The first time I was happy to call myself fat, that happiness was accompanied by a fierce possessiveness. Finally, a thing that had been flung in my face repeatedly over the years didn’t hurt me anymore. It was mine.
As with many fat activists, I felt that I understood what it meant to be fat, because I understood what it meant to be fat for me. And since I was fat, that meant, of course, that I knew how to be a fat activist.
God, it’s embarrassing to look back at now.
I said you couldn’t diet and call yourself body positive. I said you couldn’t call yourself fat if you weren’t fat. When pressed for an explanation, I gave vague, half-answers that felt like truth to me. And all of it was for nothing. All of it was just to build a wall that nobody needed.
I’m done jealously guarding the boundaries of this identity. You can call yourself fat. I don’t mind anymore.
My research is propelling me forward to a truly radical understanding of “fat” and “thin” as constructions of power within relationships both on the individual, state, and even global level.
I finally had to accept that you could diet and be body positive when I tackled the subject of fat transgender people. Many of the people I spoke to simply had to diet in order to access medical care. Others expressed desire to lose weight for a variety of reasons, including wanting to avoid violence, wanting to get a job, wanting to buy clothes that fit them. Were any of these people “worse” than the others for their desires? Were any of them “better”? Were those victimized by a violent system somehow better than those who wanted to lose weight for reasons I found more “frivolous” (thus exposing my own ignorance), and if I felt that way, was I somehow encouraging victimization as a path to righteousness?
I worry that fat activism has begun to build a new version of the Good Fatty, that within fat activism there is a certain excessive pushback against fat people who don’t perform their fatness with as much purity as we would prefer. I worry that this house we’ve built to protect fat people is leaving people out in the cold, that we may be creating a new hierarchy in which some performances of fatness are considered “impure,” excluding people from the movement that they desperately need.
When Ashley Nell Tipton revealed she had gastric bypass surgery, I was one of the many who expressed disappointment. But who was I disappointed by? A person I’d never met, who had never made me any promise? Or a symbol I’d made, an object?
In her piece on Chelsea Manning, speaking of how the trans community (myself included) had placed her on a pedestal, and on the personal relationships we invest in with celebrities, Katherine Cross writes of a man who asked how they could trust a celebrity again after a revelation:
I remember feeling a bit put off by the man’s fury. “Why were you trusting her at all?” I wondered. I reserve trust for friends and loved ones. Celebrities are merely people whose actions I have opinions about. But it hit on a critical dynamic in marginalized communities where our exemplars are not just seen as successful people, but avatars of our hopes and dreams, with expansive responsibilities to their community. We invest trust in them to stand for us because they’re one of us, a symbolic role that asks one person to contain all our humanities, with little room left for that of the host.
I remember reading this and it sticking with me. I wondered why I put Ashley Nell Tipton on such a pedestal. I didn’t make clothes. I didn’t even particularly like reality television. She was fat and successful, so I invested in her.
We refer to these one-sided relationships as parasocial interactions, a theory which describes illusory relationships between the audience and the content creator. Often, these are expressed as being the “fault” of the audience’s poor boundaries by those who, perhaps, want to take a very shallow look at the problem. More functionally, this relationship is often encouraged by content creators in late capitalism. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily the fault of those content creators, either. It is, perhaps, time we lay our blame not on individuals, but on systems of power that bind them. Parasocial relationships become the new normal in an economy where so many have to crowdfund basic healthcare, housing, education, bail, even funerals.
I have been on both sides of this equation, starstruck by celebrity not long ago and these days dealing with the stresses of having even a minor following as a writer. I understand how easy it is to fall into it, and how exhausting it can be to be the subject of it, and how impossible it can be to escape it in new models of content creation, for both audience and creator.
And part of that is why I don’t want to tell people they can’t call themselves fat, because for some reason people listen to me about that stuff, and I don’t want to proscribe behavior to people, to demand purity in their fatness. I don’t believe that there’s a right or wrong way to be fat, and I’m tired of being asked to man barricades that nobody really needs. It feels like a recreation of the moral panic surrounding the so-called “obesity epidemic” that, ostensibly, we oppose. I don’t want to create a Fat and Thin front, with a No Bodies Land stretching between them. I want to proliferate new meanings of fat that fit its cultural elasticity, representing a spectrum of experience that changes from region to region, generation to generation, and subculture to subculture. It is highly raced, classed, and gendered, and the moral panic surrounding it is global. What right do I have as a white, Western person to demand that fat activism and my conception of fat conform to my body and my experience?
The plus size model, at a size twelve, doesn’t experience the same kind of fat oppression I experience. But they’re struggling for work. They’re labelled as “plus size.” They are Schrödinger’s Fat Girl, and their experience is as revelatory about the systems of oppression that press down on both our bodies as my own.
Marilyn Wann, in the Foreword of the Fat Studies Reader, writes that fat is a floating signifier that gets attached to individuals based on power dynamics. This doesn’t mean that fat oppression isn’t real. It just means that it is broader than our conception of it at this point.
Does the so-called “small fat” take up too much space in fat activism? I would argue that there is no limit to space in fat activism, that fat activism seeks to destroy those limitations. I would say that a progressive model of sharing that values the diversity of fat experience would need to include the so-called “super fat” and that the system of exclusion that silences those voices is definitely more the enemy than the “small fat” speaking.
I should say that, but I’m afraid that if I do, I will be ostracized, accused of taking steps backwards from my radical stance. Rather, I hope this piece shows you that my intention is not to step backward; my research is propelling me forward to a truly radical understanding of “fat” and “thin” as constructions of power within relationships both on the individual, state, and even global level.
In their piece “Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice,” Frances Lee describes something I see far too often in fat activism. “Telling people what to do and how to live out their lives is endemic to dogmatic religion and activism.” The demand that fat people “just be happy” in their bodies is as unreasonable as the demand that they lose weight. Some people are going to diet. I want to remove the cultural power from compulsory dieting, but that doesn’t mean that I want to cut off every friend who tries a cleanse or gets a physical trainer. Rather, I ask that they respect that I don’t want those things but I support their want of them, and I ask that they read my research with an open mind and heart, which they do.
The demand that one experiences certain things before claiming their identity does not free fat from its place as a floating signifier and prevents it from moving to a place of subjectivity. There can be no monolithic experience or shape of fatness in my activism and thus I can no longer demand a singular fat expression for the sake of political purity. Fat community is too important to tell people they must be this fat to ride.
This piece may get me excommunicated from the fat activist community, but I want to proliferate new meanings of beauty, of fat, new expressions of embodiment. I don’t want to jealously guard an identity or police the actions of others.
You can call yourself fat. I don’t mind anymore. I release the word from my ownership. It belongs to all of us now.
And if you’re still here with me, if you still want to learn with me, thank you. But if you don’t, I release you. You have no obligation to our past friendship. I have to follow the path that feels right. Maybe it’s not the well-beaten track. So this is where we part.
But I wish you well.