I notice that sometimes the stereotyping of fat people that is encouraged by our current culture leads to a conversation about fat people that makes us sound as if we’re a different species, or that our pursuit of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is somehow a pursuit for “special privileges” and I wanted to take some time to examine that today.
I think that, as a society, we can forget that body size is simply a physical characteristic – like hair color or eye color or height- and that the reason fat people’s lives are different is not because we are fat but because we face completely unnecessary shame, stigma, oppression, and stereotyping. Were it not for all of that, the only thing all fat people have in common is a single physical characteristic- otherwise we are as varied in lifestyle, opinions, politics, habits, health, dis/ability and everything else as any other group of people who share one physical characteristic.
So let’s look at the idea that fat people who ask to be accommodated are asking for something special, rather than just asking for what everyone else already has. For example, I’ve heard thin people say that it’s not fair that a fat person needs more space on a plane. Broken down, their argument is that people at least up to their size take up “the right amount” of space, but people who are larger than them by some arbitrary standard (although not so arbitrary that it could ever include they themselves) should have to pay extra to get a seat that fits them because they take up “too much space.” From the fat person’s perspective, everyone else on the plane has a seat that fits them and all fat people are asking for is the same thing that everyone else already has.
I wonder how many people ponder the fact that they could have been born into a culture where fat is the standard of beauty, thin is seen as unhealthy, and everything is built around fat women. That’s not better than what we have here but it does help illustrate the fact that just because someone happens to have been born into a culture that is constructed to suit their body does not make that person’s body a “better body”, nor does it make them somehow “deserving” of a world that is built for them. It also doesn’t mean that those of us who aren’t accommodated by this culture have “worse bodies” or are somehow “deserving” of a world that is built to exclude us. Sometimes I get push back about the idea that fat people are oppressed at all and I talked about that here.
Other times people get confused between the fact that a culture of body shame and stigma hurts people of all sizes, and the fact that fat people’s lives are demonstrably different due to social constructs of shame, stigma, stereotyping, and oppression. For example:
- Seats in restaurants, planes, movie theaters etc. are often not made to accommodate us (despite the fact that restaurants, planes, movie theaters etc. know that we exist) and if we point that out and ask that it be corrected we are often subjected to shame and/or additional costs
- We can find a limited supply of clothes in a limited number of styles and a limited number of stores. It becomes particularly problematic if the airline loses our luggage since often a fat person can be at a large shopping mall and be unable to find a single piece of clothing in their size, let alone find something that fits their personal taste and style
- We can find articles in the media daily suggesting that we are to blame for everything from global warming to healthcare costs. These are typically completely without evidence, even contrary to the evidence that exists and yet they are reported as fact and regurgitated at us by family, friends, coworkers, doctors and others
- The government has organized public and private interests to wage a war against us because of our size. They are encouraging people to stereotype us based on how we look, assume that we are a drain on society and support our eradication, by force if necessary, to make things “cheaper” for everyone. (Despite internal evidence that we aren’t what’s making things so expensive.)
- When we speak up and say that we aren’t who they claim we are, we are told that thin people are more competent witnesses to our experiences than we are, and that we have no right to speak up for ourselves.
- People moo at us at the gym, throw things at us from cars, refuse to hire us, fire us without cause, confront us about what they assume our choices are in public places, etc.
- It can be impossible for us to get good medical care because doctors don’t listen to or believe us. I’ve personally been prescribed weight loss for a broken toe, separated shoulder, strep throat and anemia. There are entire forums online dedicated to fat people’s stories of mistreatment by the people who are supposed to be entrusted with our health.
- We are told that instead of curing social stigma by fighting social stigma, we are responsible for curing all of this societal stigma, oppression and bullying by becoming thin. Essentially we are told that we should give the bully our lunch money and hope they stop beating us up.
If we were properly acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of body sizes and not confusing public health with public thinness then fat people would be like thin people only bigger – and thin people would be just like fat people only smaller and that’s exactly as it should be. We have a way to go, but I believe that we can get there.
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