Saturday, February 9, 2008

The How, Part 3: Be an Example? The challenges of representing fat

The How: Part 3

Be An Example?

(The Challenges of Representing Fat)

Picking up an old series on how individuals can find their own particular niche in Fat/Size Acceptance activism, I've reached what may be the most controversial of the suggestions: Be an Example.

A great post over at FatGrrl talked about the mind games many of us play as fat people. Amongst the other gems that made me cringe with guilt (because we've all been there, played that) is number two: "You’ve seen a fat person in a store in one of those motorized scooters and thought 'that’s what gives us a bad name.'"

Now I created the original "How" post before a lot of the cobwebs of self-loathing had been chased out of the attics of my unconscious, so I hadn't yet realized that I, as a fat person, have participated in fat hate. I’ve been guilty, upon seeing a fat person on television or in person who fit a certain stereotype, of thinking “how dare he/she, when other people will see that and judge me by it.” This may have been part psychological projection, part acceptance of the pop paradigm, or entirely my own awful ignorance. It doesn't matter. I never got to the point of actually going to peoples' faces or blogs and hating on them, but a quiet bigot is still a bigot. If I'm being entirely honest with myself, I was a hater in my own head. I don’t think I’ve really come to terms with that until now. How dare I think I have any right to expect someone to live their life differently because it fit the way I see the world? How dare I heap more negativity on people who are already buried beneath it, when they are human beings deserving of my respect? How dare I presume to have any right to judge, or even know anything about a person’s life, simply because they don’t waste time trying just as hard as I do to conform? How dare I, when others were probably doing the same when they looked at me?

A hate crime enacted upon yourself or upon others who resemble you, should still be considered a crime.

It’s a pretty subtle trap, the idea that all fat people represent fat. As illustrated in the "Knapsack of Privilege," very few groups of people get to walk out their front door without being a representative for something. Few human beings can dress however they want, do whatever they want, eat however they want, or express themselves without having to stop and consider what it says about every other person who looks like them. This is an incredibly powerful state of mind that does more to prevent equality than many more overt barriers. No one escapes it entirely, but some groups cannot escape it at all.

The assumption of representation is designed to keep a group of people in line with what society is comfortable thinking about them. It works so well that the people themselves adopt it, creating a self-regulating stereotype. Another way to put this is to say that living in deliberate avoidance of stereotypes is still allowing stereotypes to control your life.

I’ve been just as quick as any other FA activist to pull out the “good fatty” argument. If someone tells me I wouldn’t be fat if I just exercised enough, I point to Jennifer Portnick, the size 16 aerobics instructor that works out 6 days a week and leads back-to-back classes. I offer up Fat Girl on a Bike as a fantastic example of someone who is at the peak of fitness without being thin. If someone pulls the “donuts and Twinkies” argument, I hit back with the fact that many fat people actually dislike rich or sugary foods, some are vegans, some control carefully for carbohydrates. This works well in those discussions where you know the other party is really not up to the mental exercise of actual science or math and needs a simple picture drawn for them. Now I wonder whether I’m helping or hurting FA by doing so.

So let’s look at reasons why.


Every movement throughout history has sought “poster people” who defy stereotypes and give the average citizen a real face to identify. Symbols are important, as they are easier to quickly grasp than studies when so much conflicting information is competing for our attention. If you are a beautiful woman who happens to be fat, it not only challenges the concepts of beauty pushed by the cosmetics and fashion industries, but serves as a positive message to those who still hate their own bodies. If you dress neatly and fashionably as a fat person, it challenges the idea that fat people never care about their appearance, or the infuriating “letting yourself go” theory of why fat people allow themselves to exist. If you eat healthy and exercise, it challenges the myth that doing such will make anyone thin.

The bias and hysteria over fat is so pervasive and under-challenged in mainstream culture that any tiny chip in the armor of certainty is a victory. The response to "well you're not a triathlete you fatty mcfatfat!" should be something like "No I'm not. But I can point to that person to challenge your first assumption. Now that it's out of the way, we can work on your assumption that you have any right to know or judge MY body or how I live MY life." When it comes to stereotypes and prejudice, sometimes you have to divide and conquer.

If you feel like your particular role in FA is to always appear well-dressed and perfectly groomed, become a positive role model in the community through volunteer work, promote HAES, or otherwise represent fat people, then that can be a positive force in changing minds and breaking down assumptions.


The healthy and positive use of representatives is a pretty narrow line to walk. The danger both within and without the FA community is the potential to start dividing fat people into “good fatties” and “bad fatties.” This is not inevitable, but it is a constant danger that takes vigilance to avoid.

A discussion I’ve seen in FA is whether there is a “cutoff” at which someone is too fat, even for a movement labeled “fat acceptance.” I believe this has a lot to do with ideas people have about the image of the movement and how it will be received, but the question itself is a trap. Do we start excluding diabetics and PCOS sufferers, contenting ourselves with seeking rights for the “healthy fat”? What about the fat people who actually do like donuts? Do we exclude anyone that might allow haters fuel for their vitriol? The answer is certainly “no”.

The risk from outside the FA movement is that people will use the division as confirmation by fatties themselves that only some fat people deserve equality. This could be used as an excuse to transfer all the bias from all the fatties onto a few, who will be more bereft of support than ever. The risk is even more divisive from within FA. If fat people themselves fall into the “good fattie, bad fattie” trap, we will alienate those within the movement who will most benefit from FA and most suffer from discrimination. FA is not about fighting for the rights of healthy fat people, it's about ensuring that every fat person is treated as a human being. Fat Acceptance cannot retain the title if it is not about fighting for human rights for every fat person, period. Sometimes the "good fatty" game can distract from that message, and alienate those who feel that it puts pressure on them to be something other than themselves in order to fit in.


Any tool in the arsenal against fat hate is useful, but any tool can be used with positive or negative results. There has to be a clear, consistant caveat to any use of representation that regardless of whether a fat person has a healthy diet or not, dresses fashionably or not, exercises or not, is married or not, is intelligent or not, is gay, straight, bi, diabetic, struggling with an ED, mobility-challenged, vegan, omnivore, tall, short, black, white, or any other state of being in addition to being fat, they are still human beings. Their weight, dress code, IQ, eating habits, activities, sexual nature or physical health is none of anybody’s business. No one gets to quiz them on their health history or lifestyle before passing judgement on them, because no one has the right to pass judgement on them in the first place. Fat people deserve equal rights and respect not because they are healthy, pretty, fit, disease-free or any other qualifier, but because they are first and foremost human beings.


Ashley said...

"Fat people deserve equal rights and respect not because they are healthy, pretty, fit, disease-free or any other qualifier, but because they are first and foremost human beings."

Yes, yes, yes. Wonderfully said, and your whole post as well was well thought out and important for all of us to consider.

Sass said...

Exactly! Great post.