This is an entry I plan on editing many times. The concept of writing a 101 on something that’s such a major part of my life is an intimidating and confusing feat. How do I impart the importance of an issue that’s affected me my entire life? How can I make people who may never have even experienced the stress that can come out of things that should be so simple– walking into a class room and looking around at the desks, wondering if you’re going to fit into them or if you should just sit at the table in the back? Sitting on a bus, plane or train and attempting some serious origami/yoga moves to try and tuck as much of you into as small a space as possible when someone sits next to you?
Though the issues don’t stand side by side, it’s a little bit like a PoC trying to explain to someone what it’s like to grow up in America as a black person. As person with white privilege I can read about what that’s like, I can see what my friends suffer through, both sympathizing and supporting them through their struggles. I can even avoid committing the same acts myself and further, call out people I see committing these acts, join up with forces dedicating themselves to eradicating the prejudice. But I can never really understand what it’s like to grow up as a racial minority because I’m not one. And no one who isn’t a minority ever can, despite the efforts of egotistical, condescending rich white dudes on Forbes.
The best I can do is try to give you a sense of where we come from, what our issues are, and why it’s so important to everyone, not just fat people.
First and foremost, Fat Activism is about the basic right to exist in a public space. To be seen. Believe it or not, this can be a really intimidating thought to a lot of us. Often times even if we’re doing what we’re “supposed” to be doing– say, going for a morning jog– we know we can anticipate jeering, or at the very least dirty looks and then some spluttering laughter. Not all the time, not for everyone, but it’s common and acceptable behavior, enough so that it’s a very real fear to have. We are, essentially, the butt of every joke. It’s one of the few prejudices people are allowed to have in any sort of socially acceptable manner and no one’s safe from it. If you’re fat and wearing a bikini on the beach and someone starts jeering you, no one is going to stand up for you. No one is going to tell them to shut up because believe it or not, other people’s bodies don’t actually exist for the sole purpose of being pleasing to you. Or because you really have no idea what this person’s health is. Or because you’re just being a judgmental asshole so cut it out. If they do anything at all it’ll very likely be to laugh, or stare at you in agreement. As if there was a large communal nod of “Yes, you are clearly the one doing something inappropriate by existing here. You ought to correct your behavior.”
The behavior, of course, being existing where people can see your overflowing blubber.
Let’s take another example, one that doesn’t even involve you assaulting poor unsuspecting citizens with your fat rolls. This one is actually a personal experience of mine, and one I’ve had the unfortunate luck to encounter a few more times since. I went to see a movie with my then-partner, settling in with our drinks and our popcorn for the previews. On comes a trailer for “Date Movie,” promising to be a spoof of romantic comedies featuring Alyson Hannigan in a lead role. Now, Alyson Hannigan was always a role model for me. She was an awkward red-headed nerd who just wanted to fit in. She struggled with dating and boys, and later on girls. She was Pagan. As a lesbian red-headed Pagan bookwormy nerd, I can’t express how exciting it was to see myself represented on television in such a positive light. So imagine my horror when I see how she represents me in this film.
That’s right. Alyson Hannigan in a fat suit, mocking romantic comedies. Because naturally, fat people in relationships is hilarious. Who would ever fall in love with a fat chick? I never saw the whole movie, but the trailer itself was horrifying enough that my twenty-one year old self wasn’t really up to the self-esteem killer. There was my role model, mocking my body. Making a point of showing how stupid, how clumsy, how vacant I was.
Writing in diary, she thinks she will never find her true love. Julia goes outside and dances to impress men on the streets. It doesn’t, as her obesity gets the best of her, with fluid sloshing around inside her rear and breasts; one man even shoots himself in the head with a nail gun when he sees her dancing.
This is me. This is what people think when they see me. This is how hideous I am. People would rather shoot themselves in the head with a nail gun than have to look at my hideous body.
This is what society told me. This is what society still tells me. I’m hideous, I’m worthless, and I’m essentially a fate worse than death. I wasn’t even paying to see this stupid movie but this was the crap that was shoved in my face. I’m older, more confident now. More comfortable. But at twenty one I wasn’t. At twenty one I heard everyone laughing in that theatre and thought “they’re laughing at me. They’re laughing at my body. I’m a joke to everyone in this room.”
I spent years after this moment and several more like it doing anything and everything I could to change my body. I tried Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, Jenny Craig, My Fit Foods, and then I got more desperate. I switched to all liquid shake diets that literally starved me by allowing me to consume nothing but powdered protein packets– and jello and pickles, filling bastards that they are. I tried cleansing fasts because I heard you dropped weight fast. “I’ll re-learn how to eat,” I thought to myself. “I’ll just stop eating food period, and then hit a giant reset button and magically learn how to eat well now.”
Except I wasn’t fucking eating wrong in the first place.
I starved myself– literally starved myself as in I did not eat any solid food for months. I exercised. I saw a dietitian that gave me a structured eating schedule and portion amounts. After months of this I was, in essence, told I was doing it wrong somehow. I lost maybe twenty pounds then “plateaued.” If I tried hard enough, worked long enough, or stopped cheating (which I wasn’t doing) I’d do better. Because there was no way I could be doing everything right and still be fat. And when that’s the only message you get, from society, from media, from pop culture, from your doctors, it’s what you believe. You are wrong, your body is wrong, and it’s all your fucking fault.
It took years for me to unlearn that thought track. I never bothered to take care of myself after that point because really, what was the point? I was a hideous fat blob and clearly nothing could change that. I was failing at existing. The way my body looked was visible proof of my constant failure.
And then I found the fat positive community.
I don’t even remember how I did it. I think I was looking around online for cheap clothes because I was dirt poor and also fat– which meant I couldn’t wear clothes. I ended up finding the Fatshionista LiveJournal community, first just browsing it for their clothing sales (which they’ve since moved to a separate community), but the more I read the more this revolutionary idea began to blossom. I was reading about all these fat kids that didn’t hate themselves. That didn’t think their fat was a problem that needed to be fixed. Sure, I scoffed at first. They’re just too lazy to fix themselves, I thought. Like drug addicts. They’re hooked on food and don’t want to come off of it (though eating disorders are a completely real problem, and something I’m addressing in another post, contrary to popular belief being fat =/= having an eating disorder).
But the longer I browsed the community (they had some really nice outfits– and hey, I think I could pull off that hairstyle– hey, don’t they live in my area? Where did they find wide-calf boots that cute? Could I actually look pretty?) the more my train of thought started to adjust itself. The more I realized that yes, I could look nice. No, my body is not my enemy. No, there is nothing inherently wrong with me just because I look different from everyone else. And yes, there was a community of people who agreed with me. I wasn’t alone. Here was a whole group of people who struggled with learning how not to hate themselves, who had experiences so similar to mine that a few times I actually teared up in stalwart sympathy.
And it got better.
Body acceptance is such a foreign concept in our culture that we can go our whole lives and never stumble across the concept that it actually is alright to be who we are. To look like how we do. That jokes that make someone hate themselves really aren’t funny. Like it or not, words are never just words. Words have power. And you never know what those words could drive someone to. It doesn’t make them weak. They aren’t overreacting. They’re victims of constant bullying that’s no less important than those who commit suicide because they’re a member of the LGBT community or dare to have a different skin color than everyone else. They’re bullied because of who they are, because of something they can’t change no matter how hard they try. It’s not hard to see why someone with literally no support group, without a single person saying “It’s okay for your body to be how it is,” might see this as their only option.
This isn’t a novel concept. It’s something everyone used to know and for a lot of reasons people have chosen to un-learn. I’m sure the extremely profitable weight loss industry has absolutely no interest in positive body image. Negative body image is what keeps you buying those shakes, diet pills and new exercising tools that will trim that belly fat in four weeks or your money back.
This is why fat activism is so important to me. This is why it should be important to everyone, no matter their shape or size. We need these communities, we need these people saying “You look absolutely fantastic” instead of “Oh honey, you’re not that fat!” We need to eradicate the thought that being fat is the worst thing you can be. We need to reinforce that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and your shape and size is exactly what it needs to be. We need to stop assuming that you can judge a person’s health by looking at them, and further stop assuming we even have the right to voice opinions on someone else’s health in the first place.