Thin Fat Activists

I’ve missed you!  Sorry for the lack of posting – the move to California and getting ready for the NAAFA Convention just caught up with me and I got a little behind but I’m back!

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.

Also, you may want to keep in mind that my style of activism is very outcome-based so I will often forgo doing what I have a right to do based on oppression theory, and instead choose activities and behaviors that I feel are the most likely to have the outcome that I want.  That’s just my style, it’s certainly not the only valid choice.
I’ve been trying, both explicitly and more subtly, to spread the word about fat not equaling unhealthy, diet claims being bogus, etc. – plus spreading body positivity – through conversations, Facebook links and so on.

Awesome, you totally rock.  Thank you very much!

But, I’ve run into situations where I’m with other “thin” people and I think they assume some kind of solidarity. So, they make uneducated or insulting comments about people who are fat or the “obesity problem”. Many times, I can respond with an alternative point of view, but sometimes I don’t know what to say that’s diplomatic and gets the point across.

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?”

“Um, no”

“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.

Some examples:

  • 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”.

The reason these comments are weird to me is b/c it’s implied that fatness is bad rather than when people say, “well, obesity is such a problem, people need to be less fat and lazy”.

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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I do HAES and SA activism, speaking and writing full time, and I don’t believe in putting corporate ads on my blog and making my readers a commodity. So if you find value in my work, want to support it, and you can afford it, you can  become a member (you get extra stuff, discounts, and you’re always the first to know about things) or you can support my work with a  one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail blog subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free. If you’re curious about this policy, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on July 31, 2012 at 9:25 am  Comments (20)  

20 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I don’t generally like confrontation and I’m bad at remembering statistics and study names, so my go-to response these days is to shrug and say “their body, their business”.

    Some people I know were talking about that awful website, people of walmart or something? I said something like “People can wear whatever they want to, it’s got nothing to do with me.” When they tried to defend how they think it’s funny, I shrugged, said “Their body, their business,” and changed the subject.

    It’s not a very active response, but it means I don’t get upset (which would be counterproductive) and hopefully they will think about it, consciously or unconsciously.

  2. First of all, let me say I love your blog. I have become a regular follower, and feel it has really been helping me get a handle on what kind of thinking accepting my own body (and everyone else’s) looks like.
    Have you ever considered doing a “family-friendly” mirror site? I would love to have a place I could send my kids, online, to learn about health at every size and body acceptance. Maybe that’s not on your time horizon, but I thought I would ask.
    Thanks again-
    N Wilson

  3. The part that always fascinates me is the *simultaneous* assumption that, now that she has exercised (and/or because she is thin) she has the “right” to eat junk food – while criticizing fat people who are assumed – without evidence – to be eating junk food and avoiding exercise.

    I hit this a certain amount, because my partner is naturally thin. I am not. I am more active than he is. (He works at a desk, I work on my feet. I also do formal exercise, he does not.) The only difference in what we eat is that he eats sweets and I have found that I feel better if I do not. (Not a weight issue – other stuff.) But when I pass him a chocolate bar that I don’t want, people say things like “Yes, he can have it, he’s thin.” It seems to be seen as his reward for having different genes. Very odd.

    It boils down to – the theory is that it’s wrong that I am fat, because that proves I eat badly and don’t exercise. But when it’s pointed out that I eat as well as (or better than) and exercise more than some person who is thin, that person is excused because s/he is thin. So… it isn’t really about my behavior after all, is it?

  4. I myself have been a wide range of sizes throughout my life, and I handle this by saying: “Don’t assume I was always this size and that I somehow feel smug about it like you do.”

    This is probably a much ruder and less educational way to handle it but I have some leftover anger, I guess.

    I have also gotten leverage out of the more gentle: “Do you really have this attitude about fat? You need to get yourself educated,” and ending the conversation unless they truly ask me for information.

  5. I am thin-privileged and have had thin people (e.g., hiking, in restaurants, on airplanes) make fat-shaming comments in a way that attempts to include me, clearly assuming this is going to be a bonding moment for us. (Ugh.)

    I have occasionally asked, “Why are you asking me to participate in shaming someone I don’t even know?” I haven’t yet been able to say it as if I’m genuinely curious instead of angry, so it has been kind of a scorched-earth approach.

    • Personally, I love that response. I think that lets them know that you who are obviously “their kind” of people (insert eyeroll) think that they are boorish and rude – which they are.

  6. As a thin personal trainer, I think the assumptions get even worse as it’s assumed my mission in life must be to “fight fat.” (sadly there are plenty of people in the business who happily feed this assumption) I think it is why I’ve felt a need to be outspoken about HAES, to try to address those assumptions before they go anywhere. However, it seems to really confuse people, but hopefully that confusion can help get them thinking.

  7. I am absolutely ashamed to admit that last week I, a thin fat-activist, made a self- deprecating comment about my own weight in front of a fat friend. I feel horrible. HORRIBLE.
    How do I undo my SNAFU?

    • Hi there,

      First of all, don’t be too hard on yourself – this is a journey and these things happen to everyone. I think its incredibly commendable that you noticed and want to set things right. If you feel like you need to do something, I would suggest that you pull your friend aside and ask if you can have a possibly difficult conversation. Remind them of your comment, be honest that you are on a journey of body acceptance and let them know that you are incredibly sorry if your comment hurt them in any way, then just talk it out. If there is anything that I can do to help or support you just e-mail me at ragen@danceswithfat.org.

      Big Fat Hugs to You,
      ~Ragen

      • Ragen, believe it or not, I actually just worked up the courage to check for replies on my comment. THANK YOU for being so kind. I am absolutely going to speak with her because I am still devastated by my own insensitivity.

        Thanks again,

        J

  8. Several years ago a friend made an obnoxious fat joke in front of me. I got all up in his face about it (which he should have known I would do) and his response was “What’s your objection, Nancy, you’re not fat.” To which I replied “I don’t have to be black to object to racism, or Jewish to object to antisemitism or gay to object to homophobia, either.” I’m still pleased with that response.

  9. Great post. It is always so hard to speak up against blatant assumptions, especially if you are alone in your thinking. Recently, at work someone made a comment that they used to hate/be jealous of someone in high school, “but then they got fat” and how awesome/funny was that. Everyone else at the table laughed/agreed All I said, completely serious, was “that’s really mean.” I could have said more, but for me that was HUGE. I am usually not one to be brave enough to speak out in situations like that. I am more of an inbetweenie/passably thin though still much larger than any of my coworkers, which made it feel harder for me – I was afraid of being seen as oversensitive or defensive. I hope I can continue to be able to speak my mind, hopefully in an even more forward way and to remove myself from the situation when it’s clear the conversation isn’t going anywhere and needs to end.

    • A couple of my friends were having this same conversation. “She was such a bitch in high school, but now she’s fat.” I’m standing there very uncomfortable and I say in a small voice “I was thin in high school and now I’m fat. Does that mean I was a bitch?” They immediately start eating their words. It was a small victory, but it was a victory.

  10. I find a (mock) baleful glare and pointing out that criticizing other people for stuff that doesn’t affect you personally is kind of a waste of neurons works pretty well. Smart ones will usually kind of nod and never do it again. The rest usually get defensive, and which point it’s time to bluntly change the subject (“So did you read this article on that website?”). Most people hate being lectured, but a quick “not playing along, now let’s change the subject” lets them back down without losing face.

    More seriously, I find that figuring out your boundaries (no body-snarking in my presence) and applying them to other out-groups (no culture-snarking, accent-snarking, etc in my presence) helps avoid “you’re just saying that because it affects you” criticism. If you defend others evenhandedly, people are less likely to find you hypocritical when you defend yourself.

  11. I’ve wondered what a fat OR thin fat activist should say in response to an ostensibly confident fat person who cracks jokes or makes “humorous” negative remarks about fatness/fat people. (For example, injecting a story about how he/she was eating at a certain restaurant with “because that’s what fat f*cks do”)

    • I don’t know about anyone else but I find that incredibly sad and painfully unfunny. The comedian him/herself being fat, whether they’re being ironic or just annoyingly reinforcing the stereotypes that is already predominant and therefore expressing visible self-hatred (more likely the latter) just makes that joke sad. I’ll tell them it’s just not funny. But I don’t know, maybe I’m just humorless like that but I stand by it.

  12. This post is just absolutely perfect for me! I’ve been trying to find a way to get everyone familiar in my personal circle about fat acceptance. I had no idea where to start in showing my support of fat activism. It’s especially hard considering my career choice (medical science) and people I know are mostly indoctrinated in the whole fat is an epidemic hoolabaloo. I think this is the best post for me to first link on my Facebook then I’ll keep on going from there. Would it be alright if I link to this post? I love that it would make it much easier for me to retort when there are anti-fat crap that other people say when you’ve given some great templates of responses. Even if I am what other people think of as thin, It doesn’t mean I support fat bigotry.

    • Hi there,

      Thank you so much for being interested in fat activism. Please do feel free to link to this post and if there is anything that I can do to support you just let me know!

      ~Ragen

      ________________________________

      • Thanks, Ragen! I’ll call on you when I feel stuck about arguing with naysayers, for sure. Hopefully I can do my part on fat activism, even in small ways. It’s going to be harder in real life where I’d need faster wit, but I guess it just takes practice.

  13. yes! thank you! this! i feel pretty comfortable navigating my way through discussions about race/gender/religion/sexuality, but i lack so many of the words when it comes to talking about fat acceptance. i’ve been trying to learn more and was hitting the point where i was trying to figure out where i fit in since i experience an insane amount of thin privilege. so thanks, regan.


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