Friday, February 3, 2012

On Thinness and Fat Acceptance (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my series addressing the question of a caller on the first Body Love Revolution Telesummit. The caller was asking about the place for thin people (especially men) in the fat acceptance movement. Please read Part 1 for background.

I use "she" in this post because I am, in part, talking about my own experience in FA and I identify as female. This should not be taken to mean that people of other genders have not had the same experience or aren't welcome voices in FA.

The first part of the question outlined in Part 1 was whether we (i.e. fat acceptance activists) are hostile towards thin people. I think Marilyn Wann nailed this when she said we want to be all accepting, but, she said, there is still envy out there. While we would all like to think that once we become advocates for size diversity we suddenly consider everyone to be just like us, the truth is that we don't become activists in a vacuum. Many become activists because they are angry.

You see this often in anything that could be considered counter-culture. Some Pagans resent Christians. Some women resent men. Some fat people resent thin people. It is a perfectly natural first step towards breaking away from dominant culture; first reject the culture. My favorite name for it is the "Jan Brady Syndrome." See, as fat people, thin people are held up to us on a constant basis by everyone around us with the message "why can't you be more like Marcia?" This is a classic conflict between siblings, and often leads to trouble whether on the micro or macro scale. They are the ideal, and we are the failure. How can anyone come away from that without some resentment?

It is only after we have broken away and put space between us and the false ideal, and learned to love ourselves as we are and for what we can do, that this anger fades. It's something we should all work towards, with self-forgiveness and patience. Remember, though, that a freshly minted fat activist is just now struggling with the idea that they spent all their lives fighting desperately and futilely towards being just like Marcia, engaging in self-loathing and harm along the way. She has just had the massive paradigm shift that not only is she okay just as she is, but has ALWAYS been okay, even when everyone was telling her she wasn't. This is an amazing, liberating, uplifting revelation. But it also makes us angry. Really angry. We've wasted decades of our lives hating ourselves unnecessarily, envying the effortlessly skinny girls who had everything we wanted. We are conflicted, and ready to lash out.

This is why you see people projecting that frustration by making claims that fat people are somehow better than thin. You see slogans about how "real women" have curves (or eat cake, etc.). This is a defensive posture, because we still feel like we have to fight to assert and accept our identity as a fat person. We call thin people twigs, or make snide comments about them needing a cheeseburger. This is a perfectly normal psychological move to convince ourselves that we are normal, desirable, and generally okay. It is pushing back. We are making space for ourselves not only in the world, but in our heads.

Many people have moved beyond this stage. It should be a stage. We should actively work towards making it as short as possible. Some people skip it altogether, or only need a week. Some people need years. However long it takes, it takes.

What does this mean for thin people who have thrown their effort, their indignation, and sometimes their reputations in with us to fight for size diversity? It means you need a certain level of patience. You need to understand that it isn't personal. You can set specific boundaries with your FA friends and colleagues (i.e. "please don't make snarky comments about thin people; I identify as one and those comments are hurtful to me.") without getting on a soapbox or exchanging like for like. You can acknowledge the history and hurt, the defensiveness and fear that if we let our guard down for even a moment, our thin friends may cause us pain by some unthinking comment or action. It means really examining thin privilege, and knowing that it's difficult for us that we speak the same message, but yours is the only one people hear. That's why we can make fat jokes, but you can't. Even though you can't help the way you're made anymore than we can.

What does this mean for fat people fighting for body diversity? Remember that thin people have a personal, vested effort in making this a world where body diversity is the norm. They have privilege, but they do not live in a vacuum. They have friends, family, children, spouses, employers, employees, and others affected by prejudice. They may be recovering from or have an eating disorder triggered by our culture's fear of fat. They may gain weight as they age and want to be able to still love themselves. They are bombarded every day with messages that their worth to the world and the love they experience is contingent entirely on them not allowing their bodies to change. We also need to remember that thin people can't help the way they're made. They're living the size they come in.

The ideal (and goal) should be for everyone to acknowledge that we are all part of the same human family. We all come in the size we are, and none of us can help it. We should acknowledge that the very thin people suffer prejudice and snark and negative assumptions about their mental and physical health, and that the medium thin have to fight falling into our cultural trap of obsessing about their weight to stay thin.

But we're talking about human beings here, with human fallibility and emotions. The anger is a reality that must be acknowledged, respected, and resolved.  Remember that we cannot control our emotions, and have a right to feel them.  What we can control is what we do with and in reaction to those emotions.  Do we use them constructively or destructively?

It's not reasonable to expect us to become enlightened overnight, anymore than it's reasonable to expect everyone to examine and relinquish social privilege on demand. It's been five or more years and I still struggle with the little commenter in my own head that sees a very thin girl and starts diagnosing eating disorders (especially now that I've been studying the DSM).  I still experience some sharp stab of envy when I see someone in awesome retro clothes I can't wear.  With a lot of patience, though, I can work towards the ideal of letting that go and respecting all bodies the way I want to be respected. 


Brian said...

Thin shaming has no place in fat acceptance, but that shouldn't oblige us to erase and minimize fat shaming by regarding thin shaming as someone equivalent. Its just not. And thin shaming from fat people is an especially different beast from fat shaming. Resentment from an oppressed people may not be fair or constructive, but equalizing it to their oppression just compounds a problem. You are absolutely right that we need to address this without grandstanding that only serves to recenter a discussion away from people who are being oppressed. Its no different from "what about the men?" or "when's white history month". Hating men or white people may not be constructive, but as a white man if I don't get why people might hate or resent me, then I'm part of the problem. If I try to make the discussion about me or expect anyone else to do so, then I'm just enforcing privilege. That's going to do a lot more harm than isolated cases of oppressed persons responding to stigmatization and shaming with resentment.

JoGeek said...

Brian: I agree that they aren't equivilent because of the kyriarchy involved. But I guess the point is that while thin shaming is understandable, that doesn't make it okay.

"Hating men or white people may not be constructive, but as a white man if I don't get why people might hate or resent me, then I'm part of the problem."

Well said!

JoGeek said...

I came across this very relevant gem in the Dances With Fat archive. It's an extension of this conversation, but her words are pretty perfect all on their own so I'm going to just link.

Alexie said...

The issue here is that body size isn't fixed. There are thin women who are going to be fat, and fat women who may find themselves thin.

I'm one of those. I was a fat woman. I got the lot - hiring discrimination, medical discrimination, difficulties in finding appropriate clothing, blah blah. But then I got seriously, seriously ill with a disease that ate me alive and now I'm thin.

Who knows? Maybe I'm a fat woman in a temporarily thin body. That's more than likely, according to the research.

The point is, unlike race or gender, fat and thin are constantly in flux and a thin person today may find themselves very fat tomorrow. Regardless of where we are, body policing and shaming hurts everyone.

I am not sure what my point is. I would feel very weird claiming a fat space while I'm thin and it would be very weird for a thin person to be prominent in FA, unless they were someone like Linda Bacon. But at the same time, I don't need to be instructed on the fat person's experience, because I've lived it. I guess all I can do is try and disrupt body policing when I come across it, because it hurts everybody, fat or thin.

JupiterPluvius said...

Alexie, what you say is so resonant for me. I have been a strong body acceptance advocate for years now, and as someone else who is losing weight because of illness (don't even get me started on the "you look great!" crap that presupposes I must be excited about the diminution in my body mass because my organs aren't working properly) I am trying to figure out how to navigate my place in the dialogue.

I think body policing is always, always wrong, but pretending that all body policing is the same and has the same context and impact isn't going to move anyone's understanding further.

Erin said...

I'm new here but it was great to read Parts I & II. I'm pretty new to FA, started reading Linda Bacon's haes blog and feel like things are slowly falling to place and I can transition myself to adopt that philosophy (in place of an eating disordered one.)

My three closest friends (all of whom identify as thin & one is a model) aren't really into FA. They aren't anti-FA, or at least not to my face, but I sort of feel in my own recovery I really need acceptance. And not just FA, but overall acceptance. Acceptance that my current roommate (the model) can drink every night and eat after midnight and not *think* about her weight. I could do all of that, but I'd drive myself crazy! It's acceptance that my body isn't like hers, doesn't look like hers, doesn't metabolize like hers, doesn't function like hers.

That's the acceptance I've been practicing for the past several months and it's going ok. I'm not really into thin shaming but I've noticed how subtle fat shaming is sometimes, even with well-minded people who I think don't engage in fat discrimination. Like the other day, an actor was pounding down a beer, and he looked maybe a teeny bit overweight, and my roommate said he needed to put the alcohol down. Of course, it was like the one day during the week that decided I *could* have a beer, too. And I am without a doubt, significantly more overweight than this guy. I know she would never say that to me, "lay off the beer" but it bothered me. It still bothers me to know she thinks he doesn't deserve something that he wants because he doesn't look the way she wants him to look.

And it's hard to have that conversation, you know?