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Being Ungrateful During the Season of Gratitude

Recently, my partner had surgery and I ended up hanging out at our local hospital for a few days while he recovered. Although fatphobia lurks around many corners in most of our lives, I think we can acknowledge that hospitals are particularly hostile places for fatties and non-fatties alike. I mean, this is the place where medical terms like “obesity” and bad science like BMI really have traction. As I was sitting and waiting to hear news about my partner in the “family lounge,” I also had time to look around. I took note of the furniture, the signs, the space. And, I was pleasantly surprised to see many ways in which bodies were being accommodated--wider chairs, chairs without arms, wide spaces for the navigation of larger bodies or motorized wheelchairs, and generously sized bathroom stalls with sturdy toilets. I thought to myself, “Hey, this is awesome!” But, the longer I sat there, waiting, the less awesome I felt. Slowly, I began to wonder why I was feeling so good, so grateful for this simple accommodation of a normal range of human bodies.

And, this is not the first time I’ve encountered these feelings. I’ve also felt grateful for having positive interactions with older white men who weren’t overtly sexist (or racist, or ableist, or homophobic). I’ve felt grateful for Christians who haven’t been shitty to me because I’m queer. And, I’ve felt grateful for having a primary care provider who doesn’t fat shame me. In fact, now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’ve felt too much gratitude too many times for the stuff of basic human dignity and it’s making me angry. Honestly, I prefer my anger to feelings of gratitude and here’s why.

Take a walk to any megastore with a healthy selection of holiday goods and wares and it won’t be long before you see a sign, a poster, or some other sweatshop tchotchke reminding you to be blessed, be grateful, be thankful. In this cultural moment where the hashtag rules supreme, you’re never far away from being reminded of gratitude (#blessed), albeit in a forced, capitalistic, performative sort of way. And, in the vein of the performative, I’m beginning to wonder what’s real and what’s really a virtue signaling performance. What’s an authentic emotion and what’s me trying to be a good fatty who is grateful for the straight size people in her life who don’t shame her?

Before I go any further, I have to confess that it’s not that I’ve just now realized my discomfort with the act and feeling of performed gratitude. It’s more that this time of year triggers my deep suspicion of the motives for all of this “gratitude.” I’m suspicious of the Hallmark nostalgia of holiday seasons that can never meet expectations, of unrealizable family narratives, and of what all these expectations of gratitude mask. I’m skeptical of forced gratitude and I question who actually profits from it. We all know this is the season of being grateful for what you’ve got and we’re encouraged to go the extra mile to show it--and I do mean to show it. If you want to go down a terrible internet rabbit hole, Google the terms “poverty porn” or “voluntourism.”

But, what if you want more than a seasonal corporate package of gratitude? And, what if you’re not grateful for what you have? This season of fake-it-til-you-make-it gratitude conceals the vulnerability many of us feel at this time of year and amplifies my sense of anxiety that I’m probably not grateful enough. So, I’m currently holding two conflicting truths in my mind regarding gratitude. I’m both grateful and resentful for feeling like I have to be grateful. I’ve been both the person reminding others to be grateful and the person resenting being told that I should be grateful. In my past I have lectured people on why they should be grateful for a whole host of basic human rights such as: democracy, electricity, water, the Internet, a job that isn’t actively discriminating against me, and having a window in my office. It feels amazing. I’ve also been the person being lectured to about things that I should be grateful for--believe me, I prefer to do the lecturing.

As others have eloquently described, the holiday season is filled with a million ways to feel terrible about yourself. (En)forced gratitude works as a form of tone policing that, especially this time of year, silences the very real frustrations, hurt, and anger fat folx feel. For example, when food moralizing really ramps up at holiday parties (“I’m being so bad!”), when you’re forced to see relatives who are “just trying to be supportive” as they offer advice on the latest fad diet, when you have to fly-while-fat to see the aforementioned relatives in seats too small and with seat belts that are too short, and when you know the January weight loss ads are on their way we’re not supposed to be angry. Instead, we’re meant to feel gratitude for friends, family, the ability to pay for holiday flights, and that gym membership.

And, I’m going to admit that in my lowest moments, when I’m feeling shitty about myself, frustrated with my body, or having a terrible day, I find myself doing the “at leasts,” which is all about sham gratitude. Here’s how it goes, “I hate my gut, but at least I can still buy clothes at regular stores.” Or, “I hate my saggy arms, but at least I’m strong!” And, if I really dig into it, I didn’t invent this kind of self talk. It’s part and parcel of the other weird forms of gratitude we learn as kids--or, I’ll be more specific, as a white kid in a lower middle class family. It’s the logic our parents use to con us into eating our peas, “Hey, you know there’s kids in [fill-in-the-country] that wish they had peas to eat!” Okay, but what if I still don’t like peas? Do I still need to be grateful for them?

And, it’s not that I’m not grateful, I think I am in my own way. It’s just that I’m also angry. Can we be grateful and angry at the same time? I’m not sure. But, if I have to choose one over the other, I choose my anger. I choose to be ungrateful because it motivates me to continue the work of challenging, of agitating, and of amplifying my voice and the unheard voices of others around me. Being grateful for having a voice never changed the world; rather, raising your voice when others want to silence you is the resistance that we can really be grateful for.

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