Updated: Apr 1, 2020
The resistance to fat people loving themselves is real, y’all. The resistance to fat people even just accepting or respecting themselves is real. Indeed, many people get downright angry if one even suggests that there could be anything positive or good associated with being fat in our culture. This is not news to fat studies scholars, fat activists, or Health at Every Size (HAES) advocates – especially those of us doing this work who are fat ourselves. I can’t speak for everyone who is engaged in the struggle for fat acceptance or body liberation, but there are times I get tired, tired of the resistance I encounter when I try to point out the harm we are doing to people, especially fat people. This resistance is also emotionally taxing because as a fat person it is deeply personal.
This semester, I have the privilege of teaching an upper level sociology course I developed focused on fat studies and body politics. It was the fastest filling course in my department when registration opened last fall. While I have not had a conversation with other professors who teach similar courses at their universities (but I would love to!), I suspect the resistance I and some of my students have experienced is not unique. For example, some students have had others who were not in the class balk at the idea that such a course would even exist and suggest I was doing nothing more than “promoting ‘obesity’” (and given some of the research touting the health benefits of fat, maybe I should be). Another one of my students who was so excited about the things we were learning in class, decided to share some of their newfound knowledge with someone close to them and was told, “Well, I just hope you’re going to read some counterpoints to get a better perspective.” As I reminded my students, our entire class IS the counterpoint to dominant narratives that pathologize, medicalize, and demonize fatness in our culture.
Or how about this? In April, I was asked to give a keynote presentation about why fat is a social justice issue at the university where I work. I was chatting with some colleagues before my talk and one shared that as they left their office on campus to come to the event, another colleague upon hearing the topic of my presentation, scoffed and said sarcastically, “Yeah, sure, fat is a social justice issue.” This person wasn’t even willing to consider the body of empirical evidence that clearly illuminates this reality without completely dismissing it.
So, not unlike other practitioners, scholars, and activists engaged in this work, I spend a lot of time in conversation with others explaining why fat is indeed a social justice issue and why we need to dismantle fatphobia. Some of these conversations are more emotionally taxing than others, but the conversation I grow the weariest of having is the one that follows from the question, “But by supporting body positivity and fat acceptance, aren’t you just promoting unhealthy behaviors?” Not surprisingly in this age of healthism, I have found this to be the most common "concern" that comes up when these discussions take place.
First, let’s unpack this question. When someone poses this question to me, what they are really asking is, “aren’t you just promoting people being fat?” Because, to be clear, this question is predicated on the assumption that being fat is inherently "unhealthy" and "bad." Why then would we ever want to “promote” it? This belief directly stems from the ways fat has been pathologized and medicalized in our culture. As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, there are several excellent books and peer reviewed articles that speak to this history of pathologization and medicalization. Those familiar with this history recognize the ways our flawed and prejudicial assumptions about fat continue to allow us to get away with expressing overt racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and ableism, in the name of “health.” They recognize that what it means to be "healthy" is itself a social construction.
Now, let's address these so-called acts of benevolence on the part of those who are “just concerned about fat people’s health.” Fatphobia in the U.S. was well entrenched before Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared the “War on ‘Obesity’” in the nineteen-nineties. In other words, the war on fat exists and profits because of our collective hatred and fear of fat bodies, especially as these fat bodies intersect with race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status. If we really cared about fat people’s health, we would stop engaging in behaviors that contribute to a cultural climate that actually undermines their health. We would stop shaming them and treating them like a burden on our very humanity. As Harriet Brown (2015) writes in Body of Truth:
What I don’t understand is the veneer of concern that overlays so much of this
judgment….if we were really worried about people’s health, we wouldn’t be OK with the
nasty tweets and e-mails and public comments. We shouldn’t be OK with the fat-shaming
and the death threats and the anonymous letters. Judginess and disapproval don’t come
from a place of promoting health (166).
Indeed, when it comes to the war on fat, we seem to have forgotten about the importance of mental health altogether to say nothing of basic human decency and civility. So if you are someone who is "just concerned about fat people's health," why not direct your concern to the discrimination fat people face in employment, education, and healthcare? You know, the types of discrimination that have a direct impact on fat people's health. In fact, if you’re so concerned about fat people’s health, you should be outraged by the number of fat people who get sicker or die when their health concerns are not taken seriously by their doctors because of the pervasiveness of fatphobia in healthcare.
Finally, when I give talks about these topics, I never mention that I am a certified fitness instructor or that I teach Zumba® classes each week at the local Y for only one reason: I do not want to turn the conversation into one about "good fatties" versus "bad fatties." I do not want to be perceived as trying to distance myself from the negative associations we attribute to fat people in our culture, associations that, as Dr. Darci points out, situate fat as some kind of personal failing. That’s NOT what I want to focus the discussion on.
I want to focus the discussion on how fatphobia is rooted in racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and ableism. I want to focus the discussion on why those of us who are otherwise engaged in social justice work are not situating fat as a social justice issue and engaging in fat activism. I want to focus the discussion on how people, especially fat people, are being harmed by institutionalized fatphobia and fatphobic attitudes. Because if my well-founded, empirically-based arguments aren’t enough to convince someone that fat isn’t the arbiter of death and disease that we think it is; or that it is possible to be both fat and fit; or that BMI is bullshit; or that we are contributing to disordered eating by promoting diet culture; or that the notion that fat people are unattractive is socially constructed; then hopefully I can at least convince them to stop being assholes to fat people. As it turns out, being assholes to fat people negatively impacts their health.