Anyway you look at it, we're wrong

The other day, I accidentally exposed myself to bit of gossipy fat shaming over a celebrity's pregnancy related weight gain. I usually try to avoid this sort of thing, but that's the problem with a pervasive culture of fat stigmatization. You can try to mitigate it, but its far too present to ever be able to just ignore.

I quickly realized, though, that there were actually three "scandals" I was aware of at the moment relating to new mothers getting shamed for for their bodies. That seems like more than is even usual, but that may be because the intense "gotchya" instinct to root out any celebrities not doing their "job" and being thin and pretty at all times. Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, singer and wannabe diet spokesperson Jessica Simpson, and actress Bryce Dallas Howard have all received scrutiny for varying degrees of transgressive non-thinness. Actually, in the process of writing this post, I've also learned that former teen star Hilary Duff was also getting scorn for not being an appropriate size less than a month after the birth of her child.

Perhaps against my better judgment, I waded into the comments of an article breathlessly sharing photos of Bryce Dallas Howard. What struck me as really discouraging was how every possible angle on this endorses and affirms fat shaming. Critics and supporters of Howard, alike, consistently framed their position in a manner unflinchingly approving of fat hate. You'd think this would just be limited to the people making crass insults about her current size or those who try to seem more reasonable by setting aside snide insults in favor for solemn scolding about how motherhood is no excuse for weight gain. You expect fat hate from those camps

What's really disheartening is how the acceptable defense of Howard and other celebrities like her is framed. Her defenders may call for compassion and understanding, but only from a perspective which concedes that fat is an improper state of being. They call for compassion not because fat people deserve respect. They do so out of pity. The "understanding" they speak of is built around the idea that fat is an awful thing to have happened to them and we should all be sympathetic with their plight. Its less a retort to fat shaming, and more a call for limited restraint while we allow people perceived to be temporary fat, transactionally fat, to get their affairs in order. They have no dispute with fat people being awful. They just think some fat people can have a chance to correct themselves if the circumstances of their fatness merit pity.

In a lot of ways, I find this attitude to be far more harmful and damaging than more overt fat shaming because of the sense of smug, self-satisfaction that comes with it. Well, not just the smugness. Most fat shamers have an over-abundances of smugness and self-righteousness, but its the nature of this smugness that really gets to me. See, they are smug because they think they are different from direct fat shamers. They flatter themselves and their sense of compassion with their patronizing pity. They feel entitled to their smugness in a way that's much more harmfully self-aggrandizing than those who jump right to snark and scolding. They try to capture all the privilege that comes with being a fat shamer, but then also lay claim to being enlightened about it.

In the end, "reasonable" fat hate is what empowers it's more overt and vicious forms. It is a symbiotic relationship where the two positions try to define the discussion of fatness as a binary where both sides agree that fat people are irredeemably wrong. This is never more obvious than when I see how non-fat positive spaces "debate" fatness. Fat liberation views have no place at the table. Its just a bunch of people arguing over how best to hate us. While "reasonable" fat hate puts a lot of stock into feeling morally superior to overt fat hate, it still fundamentally affirms it as an acceptable position. The idea that a person can gain weight without this being a personal failing at all? Not so much. No, you can debate when there should be consequences for the "moral failing". You can debate how much pity to offer those beset by the moral failing. You can even make conditional excuses for the moral failing. But you cannot question its wrongness.

I know these celebrities aren't going to be the faces of fat liberation. All will almost certainly lose the weight that is expected of them by whatever means necessary and employing enormous resources that bare no resemblance to how most people live their lives. Still, in a very real way, these are who fat liberation is fighting for. We're fighting for a world where people aren't just arguing over how to best hate and discourage fat people. We're fighting for a world where someone's weight is not a condition of social acceptance. We're fighting for a world where people aren't pilloried if their body happens to change and find itself at a larger size. We're not okay with people discussing fatness so as anyway you look at it, we're wrong. We're not participating in that mindset and culture at all. We're demanding something else. Not just for the fat people who've gotten to the place where we can stand nothing else, but for us all. We deserve better. Every last one of us.


Fat Isolation

On Tuesday over at Shakesville, Melissa McEwan wrote a really awesome piece called Big Fat Love. She provides a response to a culture of fat hatred by declaring that she likes fat people and considering why such an ordinarily benign thing to say has become an extreme and radical position in our culture. Even amongst fat people, the social conditioning to hate fatness is extremely powerful. Its hard to even fathom what we lose because of this.

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 while I can't endorse that attitude, its still one I'm forced to be bound by. You can't impose solidarity, after all. Being fat positive can mean feeling terribly isolated, even surrounded by people who look like you.

Even when we can find a sense of community, it often still bares significant risks of rejection and stigmatization. I'm reminded of my experience going to "BBW" Social dances when I was younger. I'm not sure everyone is familiar with these events, but basically they are dances run at hotels or clubs intended for fat women and men who are attracted to fat women. They tend to have a bad reputation in fat activism, and not without reasons I'll get to, but they are still profoundly revolutionary in a lot of ways. They offer a space for fat women to feel some community. To be in a room and not have to worry about standing out because they are fat. It creates a little pocket where fat people can recreate some of the experiences thin people take for granted. They don't need to be political to be really quite radical.

But, they often aren't just apolitical, and that's the issue. Because most fat people have internalized our stigmatization. Gather a bunch of fat people together, and odds are they'll mostly be unhappy being fat. And being fat does not preclude one from fat shaming others, either. It doesn't even preclude shaming oneself, after all! This where the sense of community can end up feeling illusory. If you get past the thrill of being in a room with other fat people having fun, you may feel worn down by the viciously anti-fat political nature of the community. There can be intense pressure to be apologetically fat, both through negative reactions to fat positivity, and social reinforcement of constant fat shaming discussions.

Even more genuinely radical gatherings can carry the same risks. A couple weeks ago, I went with my wife to a fat clothing flea market. I knew a bunch of radical fatties were there and there was a real thrill in knowing that, even if I was mostly just trying to stay out of the way of the shoppers. I remember feeling really inspired by the energy in the room, but I also remember the wariness in the back of my head. Fat isolation can lead to a lot of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Put a bunch of fat people in a room together, even a really positive and radical room, and there is still going to be a significant impact of internalized fat shame. And we're made to expect no different. We're made to expect fat negativity. Fat activists are routinely called on to even affirm fat negativity, as if somehow our belief in something different is a threat to all the fat negativity in the world and we need to expend our time reassuring fat negativity that we totally respect it. We are constantly being isolated in our fatness, and its draining.

This is one of the reasons I value virtual communities so strongly. They allow us to come together in ways we never can in our ordinary lives. I started typing "real lives" there, but that's wrong. This is real. The communities we can find and build online are real. When someone declares on their blog that they like fatties, that's real. When we sharing experiences and ideas on Tumblr, that's real. When we banter on Twitter, that's real. It may not erase a desire to experience these same things face to face, but it shouldn't. That's just something else and it doesn't take away from the communities we can find. Being fat and okay with it, or *gasp* happy, can be very isolating and there is nothing wrong with taking whatever solidarity we can find. We can't always trust that it will be okay to say "I like fat people", but we can find some little corner where it is.

We then try to carry that with us as we stampede across the landscape. It may not keep us from wanting other communal fat experiences, but its not supposed to. Indeed, it should make us want them all the more. Isolation is not integral to the fat positive experience. It is imposed on us by those who want us quarantined lest our fat fatness infect others. Even if we don't always know how to break out, we shouldn't accept that our quarantine is in any way justified. We're going to get out and we're going to get our fat all over everything.


Results still aren't typical

If you saw a diet ad in the United States during the first years of the new millennium, chances are there was an inconspicuous asterix hidden somewhere with the text "Results not typical." These "product does not work" warnings weren't invented by the diet industry. They were actually mandated by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC guidelines on the use of testimonials in ads were supposed to control false claims, but they came up with a little gift for the diet industry. As long as they qualified any non-representative testimonials with the "Results Not Typical" qualifier, they could make whatever claim they wanted. Didn't matter if the product failed 95% of the time or more. As long as you can document it working once, you were in the clear with just some fine print.

You may notice that this qualifier is no longer on diet ads. Is this because the results are now typical? Oh, goodness, no. Its actually because in 2009, the FTC decided the charade of "Results not typical" was just that. A charade. It determined that "best case scenario" testimonials were inherently deceptive and wrote new guidelines that forbid them. Well, that's what they said they were doing. What they actually did was empower the diet industry to fully resist a disclaimer they always felt was bad for business. The industry correctly recognized that the FTC really didn't have enough power to police their claims. It moved the qualifications off the ads and behind the scenes on flimsy "data" they could point to and shut down any FTC enforcement.

Basically, they were able to gin up "studies" that built atypical assumptions right into their construction. Those studies would show that the product worked just enough so they'd be immune from FTC enforcement. Didn't matter if the product only worked under very strictly defined circumstances and it didn't matter if there was no long term proof of success. The FTC's switch allowed the diet industry to do what they've long done in their marketing and that's blame dieters when diets fail. Their product works, you see. Its just the dieter that was doing it wrong. Their $40,000,000,000 industry is built on ensuring dieters always blame themselves for their failures and never the culture of dieting. This just codified that.

In the perversely inevitable result, we now see Weight Watchers replace that asterix with the slogan "Because it Works". Sure. You just need to "control" for all the times it doesn't work. Once you eliminate that data, the success rate is phenomenal! Basically, the new rule of fat shaming marketing is "Results Typical (If you ignore all the times it isn't)". Its a win-win for the diet industry. They lose the qualifier all at the price of continuing to blame fat people for the absurd record of failure the diet industry has left in its wake. What's not to love?

Just look at what passes for "working" with regards to Weight Watchers. A Lancet study of participants who all received the Weight Watchers program for free (a $500 value) lost an average of 10lbs a year. 10lbs is considerably less than the claims you'll see in any Weight Watchers ad and a good deal less than their claim that people can lose 1-2 lbs a week. Even that modest claim isn't verified by a study Weight Watches paid for to prove its success! And the study lost 40% of its participants in its 1 year. Gosh only knows what the results would look like 2 years out with all participants. But its something, and that's good enough for the FTC, I guess. Never mind that their latest ad includes a testimonial of someone who lost 100+ lbs. A result not typical even with the best data money can buy. It just doesn't matter anymore. The Weight Loss industry can lie all they want and no one will stop them.

The claims of Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem are still not typical. They are still hand-selected testimonials, often of people who are professionally losing weight. They can still make atypical claims in their ads. The FTC just decided that they'll be the ones the diet industry has to make the tortured qualifications to, leaving them freer than ever to lie to their consumers. Fat shame is a very profitable business. Not "because it works", but because it doesn't.