Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fat as Luxury: 1977 Letter From the Fat Underground

I first came across this letter via a post at Red. 3. It is a 1977 letter from one of the first Fat Activism groups in the U.S. to a fictional therapist created as an amalgation of the "radical therapists" they were trying to involve in Size Acceptance. It strikes me that now, 30 years later, the essential facts and points of the letter are not only just as true, but may not even be any less radical in the face of accepted public policy and social assumptions. Why is that? The letter might contain the answer:

"I know that you consider support for liberation movements to be a basic part of your work as a radical therapist. That is why I left our last conversation feeling hurt and angry, sensing that you consider fat liberation to be some sort of "luxury" we fat people can't really afford."

The concept that being fat or thin is an actual conscious choice, rather than a biological reality, is probably the largest obstacle to FA and Size Acceptance. When the concept that one has no more choice in their body's natural size than those born tall, short or olive-skinned manages to seep into public consciousness, then and only then will we have a fighting chance for acceptance, equal access, and humanization. The myth of choice may the hardest hurdle to cross, even for those of us who realize its essential fallacy. Often even our allies against Sizism will, somewhere in their paradigm, still see fatness as a "luxury" or "lifestyle choice" to be "tolerated" rather than a state of being to be accepted.

Kate Harding did an excellent piece on The Fantasy of Being Thin, talking about the magical thinking surrounding thinness and the pseudo-religious belief that being thin would not only solve all your problems, but magically transform you into a better, more likable person. This belief is certainly not limited to the fat person's own feelings of self worth, but is echoed by teachers, doctors, therapists, friends, family, and all the well-meaning people who's only advice for a myriad of conditions, from depression to loneliness, is to lose weight.

The venemous fat-haters and trolls are easy to ignore by simply reminding yourself that they are just lashing out from their own self-loathing, projecting their inferiority complex on the object of their fear, or simply being ignorant ass-hats who never learned any better. Harder to ignore are the people who honestly care (or think they do) about your well being. Their lack is that of real information. They do manage to seperate the fat from the person inhabiting it, but they are often as deeply entrenched in their fear and hatred of that fat as their crueler counterparts. They'll tell you to be happy with who you are, but in a way that implies you should do so to somehow compensate for the "negatives" of fatness, or in the hope that a positive attitude will help you stick to a weight-loss plan. They'll try to compliment you by asking if you've lost weight, but with the implication that doing so should be intrinsically tied to beauty or your own happiness. These people are harder to fight, because they really do think they're being kind. They often subscribe to the idea that fat is a disease that can be treated, with all of life's ills as symptoms. They believe that treatment for the "disease" is a matter of choice, and therefore, so is fat.

Even many who are supportive of Fat Acceptance are secretly in the "fat as luxury" paradigm. They say they believe you have the right to be accepted no matter what you look like, but in the same tone as they would defend dress, hairstyle, or brand of vehicle. Their true belief, if you dig down far enough, is most likely the right to choose whatever lifestyle you prefer. Unfortunately they never get rid of the idea that fat is a lifestyle choice, rather than a genetic and biological reality. Perhaps they were never fat themselves, and can't help the hypnotic implant of thousands of ads and pharmaceutical company sponsored research. Perhaps they still have some lingering self-loathing that they have never managed to shake. As long as someone is fat and healthy they are willing to stand with them and fight for their rights. Their support is helpful and welcome in that they do lend a voice to improve conditions for fat people. If the fat person becomes unhealthy, however, whether it be joint problems or some disorder inherited from their parents, the advocate is likely to turn one day and say something along the lines of "enough is enough now. It's been fun, but you can't afford the luxury of indulging in this lifestyle of being fat any more."

This concept of fatness being an indulgence hovers behind every act of discrimination, every negative media story, every discussion over whether schools should have a coke machine. Behind the smoke and mirrors of pseudoscience, humiliation, isolation, assumed health risks and attractiveness lies the foundation of believing "fat is a choice." From that is extrapolated the questions as to why we would "choose to be fat," and excuses any and all dangerous and dehumanizing methods to make us change our minds. That is the first domino to tip in the fight to be treated as equals in the world. All the data showing that fat isn't necessarily unhealthy, all the pieces that show fat isn't necessarily unattractive, and all the fights against specific stereotypes of fat people must start with the refutation of fat as a choice. We must first prove without a doubt (and the proof is out there in many forms!) that one is fat because of unavoidable natural factors that cannot be corrected. That proof must be made a part of public consciousness through constant repetition and informational campaigns, not just accessible by those whose minds are already changed. Until that is done, all other evidence and arguments can be misinterpreted by fat-phobics as attempts to justify or defend a "choice". Once that first domino is tipped, the rest (being treated as human beings, removing stereotypes, equal access to medical and legal care, etc.) can't help but follow. I'm not suggesting that all other efforts be put on hold, however. Violations of human decency such as adoption denials, children taken from the home, pressure to have organs amputated through WLS, and denial of health insurance, are real here-and-now issues that demand a response, but once the stigma of choice is removed, I believe the other battles will become easier.

As far as us fatties, we (ask Kate Harding explained) need to let go of magical thin thinking. Most of us will never be thin, but some will still kill themselves one pound at a time for the Holy Grail of thinness. We will waste time, money, life and health seeking that cooler, sleeker, sexier, smarter, and beloved imaginary person we think is hiding somewhere behind the fat cells. We need to let that person go. We need to realize what we are capable of as humans (which is a LOT) and understand that the ideal person inside us doesn't need to claw it's way out through the adipose tissue. It's a state of mind, a release of fear, and the realization that the "thin person waiting to get out" may actually be a fat person waiting for you to recognize and accept him or her as part of you.


vesta44 said...

Yeah, what you said.

Shade said...

You've got it dead on. But the question I've been wrestling with is "how?" It seems to me that blogs are GREAT for mutual support, but lousy at reaching those who most need to be convinced. How do we break down the "you just want an excuse to be lazy" wall?

Any ideas?

JoGeek said...

My response to "how" turned into a entire blog post all its own. In fact, it turned into what may end up as a series. See my entry for Sunday December 9th. The short answer, of course, is "baby steps"