Fat Shaming is Not an Individual Problem, It’s a Cultural One
Recently I read an essay by an extremely lovely average-sized woman in response to being weight-shamed by a stranger on the internet. I’m not calling out this essay or author in particular, as this isn’t about her (I think she is pretty great) or even the essay itself. It’s a common subject that has been tackled with varying success by lots of women for awhile now, many of them famous, even, from Jennifer Lawrence to Amy Schumer. And the overwhelmingly supportive response is common to certain women who write with valid and justifiable rage on this subject.
It’s not the essay so much as the response to it that I want to talk about. There are certain stages I go through anytime an indubitably average-sized woman talks about being weight-shamed. They usually unfold in the same way: I read the essay or watch the video; I think, “Yeah, this is rad, what a great conversation it will start!”; and then I see the many other positive responses unfolding all over the place, from social media to my personal circle. I watch these responses grow and grow.
And then I start to get salty.
To continue the endless series of disclaimers* which I shouldn’t even have to make but too often people are so eager to dismiss different perspectives as “divisive” or some shit: I am not and would not ever suggest that any woman is not “allowed” to talk about the misogyny she encounters, which often takes form in the weight-shaming of slender women, as well as average-sized ones. I am not actually powerful enough to stop anyone from sharing their experiences, and I wouldn’t want to. None of this body commentary is ever acceptable; a person’s body — like their health — is their own private business, and is not up for public scrutiny or debate.
But I see the flood of positive feedback on these observations and reactions by average-sized women and I start to feel… well, I start to feel like garbage, if I’m straight with you. I feel angry. I feel invisible. And I also feel guilty, and uncharitable, and like I’m not being “supportive” in a suitably feminist manner, like I am the problem, me, with my different perspective and my experience that isn’t quite the same, and I should shut up about it and go away while people are feeling warm and good about a rollicking response to body shaming.
Hi, I’m Lesley. I’m fat. I’m obviously, visibly fat. In clothing, I wear a 26. Sometimes a 24. Occasionally a 28. I weigh something in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. I’m not sure of the exact number because I avoid scales, in part because of deep-seated diet trauma and body loathing that began when I was 9 and which took me many years to repair, and also in part because even today once a doctor looks at my weight they tend to avoid seeing me at all — literally. Did you know you can be fat enough that doctors and other medical professionals will avoid making eye contact with you? It’s true! Also customer service representatives, salespeople, coworkers, bosses, hiring managers, and assorted strangers. Their rudeness doesn’t really say anything about me, of course; it speaks volumes on their own character, though. A subtle discomfort — or a barely concealed disgust, or an overt rage — around fat people can be found among all sorts of people, of all walks of life. It would almost be beautiful, this unifying social force reaching across very demographic, if it wasn’t also so destructive.
And I’m not fucking around at being fat. I hear about how fat I am all the time. I have been this fat — this fat exactly — for the past fifteen years, and I hear about it in one form or another almost every day. If it’s not a comment disparaging my appearance on social media, or an anonymous email wishing me dead, then it’s a real world person who feels entitled to tell me I offend them by merely existing, or it’s a slightly too-small chair or booth in a restaurant, or it’s a whispered comment people think I can’t hear, because I can only suppose that to them I am too fat to be an actual person who is conscious of the environment around me. (Some months ago, I was at a museum, and a little girl stared at me, and then whispered something to her mother, who laughed and looked at me and said — in a totally normal tone of voice, mind you, when I was standing not four feet away — still laughing, “That’s very funny, but you shouldn’t call people fat.” The little girl looked very pleased. A+ parent award.)
I am so fat that eight years ago, I coined the term “Death Fat” in a blog post, using it as a sarcastic inflation of the idea of “morbid obesity” — a jokey callout of the people who are so eager to say things like “It’s okay to be curvy, but nobody should be obese,” an attack on the notion that there is a level of fatness at which you lose your right to live without constant public commentary on your appearance, and also on your perceived health. It was a way of mocking the concept of obesity so morbid that culture doesn’t think you deserve to live anymore, that you are so bad at having a body, it should be taken away from you.
Now, I do a lot of other things in my life besides being fat, but being fat is often the first thing people notice, and because culturally we have so many very specific and pervasive stereotypes about fatness, it can cause people to see me in a certain light even before they get to know anything else about me. This is something I have to deal with every time I meet someone new, or go to a job interview or business meeting, or even get on a plane — will the person I am about to interact with be cool, or terrible? Who knows? It keeps life exciting! And sometimes very, very stressful.
All of this is to say that when an indubitably average-sized woman is praised for writing about the terrible injustice of being called fat by a stranger, I have a very complicated suite of feelings to go with that. I agree wholeheartedly that it is bullshit that she should have to suffer such nonsense. I validate her ferocious refusal to apologize for her body. And I also feel angry, because I know the same perspective written by an obviously, visibly fat woman, a woman who is not sorry for being fat and who is not attempting to become smaller — in short, a woman who looks like me — would not get anywhere near as much praise and support.
Because I am the woman who should be sorry about my body. I am the woman who doesn’t get to rail against the injustice of being called fat, because that is what I am. I’m actually fat, the kind of fat that makes some people not want to look me in the eye; the kind of fat that makes some people assume I am dying of obesologizing disease, like, right now, dying; the kind of fat that makes me embarrassing, or weird, or gross. It’s my fault, for going too far — I crossed a line I didn’t even see and this is my punishment. Meanwhile, in that other oft-repeated situation, where a woman in a size 10 dress is castigating the establishment that finds her body unacceptable, many of those people who wouldn’t make eye contact with me? They’re cheering for her.
I don’t like feeling this way. I want to believe we’ve all got each other’s backs. I want to believe that one woman’s victory over body shaming is shared by us all. I want to believe that the people giving props to an average-sized woman saying fuck you to uninvited commentary would give the same props to someone much fatter, that they wouldn’t say, “Well, it’s okay to be curvy, but nobody should be obese,” like people say, all the time. But I know many of them have limits, however arbitrary and subjective. Many of them imagine they have a right to an opinion on someone else’s body when that body has surpassed those limits. Because it’s still only socially acceptable to rail against fat shaming when you’re not actually fat.
It’s difficult to talk about this stuff and be vulnerable with it. Even for me, and I’ve been doing it for two whole decades and it’s pretty rote by now. The slow plod of “body positive” progress has seen the evolution of a new fat stereotype, a sort of Bulletproof Fatty. This is the woman who is rife with inexplicable confidence — inexplicable because how dare she, when she looks like that — and for whom every negative attack just rolls off effortlessly, like water off a fat duck’s back.
People like victories. They like success stories. They like tales of people who have battled to lose many many pounds, they like to see the winner standing triumphant in her own now-voluminous former pants, holding the waistband as far out as possible, demonstrating the distance traveled from her former transgressive self. More recently, however, people are also starting to like hearing about fat-adjacent women who maybe aren’t trying to lose weight, but who are “confident” and untouchable and who embody whatever it is that white ladies mean when they call each other “fierce.” We’re learning to appreciate women who don’t QUITE hit that beauty standard but who flip it off in Beyoncé-borrowed fashion instead while counting off all the fucks they do not have on backorder. We’re rubber, you’re glue.
It’s a nice picture. It’s cool to see women saying “fuck off” to social pressures that conspire to keep them distracted and compliant. And it’s encouraging to hear that we have a choice, that we can reject shaming bullshit and somehow exist in the world unaffected by it even as it surrounds us, if only we believe in ourselves hard enough. It’s pleasant to think that enough of that fabled “confidence” makes such women impervious to attacks, or that adequate self-assurance can put on a glamour that makes you invisible to those who would say or do shitty things to you. It’s fun to imagine a universe in which women’s confidence deftly annihilates misogyny and fatphobia at the street level, that sufficiently confident women go around trailing the cure for these social ills in great healing clouds behind them.
But this takes the responsibility for change off of culture and puts it on individual women. It suggests that because some women have learned to fortify themselves against body shaming, the solution is for each individual woman to do the same — and for fat women, this usually happens by working hard to accommodate a more socially acceptable version of fatness, one that is well-dressed and possessed of a fun sassy attitude. However, this burden belongs not on the women affected by fat-shaming, but on fatphobic culture, which needs to be meticulously unpacked and dismantled, piece by piece, a process that requires hard and sustained work (work that has already been going on for 50 years, understand, with many of the people responsible for the effort erased and forgotten).
Making resilience against body shaming attacks an individual responsibility is self-defeating. It makes the war impossible to win. It means no one wants to hear — or to admit — the reality that being “bulletproof” means desperately fighting to accept yourself, every day, for your own survival. That’s not pretty or inspiring. No one wants to understand that it means convincing yourself and re-convincing yourself that you have a right to exist in spite of a culture working very hard to tell you otherwise, and oh yes, you have a right to exist without assholes making garbage comments at you no matter how fat you are, because human dignity does not have a size limit.
Certainly, beauty standards and body shaming affect and hurt all women. But they hurt fat women in ways that are different and far more specific and debilitating than women who are not fat, with measurable impacts ranging from the psychological to the economic. “It’s okay to be curvy but nobody should be obese.” Choke on that trash before you ever say it again. Effectively supporting women who fight against fat shaming means supporting all women who are in the battle, even the women who make you most uncomfortable. Especially those women. Shaming comments do not get less damaging the fatter a person is; it’s actually the other way around. The women who need your support the most are also the ones least likely to get it.
So if you’re cheering when an average-sized woman rebuffs invasive comments about her body, I ask you to consider whether your response would differ if the author of said response weighed 250 pounds. Or 300 pounds. Or 400 pounds. If there is a size at which you would stop cheering, ask yourself why. Find the line you’d draw where you would no longer vocally support a woman fighting fat shaming, and then erase it. Interrogate your own discomfort with fatness and your negative stereotypes about fat people. Call out calculated and limiting ideas like “curvy-but-not-obese” when you hear them expressed. Do your part to contribute to that broader cultural change.
See us. The “obese” ones, the Death Fat, the unacceptable, the invisible. And look us in the eye. Maybe then we can have each others’ backs for real.
* You ever notice that men never have to do this endless-disclaimer shit?
Originally published at www.lesleykinzel.com on August 22, 2016.