Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Good Fattie

This post was inspired by MezzoShiri’s post “Addicted to Life

She brings up a theme that I’ve been struggling with myself, and have seen throughout the fatosphere as of late: The Myth of the Good Fattie.

One of these days someone will come up with a comprehensive “stages” list for Fat Acceptance, which a significant number of people pass through at some point or another on their path to body acceptance, although not everyone or in the same order.

One stage would be “ok for other people.” This means that you accept that other people could be happy with their bodies, but there’s something somehow radically unique about your own that makes it not an option for you.

Another would be the “Good Fattie” stage.

There is an idea that often crops up, if subconsciously, that somehow you have to “earn” fat acceptance by being as healthy as possible. If you exercise regularly and eat healthy and somehow escape disease or disability but remain fat, you are then relieved of an obligation to prove to people that it can be done. You can say, both to yourself and to others, “look, I do everything I’m supposed to. I’m fat and healthy. You can’t blame my lifestyle for my weight.”

But working hard, restricting your food and exercising while fat to justify your right to exist isn’t all that much different than doing all that to lose weight and justify your right to exist. They both start with the premise that you have to somehow earn your right to be a human being.

Don’t get me wrong here...if you’re active because you like to be active, or eat a certain way because that’s the food you like (or have religious or medical restrictions) then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact there’s everything right about that because you’re doing it for yourself. But if you can’t afford fresh produce every day, or you work two jobs (yes parenting counts as at least one full time job) and literally have no energy for anything but a microwave dinner and sleep, or you damn well don’t like vegetables, hate to exercise, are physically unable to exercise, etc......there’s nothing wrong with that either. The life you live as a fat person does not somehow disqualify you from deserving to be happy.

To the point, a quote from MezzoShiri’s post:

“But as I’m trying to find my own voice in FA circles, I can feel the weight of internal pressure about how I’m not being a “good example” of Fat Acceptance, and I’m not being any sort of example for the idea of Health at Every Size. Talk about cognitive dissonance.”

The Good Fattie kind of thinking does create a division in FA. I’ve seen questions from the beginning of my involvement about how the “Death Fat” (i.e. “morbidly obese”) or fat and sick feel they’re marginalized. There’s this fear that sick fatties especially serve as an example that contradicts the message of FA. So in-between, currently abled fatties serve as “poster children” for the movement, while the rest wonder how they fit in.

Is there hidden vestiges of fat prejudice behind this? Maybe there’s a part of me that I haven’t managed to excise yet which still contains the internalized message that I have to toe a certain line in order to deserve to be accepted as a fat person. Maybe I’ve transformed that message into the idea that I would be somehow “letting down the team” if I didn’t exercise and eat a balanced diet whenever I could afford to do so; That I have some kind of responsibility to the FA movement to be as perfect a representative as possible.

Or is it simply anticipating the fat prejudice of others? It could be that I’m afraid of being diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease (I expect both will show up in my life like genetic clockwork) because if I am fat and have one of the stigmatized “fat diseases” it will somehow take away the authority of my message. After all, wouldn’t I then be walking justification for all the “booga-booga-obesity!” hysteria? How can I say fat doesn’t cause diabetes if I’m fat and have diabetes?

No, what I think is more likely is that the real issue is self-confidence. Despite all my efforts towards banishing the self-hate and accepting my body in its natural state, there is still a part of me that feels I somehow have to earn the right to be treated as a human being. I still have that small lurking voice that tells me that I can only afford to be fat if I am Acceptable Fat, and toe the line of an acceptable lifestyle.

Now the first problem with that is that it hurts me personally. It attaches my self-image to the judgement of others, which is never healthy. I have made a point this summer of working on banishing the Acceptable Fat dependency in myself. Maybe peeling away those layers is what let me recognize this particular thought nugget.

The other problem is that no matter what my motivation, the myth of the good fattie lets itself out. By asserting my right to exist based on the premise that I exercise and eat healthy, I marginalize those who cannot or choose to not do those things. They, and I, have an inherent right to exist that has nothing to do with lifestyle or privilege. By hanging my lifestyle choices out like a flag of defiance I accomplish nothing but alienation. So I absolutely apologise if the unconscious belief in the Good Fattie has coloured my voice and opinions.

If I do believe that fat is not the cause of a person’s state of health, and if I do believe that everyone has the right to dignity and respect as a human being regardless of size, then it should naturally extend that they have that right regardless of health as well. Health issues are stigmatized in this country because we somehow still hold onto the Calvinistic belief that health is earned or forfeit through good behaviour. Supporting human rights for people of all sizes and states of health is accepting the idea that my own state of health is a combination of genetics and luck. It’s a heady thing to give up that illusion of control, but perhaps if health issues weren’t as stigmatized as they are, the superstitious need to blame something (previously sin, currently fatness) would also diminish. Or vice-versa.

All I know is that I really do believe that size acceptance applies at every point of the spectrum of body size. Healthy choices are possible at every point as well, but health is not a reflection of morality, any more than thinness or wealth.


Addendum: April D poked this topic with a "big old stick of introspection" that really heaped on more for me to think about! I highly recommend it.



Jen said...

The other problem is that some of us have been told all our lives it's okay to be fat as long as you're healthy.

I have health-privilege and learned from an early age to use that as a weapon against hate and judgment of my body type. As much as you will hear me say all people of all sizes deserve to be seen as humans and not clothing tags with numbers on them...I'm still judgmental...just not of size tags.

Not because I think there are Bad Fatties. Because I was raised to judge ALL unhealthy eaters as "less than" for making choices that were disrespectful to their bodies. In order to be a ***Good Person That Will Outlive You All So How Dare You Judge My Body*** I was taught to point out the unhealthy flaws in others, at least to myself, and out loud if someone were insane enough to say a word about going on a diet or my body type. (I am NOT saying this is an okay way to think. Only that it is how I think and don't know how to deprogram.)

Any suggestions on how to shift the perspective? Because even though it isn't against fat specifically, since I am fat it tends to get all tangled up in the FA thing.

Lori said...

Thanks for this post. I'm really struggling with this right now, as I'm pretty sure I'm going to be labelled officially hypertensive soon. I know, rationally, that it's not my fault because I'm fat. I've had high blood pressure readings on and off since I was 15. I have a strong family history on both sides of high blood pressure--I don't think there's a person on either side of my family over 40 who isn't on blood pressure meds. And, I have a history of panic/anxiety disorder, which increases your risk.

And yet, I feel like a failure, because the past few doctors visits my BP has been running about 140/70, not super high by any means, but enough to qualify me as hypertensive. And I've been fighting it and feeling bad about it, but it's finally hit me that I just need to accept it. Yeah, it's kind of disappointing that regular aerobic exercise and watching my diet and meditating ot reduce stress weren't enough to prevent it, but for all I know they staved it off for as long as they could, before genetics trumped lifestyle. Having high blood pressure is not an indictment on me for being fat. I'm not a bad fattie, or even an unhealthy person, because I have one health indicator that is not in the ideal range. And I think about all the grief and guilt I've caused myself over the years, each time I've had a high reading at the doctor's office, because deep down it felt like--despite the family history and huge risk increase that panic disorder brings--it was my fault and I was a failure.

Well, screw that. I haven't done anything wrong. The most compassionate thing I can do for myself is keep doing the things I'm doing--exercising, reducing stress, eating well--but also accepting that I cannot control everything, and that doesn't make me a bad fattie or a bad person. My doctor didn't chide me for being fat or blame me for it, and I should just be glad for that, rather than heaping abuse on myself. But, it's so, so easy to do in a culture that equates certain definitions of health as equivalent to moral virtue.

JoGeek said...

Jen: Since I'm also health-privileged at the moment, it's hard for me to say how to make that perspective shift. On the other hand, diabetes, heart disease, and a dozen different kinds of cancer run rampant in my family on both sides. It's only a matter of time before I'm fat and sick instead of fat and healthy. I'm hoping that by training myself to look at health as a "bonus", or temporary gift from the universe instead of a permanent state of being I can learn to eliminate the knee-jerk reaction to blame people for their health. With my family history it would be some kind of freakish anomaly if I managed to "outlive you all," regardless of how much tofu and yoga I take in. :-) Your comment brings to mind the advice in the "Lessons From the Fatosphere" book on how stopping the automatic body/clothing/hair judgement on other people helps shift your perspective and end your negative judgement on yourself. Of course just being aware is step one, which it sounds like you have. The idea of chanting affirmations makes me cringe, but maybe just starting to catch yourself when you are judging other people's behaviour or health is a good start if you pursue it aggressively. Every time you tell the judgemental string of consciousness to STFU, that's one step closer to accepting that your own health may or may not be transitory. Deprogram is a really good word for it :-)

Monica said...

I think that I, as an FA activist, use the "fat but healthy is possible" defense against those who don't understand or aren't willing to accept the movement frequently enough that it becomes possible for me to forget the more basic message we're espousing: fatties are people too. Our most basic message is one of universal human respect, kindness and decency towards everyone, regardless of how much adipose tissue zie has or doesn't have, what zie eats or doesn't eat, and how often zie exercises or doesn't exercise.

And that is where intersectionality comes in-- once you espouse respect, kindness, and decency for everyone based on one marker (fat), I think it becomes second nature to look at other markers (race, sexual and gender identities, etc.) and realize the world is a really screwed up place, and someone needs to do something about it, and I've already started.

And because health-privileged fatties often have the most spoons, our voices come across the loudest. We have the spoons not only to blog, frequently and often, but to actively promote our blogs and engage in discussion on other people's blogs.

So thank you for this post, because you've articulated some things I've been thinking about vaguely, and that enabled me to articulate some things of my own.

April D said...

So many good points in this points but perhaps this is what has made me reflect the most "Health issues are stigmatized in this country because we somehow still hold onto the Calvinistic belief that health is earned or forfeit through good behaviour."

I find that quite often I have to struggle NOT to cry out "But I AM doing everything right; see? SEE?? and Still FAT!" as a means of serving as that One More Example of how you can be fat and still win the Health Lottery.

Yet you've given me something to think about that I've felt nagging at me for a while now as I blog. Do I simply declare everything I do as a pre-emptive measure? Even though no matter how much I might protest I, for example, exercise; there are still folks eager to comment that I am either lying or still not doing Enough; do I find myself pointing out the "Good Fatty" behaviours in an attempt to re-iterate the points that Thin does not Equal Healthy sans exception? Or is it more of a personal defense mechanism... something like "Well yeah, of course we want FA for all...but also I'm being Good!" Which falls into that whole old dieting trap of "Being Good" that I HATE!

You've really helped me poke a little stick into something that I've been struggling with mentally for a bit so thank you. I'll stop rambling for now and try to work out some more how this is forming my responses to FA.

Jen said...

Thanks for the response, I think you're totally right. I'm all about telling my bad thoughts to STFU and I'll add this set to the list.

(love your blog, btw!)

Julie said...

My perspective is that the 'good fattie' state of mind is a direct result of the 'ZOMG! You fatties are costing us so much money in healthcare costs!' bullshit. Folks in FA feel the need to bring up the 'good fatties' to counteract the seemingly righteous indignation of the general populace, who are being fed obesity epidemic diatribe on a daily basis.
I think it's also attributable to the fact that many people naturally come to FA in a 'good fatty' state. They've been exercising and eating healthy in order to lose weight, to no avail.

Meems said...

I have the tendency to use my exercise habits as justification for my weight. I also have a lot of guilt about not eating "perfectly" even though I believe that people (regardless of weight) have the right to enjoy food.

For the most part, I'm also health privileged, though, similar to Lori, I have a strong family history of high cholesterol. Both my parents are on meds despite being "normal" weights. Mine has been borderline to high since I was in high school. Sure, it sucks to have something associated with being overweight, but I also know that it's more about my exercise and eating habits than my actual weight.

Frances said...

I sort of wrote about this on my blog:

There are two sides to the obesity argument: when people claim that all fatties are unhealthy, this should definitely be refuted because it just isn’t true. BUT if a fat person is unhealthy, that does not mean that they are morally inferior and deserving of scorn and hate.

Frances @ Corpulent

Anonymous said...

I don't think that so many of us need to be labeling ourselves as "unhealthy." Lowering the definition of high blood pressure from 160/100 to 140/90 sure sells a lot more high blood pressure medication. Just sayin'. Unless I'm mistaken, they've also lowered the threshold for obesity and diabetes in the past 20 years. More people think they're sick, and the drug make more $$.

Anonymous said...

Oops. "Companies." The drug companies.

Caitlin said...

I had an experience with this a couple of months ago, when I had raised blood sugar and had to go back for a fasting test. I was SO WORRIED I would be diagnosed with diabetes and then not be an example of a Healthy! Fat! Person! and be "just one more fat person with diabetes", a poster child for everything we're allegedly doing wrong.

It was insane, how the possiblity of being diagnosed with a fat-related illness hijacked my brain. And then I thought about it some more and got fucking annoyed about the fact that people wave type II diabetes around in healthy vs. unhealthy fat debates as if it's some magical moral compass of whether you're making the "right" choices -- as if it can be avoided by being a "good" fatty/person all your life, and having it is proof you're doin life wrong. What the fuck are we dealing with, scrofula?

The "good fattie" issue, where people feel FA doesn't want/represent them if they aren't as "healthy" as possible, concerns me a lot. FA is for EVERYONE. HAES is for people whose goal is "health", but rights and dignity and justice are for all.

Meowser said...

Saying weight is a poor proxy for health (which it is) shouldn't be the equivalent of saying, "Only people with perfect numbers need represent." (Incidentally, Lori, you are only "hypertensive" because the standards have been ratcheted down over the years. Soon anyone with a systolic over 90 will qualify, the way things are going.)

If I offer up examples of what I do that busts stereotypes, I do it for one reason and one reason alone: To jam the haters' circuits. The answer, "It's none of your business what my state of health is or what I eat" is perfectly justifiable and right, but too many people think it is their business and that they know exactly what we "all" do and why and what the outcome will be. Offering counterexamples crosses up their wires. All marginalized groups do this to some degree to break down the barriers to acceptance.

Alix said...

"The life you live as a fat person does not somehow disqualify you from deserving to be happy.

THAT is the most important line in your post. As usual, you write with amazing clarity and intelligence. I also appreciate that you didn't mask your vulnerability. It's necessary that people understand how their opinions affect us even when we don't want them to.