyone should do with their body. I'm about education and information, and providing an alternative response to a fat body, because currently, in mainstream society, dealing with having a fat body usually encompasses these options: self-loathing or dieting or WLS or some combination thereof.

I figure this: offer the alternative to dieting with good sound arguments. At least then, if people choose to diet anyway, they are making a fully formed decision, with the full knowledge of the risks involved.

DivaJean said...

I have always felt that on this topic, its basically complaints that priveledge is being usurped at some level.

When someone is FA, and does not recognize dieting as "healthy", anyone dieting around that person may feel some level of not getting the respect and attention they typically get.

I am always careful to point out that body choice is specific to individual and I support that highly.

Anonymous said...

The argument that seems to work the best is just that "there is a time and a place for everything. You can find weight loss support at thousands of places on the web but we offer something unique. Please stay on topic." Some form of this argument or policy seems to work most of the time (except with true trolls).

CTJen said...

I've been meaning to compose a post about this for quite some time now, but real life keeps getting in my way.

The one thing I keep coming back to in the whole debate about whether FA is "intolerant" of dieters is that FA is a social justice movement and social justice movements are not about tolerance. If MLK, Jr. had an aggregate feed, do you think he should have "tolerated" pro-racist blog posts and comments therein?

Frankly, I'm not at all sorry that our FA makes dieters feel like we're intolerant of them. FA is MEANT to push back against dieting culture, MEANT to make dieters think, really THINK, about their reasons for believing what they do about health and fat. If we are more tolerant of the the belief that dieting is a valid way to deal with a fat body, dieters will be less likely to arrive at a more fat accepting conclusion. Namely that fat bodies are as deserving of respect and dignity as non-fat bodies.

Brian said...

While that's a perfectly reasonable argument, anonymous, I can't say I've seen much luck with it. Most people who try to bring diet talk into FA spaces know darn well where to find weight loss support. The issues is that we withhold that support that they feel privileged to.

I definitely agree that we shouldn't feel defensive about dictating how other people should feel about their bodies. We have no capacity to dictate to anyone. I'd love for that to be a real problem because it would mean FA has made huge leaps in promoting its message. What we must do is advocate for change and I think right now that means both on a personal and societal level.

Here's the thing, though. Advocating for that personal change doesn't mean yelling at individuals to accept themselves. Nor do I ever see that. What we do is create supportive communities so that people interested in change have the resources to explore and support that. We advocate for change by being open about our own journey. Living the alternative, talking about what that means, how we struggle, that's how we advocate for individual change. What we do is largely passive. That obviously doesn't stop people from complaining about us "dictating" things, but we can't be cowed by such criticism. We have to admit that it isn't reflective of what we are doing and that there needs to be an alternative. If we don't offer a place for the alternative than we kill it. I don't want to see that happen.

Brian said...

CTJen, that is a great point and one I've been very interested in advancing. Dieters feeling uncomfortable with FA is a feature, not a bug. We should be challenging them and if they seek out FA spaces and don't expect us to challenge them, to provide a different way of looking at things, then they come not to respect us but to chastise us.

The truth is that for every diet martyr who complains about how mean we are think differently, there is a skeptical person who approaches these communities with respect and who understand that we are talking about a different alternative. These people come because they want to hear us. They may not agree yet. They may never. But they are seeking our unique voice. If we let the diet martyrs silence that voice we do a disservice not just to ourselves but these people as well. The purpose of these spaces is to stand for something different. That will upset the status quo and I don't think we can apologize for that much less try to accommodate it. If that is intolerable to someone, its not our fault or our responsibility to change to suit their needs.

Moose said...

When I first got involved with the "geek feminism" movement I had problems with the attitude of "We're about the women and will not make concessions towards the men."

My first thought was, how can you be claiming to be about diversity and making things more available to all if you cut out 1/2 of the human race? It took a while until I realized that the point was to stop concentrating on the things men get sometimes more easily than women and start concentrating on what women need to get their slice of the pie.

I'm not trying to pick a feminism fight here :-), and as a man recently pointed out, feminism wouldn't exist if it weren't for the men who support it, and that's 100% true.

But when I hear diet speak in FA stuff I feel the same way. To some degree FA would not exist without dieting, if only because of how many of us have learned that losing weight is not part of accepting who we are. When dieters come into FA space and demand to be represented I think that they need to be told, hey, there are 10001 places out there to talk about dieting but this is not one of them. This is a diet-for-weight-loss free space and we accept ourselves as we are, without the need to go on diets.

Anonymous said...

CTJen, your comment is very well put I feel, and is along the lines of what I want to tell people when they call me intolerant for calling out racist or sexist bullshit.

Much as I hate comparing the struggles of historically lesser privileged groups as I know every experience is different, in this case, I think your comparison is effective because it doesn't cross into the sticky arena of saying "being fat is like being black". Rather, you're pointing out that having to cow-tow to those who are already privileged and bigoted in order to keep from offending their precious egos misses the point of activism entirely.

Furthermore, crying "intolerance!" whenever someone is told to stop being a bigoted jackass is how the straw man gets set up in the first place. I don't say people opposing gay marriage are being bigoted because I want everybody to marry someone of the same sex, nor am I proposing that you cannot DISAGREE with it (though I reserve the right to disagree with your opinion), but what I DO propose is the radical idea that everyone ought to have the same right to marry whoever they wish and your disagreement should not infringe on someone else's right to live their life whichever way they please.

Nobody has to like my fat body. Hell, nobody else has to like their own fat body. But people do have to stop giving me shit about my fat body and recognize that my body is my own, for better or for worse. That's why I'm fine with someone else's dieting. Their body is their own too. But the moment said dieter uses their dieting as a shaming tactic, or says "you should try it" or starts with negative talk is the moment I tell people I don't want to hear it anymore.

I'm intolerant to negativity. I'm sorry that that ruffles so many feathers.

wriggles said...

Excellent post Brian,

I've been really troubled by what strikes me as concern trolling from a lot of quarters about how fat acceptance is too intolerant of dieters.

We must be getting somewhere because there are more and more differing kinds of objections to FA.

Those who say, we are intolerant of using fat bodies as a tool to shame their often thinner bodies. That we are not sufficiently saying how hard it is to stop doing this etc., etc.,

IOW, it's hard for me to stop using fatness to degrade myself and I want you-fat people-to keep saying how terribly hard it is for me and be tolerant of it when you hear it. I'm only being honest!

If you don't you are delusional and liars et al.

Failing to recognise that a fat person cannot say "I hate my fat thighs" and remain once removed from it like some of them. A thinner person can choose to try and love their body as it actually is, or use fat hating to slam it.

If you are fat you more or less have to make a choice, either you fat hate or you don't. You cannot accept and love your actual body and start hating your bits for being too fat. It's hard to see any difference.

And imagine if we went around saying, "I felt really thin and ate until I puked" or "I really hate my thin thighs, they are so disgusting" and asked the thin to say how hard it was to just stop doing this and comfort us in our travails.

Some are so disconnected from us they can't even think to work these things out.

In order for people to use fat shame to body hate, they have to divorce it from real people. They are not thinking, "I'm using the image of my fat loved one/ friend's body, to degrade my own".

An FA consciousness, no matter how small, exposes this and that's very upsetting and angry making to some.

FA's already been v. tolerant of dieting and all the other FA derails, that's why we know better-thanks naafa!

That's one of the things that's helped stall it from it's early beginnings such as those of the late Judy Freespirit.

All this, whilst at times very upsetting and demoralising-there I said it can be hard!!!-just makes me more determined to keep going.

The overriding message is "slow down fatties" preferably to a crawl-which has worked so often in the past.

Hopefully, not this time.

Brian said...

I think they are going further than telling us to slow down. I often feel like we are being offered a "compromise" to simply freeze everyone's attitudes where they are now. They will let us be fat accepting, if we leave fat shame alone for everyone else. Aside from how profoundly unjust that would be, its also a false bargain. The people offering it won't actually lift a finger to defend our right to be fat accepting from all the forces baring down on us. Its meaningless "support" being offered in exchange from us dismantling our own support system and going back into individual shells of fat acceptance.

FA is as tolerant of dieting as it needs to be. Frankly its too tolerant as is. We spend too much time worrying about upsetting dieters when to some degree that's precisely what we should be doing. No, not on an individual basis like we are often accused for, but we should be arguing against diet culture and its proponants SHOULD not like what we are saying. If they did, we wouldn't be saying something different. If we couched our message to only what dieters will be responsive too, we ignore our responsibility to offer alternatives to fat shame and fat stigmatization.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,
I love this blog and this post in particular. I also really appreciate CTJen's comment and the responses to it. When I was still a dieter (life style changes though--it wasn't a diet!!) and came across FA it scared the hell out of me. I couldn't imagine accepting myself. I mean I am so fat! How could that not be an incredibly deep personal failing that I had to flagellate myself with as often as possible. And so I stopped visiting FA sites and blocked it out for a few years.
When I was ready I returned. Had diets been okay, sure I wouldn't have been scared off, but that's because it wouldn't have really been challenging me then would it? As long as diets were allowed all that negativity could still live on, even if it was hidden.
Just my two cents,

Sleepydumpling said...

Fantastic post Brian.

I get so tired, so bone weary, of having to tiptoe around dieters. I'm fed up with having to justify every "Will you ever shut up about your bloody diet?!" moment of exasperation I have amongst my dieting friends and colleagues. I'm tired of having to explain why my blog is a diet-talk-free zone over and over. I'm tired of having to be sensitive to the feelings of dieters, when not once, not fucking ever, are any of them sensitive to my feelings on the subject.

I'm not going to play that game any more. Instead I'm going to enjoy eating that French fry, or a piece of chocolate, or some other forbidden item right in front of them. After all, they shove their diets right in my face day in and day out.

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