Monday, December 14, 2015

On Labels

This was a Facebook re-post of a conversation that happened on Paranoiascientist's tumblr: 

Whenever someone insists that people should not use labels, I remember a psychology lecture on language acquisition where the lecturer described the process by which we learn all nouns: First, kids learn a word ("dog.") They then apply that word to everything that vaguely resembles a dog (cats, pictures of other animals). As they're corrected, they learn to create and subdivide new categories that may share traits (e.g. distinguishing between "dog" and "horse," but also between my dog Ralph, and my neighbor's dog Betsie).

What I took away from the lecture is that from the very instinctive beginnings of language, we need labels. Our entire thinking process is based on categorization of traits, or putting things in mental boxes. The entire function of nouns is to use labels as shorthand for entire complex concepts and entities. Not only is "no labels" silencing, we cannot really function as human beings without them.

There is a difference between labels as a tool for communication and labels as a stereotypic reduction that impedes communication. It does help to be able to say "I'm Genderqueer," as shorthand for non-binary gender activist. It becomes a problem is when I assume that all people who use the same shorthand mean the same thing (or share traits not encompassed by the shorthand). But that's true when using ANY language. Human brains are structured to think in categories; it isn't always a bad thing.What they really mean is "don't reduce people to stereotypic and rigid preconceived notions you have about X." But trying to get rid of labels as a communication tool simply because it is sometimes misused is like insisting that no one ever use their hands because sometimes we hit each other.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

But what if I just want to lose a "little" weight?

There is a stage in FA where people accept that other peoples' bodies are just fine the way they are, but for *reasons* they themselves need to lose some weight.  Not get thin, mind you, but maybe get down to where clothes are easier to buy and they remember being happier.  

But then the inevitable conflict where people in FA spaces don't want to hear about their diet talk, delete their comments extolling the virtues of calorie-free Kool-Whip, and walk away from their conversations that inevitable steer around to food restrictions and processed diet platitudes.  

In other words, they feel shunned.  And hurt.  Why can't they drop a couple of sizes and still be FA?
Before anyone can even start answering that question, we have to unpack some of the false premises it is based upon. To start with, the question assumes that the person will be successful at weight loss and then live as a thinner fat person. This is so statistically unlikely that it would be an outlier. In fact, they are likely to follow the same cycle every other fat person does when attempting weight loss: a brief honeymoon period where they lose some weight, followed by regain and additional gain. In other words, they are much more likely to end up LARGER than they started. This process (which we all know as "yo-yo dieting") is extremely damaging to both physical and mental health. It is not outrageous to call intentional weight-loss dieting (and ESPECIALLY bariatric surgery) self-harm. People are absolutely justified in not pursuing a relationship with someone who engages in self harm, or support that self-harm, regardless of how socially acceptable it is.

Once that is unpacked, the question of triggers needs to be addressed. After being in an abusive relationship between our culture and our bodies for our entire lives, watching someone we know harm themselves in order to appease and connect with our abusers can range from stressful to devastating (depending on how close you were to that person or whether you viewed them as a role-model). Again, that choice to engage in that abuse, and the INEVITABLE talk portraying it as positive, creates a toxic relationship that many in FA refuse to engage in.

That is why most FA groups are "safe spaces" where weight loss is not glorified or promoted, and why many FA activists will break ties with someone who goes on a diet or gets bariatric surgery. We know from long experience that they cannot help glorifying it, congratulating themselves, and trying to talk their friends and family into participating. Their writing will become peppered with their experience, and cognitive dissonance resolution will cause them to wax enthusiastic even if they have doubts and setbacks. It's toxic for those of us who have worked so hard to recover from the harm diet culture has done.

So no, we're not going to make an exception for someone who wants to be a "little thinner" any more than someone who wants to be thin.  It is unrealistic, but more so it is damaging both to the person engaging with diet culture and those around them who are attempting to disengage.  We can support you as a fat person, but we do not want your diet talk in our spaces.  It doesn't matter if you're trying to lose 20 pounds or 200; you are still engaging in self-harm, and we don't want to ride along.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lessons from the Photoshop

Esther Honig went viral when she asked 40 photoshop users from 25 countries around the world to make her "beautiful" using a single unedited image of herself.  The results were a fascinating study of beauty standards around the world.

But that wasn't the end of the story.  Since then, the experiment has been replicated with even more interesting results, and we are starting to see patterns emerging as multiple participants from each country begin to reflect a cultural, rather than individual standard of beauty.

Priscilla Yuki Wilson asked 30 participants from 25 countries to make her beautiful, with similarly interesting results.  As a biracial woman, she was particularly interested in whether people would lighten her skin or hair.

And recently, Marie Southard Ospina asked 21 photoshoppers from 17 countries to do the same.  As a plus-size woman, she was interested in whether they would "slim" her.

What can we take away from all three experiments combined?  For me, the three primary lessons are:

1.  There are a lot of people out there who think they're better at Photoshop than they actually are. I think we can all agree on that. 

2.  Beauty standards are radically different in different cultures. This should be obvious to people, but yet each cultural beauty standard claims to be both superior to all others, and universal and/or natural (with a hefty dose of evo-psyc thrown in for cognitive dissonance).

3.  If there are no actual universal beauty standards, then we're probably wasting a lot of time, money, heartache, physical and emotional health, and potential trying to conform rigidly to one or the other, as a culture.

Treated as a preliminary experiment, I think these three projects open up a lot of questions that warrant experimental investigation.  For example:

1.  Marie Southard Ospina was asked by one editor if she was in pornography, but none of the others reported this reaction (despite almost identical poses involving bare shoulders so that editors could add clothing as they wished).  Does this mean that the sexualization of fat bodies is more universal than we think?

2.  If this experiment were repeated a hundred times, involving both professional and amateur image editors, could we start to see a divide between what the media (professionals) consider beautiful, and what the average people in the country consider beautiful?

3.  If this experiment were repeated a hundred times, could we start to see definitive patterns emerge both by nationality and by the ethnicity of the editor?

4.  What happens if a man performs the same experiment?  What about a genderqueer or androgynous person?  How would the editors manipulate the gender presentation in order to conform to their aesthetic ideals?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Empty Symbols

Symbols are important.  They serve as a means of communicating a powerful message in a way accessible to people without reliance on language.  They represent something complex, and make it more accessible.  They reach us on an emotional level and serve as a rallying point.

But the symbol of a thing is not the thing iteself.

There is nothing wrong with wearing a pink ribbon, buying the pink yogurt, or walking a 5K to support breast cancer.  The pink ribbon has become a very powerful symbol for women's health.  But the symbol of the thing is not the thing.  That pink sweatshirt does everything to make you feel satisfied with your social consciousness, and NOTHING to advance women's health.

What does support women's health?  Planned Parenthood.  Local free clinics.  Universal health care.

There is nothing wrong with Georgians coming up with $44,000 to paint a set of crosswalks rainbow during Pride week via crowdfunding online.  But considering the level of rainbowfication in that neighborhood during Pride week, it does NOTHING to advance the rights and safety of gender and sexual minorities (GSM) in Atlanta.

What DOES advance the rights and safety of GSM in Atlanta?  Lost-n-Found Youth.  Non-discrimination laws protecting employment and housing.  Initiatives to prevent GSM targeted violence.

Organizations count on complacency for profit.  They know that if they can get you to cough up a few bucks for their product, you will get that warm fuzzy glow of self-esteem as value-added.  But it is vitally important that understand the difference between the symbol of the thing, and the thing itself. 

The thing itself sometimes takes more effort than whipping out your wallet (although donating directly to helping organizations is a good start).  It means writing your elected officials.  It means signing petitions.  It means standing up to people who say things you know are wrong.  It means re-arranging your own thinking on important issues affecting vulnerable populations. 

Now that awareness of pink-washing and rainbow-washing are going mainstream, it will be more and more difficult for you to buy your complacency.  You might want to find out for yourself that the warm glow you get from actually making a difference is much warmer than the self-congratulation of supporting a fresh coat of paint on the street where our kids are living homeless. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Donald Trump and Dog Whistles

I have very mixed feelings about Donald Trump. I loathe the man personally. I think he's an ingrown hair on the ass of society. On the other hand, I couldn't have sat down with a magic spawner and designed a more perfect troll for the Republican party.

The conservatives have gotten away with "dog whistling" bigotry for many decades now. Google "dog whistle politics" or "dog whistle racism" if you're unfamiliar with the term. It means to advance a bigoted cause by using misdirection language and policies so that you're not talking directly about the bigoted cause itself. When a politician wants to tell everyone that Black people are lazy thieves, he doesn't come right out and say it. He uses terms like "Welfare Queen," and lets the imagery do the subtle work for him. The "War on Drugs" was and is a dog whistle for painting Black people as criminal. "States Rights" is a dog whistle for "We want to maintain our ability to oppress these people we object to." It is a means of being a bigot without using the language of bigotry, and thereby incurring public wrath.

Most people fall for it. Some, like Donald Trump, fall for it so hard that he doesn't even realize that the dog whistle is an essential part of the game. Polls tell him that most people support "states rights" or "tough drug enforcement." He doesn't even realize that most people don't realize that these are dog whistles. So he assumes that most people support the views of White Evangelical Christian Republicans, and figures, "why not just tell it straight?" And he tells it straight.

He is ripping the mask off of the party, and everyone is horrified. Especially the candidates who are left suddenly standing naked-faced in the spotlight. They still have to walk that narrow line of appeasing the hard-right bigots without offending the moderate majority, but Trump has just whipped out a saw and is cheerfully severing their high-wire. They need a back-up plan, stat, and find themselves frantically denouncing Trump and his plainly-spoken bigotry, even while they secretly agree with him.

The result will not make the far-right happy, of course. You will see further splits in the party as the unapologetic bigots turn up their own candidates and split the ticket. The politicians are forced to the center, which changes the national discourse towards progressive ideals.

Donald Trump is to the Republican Party as the portrait is to Dorian Gray. They would love to hide him beneath a cloth in an abandoned room, of course. But he is wealthy, powerful, and inevitable. So while I despise him personally, I can't help but see him as a sort of unconscious catalyst for progress.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

SAAS: Sewing at Any Size: Copycat Your Clothes

This is my series on Sewing at Any Size, or making basic wardrobe items to fit any body.  Please feel free to print/save for personal use.  You can find other patterns and instructions HERE.  

I searched everywhere for a wedding dress for my own wedding in 2014.  It was a casual summer beach wedding, so I wanted something simple, lightweight, and in natural materials.  What I ended up doing was making my own.  And since I had a beloved cotton dress that fit me well but was getting a little shabby, it was perfect for a pattern.  Now I can make that dress in any fabric and color I choose, including white linen.

Whether it’s a beloved old dress with a stain, or that perfect clearance skirt in a hideous color, sometimes the best way to get exactly what you want is to make it yourself.  Reverse-engineering your clothes lets you learn to sew clothes that fit you quickly and easily without having to buy or decipher a sewing pattern.  

You Will Need
  • A piece of clothing you want to make a copy of.  (Note: you will not be able to re-assemble it once it is marked up as a pattern, so make sure you’re ready to give it up)
  • Fabric of a similar weight and stretch to the original. Take the garment to a fabric shop for advice on how much you’ll need, and for advice on pre-shrinking the fabric you’ve chosen.
  • Pins
  • Sewing scissors or cutting tool with mat
  • Seam-ripping tool or small scissors
  • Sewing machine or needle
  • All-purpose thread, for most fabrics
  • Permanent marker
  • Fray-Check liquid, masking tape, craft glue, or other means of stopping the fabric from fraying

Dismantle and Document

It is very important to take pictures and make notes at each step, so that you know how to re-assemble the garment.  Use a marker to make notes on the piece itself, or number them for reference on an instruction sheet.  

Take apart every piece, including the hems.  If the edges aren’t finished somehow to keep them from fraying, you can use Fray-Check, masking tape, or craft glue along the edges.

When it comes to little pieces, make sure to number them and make note of where they go on the finished piece.  Also note how each seam was put together. 

Darts are folds sewn into the fabric to help fit.  Take darts apart, but use a marker to draw a dotted line where the stitches were, so that you can re-create them on the new piece.  

Pin and Cut

Pin each piece onto the new fabric, and then carefully cut out around the edges to make copies.  Leave the pieces pinned together until you’re ready to add them, to keep them from getting mixed up. 

Assemble and Sew

Using your notes and pictures, assemble the copy using the same type and width seam as the original for each piece.  In order, sew darts, main seams, sleeves, button strips or belts, and then hems. Take additional notes, and then store the pieces and notes together for future copies.


Simpler garments are very easy to copy, and you should make your first projects simple before trying to copy something complicated.  

To make a lining, you should be able to use the same pattern pieces as the main garment, and then put the lining together "inside out" or with the seams showing when it is assembled.    Put the lining and shell pieces together with seams touching, and then sew the hems and cuffs to connect them. 

Stretch and non-stretch fabrics behave differently, so you may find that a dress that fits you beautifully in a stretch fabric is too small in a non-stretch.  Thicker fabric also results in a smaller fitting garment.  Depending on your starting pieces, you may need to make up a test garment in cheaper fabric similar to what you want to use in your final piece.  I find, for example, that bedsheets from the thrift store make a great fabric for testing out patterns I want to make in cotton or lightweight linen.  Use a non-woven blanket to test out coat patterns. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner looks absolutely stunning on her Vanity Fair cover shoot.  I'm very happy that she was able to express her gendered self as fully as she desired, and hope that, in her generous decision to allow the public into her experience, it helps people be more comfortable with transgender individuals in our lives.

But I also hope that people understand that the older, white, wealthy, thin, surgically transitioning, and currently-abled Caitlyn Jenner is not representative of the average transgender person's experience.  I hope that her popularity builds sympathy and support for the average transgender person, but that we build into that national conversation acknowledgement of trans men and women who are poor, in prison, pre-op, non-op, not thin, with physical challenges, of color, homeless (often as a result of coming out to family), suicidal, facing physical and emotional violence, not conforming to gendered appearance or behavioral norms, etc. etc. etc. 

In other words, I love that Caitlyn Jenner is a face of transgender people in the U.S.  I really, really would like her to not be the ONLY face.  Because while her process is probably not easy, it is deceptively easy compared to many. I understand that it is easier for the general public to feel comfortable with a trans woman who so beautifully fulfills their expectations of feminine beauty.  Sometimes we need that vanguard to open up the way.  But it cannot stop at her cover shoot.  At some point, the American public needs to get uncomfortable. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Big Fat Fallacies: Argument Against the Person

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE.

Argument Against the Person/Personal Attack (argumentum ad hominem)

This is a distraction fallacy, where instead of addressing the argument itself, a person attacks the arguer and claims that their personal attributes devalue the argument that they are making.

  • "Of course you claim to support FA.  You're fat and just want an excuse to not exercise!" 
  • "You bleeding-heart liberals don't think anyone should take personal responsibility." 
  • "Why should I believe anyone who dresses like you do?"
Dissecting the Fallacy

The entire point of an ad hominem attack is to put you in a position to defend yourself or the person you are citing, rather than the facts or argument.  It is a distraction.  It is also why HAES and FA books written by thin people are much more likely to find a mainstream publisher and audience.

It is important, however to separate an ad hominem from the question of whether a person is making a statement from financial or personal bias.  If someone is paid to testify that XX weight-loss drug works, you can reasonably assess whether or not the money they have received influenced them to testify or not.  If a conservative think-tank releases a report stating that the children of gay parents are more likely to join Satanic cults as adults, it is reasonable to view their conclusions with skepticism. 

Deciding What to Do

It is important to remember that existing in a fat body makes you an expert on what it is like to exist in your fat body, its capabilities, and its limitations.  No person outside your body has access to that information.  Attempting to "inform" you about your own body is arrogant, privileged, and bullying.  At the very least it exhibits extremely poor boundaries. 

Probably the most effective method to attack this fallacy is to simply decide to not let the other person frame the discussion.  They are trying to make it about you, and you can insist on refusing to derail by being dismissive of the ad hominem or ignoring it altogether.  Your message needs to be that whatever they say in the attack is simply not relevant and possibly too ridiculous to even respond to.  Don't get sucked into their frame. 

  • "My weight is irrelevant because I was not a subject in this study.  What they found was....."
  •  "Here is the argument the author is making..."
  • "Let me explain my point a little more clearly/give an example..."
Of course an ad hominem is absolutely a personal attack, and you are never required to try and educate another person.  Walking away from the discussion is absolutely an option once it has devolved to attacks, as is blocking or reporting them on social media.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Big Fat Fallacies: Appeal to the People

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE.

Appeal to the People/Appeal to Popularity (argumentum ad populum)

This is yet another logical fallacy that manipulates emotion in order to distract from an unsupported argument.  Instead of fear or pity, this fallacy touches on our very deep human desire to be liked or popular.  It is one of the most easily recognized fallacies and is in widespread use in advertising.  It can be broken down into a few types.


The Bandwagon appeal is the good old fashioned "everybody's doing it" argument.  You have probably encountered this all your life in various guises.  In FA specifically, it is really hard to be the only person in the office not dieting (especially in January).  Office-wide "Biggest Loser" contests are particularly toxic.  

Appeal to Vanity/Snobbery

Sometimes there will be subtle distinctions made between these, but they boil down to "only the cool kids are doing it."  We see this in clothing designers decisions to only make small sized clothes, or in the rich and famous held up as examples of ideal body types.  In a world where being thin is impossible for most people, it becomes a status symbol.  

Appeal to Belief 

This is the "everybody thinks so" variation on the bandwagon argument.  In FA, we know that the percentage of people who understand that dieting is usually unsuccessful and often harmful to your health are few (if growing).  So the fact that diet advocates can assemble a huge collection of poorly researched studies and articles from popular websites is a frequent weapon used against us.  

Dissecting the Fallacy 

Humans are social creatures, and the cultural pressure to conform to "the pack" is strong.  After all, if these fallacies were ineffective, advertisers wouldn't use them!  It is important, with all emotional appeals, to separate the emotional content from the factual.  Is the fact that everyone in the office is trying to lose weight any kind of evidence that they'll be successful (or that you will)?  Is the fact that a naturally thin actress can fit into a vinyl catsuit evidence that you should be able to as well?  

Remember that many beliefs about health and beauty were extremely popular at one time or another. Compare the Gibson Girl to the Flapper, for instance.  Consider that people thought (and some unfortunately still think) that mental illness was a failing of character and should be punished via incarceration and torture.  Or that one could cure most illnesses by bloodletting.  

The takeaway is that the popularity of an idea has never been a good gauge of it's merits.  If all your friends jumped off a bridge...

Deciding What to Do

This is a difficult one to fight, because it relies on you having self-confidence and strong internal boundaries.  Chances are, the world made a pretty dedicated effort to strip you of both these tools throughout most of your life (especially if you were a fat child).  

First up is a thorough examination of relevance.  Is wearing this brand of jean really what makes someone popular, or is that mistaking the symbol of the thing for the thing itself?  Perhaps those jeans are only a symbol of a high socioeconomic status, and as a culture we mistake a high socioeconomic status for other attributes, like confidence and likeability.  Can you be confident and likeable without the jeans? 

Next, it is important to decide how important it is to you to conform to the expectations of others. This is part of internal boundary setting.  Everyone responds in some way to the people in their environment, but you can decide just how much you're willing to compromise.  Will you not get a face tattoo in order to maintain a certain accepted look in the office?  Will you dress a certain way to avoid the sideways looks from friends?  Will you resist the pressure to be "one of the girls/guys" by group dieting?  

How far you are willing to go is a very personal decision, and should take some serious consideration.  But once you have drawn the line in your mind, it is much easier to recognize what crosses it and resist peer pressure.  (Yes, even adults experience peer pressure). 

Any search for popularity is really the search for love and acceptance.  We often find that a few close relationships are much more satisfying in the long run than widespread popularity.  We have plenty of evidence that it is possible to have love and friendship in any size or shaped body.  If you find yourself falling prey to weight-based ad populum pressure on a regular basis, it may be time to examine why you feel you are missing something, and perhaps find ways to get it without harm.  If you haven't already, reading The Fantasy of Being Thin may address some of these issues.  After reading it, I went out and gave myself permission to be happy.  Once I did, I found out that what I really wanted wasn't contingent on meeting other peoples' expectations. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Big Fat Fallacies: Appeal to Pity

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE.

Appeal to Pity (Argumentum Ad Misericordiam)

This is a fallacy in informal logic where the arguer attempts to manipulate the emotions of their target by invoking pity for another person.  It is part of the Fallacies of Relevance, because in an argument, the person's emotional state should have nothing to do with how well the evidence actually supports the conclusion of an argument.  

In Fat Acceptance, this one is most commonly seen in a "think of the children" context.  The argument is that unless we can somehow eradicate fat people, children will be harmed.   It is a primary mover and shaker in the so-called "war on obesity," as anytime someone invokes the well-being of children, it is implied that to then disagree with the argument's conclusion would be heartless.  On closer examination, "lose weight or you hate children" doesn't exactly hold water as an argument.  

Its other manifestation usually involves an interaction with someone close to you.  A parent, sibling, child, or best friend will pull the "it hurts me to see you take such poor care of yourself" card.  This is much more problematic, as it is a subtle form of emotional blackmail.  They are saying "if you love me, you will change."  But the blackmail is usually taking place on such a low level of subtext that they would be hurt and offended if you actually pointed it out to them.   

Dissecting the Fallacy

The fallacies that appeal to emotions are illogical, but effective.   Our emotions often drive our decisions, actions, and even our thoughts.  While the appeal to pity can sway either our genuine empathy or our need to identify as a good person, at its core lies poor personal boundaries.

Many people mistake the outward expression of personal boundaries ("I will not spend time with someone who fat shames me.") for the boundaries themselves.  In fact, boundaries are something you set with yourself, inside your head, rather than with other people.  You decide what you are willing to accept or take personal responsibility for, and act on that decision.  

An appeal to pity is a rather sneaky way for someone to convince you to take responsibility for their own emotional state or well-being.   You are being offered responsibility for the well-being of all children, everywhere.  You are being offered responsibility for your loved one's emotional state and anxieties.  

Worse, you are being asked to sacrifice your own well-being and emotional state in order to satisfy that of others.

Deciding What to Do

It helps considerably to already have your own personal boundaries in place.  Making the decision ahead of time as to how much you will let the emotions of others affect your decision-making gives you a solid metric by which to respond.

It can be very hard to say no. You might feel like a bad person (especially if the other person accuses you of such).  You might feel that if your self-acceptance hurts your mother, then it is cruel.  She might even say so.  She would be wrong.

If someone else hinges their emotional well-being on your decisions about your body, they are practicing poor boundaries and you are not responsible for their pain.  Your decision to diet or not does not actually affect them outside of their own anxieties.  You can help them sort through and cope with those anxieties, but you cannot "fix" them, especially by giving up your own body autonomy. If you try, the anxiety will simply shift to something else, and you will eventually have to draw a line concerning control over your life.  Start now with control over your body.  

Another boundary to consider is how often you're willing to put up with continued attempts to coerce you.  You may make the decision that it is worth spending time with family to put up with the one fat-shaming relative once a year.  You may decide it is too triggering.  The important part is that it is your own decision to make.  Once you know that it can't be taken away from you, you'll find a lot of the defensive reaction to attempts to do so start to fade. 


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Big Fat Fallacies: Appeal to Fear, Appeal to Force

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE

Appeal to Fear (argumentum ad metum) 

This is a fallacy in informal logic where the arguer attempts to manipulate the emotions of their target by invoking fear.  It is part of the Fallacies of Relevance, because in an argument, the person's emotional state should have nothing to do with how well the evidence actually supports the conclusion of an argument. 

In terms of fat activism, the appeal to fear is an old acquaintance that should be forgot.  Some examples include:

  • "If you don't lose weight you will die of diabetes" (or cancer, or a dozen other nebulously "linked" diseases).
  • "If you don't make your children lose weight they will be taken away from you.
  • "If you don't lose weight, no one will ever love you."
  • "If you don't lose weight, you will never be successful."

While these statements often drag in other logical fallacies, especially slippery slope and false dichotomy, their primary weapon is fear.  

Argument from Force (Argumentum ad baculum)

Often presented as a subset of the appeal to fear, the argument from force uses fear in a much more personal way; a direct threat.  The most common example used in logic to illustrate this goes something like: "You should really change my grade.  My father is the dean and won't be happy when I tell him you flunked me."  

Like the appeal to fear, this "argument by the stick" drags in information completely irrelevant to the argument, but is intended to coerce the listener into agreeing with the arguer.  

In weight stigma, this kind of argument is especially difficult to deal with.  Examples include:
  • Doctor: "I don't want to see you back again until you've lost ten pounds." or  "I don't want to have to label you non-compliant."
  • Co-Worker: "You should really participate in my 'biggest loser' office contest.  I don't think our boss would appreciate your uncooperative attitude."
  • Boss:  "You need to lose some weight if you want to keep this promotion; the regional director has very specific ideas of who gets to represent the image of our company."
  • Partner: "I hope you never get fat.  I could never be attracted to a fat person."
Note that none of these arguments have anything to do with adipose tissue, or even health.  They all rely on threats (withholding medical care, workplace status, promotion or love) in order to convince.  While arguments from force can be phrased in such a way that they sound caring, it is important to recognize the one thing they have in common; a threat.

Dissecting the Fallacy

When confronted with an argument from fear, the first step is to sort out what the person is presenting as far as facts.  Tackle the facts separate from the emotional content, and you find that the emotional content is often just a boogeyman in disguise, no matter how convincing it sounds. 

So there's three key questions you need to ask, straight out of Dialectic Behavioral Therapy techniques:

1. What am I being told to be afraid of? 

When dealing with a fallacy, you're not dealing with facts, or even the conclusion the person is stating.  Your primary focus is the subtext.  In this case, the subtext is "you should be afraid of this thing."  

2.  How realistic is this fear?

What is the actual likelihood that this feared thing will take place, and how bad would it be if it did?  It is important to disengage statistics from personal experiences.  If fat people are paid, on average, less than thin people, you cannot take away the idea that losing weight would improve your personal job prospects, or risk for (largely genetic) diseases.  Statistics talk about groups, not individuals. 

Causation vs. correlation falls into consideration here as well.  We still don't know, for instance, whether high levels of fat causes diabetes or diabetes causes weight gain ,or whether both are attributable to a third factor.  

The fact that this is a fallacy means that if you look closely at their argument, the facts don't hold up.  The difference in life expectancy by weight category is vastly exaggerated (and in some weight classes, non-existent).  Fat children mainly stay with their parents with a very few (albeit horrific) exceptions.  Fat people fall in love and get married often enough to support a plus-size wedding dress industry.  Fat people get their doctorates, or become Surgeon General of the U.S. Terrible things do happen, but it is important to be able to realistically evaluate the chances of it happening to you personally.  

3.  Is this thing within my control?

There is a very long list of studies that show long-term significant weight loss is an impossibility for the vast majority of people.  So even if the fear is realistic, a permanent weight change may not be within your control.  Also consider that if the thing to fear is actually caused by something other than your weight, such as genetic or epigenetic factors, biological or environmental limitations, or the decisions of other people, then your control is highly limited.  

Remember that your control in any situation is limited to your own thoughts, words, boundaries and actions.  
Deciding What to Do
You should first consider whether the relationship is worth preserving, and whether the speaker is operating from genuine (if misplaced) concern or actual malice.  

Let me state up front that you have NO responsibility to educate others about fat, or to teach them how to be a decent human being.  You can choose to take on that responsibility, but remember that fixing ignorance is extremely hard work that uses up many Sanity Watcher's points.  If a relationship is valuable to you AND you think the person can be convinced, you can choose to make the attempt.  If either or both of these factors are absent, then you can find an exit strategy.  This can be as simple as blocking a troll on Facebook, or as complicated as switching doctors.  

A third factor in your decision may be the audience.  If you don't care what a troll thinks, but you would like to use them as a learning experience for your readers, you can engage (just don't expect to ever convince them.)  If you don't care about a stranger's opinion, but they fat shame in front of your child, you may choose to set a good example.  

If a person is using a fear tactic out of genuine concern, look for even further subtext in what they are saying.  Are they genuinely afraid of losing you?  Do they genuinely want you to be happy?  If so, address that subtext directly.  Offer them information on Health at Every Size, fat studies, and other information debunking the common fears about fat.  Start with the ASDAH website, or Linda Bacon's website which have resources and training information they can browse.  Get them a book from Pearlsong Press that you think they can process.  Re-assure them that you are happy, or are finding your own path to happiness that doesn't revolve around your weight.  Refer them to blogs by happy fat people.  Let them know that they are diminishing your happiness by rejecting your decision to love your body. 

Concerning the argument from force, however, I strongly believe that person who threatens you is not a person who truly cares about your well being and personal autonomy.  Arguments from fear and force are red flags for a toxic relationship.  The best solution may be an exit strategy from that relationship.   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Big Fat Fallacies: Introduction

Samuel Clemens said "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."  Logical fallacies are a fourth type of lie, and one that is often entirely unintentional.  While false facts can be refuted, fallacies are more insidious.  They set up the illusion that the conclusion of their argument is supported by their argument when it is not. This can be confusing, because what you're really fighting is the subtext; the things that aren't being said directly.  Pointing out the fallacy means you'll be accused of missing the point, changing the subject, or putting words in someone's mouth.   But being able to spot these fallacies not only helps you think more critically when you read or encounter a claim about weight, avoiding them yourself gives your argument better credibility against attacks in turn.  

This is the starting point and index for my series on informal logical fallacies used against FA or HAES. Since every philosophy textbook you read will have a slightly different approach and interpretation of fallacies (even as to whether they exist or belong in philosophy), I should specify that I am drawing from A Concise Introduction to Logic (11th Edition) by Patrick J. Hurley, and Dr. Michael C. Labossiere's Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0 as appearing on the Nizkor Project website, for definitions of informal fallacies.  
Each fallacy will appear as a link once there is a post covering it.  

 Fallacies of Relevance:  These bring in information that is completely irrelevant to a person's conclusion, but pretend to give strong evidence as to why you should agree. 
  1. Appeal to Fear/Argument from Force
  2. Appeal to Pity
  3. Appeal to the People
  4. Argument Against the Person
  5. Fallacy of Accident
  6. Straw Man
  7. Missing the Point
  8. Red Herring
Fallacies of Weak Induction:  These arguments are phrased in a way that gives the illusion that the evidence strongly supports the conclusion, but the support is actually quite weak on closer examination.
  1. Appeal to Unqualified Authority
  2. Appeal to Ignorance
  3. Hasty Generalization
  4. False Cause 
  5. Slippery Slope
  6. Weak Analogy
Fallacies of Presumption:  These assume information when making a point, and try to distract you from the fact that the evidence assumed is actually weak, non-existent, or modified by certain unstated facts.
  1. Begging the Question
  2. Complex Question
  3. False Dichotomy
  4. Suppressed Evidence
Fallacies of Ambiguity: These rely on ambiguous meaning in a word or phrase to twist them into the illusion of support for a conclusion.
  1. Equivocation
  2. Amphiboly
Fallacies of Grammatical Analogy: These erroneously transfer attributes from parts to the whole (or vice-versa).
  1. Fallacy of Composition
  2. Fallacy of Division

Some Definitions

 If you've never encountered logic, there are some basic terms that will be thrown around in these posts that might need explanation.  This section will be expanded as needed as the series continues. 

Argument: A collection of statements including one or more premises which claim to support a conclusion.  

Premise: A statement used to support a conclusion.

Conclusion: A statement claimed to be supported by one or more premises.

Example 1: 
Premise: A if B
Premise: B
Conclusion: Therefore A.

Example 2: 
Premise: Doctor Who has had over 800 episodes
Premise: Star Trek has had 726 episodes in all series combined
Conclusion: Therefore, Doctor Who has been a longer television series than Star Trek.  

(unstated conclusion: I am a big ol' nerd!) 

Fallacy: in informal logic, a flaw in an argument that is not based on false premises alone.  In other words, there is more wrong with the argument than just incorrect facts; there is something fundamentally wrong with the argument itself.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Age of Puberty: Why This Isn't About Fat (or Facts)

The Huffington Post threw up another scare-mongering article about how fat people are ruining the world yesterday, with a classic "think of the children" twist.  The reporter breaks the startling news that onset of puberty (both menarche and spermarche) are occurring at a younger age than in previous generations.  He draws the conclusion that obesity is to blame.  Of course, since fat people are to blame for everything from global warming to the decline of the mitten industry in the U.S., I'm starting to experience a little fatigue as to what people are willing to hang on my body in order to avoid facing reality. 

But let's analyze.

#1:  Correlation is not causation.  Let's say it again: CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION.  You cannot conclusively say that X causes Y without a well-constructed, replicable, controlled study.  This obviously cannot be done, because you would have to take identical children, make one group of them fat, and observe onset of puberty.  One of the reasons why this wouldn't work is that no one has found a way to make a body sustain large weight changes in either direction.  Another reason is that it would violate a whole lot of ethical standards to attempt it.  So instead, the studies listed in this article seem to take the false claim that we are getting fatter by the minute and the real fact that we are experiencing early puberty and make the correlation seem more ominous than it actually is.

My favorite correlation to illustrate this kind of correlation fail is an oldie but goodie. Both murder and consumption of ice cream have a strong positive correlation.  Is rocky road driving us to kill?  Not so much.  Could it be that hot weather increases both temper and temptation of frozen goodness?  Maaayyybee.....

#2:  We are experiencing earlier puberty....but this isn't news.  In fact, we have been doing so every generation since the 1840s.  Until the early 18th century women didn't experience puberty until age 17. About that time, we saw the beginning of a secular trend where each generation was a few centimeters taller and experienced puberty a few weeks earlier than the previous generation. The current theory is that steady advancement in health and nutrition is the cause. Less developed countries have not experienced the same rate of change, possibly due to poor health care and malnutrition. Even today people in less developed countries hit puberty later than people of the same ethnicity in developed countries (Eveleth & Tanner, 1990; McDowell et al., 2007; Susman & Rogol, 2004).

So the alarming news that children today are experiencing earlier puberty than 15 or 30 years ago by a few months is neither alarming, nor news.   It is like shouting frantically from the rooftops that people are taller than they were a hundred years ago. 

Here's a fun fact though. Stress can cause early puberty (Warshofsky, 1999; Ellis & Garber, 2000, Romans et al., 2003) including stress from family and society. You could easily make the case that the constant pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty and other standards in our culture, including infants placed on weight-loss diets, are contributing to early onset of puberty.  It makes as much sense as blaming adipose tissue. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Break From Hiatus and a Brief Plug

It's been a while since I posted here.  Between full time school and submitting articles to Yahoo Contributor Network, I seem to have little creativity left for blogging. 

But I did want to pop in and start the ball rolling again with an announcement!  Dr. Lonie McMichael has put out a new book on fat prejudice.  It contains the voices of many fabulous FA bloggers, including a piece I wrote on being a thin ally in Fat Acceptance.  My piece is based on a five-part post on the subject which begins here.

 Along with the diverse voices of fat people themselves, Dr. Michael uses her extensive research to explore Fat Acceptance and fat prejudice in our society as an issue of social justice. 

The book is "Acceptable Prejudice? Fat, Rhetoric & Social Justice"  by Dr. Lonie McMichael.

More information is available from the publisher, Pearlsong Press.  

The book is available from in print and Kindle formats, and from Barnes and Noble.  

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.

Monday, February 4, 2013

JoGeek vs. The Gluten

I am spinning off my gluten-free topics into their own blogs, so that this one can focus on social justice activism and body prejudice.  If you are following me just for my gluten-free recipes and tips, please come on over to either:

The content is identical, but the Blogspot one will have indexed posts, printable recipes and the ability to comment.  Both will have daily recipes, product reviews, resources and tips for gluten-free living, as well as general Celiac and gluten intolerance issues. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Owning Normal

I want to share this great quote from Jennifer Rowe at Fat and Not Afraid:
"Today however, I want to say no to a bunch of things, specifically the Shoulds. You should lose pounds/inches, be quieter, be nice(r), stop taking up so much room, not wear that, not eat that, suck it in, suck it up, smile, fit in, get over it.
 No, I will not. No to all of that. A deep inner voice wants to climb to the top of the closest mountain, and out here I have my pick, and scream NO at the top of my lungs. NO."
 -Jennifer Rowe, Fat and Not Afraid

The "Shoulds" are destructive.  They are part of a huge societal effort to maintain the status quo using a tool named "normative statements."  They are saying, "hey, you're deviating."  But in reality, the "norm" being advanced is rarely actually a norm; it is often an individual person advancing the idea that in order to be okay, everyone else needs to be like them.  They are "normal" (regardless of how close to average or the majority they are) and if people are allowed to be "abnormal" (relative to them), then it suggests they might actually be abnormal.  Of course behind every normative statement is the assumption that abnormal is a bad thing. 

In other words, if someone is using the word "should," it is often entirely about their own fears.  They are trying to fit in by forcing others to be like them.  They are afraid that if you stand out, it will somehow invalidate them and their efforts to fit in.  They are afraid that if everybody else doesn't want to be normal, they will lose the meaning normality holds for them.  If they base their life and values on what they consider normal, it is vitally important to them that normal exists outside themselves.  

The good news is that this is entirely about them.  Good boundaries show that nothing in their motivation or words has any actual consequence for you.  You can empathize with their fear, but you don't need to take responsibility for it.  

Never own other people's norms.