Fat is one of those things I can't talk about as if these issues do not effect me. In fact I must say I don't really trust someone who has never been fat yet claims expertise about what being fat is like and what the struggles are. So that lays one of my biases right out there.
Why write about this? Well, every day I and all of us are bombarded with pretty simple theories about why people get fat and what we should do to get thin. But almost never does anyone ask a fat person about her experience or feelings or thoughts. In my small way, I am trying to add that voice and to explore some of the meaning of fat and expose the prejudice that fat people encounter, especially in health and mental health settings, and to think about meaning in all of this.
"... the fat body is ... always visible: the only people they are trying to persuade to accept fatness are themselves. While constructing a visible “body of acceptance” does prove that it is possible for fat bodies to be beautiful, it does not directly address the audience who needs to be persuaded: the public who construct and consume norms of beauty.”1
I had a dream once about being interviewed by a small group of people. The interviewer asks me about my weight. I tell her a good part of the problem for me is what they assume they know about me because I am fat.
Embracing fat acceptance gives a measure of dignity and a refuge from self-loathing but every day we confront the assumption that fat people have lost their self-control. And frighten others because there is such a premium placed on being thin, to the point of being a public obsession. Ask and most people want to be slender, but this physical perfection is difficult to hold on to and they fear losing control of it. Women and men can be on diets their whole lives. A fat person, particularly a fat person who seems at home with herself and her body is threatening. Fear and unhappiness get projected onto people who are bigger and that too often translates into abuse and attacks. In attacking fat people, the person terrified of the security of her grip on her own body disassociates herself from what she fears the most - getting fat. Fat people wear, obvious for all to see, the very thing that many, especially in this time of war on obesity, fear will befall them if rigid control is not maintained. The fat person becomes the example of what no one should be.
On the internet, where anyone can hide behind a pseudonym, many feel free to express the usually unspoken, free to vent their fat hatred as in the following left in comments on various news sites:
But fat really is gross and ugly. It's a sign of indulgence, lack of exercise, poor life choices. Yuck. I wouldn't date a fat person if we were the last two people on earth.
The last thing we need is another whining class of victims. Most of the time, fat people are victims of only one thing: their own appetites.
Fat people are ugly and they stink. I don't like looking at them. I like looking at athletic bodies, both male and female. They are works of art (and whoever defiles the body, defiles the soul). I like the beauty of a such a bio-machine in motion. It is ART. I like the shadows cast by the muscles; I like when I see the tendons push out the skin. When I see this, I want to go up to that person and strum the tendons like a violin. I don't see any of that with fat people. But I smell fat people when they spill over into my seat.
There seems to be no barrier to expressing such bigotry. And though it is usually unspoken, nearly every fat person has seen or heard enough similar judgement to be aware that any time she walks down the street, someone is thinking or saying things like that. Fat people swim in a sea of toxic prejudice.
Fat is not only hated, but also seen as doing physical damage to the individual. Frantz Fanon talked of the internalised racist where the ideology of whites was internalised by Blacks. So that Blacks too associated being Black with failing, being lazy, being less, being stupid, and being white meant having power, being successful and being pure! The black man or woman idealised the system of white hierarchy and held it in their own mind as a model. The same is true for people who believe themselves to be fat. They believe the propaganda that thin is better, not only in terms of health, but that it will make them a better and happier person with a higher status and so they hate who they are.2
Lester Spence, a black political scientist at Johns Hopkins recently wrote:
“Predominantly white spaces can be exhausting to navigate. I have to consciously be aware of what I am saying, of who is around me, of what I am wearing, of what I am doing, of what others are saying and doing. In critical ways, I cannot let my guard down for a moment. Because—and even as I write this I recognize how paranoid this may sound to people unfamiliar with the experiences I refer to—at any point I may be forced to defend myself, defend my presence.
In stark contrast, when I am at home, or at my wife’s church, or with my fraternity brothers, or at the club listening to house music, I am at home. I am not a statistic. Not a threat. Not an outsider. Not an anomaly. I am safe to “be.” I can be the “representative for the race.” I can be the one black person in the room. But I don’t have to be. I can take the story I just told you and explain in detail why I think I was being racially profiled, why I think other possible explanations don’t stand up to empirical scrutiny, why I think I was saved by the two black officers who knew what was going on without me having to tell them. But when talking to other black men and women or even to young children (to my children), I don’t have to.
I can, in those spaces, breathe.”3
There is no fat space for most of us, except perhaps at gatherings of fat acceptance activists. There is no place where I can go where I can just breathe, not have to explain myself or watch myself or work to ignore the looks of disapproval. Where I fit in. Where I can be and do and move without being subject to scrutiny and silent (usually silent anyway) judgment. I have been trying since reading that piece to imagine what that would be like. It is only when I am at home, with the people who love me, or with my friend, who is also fat, that I can approximate that kind of space. Every place else is like Spence’s “white space”. Space where my fat reveals what must be my shame, my laziness, my self-indulgence, my gluttony, my too-muchness.
When I am in thin space and I enter a room where there are other people, without thinking, I scan the room to see if there are other fat people there. To be the only fat person is to stand out in an uncomfortable way. Relief is when there is someone as fat or fatter than I am.
If I am in thin space and I go out to eat with others -- say for lunch during a workshop, I am aware of what everyone eats. Women apologize to each other for eating -- “I didn’t eat breakfast so I need a big lunch.” “I should just have a salad.” -- it is an unwritten rule that it is gauche to enjoy eating, to eat whatever and as much as one wants. So I am careful to eat sparingly and never have dessert.
In thin space I am always on guard. I am hyper-aware of my behavior -- my voice, how I move. I made myself learn to walk lightly. I am vigilant. Always aware of the others. In thin space, I am thin-skinned.
How to be in thin space without being thin-skinned, without being angry?
Like most fat people, I know how to be the Good Fat Person. All I have to do is talk about trying to lose weight, about my desire to be thin. I can say I have lost 10 or 15 or 30 pounds and I will be praised for my efforts, even if it is a lie. Because the Good Fat Person is apologetic for being fat and is in a perpetual state of trying to become thin. The Good Fat Person doesn’t threaten thin people because she tells them she is engaged in the same struggle to subdue her body that they are. The Good Fat Person is apologetic for her fat, as if she must ask forgiveness for committing an aesthetic crime with her too-muchness. She doesn’t complain about the relative lack of variety in clothing available to her and accepts that she should wear shapeless coverups, preferably in dark colors. She accepts as just that she pays more for her clothing, health care, seats on airplanes. Because she knows she deserves it.
“You can't hide your fat...
According to the thin or the formerly or even presently fat, the fat person lacks willpower, pride, this wretched attitude called "self esteem," and does not care about his friends or family because if she did care about friends or family, she would not wander the earth looking like a repulsive sow, rhinoceros, hippo, elephant, or, general nine-headed monster. The fat person doesn't even love herself because if she did, she would be slender and lithe and getting exercise by being busy with her bicycle rides and weight-lifting with her three-pound pink weights. The most shameful fat facts, and those facts most avoided when the fat or formerly fat write about fatness, are facts about the fat body. ...
What people do want to write about is weight loss and how to lose it. They want to write about self-esteem and how to gain it".4
Very rarely has any therapist I have seen asked me about my experience as a fat woman. In Yalom's essay"Fat Lady", he doesn't mention anything he learned about her experience. In fact at the end, it seems he hasn't leaned much at all as she calls him on never having touched her nor hardly looked at her. I suspect most therapists and physicians are caught in their own fantasies about fat people and their prejudices as well. And unfortunately very few fat patients challenge them on that, so opportunities to learn are lost. I have been asked more than once by physicians if I have "given any thought to losing weight?" as if I am somehow unlike every other American woman and as if I have never heard of much less tried any of the myriads of diets out there. It's hard not to get angry at times like that. What I have almost never been asked is how I feel about my body and my weight. As in my dream that I mentioned above, too often the problem is what people believe they know about me because I am fat.
1. Mack, Ashley Noel Closely Closeted: The Fat Acceptance Movement and Embodied Closets of Power p.16 http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/9/3/9/5/pages193951/p193951-1.php
2. Farrell, Em. http://www.psychoanalysis-and-therapy.com/human_nature/free-associations/farrellob.dwt
3. Spence, Lester http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/sub.cfmArticleID=1426&IssueID=81&SectionID=4
4. Miller, Judith , “Why I Wrote Fat Girl” -- www.vachss.com/media/righteous/why_fat_girl_moore.html