Your fat friend wants to talk about fatphobia.
I’ve been asking you to be more considerate of what you do & don’t say to me. But this conversation doesn’t end there. Today, I’m asking you to examine and question the ways in which the world is set up to shame and exclude fat people. To make us feel like our character, intellect, dignity, worthiness and humanity are all less-than because of the shape of our skin.
That system is called fatphobia. It ensures that there is always someone there to remind us that we are seen first as fat, which means we are always seen as weak-willed, piteous, cautionary tales.
Sometimes the reminder comes from news footage of fat people, faceless and filmed surreptitiously, reduced to the shape and size of our bodies, silent effigies worthy of pity, shaming, lecturing, but no voice. When we are allowed to speak, we appear on shows like the Biggest Loser, a show dedicated to showing thin people berating, belittling and shaming fat people.
Sometimes the reminder comes from strangers who stare, laugh or shout when we walk down the street. Grocery shoppers who offer unsolicited advice or condescending “good for you!”s. Men who gawk at the gym, or call names. Well-meaning family members who share before and after pictures at every chance, tell us we’ve got “such a pretty face,” and if we only lost twenty pounds…
Sometimes the reminder comes from you, my wonderful, bright, brilliant friend. Despite your warm heartedness and support in so many other areas, when I talk about what I face as a fat person. You are quick to dismiss what’s happened as a fact of life that can’t be remedied, disrupted or even empathized with. Often, you step more readily into the perspective of anonymous strangers, doctors, airline passengers, ad executives, bosses, dates. You are quicker to defend strangers and systems than you are to relate to your friend. It’s a sharp turn in our otherwise friendly conversations.
One of the most heartbreaking things about fatphobia is the way it burrows into our brains, hijacking our values and distorting our sense of self. Most of us think we’re fat, but none of us want to be. So, in order to hear my experience, you might have to wade through the heartbreak, frustration and shame of how you feel about your own body. I am asking you to do that, bravely and vulnerably, because we will both be stronger for taking a long look this system of beliefs, attitudes, policies and practices that trap all of us.
Fatphobia keeps us in an endless cycle of dissatisfaction, frustration and shame. It keeps us from focusing on our happiness, and keeps us fixated on an impossible standard for our bodies. It tells us that we can only start living our lives when our bodies are smaller. It demands that we make ourselves thinner and thinner, shrinking ourselves endlessly — and who among us feels thin enough?
Fatphobia keeps us spending money on miracle cures, supplements, diet books, exercise equipment. It keeps us from getting healthy, and keeps us focused on getting thin. It insists that you can tell how healthy, moral, hardworking and emotionally stable someone is just by looking at them. It keeps us feeling inadequate, afraid, disempowered, and ashamed.
Fatphobia tells us that we have to get small at all costs. It doesn’t care how many diets, medical programs, exercise regimens we’ve tried. It doesn’t care what we eat, how much we exercise, or even who we are. It insists on explanations for the size of our bodies, and none are good enough. Fatphobia demands that getting thin is our sole focus; that our bodies will never be small enough; that we sacrifice everything at the altar of weight loss.
If you are thin, this is disordered thinking. If you are fat, this is demanded of you. It is the price of living in the world with a fat body.
Fatphobia is an orthodoxy that leaves no room for any alternative perspectives. It is not a democracy, not consensus. Fatphobia is totalitarian. It keeps me just as trapped as sexism, homophobia, and the other systems of oppression that impact me every day. If I’m honest, the way people treat me as a fat person has a more immediate, deep impact than the way people treat me as a woman or a queer person.
It’s always difficult and vulnerable to talk about our bodies. When I talk about being fat, and being treated like a fat person, I can feel my ribcage cracking open. Here is my heart, slick and beating, my lungs and their bellowing silver skin. I am presenting you with my bare skin and the vital, tender things underneath in the hope that you will see something human and recognizable in me. Because any brokenness in me isn’t any greater than any brokenness in you. The difference is in how we’re treated.
I’ve asked you to practice some common decency, and think about how what you say impacts the fat friends and family you love so dearly. Now I’m asking you to grapple with the way you’ve been trained to see the world. Think through with what you’ve believed about fat people in general, and what those harsh and unforgiving beliefs mean when you apply them to me, the flesh-and-blood friend you’ve known for so long.
Think about your standards for how all people should be treated, regardless of what they look like. Take a close look at when and whether fat people are allowed to qualify for that basic standard of dignity, respect and acceptance. Look at the way the world is set up, and look at your own ways of thinking about fatness. Let your love of specific fat friends and family propel you through questioning your beliefs about fat people in general. Love us enough to think differently.