Crossposted from my LJ from April 27th, 2009.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk to you about fat. Specifically I want to talk to you about fat phobia and thin privilege. It’s disturbing to me how many people are unaware or unwilling to believe that fat phobia exists, and how many thin/’average weight’ people are either unaware of or refuse to accept the privileges they have over fat people.
So, what is fat phobia, and what is thin privilege? For a start, the ‘thin’ in ‘thin privilege’ does not mean “size zero”. It means “of ‘normal’ weight”. Some examples: If you can walk into Top Shop, Miss Selfridge or any other high street fashion shop and know their size range includes your clothing size, you have thin privilege. If you can book a flight without fear that other passengers will hope like hell they’re not seated next to you or worse, that you will be refused entry to the flight because of your size, you have thin privilege. If you can happily travel by car or bus or train and know that the seat will be built to accommodate your arse, you have thin privilege. If you can visit your doctor without being constantly berated about losing weight and having every physical malady you suffer attributed to your size and nothing else, you have thin privilege.
Fat phobia is thin privilege in action. Fat phobia is the media’s insistence on sensationalising the ‘obesity epidemic’ and consistently and continuously painting fat people as lazy, unhealthy slobs. Fat phobia is in the general public’s pervasive and misguided belief that fat automatically means unhealthy (I’ll come back to that later). Fat phobia is in the refusal of clothing manufacturers to accommodate fat people when designing clothes, meaning that the majority of us end up spending twice as much in our ‘specialty shops’ as a thin person would on the high street. Fat phobia is in the medical professionals too lazy and indoctrinated to do their jobs, instead sending us away every single time with the instruction that if we lose weight, we will magically no longer be depressed/have CFS/have a broken leg (I’m kidding, sort of, but it really is that bad). Fat phobia is this society, which operates on a fat=bad belief and systematically beats down anybody who dares to disagree.
Many of my thin friends – women especially, women whom I otherwise think of as good, intelligent, progressive women – get massively defensive when I talk about fat phobia and thin privilege. “But skinny people are oppressed toooooooo!” I hear. Yeah, I get it. You went into a shop and ZOMG that top was too short/hung wrong on you. But do you know what? I didn’t even bother going in, because I knew I was four sizes larger than even the largest size they offer. You tell me you know how I feel because that top ‘didn’t fit you right’. We have totally different ideas on what ‘doesn’t fit’ means. To you, it means it didn’t flatter you. To me, it means it didn’t actually cover the intended body part. You were walking along the road and someone shouted that you were too skinny, or told you to put some meat on your bones, or blah blah blah? It is not the same as having the entire world consider you evil, the bane of society, and too stupid to know what’s good for you.
I said I’d come back to fat=unhealthy and how fucking ridiculous that is. I was going to in this paragraph, and then realised that Kate Harding said everything I wanted to say, and far more articulately than I could have hoped. I suggest you go and read her post before you comment with a ridiculous and misguided statement like “Don’t you know there’s an obesity epidemic?” “Don’t you know that fat kills?” “Haven’t you ever heard of Type 2 diabetes?” “Don’t you realize how much money this is going to cost society down the line?” “Won’t someone please think of the children?“
Here in the UK, at this very moment, there are politicians who want to make obese people pay for their NHS treatment. Many of you might well be going “as well they should, fat people bring it all on themselves!” Well quite aside from the fact that as I’ve discussed, fat people are no more unhealthy than thin people, think about it properly for a second. How would you put that into practice? Firstly, would obese people have to pay for all their medical treatment, or just the stuff that could be caused by unhealthy eating/lack of exercise? How would you determine what caused what? Would thin people also be charged for things that could be caused by unhealthy eating/lack of exercise? How about this – how would you determine how ‘fat’ someone had to be before they were required to pay?
BMI, you say? Well quite aside from the fact that the Body Mass Index is a crock of shite, you’d then have a hell of a lot of athletes (many of whom are considered ‘obese’ according to their BMI because of their muscular build) being asked to pay for their NHS treatment. Using the BMI, it’s utterly unpoliceable. The only way to do it would be to go into intimate and personal details or by looking at people. He’s a fattie, make him pay. She looks thin, give it her for free, even though it’s entirely possible her take-away diet is the cause of her heart attack. And aside from all that, the whole point of the NHS is that it is fair and accessible to all. The heroin addict who’s dying of an overdose has exactly the same right to have his life saved as the nun who’s fallen down a ladder. It’s universal health care. If you start making fatties pay, where do you stop? Alcoholics? People who don’t visit a gym three times a week? People who don’t eat their ‘five-a-day’? People who break their leg while skiing or horseriding (after all, you brought it on yourself by participating in a dangerous sport!)?
Of course some fat people are unhealthy. Some thin people are unheallthy too. It really chaps my hide that fat people are immediately considered unhealthy when I, all sixteen-and-a-half gloriously wobbly stone of me, eat better and am more active than every single thin/’normal weight’ person I know. A thin person who eats nothing but greasy take-away is still considered ‘healthy’ because of their thinness, as long as they don’t divulge their earing habits. But the thin person is thin! so people/doctors generally won’t bother asking about their eating habits because they don’t think they need to! I on the other hand, on my home-cooked, all-vegetarian, low-fat, high-fibre diet, am not only questioned but disbelieved when I explain my eating habits. You can almost see their thoughts behind her eyes. “If she really ate that healthily, she wouldn’t be fat. She must be stuffing her face with crap and too embarrassed to admit it.”
And you know what? I shouldn’t have to explain my eating habits to anyone. I shouldn’t have to feel like, in fact, know that, people immediately put me in the category of ‘unfit’ and ‘unhealthy’ just by looking at me. I shouldn’t have to put up with total strangers and ‘well-meaning’ friends and family members offering unsolicited advice on how I can make myself small enough to fit into their version of ‘healthy/attractive’. I shouldn’t be expected to starve myself and make myself miserable in an attempt to shrink myself that will not work before a doctor will take me seriously and give me the treatment I need. In short, I should not be treated as subhuman simply because my size doesn’t please people.
And you thin people? Yes you, and you, and you over there thinking “but I’m not thin, I have a bit of a belly and I want to lose ten pounds!”? A lot of the time you are part of the problem. I’ve written before about listening to people go on about their weight, and admittedly I was in a shocking mood when I wrote it. But the sentiment remains the same. When you say “I’m so fat” or “I feel fat”, the unspoken ending to that sentence is “…and that’s a bad thing.” And by implying that fat is a bad thing, you are insulting me.
I don’t care how many times you tell me “But I don’t mean you!” or “But you’re not that fat!” or even “It’s fine for other people but I’d feel better if I was thinner!” – you are being fucking offensive. By implying that fat is a bad thing – even the tiny amount you have on your skinny ass – by saying fat is bad you are saying there is something wrong with being fat, and if you are saying there is something wrong with being fat you are saying there is something wrong with fat people, and if you are saying there is something wrong with fat people you are saying there is something wrong with me. However you try to paint it, every time you moan about how ‘fat’ you are, it is a personal insult because of all those unspoken implications which you’ll tell me you don’t mean but they are there.
Want to know how you, thin or ‘average-weight’ person (yes you, in the corner still muttering about those ten extra pounds, I mean you), can be an ally to fat people? Stop moaning about being fat. If you want to exercise and eat well, then that’s a really good thing and I’m happy for you that you want to be healthy. But don’t make it about fat. Don’t talk about how so-and-so has put on weight. Don’t listen to people who gossip about other people’s weight. Stop telling fat people that you know just how they feel unless you are or have been a fat person. You don’t. I know you think you do, but you can’t and you don’t. Stop seeing fat as the ultimate evil. Stop saying “oh, I can’t eat that, I’m on a diet.” Diets don’t work! No, not even if you call them ‘lifestyle changes’! By going on a diet when you’re of average size, you’re perpetuating the fat=bad belief, and (here I go again) being personally insulting. Stop talking about the ‘eeeevil obesity epidemic!!!1!’, stop blindly believing what you’ve been spoon-fed about obesity and health.
Most importantly, stop shaming fat people. Seriously, if shaming us made us thin, there wouldn’t be a single fat person left in the world. That means not offering fat people advice on ‘how to lose weight’, especially unsolicited advice. It means not talking as if being fat is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. It means not poking your fourteen-year-old niece in the belly and telling her she’s filling out. It means not behaving and talking like a privileged asshole when you’re talking about weight, be it your own or someone else’s.
With a bit of common sense and intelligence, we could erase fat phobia entirely. It starts with me. It starts with you. It starts with everybody who gives a shit about truth and dignity. It starts with every person who is willing to take a stand, to call people out on their fat jokes, to question the status quo, to stand up to their doctor when he or she starts spouting untruths about obesity and health, to accept their weight and stop seeing fat as the enemy. It’s not. Hatred is the enemy, misinformation is the enemy, the media with its obsession with flat bellies and non-existent arses is the enemy. Say it with me. Fat is not the enemy. Fat is not the enemy. Fat is not the enemy, and I for one will not treat it as the enemy for one minute longer.