Sunday, December 9, 2007

Follow Up: The How

On Wednesday I posted a blog talking about how the popular assumption that fat is a choice is our primary obstacle to Size Acceptance. In the comments, Shade asked a really good question. How do we work to destroy that assumption? It's all well and good to analyze a problem, but what about solutions? I didn't respond in the comments because I could tell the answer would be long enough that it would need its own post. Oh boy did it. Sorry to put out such a long post when I'm finally out on the Fatosphere feed, but hopefully it's at least something that will prove useful. You might want to read the original post for reference.

From what I've seen since my recent belly-dive into SA, everyone would/does have a unique idea about how this could be solved. Of course, being actual complex and diverse human beings instead of just mass-produced representatives of a cause, each idea will work for one segment of fat activists, but not so well for another. That's why there's so many different organizations out there. If we were all cookie-cutter replicas of one physical, political, philosophical, religious, racial and socio-economic mold, we could all join one international Size Acceptance organization, throw ourselves behind a single message and be done with it.

We're not.

So that being said, the question of "How" in response to any problem cannot be answered with a single solution. Each person will have different capabilities, time restrictions and comfort levels. Expecting each and every supporter of Size Acceptance to drop everything in their lives to march on Washington waving a sign is unrealistic. It is as counter-productive to try and convert them to your own brand of activism as it would be to try and convert them to your particular concept of divinity.

It is the responsibility of any individual to determine what they are able and willing to do in response to any problem. Taking on that responsibility begins with finding a single cause or action you can agree with and feel strongly about, then do what you can to gather the tools you need to fight it within your capabilities. Not everyone can form a national organization. In truth, if everyone tried to do so the playing field would be so cluttered that fighting for supporters and resources amongst the organizations would eclipse the purpose they began with. There's enough fight for everyone to take a piece. There are a few approaches that are only mutually exclusive if those choosing a particular approach try and force their choice on others. If we all remind ourselves that effective activism cannot be single-minded without becoming dogmatic, we many find that the paths others walk happen to also lead to our own destination.

That being said, I've seen the following theories that may work for those seeking to start tackling actual solutions. The approaches, pros and cons are entirely my subjective interpretation, so I'm certain there are things I'm overlooking. These are also generalities. I'll expand them into specific examples in future blogs.

1. Get out the Science

Speaking as a geek, science is our greatest tool against myth. It's difficult in SA, however, to separate the junk science sponsored by the pharmaceutical and diet industry from the truly objective study. When a study does come out, it's often ignored or misinterpreted by the press. That's why it's important to broadcast objective studies as widely as possible. This may involve blogging to spread the study to other Size Activists, but from there it needs to go wider. Send studies to your local paper, especially if one of the reporters has a history of fat-friendly coverage. Send studies to national news organizations such as NPR or BBC, Time, Newsweek, or even traditionally fat-negative publications like Reader's Digest. Keep an address book group in e-mail, or a snail-mail address list for these contacts, and send the information every time a new study comes out. If the study data is fat positive but the summary isn't, include a note re-interpreting the data or pointing out discrepancies in the conclusion. This is a hands-on but not a face-to-face confrontational method of spreading information.

Pros: A good return on time investment. If you take an hour each time a new study makes the rounds of SA blogs you can have a far-reaching effect. If several people send the same study to a publication they'll be more likely to actually take interest in it, so your efforts are multiplied.

Cons: You may get responses, sometimes even negative ones from the publications. It's important to realize that not everyone is going to be immediately convinced, so it may require some ability to brush off ignorant people. You may want to experiment with which reporter you contact, so that you can find the most objective or fat-friendly one.

I go into more detail at: The How: Get Out the Science

2. Know the Facts and FAQ's

Sometimes simply knowing what to say in response to stereotyping is an important and positive way of defeating ignorance. Actually studying fat as you would any other topic for school prepares you for difficult conversations and confrontations in the real world. Be able to quote facts and studies. If you're good at percentages, that's a perk. Most of us could get by with simple things like "you know, a study was done that proved you can't make a naturally thin person permanently fat or a naturally fat person permanently thin?" Read the FAQ's on FA blogs and organization websites, and be prepared when questions come up.

Pro's: When the topic comes up in conversation, that may be your only opportunity to refute stereotypes. Once that moment has passed it's often awkward to bring it up again. Be able to answer questions, refute common stereotypes, etc. on the spot and you will be able to be a spokesperson without coming across as a fanatic.

Con's: Some people just don't have a head for facts, and aren't comfortable putting themselves out in a conversation. That's why different approaches work for different people. Just being able to calmly point out general ideas, and maybe knowing a few websites like Shapely Prose and Junkfood Science would allow you to refer people and let others do the speaking.

More Details at: The How: Be a Knower

3. Be an Example

If fat people are fit and eat well, they are able to serve as walking examples of how a healthy diet and exercise will not reduce adipose tissue beyond the natural "set-point" of a person's body, even if that set-point still falls under the arbitrary definition of "obese". If fat people are always well dressed, made-up and coiffed, it challenges stereotypes. If fat people are busy and productive, it destroys bias. This particular solution is for those who would rather serve as an example than take a more confrontational approach to activism.

Pro's: People respond well to different forms of evidence, and the kind of person who will write off every statistic and scientific study you can throw at them may only be convinced by an actual person you can point to and say, "see, that person, that group of people defy every assumption behind your theory that fat people only need to exercise and eat well." The people who interact with you will take away a certain impression of a fat person that will serve as a buffer against hate.

Con's: The biggest objection to focusing on examples is that there's a danger of dividing people into "good" and "bad" fatties. Those who cannot exercise regularly for reasons of mobility and pain often feel marginalized by those insisting that fat people must keep themselves in peak fitness just to prove someone wrong. There is also the risk of only half a battle won; where fat people who don't exercise or eat healthy are still treated as subhuman by the rest of the world. Personally, I don't think every solution has to be "all or nothing," and there is such a thing as a foot in the door. I do think it's important to make HAES part of a greater whole instead of the primary focus, but I also think it's a very positive form of activism for those who choose to adopt the HAES lifestyle. As far as the personal appearance approach goes, some would say that forcing themselves to an ideal of artificial beauty through fancy clothes and make-up just to avoid resembling a stereotype is dehumanizing in its own right, and living your life deliberately to avoid resembling a stereotype is still allowing a stereotype to control your life. This issue is complicated, but either side has excellent arguments as to why it works or doesn't work for them.

4. Don't Accept Negative Portrayals

One of the tried-and-true methods of activism is the letter writing. If you see a negative ad, product, media story, movie, etc., it is important to realize that they cannot feel your hurt and anger from the corporate office. Oftentimes they're not even aware that their portrayal or coverage of fat issues was negative, they might simply not know any better. Or they might. Either way, letting them know how you feel is a positive step for Size Acceptance, regardless of how it's received. Write the company (e-mail if you have to, but paper letters have greater impact). Let them know what you are specifically objecting to or felt insulted by. Give them some facts that show them why their actions or words were unacceptable (NAAFA and other organizations have downloadable brochures on their website so you can keep the letter simple and include information separately) and ask them to be more considerate in the future. Be calm and rational. Many organizations have tips on writing an effective protest letter.

Pros: This is a method for those who are good with words and able to organize their thoughts clearly. It is most effective when several people write, so be sure to get the word out via blogs and forums when you do send a letter so that others can respond as well.

Cons: This can be somewhat time consuming, but having a few standard letters (i.e. a "media" response letter, an "ad" response letter, etc.) and editing them to be pertinent to the situation will cut down on that time. You may get negative responses from time to time, so be prepared to keep your spirits up.

5. Boycott

Companies, TV shows, movies, etc. are all effective targets for boycott if their product or practices are offensive. There's a difference between "just not shopping there anymore" and an actual boycott. In the latter, you inform the company (both the branch and parent company) that you are boycotting them. You give your reasons for doing so, and present a list of things they can fix in order to regain your business (i.e. larger sizes in the store, no more fat jokes in the episodes, no more diet ads in the magazine, etc.). Then you spread the word to encourage others to do the same.

Pros: This is an effective method because you hit them in the wallet instead of the social conscious (often a much smaller target). It also teaches businesses how to better serve their fat clientele overall.

Cons: This may involve sacrifice of clothes or products that you like. It's a matter of priorities and some people may not have enough alternative options if they have to boycott their only good clothing source, for example.

6. Don't Accept Bad Behavior

This means that when someone on the bus behind you cracks a fat joke, you turn around and confront them (calmly). When your co-workers criticize someone for their weight, you try to educate them. When a family member pressures you to diet, you tell them why you won't. This is an every single day commitment to fight prejudice wherever you encounter it. It's important to do so in a way that changes their mind instead of reinforcing their stereotypes, so you may want to practice encounters on friends or family so you know your words and can speak them with authority. It requires you to remain calm even in the face of hate, and to risk confrontation with strangers.

Pros: This puts the activism where it needs to be, in the every-day thinking of the average person. When it's effective it is incredibly empowering, and you know that you were responsible for changing a single mind, which may ripple out to change others.

Cons: It takes incredible courage to confront a stranger on his/her assumptions, especially when they're being hateful. It may take more to confront a friend, family member, doctor or teacher when they display sizist thinking. Clear thinking, study to know what to say, a very calm temper and a certain amount of human psychology is needed, but small changes can be made every day as you are comfortable.

7. Use Your Creativity

Poetry, fiction, art, photography, theater and other creative ventures provide a way for the audience to connect to and identify with fat on a deep-rooted level that no scientific study could possibly reach. If you have a creative streak, think about how you can use it to promote positive images of Size Acceptance and size diversity.

Pros: People receive information in different ways, so this provides more diversity in how size acceptance messages are transmitted to the public. A picture or poem may say more about the subject than an essay could ever hope to cover.

Cons: Obviously not everyone has creative talent, so this may not be an option for everyone.

8. Get Political

Projects like Cofra's Fat 50 initiative are helping to gain ground in achieving legal protection for people of size. Currently only Michigan and a few cities in California have weight as part of their non-discrimination policy. Contact your municipal, county, or state government to try to add "weight" (Michigan includes "height and weight") to the legal non-discrimination policy. Organize others in the same area to combine efforts.

Pros: Legal protection without being classified as disabled will help provide a legal foundation to fight medical, employment, accessibility and other barriers to Size Acceptance.

Cons: This may involve you to be a very visible activist to be effective. You should probably be (or have someone in the group that is) comfortable talking to the press, calling supporters and political representatives on the phone or speaking to them in person.

9. Get Local

Fight sizism where it counts: in your backyard. Does your local library carry size-acceptance books, like Paul Campos and Marilyn Wann? How about your local middle and high-schools' libraries? Is the gym at your community center size friendly? What kind of message does your local school give children as far as health and weight? Could you talk to your PTA or school board about size acceptance, especially concerning gym and health classes? Is there a local scout troop that could benefit from learning about size acceptance? How does your paper treat people of size? Approaches could range from letter writing, fundraising to buy books for schools, teachers, libraries and scout leaders by SA authors, to public speaking and workshops.

Pros: Local action allows you to do something meaningful where your actions produce faster results than at the national level. It also affects you personally, as it helps create an accepting environment where you live.

Cons: It involves direct activism where you live, so many people will balk at being known in their own town as a fat activist. It may also involve being a somewhat public figure, speaking skills, and depending on how visible you become, being interviewed. Those who won't be willing to give up their fatphobia may make life uncomfortable for you since they live in the same town.

10. Get Organized

On a national level, there's really not a lot of reasons why anything would need to be started from scratch in the U.S. There's a lot of organizations with projects in the works to cover a lot of different issues through different methods. World-wide, on the other hand, I see a lot of posts from people lamenting the lack of national organizations to join. A group lends the power of numbers to any message, so while individual efforts are important, it is equally important for there to be collective action on a larger scale. I'll go into more detail when I do a separate post on this, but one thing I have to point out. The one thing all organizations have in common is that someone actually started it. Someone, or a small group, decided they wanted something done, that an organization could be formed to accomplish it, and just started it. Every giant multinational organization probably started with a small group or a single person with an idea and a willingness to do the work to accomplish it. It really doesn't have to be any more complicated than that.

Pros: Starting an organization or joining an existing one means that your voice is combined with many others to greater effect. There is some of the work shared (although the leaders really should expect to do the majority of the work) and provides encouragement through others with similar goals and experiences.

Cons: Organizations = Politics. When humans gather, they will automatically begin to pass bylaws, disagree, splinter and faction. I've never heard of an organization that could remain permanently utopic. Prepare for it, understand that you will never be in complete agreement with all members of the organization, and try to recognize/deal with/excise interpersonal drama before it interferes with the group's purpose.

So this ended up longer than I thought and I'm still only in the generalities. I'll make a point of future posts expanding the concepts in this one and applying activism suggestions specifically back to eliminating the "fat as choice" myth, amongst others. In the meantime, if you have suggestions, please feel free to comment!


Stefanie said...

Hi, JoGeek:

I think the biggest difficulty with debunking "fat is a choice" is because for a small minority (under 5%) of people, dieting *does* seem to work. This is no doubt a matter of genetics as well - but it makes it difficult, because everyone thinks, "I could just be in that few percent if I just had more will power ... worked out more ... ate more carbs ... ate less carbs ... didn't have emotional issues ..." and so on.

Also, the gym/workout industry has made it their marketing "mantra" that if you use our product, you will lose weight. ("Results guaranteed!") They - and the medicla profession - have been responsible for linking exercise to weight loss (when the reality is far more complicated, and where exercise generally *doesn't* lead to weight loss.) And there's that small percentage who find that huge amounts of excessive exercise *do* "get results." So everyone thinks that applies to them, too.

Some of it is also selective attention. When a woman is pregnant, for instance, she thinks there's an epidemic of pregnancy everywhere. Usually there isn't; she just notices the preggos more. It's the same thing with weight - because all our social attention is focused on the "donut-stuffing fat people," we literally are blind to thin people who eat a lot as well. Thus we "see" a relationship between eating and fat that probably isn't there - because we're only focusing on how (we think) fat people eat.

Your activism points are all well taken. However, if there's the slightest percentage of hope in people's minds that they too can go from fat to thin, fat acceptance is a challenging row to hoe.

charlie said...

This is a great post, well considered.

I am fairly new to SA, and I must say it's still a bit of a "challenging row to hoe", but it's getting easier by the day and it's only been a month and a half. I feel like I've been given permission to exist, in some fundamental way. If they came out with some safe, permanent weight loss intervention I still might take it - that "percentage of hope" - but just two months ago I would have happily guinea-pigged myself into painful and untested studies that contained a risk of sudden decapitation if there was a better than nil chance that it would make me slimmer. That's INSANE. I've been dieting since I was 11, and what I wanted was a rest.

I don't think I'm alone, and it's the people like me, the diet fatigued, the ones who don't want to have to hate themselves on society's request anymore, that will adopt SA even if it's swimming upstream. Saying "It's okay not to tell yourself you suck because of the body you have", and "there are lots of us with you", gave me both love and understanding, and I think there are lots of people waiting to give themselves that permission. Those like me will work at least as hard as they did on their diet to believe SA: and we've all been working HARD on diets, sometimes for years at a time, until something slips.

The thing that really spun me around was Shapely Prose saying over and over: you're not a freak that your diets and lifestyle changes and hours at the gym aren't making you skinny. That's who you are: and there's nothing wrong with that. That's good, too; I only started working out regularly when I made it clear at my new gym that my trainer was not allowed to twin exercise with weight loss. I was hear to be a fat woman working out, not to be liberating my slim self. Because when it becomes about the weight loss, I have to start starving: until my whole world is about food, and I'm thinking every minute of every day about that next 100 calories. Then, when I go off to stop the pain, I end up much less healthy than I am when I'm my normal self. The only time I want to eat the diet of Twinkies so used in fat-slander is when I'm on a diet.

That, and the art has hugely helped. Adipositivity. Latifah singing in Hairspray (Why hug a twig when you can climb the whole tree? She's gorgeous.) It's about social messages, and I need that. I'm more of a follower than I thought!

It was painful for me at first: but I'm learning, because I want to live. Really live. Without apology.

Stefanie said...

Hi, Charlie: I really could relate to what you said: "you're not a freak that your diets and lifestyle changes and hours at the gym aren't making you skinny."

That's been really important for me, too.

Lindley said...

Thank you so much for this post! One of the most difficult steps of activism is going from "hey, this is interesting, but I don't know how I could possibly help" to "well I could do this, and this, and that's not too hard either." In the space of reading this I went from the first to the second, and now I'm bursting with ideas.