Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fat Acceptance, Thin Privilege

Naturally I have nothing but respect for the hard-working medical health professionals who make our NHS the flawed yet wonderful institution it is; but I gotta say – sometimes, doctors are d-bags.

I think of the nurse whose sex-ed advice plowed over my somewhat embarrassed insistence that I do not sleep with men and have no intention of so doing; the doctor who prescribed me The Pill for my skin condition and a couple months later told me icily that I'd put on weight and should exercise more; a dozen forms and pamphlets that frame sexual activity exclusively as hetero P-in-V (“the only 100% sure way to prevent pregnancy is to abstain from sex entirely” – both heteronormative and profoundly unimaginative!).

Of course, for every story of indignity and humiliation suffered at the hands of healthcare professionals, I have one of excellent treatment – the doctor who so readily put me at ease when I shamefacedly reported my first yeast infection; the nurse who ran the metal speculum under the hot tap before bringing it anywhere near me (if there was never a furious second-wave feminist screed entitled Speculum, somebody missed a trick) – but the fact remains: doctors can be real assholes.

It's not always entirely their fault. They're the products of the med school system, which – like everything else in this sad, mad, wonderful world – is susceptible to humankind's penchant for Othering and oppression. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but doctors don't always know best: how many Victorian women were diagnosed with “hysteria”, the complaint of being female in a very male-dominated society? How many housewives of the 1950s and 60s were psychoanalyzed with spurious mental illnesses just because they didn't find being a housewife entirely fulfilling? How many trans* and genderqueer individuals face hostility from the doctors they have to somehow convince of their gender identity? I don't think it's the words of a kook, therefore, to suggest that sometimes doctors talk total shite, especially about queer people, PWD, and fat people.

Fat Acceptance (FA) is probably the newest aspect of the social justice movement to me, and initially I looked on it with doubt. Hadn't I always been told that fat = bad? That fat ugly I was prepared to accept as jiving with basic feminist values, but medical health professionals are always reiterating that fat = unhealthy. There's the increased risk of heart failure; there's the late onset diabetes; there's the obesity epidemic, and my God won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?!

Actually, though... read FA websites. Learn that the correlation between size and health has never actually been proved to exist, and that you can be fat and healthy (or thin and unhealthy) at one and the same time. Realize that, even if there is or might be a correlation between an individual's size and eir health, it is not a moral issue and you have absolutely no right to be judging em for eir (horrible phrase) “lifestyle choices”. Think critically about the multi-bajillion-dollar diet industry, which operates on a cycle of convincing people that they should hate their bodies and spend all the money they can on the latest diet regimes that will not work because the idea that everyone can obtain any body shape they want through diet and exercise is A COMPLETE LIE, and that is a feature not a bug. Start to notice the fat-shaming in which our culture is engulfed, in constant pop-culture messages that fat equates to greedy or gluttonous or comic relief or unsexy or disgusting or immoral or just bad, bad, bad.

I've been reading and learning and realizing and thinking and noticing, and I think it's important for me to start talking about it because fat is a feminist issue: if you're a feminist, an activist, a social justice blogger, you cannot be all, “End discrimination now! Oh and go on a diet, porky.” We've all seen that attitude on supposedly feminist websites, often in the form of concern-trolling. Just cut it out. Being a feminist/SJer who castigates fat people is like being a feminist/SJer who says racist things. Not saying it doesn't happen; I'm saying it shouldn't happen, it makes no sense, and it needs to freakin'. Stop. Now.

I myself am not fat, and in this messed-up world of ours any minority cause gains credibility from privileged people talking about it. It's gross, but it's true. The white anti-racist, the male feminist, the straight queer activists – these are the people that get mainstream attention; and there goeth the thin fat activist.

When I first became aware of FA, I used to angst about my thin privilege. “People keep complimenting me on looking slender!” I would agonize. “o me misere, what shall I do? Give them a self-righteous lecture on how slimness is not a virtue, or just accept the intended compliment? BEING A THIN FAT ACTIVIST IS SO HARD!”


Do you see what I was doing? I was taking the Cause I had so nobly appropriated, and making it all about me. It's a classic ally tactic: you see it in the white folks who go to womanist spaces to ask for advice on dealing with a coworker who uses racial slurs and it offends me and I feel I should speak up but I don't want to rock the boat and, oh, whatever shall I do? How can I ease my privileged-person conscience in a blaze of faux-deprecation that actually reinforces my privilege and how awesome it makes me feel?

Being an ally to any cause is full of pitfalls, but once you start to engage any deeper than the surface it's not hard at all. You just have to remember:

It's not about you. When in doubt, shut the fuck up.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to look at how overweight women in power (and especially politics) are looked down upon, as if it's just one more little notch that can bring a person down a point. Of course I'm drawing a blank in thinking of examples, but I think you get my point. It's an odd general attitude in a country where more people are overweight than not.

    The anti-fat sentiment is most bothersome, to me at least, in how it shapes young people. At 29, I'm now extremely comfortable in my size 12ish skin but it took a lot of years to get there. Growing up, being overweight just felt like such a handicap in social life and yet now I realize that it's such a construct. Yes, I might get frustrated when shopping for clothes, but I've never had a man complain about how I look naked! And I realize, in hindsight, there were probably plenty of folks attracted to my not-model body but too hampered by what they thought they were supposed to be attracted to to admit it, if that makes sense.

    I exercise, I eat decently, mostly because with heart disease running rampant in my family and my own body's way of absorbing everything, I simply want to feel healthy. I know that unless I went nuts, that will never mean shopping in 5/7/9 (if that store still exists). I'm fine with that and really do wish I could've told the 12 year old Emily these things. Sigh.