Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Framing Fat

Whenever you enter into a discussion about something, you are interacting with someone's frames. These are the person's underlying assumptions about the topic and the world in general which inform their point of view. When answering a person's question directly, you are accepting their frame, even if you are disagreeing with them on the question itself.

For a common FA example, let's take an argument I had with a troll recently in an online forum. Here was the question:

“Why would you choose to be fat when you could be so much healthier?”

We've all seen multiple variations on this question, and the amount of misconception packed into a single sentence can be daunting. If I chose to engage at all with this person, I would begin by unpacking the frame. There are several things going on. In this example, there is a direct, explicit question: “why are you okay with being fat?” But the subtext shows multiple assumptions framing this question:

  1. Being fat is a choice. Wrapped up in this is the assumption that you have conscious control of your weight, and could therefore permanently lose enough weight to no longer be considered fat.
  2. Being fat is inherently unhealthy, and being thin is inherently healthier than being fat.
  3. My weight is this person's business and I have to justify my body size to other people.

So in this one sentence, this person is layering all of these into one package. If I only addressed the explicit question (e.g. “Because I don't think there's anything wrong with it.”) I would be accepting the rest of the package. If I do that, I end up trying to justify my weight while agreeing with the implicit assumptions that permanent weight loss is both possible and desirable. This considerably dilutes my own message, and re-affirms the other person in theirs.

What I should do instead is reject the framework offered by the question. This is actually harder to do, but it comes much closer to answering the question they don't even know they're asking. You are looking for that underlying question or message. Depending on the person or tone, the same question I used above could mean anything from “I'm concerned about you because I'm being told one thing by the media and another thing by you,” to “I think you're less than a human being and want you to know that in order to elevate and affirm my own status.”

Let's assume a forgiving reading of the question, where the underlying meaning is something along the lines of “tell me how to understand this.”

One appropriate answer to this question is, certainly, “I'm sorry, but I don't consider my body to be any of your business.” Of course you can escalate the bluntness as you like. This rejects assumption #3, which underlies the person's belief that they get to even ask questions about other peoples' bodies. Since this is their frame, they may try to re-assert it by either labeling you rude, or pushing the question further. But it's your frame, and you get to defend it.

Another appropriate response is to ignore the question and address the frame directly. You could do so by asking them to justify their frame: “Why do you assume I can't be healthy as I am?” is a good soft opening for dialogue with someone you feel like educating. A more aggressive and direct rejection of the frame might be: “Do you really think, despite decades of research to the contrary and my own personal experience, that significant permanent weight loss is possible for 98% of the population?”

Remember that most people are entirely unaware of the frames they are offering. The exceptions would be people who work in public relations, advertising, and sales. For someone who doesn't use frames professionally, rejecting the framing of a question or statement can be disconcerting because they honestly believed they were asking one thing, and completely unaware that they were asking or saying something entirely different. They may be able to say “that's not what I said,” and you can certainly argue “no, but that's what your words meant, whether or not that was your intention.” Remember, though, that derailing the conversation to the other person's feelings or detailed connotative debates is a distraction to keep from examining the real issue in any more detail. Bring the conversation back on track, or end it. Lead the conversation, don't follow it down a blind alley.

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