I came to fat acceptance through a feminist lens. I know I’ve mentioned Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight before – it was a turning point in my self-awareness of body politics; reading it is when I really started to give serious theoretical thought to body issues and empowerment.
From the beginning, my conceptualization of fat acceptance has been hand in hand with a great idea of… let’s call it body rebellion.
The rebellious body is a nonconforming body, a body that does not play by the rules as established in our dominant mainstream culture. Because the narrow path to acceptability is actually an impossible path, there is no model (and I don’t know if this is true in all other cultures) of how to have a healthful relationship with one’s own body, especially if you are a woman. This is true regardless of size. It receives extra emphasis if you are living and experiencing intersections of oppression – if you are disabled, if you are queer, if you are trans, if you are a person of color, and so on. It receives extra emphasis if you are fat.
And it becomes, I think, very easy to forget that even if we dealt with no other oppressions, that narrow path would still be too narrow, more of a tight rope that it’s impossible for us to walk. It isn’t in the patriarchy’s – or the kyriarchy’s – best interest for women to be satisfied with their bodies, after all.
That’s why body acceptance, as a general concept, is hugely important. But I don’t think body acceptance is as focused or radical an activist movement. That’s why I think everyone can benefit from fat acceptance, fat politics. There is no lower size limit on who ought to be getting involved in fat politics because we all live in this culture that is seeking to control our rebellious bodies, this culture that will be satisfied, truly, if we just devote all of our time and energy to attempting to conform.
Fat acceptance is for everyone.
The thing about fat acceptance, though, is that it IS an activist-based movement; it’s founded by heaps of different people doing different things. There are so many different kinds of fat acceptance spaces that it can be kind of boggling, in a good way, to think about it. And we want, in each of those spaces, to be inclusive because, like all good anti-oppression activists, we want to be as inclusive as possible.
I want a fat acceptance that is an actively welcoming environment for people of all sizes, for people of color, for people across classes, for people who are not in the US. I want a fat acceptance that is an actively welcoming environment for transpeople, for queer people, for people of all ages.
This big metaphorical room full of people living their own experiences is so incredibly powerful. And when we all share our stories, it strengthens and enriches us as a community. This big metaphorical room, though, is only the beginning of what a fat acceptance community needs to be.
Just to be clear, I don’t believe in safe space. I don’t think it’s possible once you’ve got more than two people in a room, especially online. But I do think some spaces are safer than others and we all have to negotiate our own acceptable level of risk. That level can vary wildly depending on the day and our current experiences and state of mind and emotional needs. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about that.
This overarching community is vital to the work we do as activists – but also the work we do on the personal level. I think finding community is one of the most amazing things you can do when it comes to doing the work of accepting your own body.
This community is one way in which we oppose fat hatred – and body oppression in general. But it’s also not the end of the conversation. One of the reasons it is so easy to burn out on fat acceptance blogging is because you must have the 101 conversations over and over again. That’s because new people keep finding the movement. But the people who are part of fat acceptance also need to keep having conversation, need to keep working out within the movement the different nuances of fat hate and body oppression, dealing with internalized issues, and realizing new strategies for dealing with all of this shit that keeps getting thrown at us.
What this means is that there are going to be disagreements within the overarching community. This doesn’t bother me all that much – it bothers me because conflict is difficult and uncomfortable but that is no reason to avoid conflict entirely. We won’t ever grow without it.
Growth is not comfortable.
One of the things that seems really difficult, within the overarching fat acceptance community, is the issue of different experiences based on size. “Fat is fat,” people assert – and they do so because they want to bind the group together more tightly, because it seems like a way to keep us all aligned with each. They say this because that way everyone can continue to be part of the big overarching group.
The problem with this is that it runs directly counter to reality.
I want to interject a quick discussion about the cultural perception and definition of fat: it’s malleable. There is the definition of fat that includes BMI, that includes people getting lectured by their doctor. But there is also the definition that gets applied to people who just aren’t conforming as much as viewers wish they would – that’s why Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Love Hewitt and Tyra Banks get called fat (and we can talk about the elements of race in there, too, when people call Tyra fat). That’s why our friends and loved ones who sit well below the BMI category for even overweight call themselves fat or describe themselves as feeling fat – because “fat” is a physical descriptor but it is also a cultural codeword for bodies that don’t follow the rules.
When we talk about fat experience, we are obligated to contrast it with thin experience – we talk about thin privilege a lot when we’re trying to illustrate a point. But part of thin experience encompasses that more euphemistic definition of fat because that’s the scare word our culture uses to try to keep people dedicated to the pursuit of an unattainable ideal.
That’s the framework within which people come to fat acceptance, a place where fat is no longer the worst thing you can be called. The relief of that is incredible. It’s like being able to breathe again.
Fat acceptance, under the big overarching umbrella of it, is for everyone because we all need to breathe. We all need that feeling of clear relief – it isn’t that we’re breaking unspeakable rules, it’s that the rules are abusive and impossible.
But what comes next? How do we continue to have the conversations we must have, especially the difficult ones, the scary ones, the ones that make us recoil in remembered shame? How do we do that in the big group?
That’s where safer spaces come in. Not out of any desire to fragment the larger whole, because we all need that too much. But because we need the reassurance of common experience in order to get our heads around things sometimes.
“Fat is fat” is a desperately well-intended plea not to break up the band. But it disappears experience, washes us all out of ourselves and into this bland grey of commonality – which can be excruciatingly isolating and alienating when our own experiences don’t match up with the rest of that grey soup.
Erasing difference of experience is not an intersectional approach and I reject it whole heartedly. Not having the same experience does not lessen my connection to the shared community. It’s a chance to learn something and stretch to better examine my own privilege.
This is just as true of differences in size as it is of anything else. The experiences of an inbetweenie and the experience of a deathfat and the experience of someone who is larger than that (I really don’t like the term supersized) are not to be hierarchized – there is no hierarchy of oppression and rating human experience that way is profoundly flawed. But they are also not to be homogenized. While one might imagine identical feelings in an effort to be empathetic, the physical realities of the world also dictate differences.
I want to say, as plainly as possible: this is okay. To have unique experiences is how we share knowledge and power with each other. To have unique experiences is how the boundaries of our greater world are determined.
It is because our experiences are different that I talk to people – if everyone had my same experience, we wouldn’t have much to learn from each other, would we?
It is, I suspect, emotionally easier to a significant degree, to accept our differences when we are all sitting around in a big group talking about them. It’s when a smaller group within the group wants to go off and talk about a shared experience that things start to feel tense. We don’t want to exclude anyone – but at the same time, we have to have that safer space to have some of the conversations we really have to have to get better.
Fat acceptance is not a big same-same group; that’s amazing and fantastic. Fat acceptance cannot be a faceless mass of the similar. And sometimes we’re going to need to form spaces that are smaller, that are not quite as inclusive, so that we can go to the larger group with greater confidence and say, hey, it took me a little while to work that out but I’m doing okay now. How are you? We have to recognize, as individuals in this movement, that there are nuances of experience, of need, of comfort.
Sometimes, as I inhabit this body of mine, 5’4″, 300+ pounds, even within fat acceptance circles I feel incredibly alone because I do not see other bodies like mine. Sometimes, though I love the work that we are doing for all bodies, though I love the diversity of bodies I get to see, what I really want is the comfort of seeing other bodies that look like me so I have some externalized reassurance of what my body looks like.
These discussions are not “just semantics.” I’ve actually never understood that as a dismissal since semantics are wholely and solely about determining meaning and, well, that’s how I frame our task – changing the meaning of the visual symbology of bodies. If we don’t have these semantic discussions, we lose our own terminology before we’ve even fully developed it.
Over the past week and this weekend, I’ve been thinking about ways to break things down – bodily experiences of fat and emotional experiences of fat and all of the nuances that come with size and with intersectionality. I think if we insist on the entirety of fat acceptance remaining as a homogenized group then we will forever remain on that 101 level. I’m not calling for existing groups to become more socialized – I’m just asking that if some people you know are, in a defined space, having a conversation that does not necessarily apply to you, that you leave them to it, secure in the knowledge that you aren’t being kicked out of the group as a whole – and that the results of that conversation will get shared around. I’m asking for us to respect the realities of different experiences.
Our bodies are rebels, on the wrong side of the dominant paradigm. I want to be able to fight back, all of us, together at full strength. That means we’re going to have to keep doing work on our community, on strengthening our ties – sometimes that will mean respecting boundaries (good fences make good neighbors, anyone?) and sometimes that will mean trying to understand other definitions of fat and sometimes that will mean discomfort. I think we can do it, though. I think we have to if we’re truly going to make fat acceptance a place for everyone.
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