I'm not your metaphor

Earlier this month, a commenter here hit on a continuing frustration I have with progressive allies and how some relate to fat rights. Its frustrating, because I consider myself politically progressive. While I don't think one necessarily needs to a progressive to believe in fat acceptance, it is indisputable that the movements political foundations were products of radical feminism in the late 1960's. Progressives should be natural allies to fat acceptance, but a reluctance to respect our needs and perspectives continues to be a problem. The simple fact is that fat shaming is heavily ingrained in our culture and an expectation that fat people will sit down and shut up is all too common, even from people who think they are fighting with us.

Actually, that's usually the issue. They don't think they are fighting with fat people. They think they are fighting for fat people. That was what came up with this commenter who wanted to be able to blame fatness on corporations. This is a very common line you see from supposed allies in progressive communities and the fact is that this is a just feeding into fat shaming. The idea is that corporations are to blame for rises in obesity levels. The proof invariable amounts to some variation on "Look at all the fat people. Corporations must have done it." Which isn't, ya know, proof. Instead, what they are doing is looking at fat acceptance through the prism of their own agenda.

I don't disagree that corporations can often have an insidious influence on our lives and culture and I certainly support more accountability for corporate action and how it impacts our environment and lives. I don't see how those goals should obligate me to accept people who want to blame my body on corporations. The whole construct of looking for someone or something to blame for fat bodies is inherently fat shaming. It inherently disrespects our lives and our experiences.

Back in 2007, fatfu commented on a story Dr. Sanjay Gupta (someone embraced in some progressive circles, by the way) did blaming working moms for the "epidemic" of fat people. She pointed our how many things are blamed for fat people...
"Actually, I’m hard pressed to think of an aspect of modernity that hasn’t been blamed for the 'obesity epidemic.' Here’s a partial list of malefactors just from the past two months’ of headlines:

protein in infant formula
mother’s weight gain in pregnancy
reduction in the nutrient content in food
diet soda
radical diets

abundance of junk food and the lack of physical activity
living in a rural area
urban sprawl
living in the suburbs
plastic in baby bottles
lack of family support

mother’s early puberty
“environmental food cues”
not enough fruits and vegetables in diet
permissive fathers
irresponsible parents
emotional eating
emotional issues
inaccurate infant growth tables
food prices
newspaper recipes
lack of individual responsibility
britain’s one-hour lunch break
larger portion sizes
farm subsidies
lack of personal responsibility
belly fat
the fear that being slim will make people think you have AIDS

precocious puberty
reading about the obesity epidemic
poor urban planning
low testosterone
southern high-fat diet
mother’s diet during pregnancy
disruptions of the circadian clock
online marketing"
She closes with a killer line that doing a story on one particular thing to blame for fat people, "almost certainly says more about his prejudices than it does about fat." How people seek to exploit fat people invariable is about their own agenda and their own prejudices and much less about fat people. If you don't respect fat people, there will always be some way to exploit fat people for your own purposes. Some social ill to attach to fatness. Some way to continue fighting "for" fat people and doing everything to avoid fighting "with" fat people.

Fat activists are constantly being told to sit down and shut up. PeTA wants to exploit fat hatred to advance their mission of promoting veganism. Dan Savage and Jon Stewart use lazy metaphors to promote marriage quality that are premised on the lie that fat people don't experience stigmatization. We hear constant cries of "what about the thin people" trying to recenter discussions of fat stigma and fat health. Dr. Sanjay Gupta Throughout all of this, fat activists are expected to play nice while our rights and experiences are erased because others feel they are inconvenient for their own agenda. How dare we suggest that we can pursue corporate accountability, animal welfare, marriage equality, or health care access without exploiting fat shaming? How dare we not sit down and shut up? Our outrage at this is constantly invalidated. We are pressured to know our place from allies normally well versed in standing with disenfranchised communities.

I'm getting tired of it. I'm tired of being told I'm letting corporations off the hook. I'm tired of watching the fat couples fighting for marriage equality so they can marry their own partners be thrown under the bus to make some lazy fat jokes. I'm tired of constantly having to placate thin people who take any discussion of fat contexts as an invitation to center the discussion back onto people who enjoy privilege. I'm tired of hearing that ethical treatment of fat people is expendable. I'm tired of being a cautionary tale or a "consequence". I'm tired of being fodder for cheap gags. I'm tired of being a useful metaphor. Progressive allies can and must be better. Respecting fat people does not threaten your cause. It will strengthen it.


silentbeep said...

There's so much here I agree with and relate too. Reminds me of posts on Fat Nutritionist with commenters arguing that "food scientists" are to blame for the fat people, for making food taste so good we are just eating it all up. And the incessant, incessant replies to almost ANY fat acceptance post on tumblr from so many people that say something like "everyone is judged! thin people are judged too!!" as if thin privilege is a figment of our imagination.

Anonymous said...

The part about people who try to center the discussion back onto people who enjoy privilege hits home for me. When I talk about FA, thin people often respond with things like "but all women's bodies are judged mercilessly" or "people of all sizes have body issues" and things of that sort. I feel very strongly that being fat in the world and just *feeling* fat are two different things entirely. Any ideas how to respond to this? Thanks.

Twistie said...

Oh, silentbeep, of COURSE we made up thin privilege. And the feminist movement made up male privilege. And people of all kinds of different colors made up white privilege. And gays made up straight privilege. and poor people delude themselves when they think it possible that some justice is for sale to the highest bidder.

But I digress.

You're (as is so often the case) right on the money with this, Sir. Every one of those metaphors still feeds into the idea that my body is a problem to be solved, not an individual to be treated with respect. I don't need permission to have this body. It's mine, I have it, and I quite like it, thank you very much. I am not victimized by my body. I am victimized by the fact that people feel the need to explain me away and treat me like a dirty secret to be swept under the rug and whispered about in dark corners. I am victimized by the fact that nobody cares to hear what I have to say about living in my body, but they are eager to tell me what my experience is, my actual experience be damned!

Just as I cannot be an effective supporter of gay people without listening to their experiences and hearing their concerns, a thin person who does not care to hear what my experiences are cannot be an effective supporter of my fat self. My body is not the problem any more than gay sexuality is. The problem is people thinking we're problems to be solved.

Don't. Solve. Me.

Brian said...

The worst is the implied (and often explicit) charge that just by talking about the fat context of body shaming and health shaming, we're actively making things worse for thin people. There is this idea that if you talk about the fat context, that this necessarily means you're ignoring when those things happen to thin people. Body shaming of thin people is wrong, but frankly I resent having to constantly reassure thin people that I think that. Its like the dynamic in feminism where men, often one's who should be expected to know better, indulge in criticism about "misandry".

Anon- The point that makes sense to me is that two things can be wrong, even wrong in similar ways, without being the same thing. Body policing of thin bodies obviously is unacceptable and there should be discussion about that. The problem is when that discussion tries to impose itself onto discussions about fat oppression. Insisting that all discussions be "universal" ultimately just serves to make everything a discussion of the lowest common denomenator and that's a dynamic that just advantages to privilege. Body shaming of thin and fat bodies just isn't the same thing. Likewise for male and female bodies. Likewise for cis and trans, white and non-white, abled and not, etc. Insisting its all the same just serves to smooth out the unique struggles disenfranchised groups face. To erase them in the name of something that will apply for all. That serves no one.

silentbeep said...

"Body shaming of thin people is wrong, but frankly I resent having to constantly reassure thin people that I think that."

I feel this way too. It's like, me as a fat person, does not mean I think of myself as in automatic opposition to you (you being the general thin person). It doesn't work like that, when I'm talking about me and other fat people, I'm talking about fat people, end stop - it's not through the lense of thin people, and it's certainly not about demeaning thin people. It's just not about thin people at the time - it is so hard for certain thin people to grasp that they are NOT going to always be centered in a conversation about bodies, especially within FA spaces/posts.

JS said...

Yes. "What about the thinz?" is the same derail as "what about the menz?" Obviously all body-policing is bad, just as all gender-policing is bad. However, it's basic derailing to interrupt a conversation about one topic with "what about the" something else.

Brian said...

Yup. And unfortunately, often the same people who know full well about derailing will still pull it out.

Ruth said...

I think there are huge similarities between the body shaming thin people experience and what we do as fat people. I've seen some people say that they are totally different and can't be compared, and I think that's counterproductive. After all, isn't it easier to get people to empathise than to just sympathise? It does make me cross when people extend this to saying that the severity is equal, or that for every single thing that happens to fat people as a result of our fatness there's an equivalent for thin people. That's not true.

But it's really hard to tell who is just clumsily trying to relate their own experience to yours from who is deliberately derailing, especially online. I don't want to be the "angry fat woman" turning away potential allies but I don't want to waste time dealing with trolls either. It's tough!

Brian said...

"The Angry ______" is a construct rolled out to oppress all people without privilege. Anyone who stands up for themselves is labeled like that no matter how they act. There is a point when potential allies have to live up to that potential and not engage in tone policing. There are times to talk about body policing in general and how it impacts all bodies, but the dynamic of recentering whenever the fat context is explored needs to be addressed. No one is saying that body shaming of thin vs. fat bodies is totally different, but a of people are saying they are totally equal and that's just not a productive position to take. I think in a lot of ways, the point isn't to get privileged people to see how they are disenfanchised, too. I mean, I'd contend that our understanding of gender roles is limiting and harmful to men, but that's a secondary observation to how gender roles oppress women. You have to understand that first before moving out to recognize how oppression and privilege hurt us all.

The thing of it is, I've never seen a fat activists snap at people for recentering. A lot endorse it, which I find very troubling, and those who address it have always done so fairly calmly until their patience is proved unwarranted. Neither response, though, prevents us being accused of oppressing thin people. Even trying to placate that mentality can still be met with escalation and demands that we admit that fat people are the true villains because someone, somewhere was told to eat a sandwich.

Ruth said...

It's difficult to get people to care about other people, though. Like men who support misogynist laws and customs until they have daughters, it's just not personal and it's easy for them to rationalise their hatred until it becomes personal. I like to think of it as hijacking their self-interest. :D Then again, people are either coming to FA spaces with an open mind or not and we can't change that.

You are absolutely right about some people's preconceptions. If they have already painted me as the angry fat woman, I can't do anything at all to disprove it. Maybe it just bothers me more because it's a more believable criticism than the worst things trolls say? I am angry, it's true, but they're really accusing me of being aggressive and rude (and an overemotional liar) and that's so frustrating when you're trying your hardest to be pleasant in the face of bile!

iiii said...

I'm quoting this one all over the place this week:

"If you can’t listen to an argument unless I smooth back your hair, whisper delicately in your ear, and assure you that really I am not very angry and here I will hold your hand and sing gently while I say such difficult things, you’re not actually looking to listen to anybody. You’re looking to have your ego stroked, you’re looking to be fawned over, and you’re looking to control the conversation."

I've found it's more effective to say my piece and walk away. Stopping to soothe their ruffled feelings just sends the message that I am their subordinate and they can safely ignore what I just said.

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