Mar. 5th, 2009

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Lately, I've had a series of frustrating experiences on the academic front, surrounding my work in fat studies. Last week, I saw a colleague of mine-- someone I thought I was down with the whole fat acceptance business-- perform an autoethnographic monologue at a conference. In it, she implied that the biggest problem plaguing fat people is the health insurance industry's refusal to pay for gastric bypass surgery because-- oh noes-- it is seen as elective surgery rather than the health emergency it apparently is. She also caricatured fat activists as people whose only goal in life is to make people feel bad for going on diets, and to sabotage other people's attempts at improving their lives-- something that, according to her, is apparently only achievable through weight loss. I'm trying to feel compassionate toward her-- I know her search for self-acceptance has been a lot more difficult than mine-- but frankly, I'm feeling pretty stunned and betrayed by her allegations.

Weighing more heavily on my mind (no pun intended) is a conversation I had with my officemate a couple days ago. She and I are in the same professional development class, and in the previous class, we had to give conference-style presentations. I gave my presentation on Big Burlesque, which I (apparently erroneously) assumed was a pretty straightforward, relatively uncontroversial intro to fat studies. I mean, it's basically: fat people are discriminated against and oppressed, and performance groups like Big Burlesque challenge that oppression by challenging mainstream assumptions about sexual currency and the right to take up space. Not particularly radical, right?

Except when I met my officemate in the office following class, she had this grim look on her face. Whereupon she proceeded to tell me that she found my presentation offensive because I'm clearly judging her for choosing to diet. (I'm not really sure what a bunch of fat 'n' proud burlesque dancers challenging spatial discrimination have to do with my officemate's dietary choices, but, you know, whatever.) Apparently, it's okay for ME to be fat (particularly since I exercise and eat a lot of vegetables and am therefore one of the "good" fatties who "can't help" her weight, as opposed to her fat, lazy aunt who has clearly "let herself go"), but SHE would feel better if she was smaller, and I just need to understand that SOME people need to diet in order to feel better about themselves, and evidently the mere mention of people who have chosen to embrace their fat and challenge fatphobia are, simply by existing, threats to those people who just need to diet.

I feel the need, at this juncture, to make my stance clear when it comes to individual choice and social movements. Though I am mostly thinking about fatness here, what I am about to say also extends to my queer activism, to my feminist activism, and basically to any other social commitments I have.

In my opinion, the discourse of fat activism-- or of any social movement-- is not intended as a means to micromanage other people's personal choices. Certainly, I try to live my own life, to the best of my ability, in ways that are informed by my activist commitments, and to make my own choices accordingly. But I don't really see any point in wasting vital activist energy that could be better spent in trying to dictate, or even judge, other people's personal choices. Fatphobia, like sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism, are forms of systematic oppression; as such, it requires systematic solutions, and not obsessive micromanagement of the lives of fat people (or, indeed, the lives of any people, fat or not, who have been touched somehow by fatphobia). Frankly, one diet is not going to make or break an entire social movement, and as such I can't really be arsed to care about any single person's relationship to food or their body.

I do, however, highly resent when other people project their own troubled relationship to their body onto my activism and scholarship, and try to cajole me into reassuring them that it's "okay" if they choose to diet, and/or that I'm not oppressing them simply by suggesting that there are alternatives. It strikes me as a really convenient way to derail what I'm actually trying to accomplish with my work-- which is to expose fatphobia as a form of systematic oppression, and to highlight the work of activists who challenge conceptions of fat people as failed citizens, as grotesque, as lazy, immoral and less than human. Reducing the work of fat activists to a simplistic and navel-gazey battle over who should and shouldn't diet strikes me as a refusal to consider the systemic nature of fat oppression-- as if the fact that one tree is ostensibly different than the rest somehow means that there can't possibly be a forest. You may, personally, have perfectly good reasons for dieting-- I don't know, and I really don't care one way or the other-- but that doesn't change the fact that we live in a culture that valorizes thinness, that promotes a huge weight loss industry that, for the most part, fails to produce lasting results and even endangers the health of its participants; that positions corpulence as a contagious epidemic, a moral failing, a descent into the grotesque, and basically as a symbol of all that's wrong with the world today; and in which most people believe that it is perfectly acceptable to harass and discriminate against fat people "for their own good," as an incentive to get "better" (read: thin).

I resent the idea that I have to "absolve" people for their bodily practices just because I point out that some people challenge fatphobia (and-- oh noes-- that they are right to do so). Placing me in such a position not only grants me more power than I actually have; it advances a distorted-- indeed, inverted-- view of social relations. It imbues fat activists with a cultural capital we don't actually have, positioning us as tyrants whose only goal is to oppress people who want to lose weight. The point of fat activism is that fat people don't HAVE the power to oppress, to impose certain standards or bodily practices on the general populace. WE are the ones fighting bodily standards imposed upon US. And again I reiterate that this imposition is culturewide and systemic, and is not reducible to individual people's individual decisions to diet or not to diet.

Arguing that one should not HAVE to diet, or undergo weight loss surgery, or generally attempt to lose weight in order to "improve oneself" is NOT the same as arguing that it's okay to shun people who attempt weight loss. Pointing out that diets are largely unsuccessful, and that gastric bypass surgery contains health risks that are likely to far outweigh the "benefits" of weight loss, is not the same as declaring that anyone who has ever dieted or sought out weight loss surgery is a mindless cultural dupe. Declaring that fat people are not failed citizens, and that weight loss does not make one a better person, is a CHALLENGE to mainstream discourses that assign differing moral values to certain bodies, NOT a reversal of those discourses. My shit stinks as much as that of any skinny person-- the point I'm trying to make is that, contrary to popular belief, it doesn't stink more.

So I wish people would stop making my desire to combat fatphobia about them. I can't even point out your individual tree, let alone make any value judgments about it; I'm too busy examining the forest. Try joining me up here. There's clarity in this view.


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