Yes Obesity is OK

Reality and PerceptionIs Obesity OK?  That’s the question the New York Times posed to readers on their opinion page. Is Obesity OK?

I hate the trope that “fat is the last acceptable prejudice” it’s demonstrably false, and patently offensive to all of the people who are dealing with prejudice that is acceptable to at least some people or it would be happening, and I would be super happy if nobody ever said it again.  On the other side of that, sometimes people insist to me that oppression of fat people isn’t really a thing – that fat stigma doesn’t really exist.  To them I say, the New York Times thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to invite people to casually debate whether or not fat people should be allowed to exist, in their opinion column.

Here is where someone is going to say that they’re not debating whether it’s ok if we exist, they’re debating whether or not we should have to lose weight. First of all let’s be clear that nobody can show me a study where more than a tiny fraction of people have successfully lost weight long-term and none of those studies (with weight loss like 2 pounds or 5 pounds over two years) even come CLOSE to showing that my chances of becoming “normal weight” are anything better than lottery odds.  So even if you believe that they are debating my right to not diet (and let’s be clear that I should have a right not to diet) rather than my right to exist, they are still debating whether or not I should have to do something that nobody can prove is a possible.

Then there is the argument that I’m not fat, I have fat (like that whole “You’re not fingernails, you have fingernails” thing.)  I’ve already written about my disagreement with this, it boils down to the fact that I wouldn’t say “I have brown hair, I’m not brunette” or “I”m not short, I just have lack of height” so I think trying to get around being fat is about anti-fat bias. My experience, of which I am the very best witness, is that my being fat is like my being brunette.  And just like I can temporarily dye my hair, I can temporarily lose weight. But my experience of trying to lose weight was much like that of the majority of people who attempt weight loss – I lost weight in the short term and, even maintaining my diet behaviors, I gained it back in the long-term.  Like I have heard from many other fat people, I dieted my way up to my weight and, knowing that the most likely outcome of intentional weight loss is weight gain, suggesting that obesity is not ok so we should all attempt weight loss is advice that makes absolutely no sense. (for a list of research check out this post)

Some respondents seem to be suggesting that fat people should have to do what is currently believed to be the “healthiest” thing, you know – for the good of society or because it would,  ostensibly, make us less expensive.  And if that’s the case then who is the “decider”?  If people have studies that show that everyone going raw foods vegan and doing hot yoga will save on healthcare costs and be better for the “good of society” do we all have to eat cashew cheez while sweating our asses off in downward dog? If people have studies that say that everyone going paleo and doing crossfit will save on healthcare costs and be better for the “good of society” do we all have to eat a steak while we flip tires in a garage with no air conditioning?  Or is this really just prejudice against a group of people who are identifiable by how we look?

Not to mention that this debate rests on appearance based stereotypes – the NYT isn’t  debating whether or not it’s ok for thin people to engage in the behaviors that they seem to  assume fat people do, or have the healthcare concerns that they are trying to link to fat people (even though people of all sizes engage in these behaviors and have these healthcare issues – all of whom should be offered blame free, shame free, future-oriented care.)  This is about taking a group of people who share a single physical characteristic and debating whether or not the world would be improved if we didn’t exist.  That’s. Fucked. Up.

If people are interested in improving public health may I suggest that they focus on making information and options accessible to as many people as possible, not trying to make fat people’s bodies the public’s business.

Yes, obesity is ok.  The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not size dependent, they are inalienable.  Fat people have the right to exist in fat bodies without shame, stigma, bullying or oppression.  It doesn’t matter why we are fat, what being fat means, or if we could become thin by some means however easy or difficult. Fat people have the right to exist, period.  There is no need for a debate because there are no other valid opinions about this.  Fat people have the right to be treated with basic human respect, and inviting people to debate whether or not our existence is “ok” is a dramatic and terrible violation of that.

This kind of crap is the reason that we created the Fat Activism Conference. We need as many people doing activism in as many ways as possible, so we put together three days, 38 amazing speakers, teleconference style so that you can listen from wherever you are by phone or computer, and downloads of the workshops so that you can listen live, or on your own time. Only $39 bucks with a pay-what-you-can option to make it affordable for everyone!  Join us and let’s talk about tools for the revolution!

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Published in: on July 7, 2014 at 9:58 am  Comments (19)  

19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I wasn’t sure what to make of the original letter on NYT website – did the writer really think that advising girls to meet for a walk rather than a pizza was gentle and non-diet advice? Couldn’t believe it. Cos the readers couldn’t see right through that tactic!

    We all come in different shapes and sizes. One case in point – my maternal grandmother died a few years back. She had been bedbound for years dependent on nursing staff and visitors to even drink water never mind eat, so had been on a restricted diet anyway. No matter what they say, nursing home food never looked that damn appetising to me!! But they did make serious attempts to make sure it was nutritionally balanced and she got enough food. Nevertheless she was skin and bone when she passed away – she just hadn’t been interested in either eating or living for a long time. Her burial clothes? Size 18.

    Long story, I know and maybe not directly linked to this post, but it is to me. That was the point which I could start to admit that maybe, just maybe, there was something more to my shape than the food I ate/didn’t eat or the exercise I did or didn’t do.

    Being fat or having fat – doesn’t make a difference to me. What matters to me is that my grandmother got the attention and care she needed before she passed away, she got respect and love and never once did anyone suggest she needed to diet. And that’s what I want in my life. It doesn’t matter one damn if I’m fat or thin, I deserve the same respect and love and care and attention as my fellow human beings. I’m not less because I am more. I’m not invisible because I am more visible. I am who and what I am and I have a heart and soul same as everyone else on this planet. So F that to people who think it’s ok to debate my right to exist or not. I already have that right, I’m here.

    Sorry Ragen, that went a bit long, but that sort of ‘opinion’ piece and the comments that followed really get my blood boiling.

    • *applause* :)

  2. Yes, it’s okay to be fat. It’s okay to be short. It’s okay to have dark skin, to need mobility assistance,, to be allergic to chocolate, to have one boob bigger than the other, to have green eyes, to be related to someone you’re mortified to share genes with, to have a learning disability, to be left-handed, to be prone to headaches. Yes, it’s even okay to exist if you truly love disco music. You still have the right to basic, human dignity.

    Anyone who thinks there is no anti-fat prejudice should stop and ask themselves if they would ever see an op-ed piece in the NYT entitled Is Left-handedness Okay?, or how about Is Being Black Okay.

    Anyone who thinks fat is the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ should be aware that there are (less reputable, but still very much extant and sometimes with surprisingly large readerships) publications in this country that do ask whether being non-white, belonging to a religious minority, having a disability, or simply being born with a vagina should negate human rights, Oh, yes, and in most of these publications, the answer is yes. You should be treated as less than human for an accident of genetics or the way you find meaning in the universe.

    Politicians who would never openly say they hate black people or immigrants or gays use coded ‘dog whistle’ terms that let who are paying attention know that a particular diatribe about Welfare actually means they hope to find ways to cut off benefits to black constituents, not white ones, or whose impassioned defense of ‘religious freedom’ is about bombing mosques and refusing to serve gay people in for-profit businesses.

    Prejudice and hate are alive and well and walking openly among us. That’s why we can’t sit around arguing with another group about who faces the worst oppression. Fuck that noise! If we sit around debating one another about who has it worst, we lose precious time and energy that we can devote to activism to help EVERYONE.

    If they can’t divide us, it’s a hell of a lot harder to conquer us.

    • Twistie,I do have to wonder about your use of “basic human dignity” in conjunction with disco music. That might open a time-space rift that could be the end of all we know and love….

      😉

      • You beat me to it! :)

  3. An excellent column as always, Ragen. I hate so much that we have to – no, that we are put on the spot and told to “prove” our right to exist to others. That is so much garbage. Why don’t others have to prove their right to exist to me? I flat out refuse to engage on these issues anymore with people. They no longer get the time of day from me if they cannot afford me a basic human right. You have done so much to teach me about my work, Ragen, and to help me see where these kinds of prejudices exist even when I still has blinders on. Thank you.

  4. While it’s certainly not the “last acceptable prejudice”, it is certainly considered by many to be an “acceptable” prejudice. And the concept of “acceptable” prejudice is, at the very least, an oxymoron.

    I think this constant violation of the Underpants Rule is exemplary of most of the problems in American society today, particularly political issues. A whole lot of our “problems” would evaporate if we could let go of the idea of forcing others to do what we think they should do.

    Dislike someone’s choices all you want, but there should be absolutely no debate as to whether they get to make their own, with no one else’s input unless they ask for it.

  5. From the “advice columnist” at the NYT — “When the NYC Girls Project ran ads saying, ‘I’m beautiful the way I am,’ I winced.”

    As the Mythbusters would say, well, *there’s* your problem… if the idea that your narrow definition of beauty may not be the only valid definition is essentially physically painful to you, it’s your attitude that needs to be re-thought, not the definition of beauty.

    She also thinks the problem is trying to spare people’s feelings by not calling them fat. Well, I’ve got news for you, lady — my feelings are not at risk, I know I’m fat, and yet you’re still full of crap. As is anyone who thinks “gentle, unsolicited [diet] advice” like you’ve been handing out is anything BUT the “superficial” treatment of obesity that you so fear.

  6. From my experience with very good-hearted relatives who would be horrified to hear themselves called “prejudiced” towards anyone, they genuinely think they’re not prejudiced — because “prejudice” refers to discriminating against people for something they cannot change, and these people think that fat is something we CAN change (and they also assume we should want to). They’re wrong, but they genuinely think that.

    The underlying problem here is that they are making two foundational assumptions (Note, these are THEIR assumptions, definitely NOT mine!!):

    1) Fat is controllable/reversible by diet and exercise. Thus, to be fat is a chosen “behavior”.

    2) Fat causes illness. (It’s amazing to me how many otherwise sophisticated and educated people who have no trouble separating correlation from causation in every other instance can’t do so here.)

    So, they think, since “fat is a chosen behavior that can be controlled/reversed” and since “being fat causes illness”, it seems completely reasonable to them that we should try to encourage our young people not to choose a behavior that will harm them.

    When I try to talk to these relatives, I feel as though we’re shouting across the Grand Canyon at each other. It is absolutely clear to me (as to anyone who’s ever tried to “just stop being fat”) that my fat is NOT a result of chosen behaviors — well, apart from the extra pounds that repeated dieting gave me!! — and that it is not under my control. It makes no more sense to tell me to “control” my weight than it would to tell me to “control” the speed at which my hair or my fingernails grow. Since these things are absolutely clear to me, it’s also clear that asking “Is obesity OK” is indeed asking “Is it okay for Elizabeth to exist?”

    But I know that my relatives would be absolutely horrified — and deeply hurt — to hear their comments framed that way. They would say “OF COURSE we want you to exist!! — and that is precisely why we want you to stop these destructive behaviors that are harming your health.” When I say “WHAT destructive/harmful behaviors?” they say “Whatever’s making you fat.” When I say “there ISN’T any behavior that’s ‘making me fat’–this is just what my body is,” they cannot hear me, because they’re prevented by their a priori first-principle beliefs that fat results from chosen and avoidable behaviors.

    I’m cautiously hopeful, because it seems to me that there has been an (tiny) increase in news articles recently pointing out that fatness (or thinness) is NOT a “chosen behavior” any more than height, skin color, eye color, length of arms and legs, size of feet, etc. But those articles are swimming against a huge stream of diet “advice” so my hope is indeed cautious.

    • Actually prejudice and discrimination are different things, and neither of them have anything to do with whether or not an attribute is changeable. Prejudice is simply having a set of beliefs about those who bear a particular attribute, and it can be either positive or negative (or possibly neutral). Discrimination is a behavior – treating those with a particular attribute in a manner different from how you treat those without that attribute. Again, that can also be positive or negative. Prejudice is the belief, discrimination is the behavior.

  7. And again I clicked LIKED when I was just halfway through with this post. And I have no reason to take that back! Every single post of yours I can only agree.

  8. [insert incoherent rage babble here] I can’t even form the words to express how angry this makes me – I think you put it extremely well when you said “Fat people have the right to exist, period. There is no need for a debate because there are no other valid opinions about this.” I’m glad there are people like you, Ragen, who can represent those of us who feel as you do, but haven’t got the restraint to say it with the delicacy and poise you have.

  9. Actually, you have fat AND you are fat, because unlike fingernails (which is simply a noun), fat is both a noun AND an adjective.

    You have brown hair. You are brunette.

    You have fair skin. You are white. (Note – I said white, not Caucasian, which has to do more with genealogy than skin pigmentation and can’t really be judged based solely on appearance.)

    You have fingernails. You are… Anyone know the appropriate adjective? I haven’t got a clue.

    Fat is a double-duty word, which to me seems quite fitting, seeing that fat has such a huge impact on our lives.

    Although I fully support others’ rights to eschew the word “fat,” and use “curvy,” or “full-figured,” or even “voluptuous,” I have no problem (any more) calling myself fat. I’m short, I’m fat, and I’m middle-aged. I have actually been told by well-meaning people to deny all of these adjectives. Nope. Sorry. With my health, I’m not “young,” and most likely have fewer years left than I have lived, so I’m firmly “middle-aged.” I AM fat, and there’s no denying it. And short? Hahahahaaaaa! Yeah, I’m taller than most children and some adults, but I’m not even close to average adult height, so, yeah. SHORT!

    What’s the point in denying the adjective? Embrace it. However, know that you are so much more than that one facet. Fat is only a part of what you are. It is only a physical descriptor, along with brunette, white, female, and, um… fingernail-ly. The most important adjectives a person can own and embrace about themselves are descriptive of their character. Kind, intelligent, honorable, compassionate – these are the truly important adjectives.

    • “You have fingernails. You are… Anyone know the appropriate adjective? I haven’t got a clue.”

      Well… the adjective is ungular, from the Latin, but it can also mean “hooven,” so for obvious reasons, I don’t much like using it to describe humans. The last thing I need is some sesquipedalian bigot rejoicing over the fact I just called myself a cow *for* him.

      I do prefer to describe myself as fat, though. Fat is short, to the point, and in spite of society’s attempts to make it otherwise, neutral when not modified with the host of charming suffixes fatphobes like to attach to it that I can’t repeat for risk of them landing me in the spam filter.

  10. This was a timely article for me yesterday, as I’d gotten dogpiled with fatphobia. One of my fun escape places decided to have an extended conversation full of “jokes” about all the horrible things they wish they were allowed to do to fat people to “encourage” us, and then this letter happened on top of that, asking yet again “Do we as thin people believe it’s okay for fat people to exist?” and coming up yet again with the answer of “No! They’re disgusting and must be eradicated through any means necessary! …compassionately. For their health.”

    So thanks for the takedown. Honestly, I’m still too disgusted to respond with anything but angrish. I will say this: if a “friend” began to treat me like this, we would not be friends anymore. I refuse to negotiate for my humanity.

  11. Thank you for making the point that it’s not the last acceptable prejudice. It’s one of many. You can legally discriminate against fat people in a way that’s technically illegal for other protected groups, but illegal or not, it still happens. Laws are only a baby step – eradicating prejudice take a lot longer and it’s a lot harder.
    Another commenter also pointed out that people think fat-shaming is okay because weight is totally within our control. That’s the one I have a hard time arguing against, because no matter how many studies I quote, some people have this hardline “you can be thin if you try hard enough” mentality that’s really hard to dismantle.
    Also, I’m totally registering for this conference. Thank you for what you’ve done to help organize it – I’m looking forward to it!

    • I wish we would get away from the idea that discrimination only counts if something is outside your control. Not only is it something that comes up with weight, it bugs me with the topic of homophobia. I hate how there is so much emphasis on homophobia being wrong because people are born gay and have no control over it, which for a lot of lgbtq folks is an oversimplification of our experiences when really it doesn’t matter if someone is born gay or if it was an actual choice, discrimination and oppression is still wrong.
      Which isn’t to say I chose to be gay, but that there is more nuance to it than the “people are born that way, no one chooses it” narrative leaves room for. I identified as bi most of my adult life. I could have chosen to only date men during that time. Which is different that choosing my sexuality but we can choose who we will date. I also did make a conscious choice while identifying as bi to stop dating men. Yes, I could still fall in love with someone I wasn’t going out of my way to date (and have actually), but it’s less likely IME than if you actively date people. But at the end of the day homophobia is still wrong even if I can’t tell you I would be straight if I had a choice in the matter, and fat hatred is still wrong regardless of whether I could be thin or not.

      • Yeah, and people can be born into a religion or choose one, but either way, we still aren’t supposed to discriminate against them for it…

  12. “There is no need for a debate because there are no other valid opinions about this.” YES. THAT is exactly why I didn’t let my students debate certain topics in our conversation class; when it comes to human rights, there are no other valid opinions (they’re welcome to debate these topics until they’re blue in the face on their own time, but not on mine).


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