This is part 4 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.
In this post, I'm addressing the element of the question that is how a thin person can respectfully lend their support to the movement without co-opting the voices or having personal experience as a target of weight bigotry.
1. Every Experience is Different.
Let me start off with addressing the fact that everyone has some experience with prejudice. Whether you were bullied as a child for some arbitrary reason, or received snarky comments and hostility from service personnel or people in authority, everyone has had some experience. The trouble is that most people have trouble with the abstract thinking involved in extrapolating their experience to that of others. You can't assume that everyone felt or reacted the same way, because so much depends on personality, resources, and the level of empowerment you were allowed to develop throughout your life.
So when you say you've experienced, say, prejudice as a gay man, you'll probably get a response that somehow expresses how different that experience was from that of the fat person you're talking to. If done without a lot of insight, this can lead to a "more oppressed than thou" exchange. "Sure you got fired because your boss is homophobic, but at least you can HIDE what makes you different if you choose! I can't just not tell people I'm fat! That's why I can't get hired in the first place!"
Picking apart this exchange, you find that the fat person feels that they have to somehow defend and justify their experience and feelings. You may be trying to relate to them by extrapolating an experience of your own, but they may easily take it as (a) one-upmanship or (b) an attempt to negate or minimize their experience and what they're feeling. Your experiences are your own and you are an excellent witness to them; but don't assume that your experiences are similar to another's. Comparing oppressions is a no-win situation. Turn this into a more constructive conversation that acknowledges both experiences.
2. Examine Your Privilege.
As a thin person, you have certain benefits the world grants you whether you seek them or not. When you are in FA, you need to realize that a fat person's navigation of the world is very different. It's easy to say, "why don't you just do/say this?" when you do not have the weight of many years of intimidation and damage in your history. For instance, it's easy to suggest standing up to an asshat on a bus, but doing so is an act of extraordinary courage when you've been taught all your life to not draw attention to yourself and expect violence and shame when you do.
You also have privilege when it comes to many other areas of life. Understand that when you invite a fat friend to go clothes shopping, they may not find clothes they can wear in the store you visit. In addition, going to the mall or a size-limited clothing store means standing out like a sore thumb, getting glares from supercilious staff and hearing mocking titters from other shoppers. It can be an exercise in humiliation. Respect a friend's discomfort if they don't want to go. Or, if you take a fat friend shopping, plan to spend at least as much time in stores that carry clothes they can wear.
3. Put your money where your mouth is.
Your thin privilege does give you power in the world that can be wielded quite effectively against size prejudice. Clothing stores might not be used to hearing from customers who COULD be shopping in their store, but refuse to do so until they carry quality plus-size lines. Avoid giving money to companies that promote fat-hate (i.e. Subway, Slimfast) and let them know why. You have a lot of opportunity to make a real difference.
4. Let the fat person's words be heard.
Give them a chance to speak, be visible, and be confident in defending themselves. Validate their experience. They may be grateful for you standing up to defend them in a confrontation, but if they're already doing a good job of it, be willing to take a supporting role. Encourage fat people to speak through blogs, events and forums, instead of speaking for them. Then you can add your own voice. Acknowledge that they are the best witness to their experience, especially with prejudice.
If you were in on the Thursday, 2/2 Telesummit, you would have heard a wonderful example of this practice from Linda Bacon, a fierce ally in the fight for size diversity and HAES. She deferred to Ragen Chastain (a fat professional dancer and HAES advocate) and solicited her opinion and experience throughout the call, and made sure that she didn't dominate the conversation. When Ragen was cut off by a technological glitch, Linda tried her best to answer a caller's question about Ragen's experience based on what she'd been told, but worded it in a way that did not co-opt Ragen's voice and recommended that the caller ask Ragen again sometime to make sure she got Ragen's answer. She was respectful and professional.
5. Respect the triggers.
Don't complain about your own weight. In fact, eliminate negative body talk from your conversations altogether. Don't criticize food choices, activity levels, or talk about dieting. Don't ask if someone is losing weight; especially in a tone of voice that implies that it's assumed to be a positive change. If someone wants you to know their body is changing, they will bring it up. If you don't know the triggers, be willing to listen respectfully and be corrected until you do. Every subculture has their own language, and words might not have the same connotations as you're used to (e.g. "fat" or "queer").
6. Be a model
Not the catwalk kind; the developmental learning kind. Role models also come in all sizes. Set and defend boundaries concerning your own body. When someone gives you a size-based compliment, consider using it as an opportunity to educate the complimenter ("thanks, but I'd be just as pretty if I wasn't thin/tall/etc."). Eliminate negative body talk (your own body or anyone else's) from your vocabulary and encourage those around you to do the same. Don't let doctors (or anyone else) make assumptions about your health based on your size. Refuse to be weighed in the Doctor's office if it's not relevant to treatment, and let them know why. Love your body and yourself at your size. Regardless of your weight, you can inspire others and act as a template for their own behavior.
As I've said, everyone (fat or thin) has a stake and voice in reducing size prejudice in our culture! I feel that even if a thin person adopts none of these, diets constantly, and still believes that people deserve the same human rights regardless of size, they are part of the solution and deserve the same kudos we give anyone who raises a hand for what they feel is right. We're all in this together.
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