Despite all the cultural complexities that fat suit narratives produce, the drive to defend them is rooted in something much simpler and much more troubling.
As I’ve spoken more and more to those who defend fat suits, the roots of their defense are painfully human and deeply understandable. The more they learn about the harm of fat suits, the more embarrassed they become. And they’re right to be. It’s embarrassing for any of us to realize that we’ve been part of normalizing something that hurts other people. It makes us think that we may have been insensitive, that we may have been complicit, that we may have hurt someone—even if we didn’t mean to. It leads us to comb back through our memories, looking for evidence we’ll never find: experiences of enjoying fat suit movies or making fat jokes. Experiences that are so commonplace we didn’t even commit them to memory.
When faced with that embarrassment, many of us are driven to defend ourselves and, in the process, defend the things we didn’t notice that could be harmful. We allow ourselves to be pulled away from a realer conversation: One that offers feedback and nuance. One that finds us listening deeply to one another. We allow ourselves to be pulled away from who we otherwise are.
Even though we didn’t mean to, we have hurt someone. And instead of dressing their wound and making a plan to prevent that harm from happening again, we are drawn into a reactionary defense of the weapon we thoughtlessly used.
But there’s something more enticing about fat suits. For many thin people, fat-suit narratives offer more than a life preserver of blamelessness. For them, fat suits have an alluring siren song. Fat suit narratives, after all, are designed to make thin people feel good about being thin. Regardless of how their bodies came to be, these narratives seductively whisper to thin people that their bodies are prized accomplishments, that they have earned a ticket to being fully human, and that fat people have failed to exhibit their tenacity, vigilance, work ethic, penitence, and virtue. They whisper that thin people do not need to waste their time or energy treating fat people with respect or hearing out their experiences because they are simply inferior.
It is a seductive call. Supremacy always is.
And the alternative is hard work. It is hard work to step into someone else’s shoes, see the world through their eyes. It is hard work to stare in the face of the harm we’ve unwittingly caused. It is hard work to make amends for hurt we didn’t know we were causing. And it is hard work to come face to face with our own failings and reckon with what they’ve left in our wake.
But all this hard work is the work of building relationships, of learning to respect each other, even when our experiences differ. It is the work of love and dignity. It is the work of laying down the defenses we take up when we feel something raw and open inside ourselves. It is the work of accountability to the people in our lives, the work of helping to heal one another even when we haven’t fully healed ourselves. It is relentless, unending, crucial, and human.
It is the work of vulnerability—unencumbered by all that bombast, free of the fat suits that so long protected our failings.