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When your fat role (roll) models hate being fat

I didn’t really have any interest in writing about Roxane Gay’s personal decision to have weight loss surgery. Body autonomy means that she is the arbiter of decisions about her body, and I respect that the way I want people to respect my decisions about my body.

But then a friend and fellow fat person messaged me on Facebook to ask how I felt about it all. This kind of thing sometimes happens when you have spent years talking about fat politics, about the radical philosophy of fat acceptance. And as much as I didn’t want to write about it, after that conversation and a few others, there was no way I couldn’t sit down and put something out into the world because my friend asked me an incredibly sad question.

“If Roxane Gay can’t love her body,” she typed in that little window, “what hope do I have?”

We do our best in fat acceptance circles to create spaces where weight loss talk isn’t the norm, where it’s often outright disallowed, but still people (often people who have had weight loss surgery) seem to want to center the discussion of hypotheticals. “Well, what if I needed to lose weight for my health?” “What if I lost weight but was still fat?” “Why can’t you understand that it’s different for me?”

So the conversation winds up going in circles because a great many people cannot imagine just…existing in a paradigm where we don’t use celebration to validate weight loss.

It’s frustrating as fuck.

And it’s frustrating on both sides of the argument, I’m sure. For some of us, the weight loss talk is one of the things we came to fat acceptance to escape. It can be boring and triggering at the exact same time, the kind of banal yet inescapable pressure that we desperately need a relief from because weight loss talk is so embedded in the mainstream world. For others, they’re seeking acknowledgement and reassurance that there is still a place within fat acceptance for them.

Of course there is. But there can be a place for people who still pursue weight loss — through surgical intervention or other methodology — without there being a place for uncritical discussion of same. Sure, perhaps it is different for you, I want to say to people. Perhaps it is different but that doesn’t mean that here is the space to have that conversation.

While I find Roxane Gay to be a gloriously talented writer, I do not think that simply talking about fat experience and the difficulties (or outright miseries) associated with it makes a person a fat acceptance activist. And so Roxane Gay was never, to my mind, a fat role model.

But her voice resonated for many fat people and nonfat people alike. I think the recitation of fat pain often makes fat voices more palatable because it confirms the idea that fat is bad, but I also think that people need to see their own experiences reflected back to them in meaningful ways. So, I admit that it’s all complicated and I don’t begrudge people their complicated feelings at seeing someone they have admired make the choice to have weight loss surgery. What does bother me, though, is the conflicted tension illustrated by my friend’s question.

She asked me, “If Roxane Gay can’t love her body, what hope do I have?” My response might have been a little incoherent. So I’ve tidied it up for you here.

Why should Roxane Gay — or any famous fat person — be better at fat acceptance than anyone else?

I ask this not because I don’t understand how role models work but because the things for which we admire people are not often the things that go into practicing fat acceptance. Being a great writer or a fantastic actor doesn’t make someone more capable of unpacking the constant messaging that tells us we should loathe and dismantle our fat bodies. I’d argue, in fact, that the more famous you are, the more pressure is exerted on you, the more your bodily noncompliance becomes a weapon people attempt to use against you. It’s a matter of — please forgive the pun — scale.

Ultimately, basing our approach to fat acceptance on this kind of comparison is a losing prospect. Fame is a grist mill, and compliance with social expectation regarding weight is an incalculably heavy stone. Please don’t turn to those who are being actively ground to chaff and use them as a yardstick by which to measure your own capability. Your capacity for fat acceptance isn’t predicated on the success of an otherwise-talented famous person.

For those who achieve a measure of fame and find themselves just as unhappy as they were before they were considered successful by certain metrics, I imagine that the temptation to view weight loss as a cure-all is even higher.

Why should we abandon hope when any one person (regardless of their fame and/or social capital) capitulates to the pressures of fat hate?

Of course we should not.

This is not to discount the worth of any one person in the context of fat acceptance. Fat community is a hard thing to find and often a hard thing to hold — like so many other activist communities, it is plagued with replicated structures of oppression: white supremacy, sexism, classism, ableism, and so on. So every fat person we find with whom we seem to share a connection becomes even more valuable to us on an emotional level; I get that. And when a famous fat person gets weight loss surgery or joins Weight Watchers or whatever, it just perpetuates and reinforces the idea that fat hate is never going to change, that fat is bad, that every fat person longs to be thin.

But fat acceptance is also about opposing a mandatory and systemic approach to bodies that values an incredibly narrow set of characteristics. It’s about exploding the beauty paradigm, not simply widening it. It’s about broadening the conversation regarding what constitutes good health (and asking why so many people confuse health with morality), what it takes to be worthy of basic human dignity and respect (spoiler: being human), and who gets to have value in our culture (not just people who conform to Hollywood beauty standards). It’s about the individual, sure, and my place in fat politics has long been speaking to individuals and offering tools to viewing an alternative to self-hatred. But it’s also about the societal and the social, the big picture, if you will.

As Lesley Kinzel wrote in her recent essay:

We must also be collectively fighting for self acceptance not only for ourselves, but for the well-being of every fat person that we have ever looked up to or admired or who has given us help, because body acceptance is a continuous process and never a final and permanent destination, and it needs support and fuel to keep going.

Within the context of this big picture, my fat role models are regular fat people, not famous folks who happen to be fat. In this context, my money is on the ordinary person to do the work of fat acceptance, to recognize that, yeah, it’s fucking hard and it’s going to be a constant process.

The diet industry runs on false hope and delivers instead despair, creates a vicious cycle of promises followed by blame: Oh, you weren’t disciplined enough, you didn’t want it enough. It’s a bait and switch and it holds onto its billions of dollars of industry with tight grasping fists.

I am a creature both of hope and of habit. Once I latched onto the hope offered by fat acceptance, I built it into my daily habits, took it and made it my own regardless of what the people around me were doing or saying or thinking. (It probably helps that I’m also contrary and stubborn as hell.) My embrace of fat acceptance began because I needed it on a personal, individual level, but I stuck to it because I committed to it on a community level.

If someone else, even someone I admire, exercises their body autonomy to make a choice I would not choose for myself, that does not change my anger at doctors who won’t treat their fat patients with the same care their treat their thin patients. It doesn’t change my disdain for douchebags who think fat girls are only good for a pity fuck or a secretive one-night stand. And it sure as hell doesn’t change my commitment to destroying the dominant social narrative about how being fat means you will be unhappy and die alone.

I know that it’s complicated. I know that it’s hard when your role models make choices that undermine what you thought were shared values. But I also know that there is hope outside of compulsory diet culture.

Stay here with me. Let’s keep blowing this shit up together.