I received an e-mail with some really good questions about how to be a thin fat activist. I know that some people prefer to use the term thin ally but the very wise Marilyn Wann once talked to me about this and reminded me that fat phobia and a completely unattainable standard of beauty hurts everyone. So people can identify as allies or thin fat activists or whatever they want and I’m cool with it.
The scripting I use below is really generic and I totally encourage rephrasing it into something that is authentic to you.
Awesome, you totally rock. Thank you very much!
I hear this from a lot of thin fat activist – this occurs when a size bigot assumes that everyone who looks like them shares the same bigotry. Sadly, it happens both ways. I get strange looks and push back when I defend a model that someone says is “obviously too thin” or when I complain about the use of phrases like “real women have curves” or anything that attempts to elevate some bodies at the expense of insulting others. (Don’t believe me – take a look at some of the comments to my Things I’ve Heard about Thin Women post on Jezebel“) When it happens to me with another fat person, there are two options that I go for. the first is the “dumb question”
“Oh, do you know her?”
“Wait, so how do you know anything about her health?”
“I can see she’s fat”
“There are plenty of healthy fat people, and plenty of unhealthy thin ones. Either way nobody deserves to be called names – this isn’t Junior High.”
Or, I’ll try to point out that it is an assumption, then try to get them to feel some empathy, using myself as an example.
For example: “Interesting that you should make that assumption about her. You know, I’ve been trying really hard not to make guesses about people based on their appearance – It makes me so angry when people assume that I’m lazy and unhealthy because of my size, and I don’t want to turn around and do the same thing to someone else.”
I wonder if this could be used on someone of “normal” or “thin” body size, using a stereotype that fits you. – For example, if you are blond “Interesting that you should make that assumption about them. I try not to make assumptions about people based on their appearance – it drives me crazy when people assume that I’m a ditz because I’m blond, I wouldn’t want to make the same mistake”. Etc.
This is where it gets tricky because people will get defensive/give you push back and you have to decide how much teaching you want to do in this teachable moment – do you want to go into the science of it or just assert that you believe that people should be treated with respect – it’s totally up to you.
One creed that I live by is that I don’t try to control anyone else’s behavior, I simply control my reaction. So you might try something like: “You know, I’m really not comfortable with talk like that. I think it’s shameful that in our society there is so much pressure to hate our bodies or fit into some ideal body type. I doubt making people feel bad about themselves will help them be healthy (AND/OR) People can be healthy and happy at any size. I’m going to [remove myself from this situation] until you’re done with this conversation. When you’re done just come find me [at the place I'm going to]. I would probably add a bit of science to this because I’m a big giant nerd but that’s entirely up to you.
- At dance class, where an unknown neighbor always complains about the music being too loud, new acquaintance says laughing, “What’s their problem? Maybe they should get off their fat butts and do some exercise.”
This seems a bit non sequitur and I would likely point that out “I guess I can see how our music would be loud to someone nearby who is trying to work. Of course they moved in knowing we were here so it’s pretty much their problem. I never felt the urge to call them names though.”
- I mention how our Zumba class was such a crazy workout and had me sweating my butt off, and she says something about now I have permission to eat whatever I want afterwards.
On this one I would go with something like “You know, I was just thinking about how we have this culture where people label foods as good or bad, or they starve themselves and just have really weird relationships with food. I use the health at every size method and always give myself permission to eat whatever I want, that way I stay in touch with my body and make sure that I have a healthy relationship with food.”
- She discusses a Zumba class she took in another part of the country where it was so great to see those people out there instead of eating potato chips in front of the television (something else about getting fat here, I think).
This is one of those situations where I would typically let her know that this conversation doesn’t work for me “You know, I’m sorry if this seems rude but that kind of stereotyping really bothers me. I’m going to head out. I’ll see you next week”.
So my response to this is mostly that I’m the boss of my underpants and nobody else’s: “It actually really bothers me when someone guesses about other people’s habits or health by looking at their size. There are plenty of healthy people and plenty of unhealthy people of all sizes.” and/or”I don’t have the right to tell other people how to live. I can’t make people look both ways before they cross the street, or not talk on the cellphone when they are trying to drive and I can’t make people of any size live by my definition of health, it’s really none of my business. I try to concentrate on myself and let other people make their own choices”.
I guess my main point is – people assume incorrectly that b/c they think I fit a thin ideal that I’ve never had body image issues or that I don’t truly believe in body positivity. Or that b/c of my genes, I have some kind of “right” to eat whatever I want b/c I won’t gain as much weight as the next person. And that I’m OK with “fat talk”. None of these things are true – but I don’t how to point that out exactly.
I think that what you said right there is genius. When something like this comes up, say just that “I don’t know if you are doing this but I notice that a lot of times people assume that because I’m thin I’ve never had body issues, or I am ok with people saying nasty things about other people’s bodies, or that Health at Every Size doesn’t apply to me. None of that is true and that kind of thing really bothers me.”
In the end, you have to be ready for backlash. Being a fat activist of any size isn’t always easy. You’re going to get the “everybody knows that fat is unhealthy” argument (not only doesn’t everybody know that, but there’s a mountain of evidence to the contrary.) You’re going to get “Well they cost so much money in healthcare or at the workplace” (bullshit!) You have to decide how much teaching you want to do in any given teachable moment, and that means you have to decide how much information you want to be armed with.
One that works in almost every situation “You know, I think that people of all shapes and sizes deserve to be treated with respect and I don’t feel like you are doing that now. If you’re going to continue to act this way, I’m just going to end the conversation.”
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