Reader Julie e-mailed me a question that I get a lot – how can a thin person best be an ally to Fat Activism? First of all, thank you for asking – I always really appreciate when people ask about this and I want to take my best shot at answering the question.
Let me start by saying that is exactly what it is – my best shot. I can only give you my opinion about how to be an ally to me as a fat person and fat activist. Of course the community of fat people is as varied as any community comprised of those who share a single physical characteristic and a ton of stigma and oppression. Unsurprisingly, that means that we have different ideas about fat activism, we ascribe to different theories of anti-oppression work and different interpretations of those theories, and we have different ideas of the best way to be an ally – and an activist for that matter.
And that’s just fat activists, there are fat people who aren’t interested in fat activism at all, including those who prefer to attempt to solve social stigma through weight loss, or believe that they don’t face stigma for their size which is absolutely their right. I don’t say this to discourage you, I just want to be up front about the fact that if you want to be an ally it’s a reality. It’s also not unique to fat activism – it is a situation that faces everyone who wishes to be an ally to oppressed communities. So, to recap, I’m happy to give you my thoughts, but I would also recommend asking other fat activists as well.
I believe that for those thin people who are interested in doing fat activism work there are levels that you can choose based on where you are at personally as well as in any given situation. They aren’t hard and fast and you can totally skip around but they form a start.
Level 1 – Personal
Start with yourself, consider doing the following:
- Listen Part 1 – listen to what fat people are saying, read our blogs, come to our talks, ask questions to those who are open to that, seek out diverse opinions – fat people of color, fat queer and trans* people, fat people with disabilities, inbetweenies and super fats etc.
- Listen Part 2 – avoid making every conversation about fat shaming into a conversation about how thin people experience self hatred/body shaming etc. Yes, it happens. Yes, it sucks. Yes it’s wrong and yes it deserves to be talked about, but not in every space where fat issues are talked about. Part of being an ally is knowing when to make the situation about the group you are being an ally to, and learning ways to empathize other than telling stories about how something like that happened to you. ( Just so you know, this one is super tough for me in spaces where I’m trying to be an ally. I’m a storyteller and that’s how I was taught to empathize and I still struggle with it!) Though I think that there is one, I don’t think you even have to believe that there is a contextual difference between thin shaming and fat shaming to understand that the issues of thin people do not have to be addressed in every fat activism space all the time.
- The world bombards us with stereotypes about fat people, it wouldn’t be surprising if some of them have made their way into your subconscious so no need to freak out with the guilt when it happens. Just notice when you have “scripts” play about stereotypes of fat people (ie: you see a fat person at McDonalds and start to think negative things about them) and interrupt those thoughts (ie: notice how many thin people are also at McDonalds, remind your self that this 20 second moment of someone’s life is not indicative of anything, and isn’t enough information from which to extrapolate, remind yourself that people get to eat whatever they want.) Lather, rinse, repeat.
- Stop body snarking – stop making negative comments about other bodies, including yours
- Stop giving attention to body snarking – don’t click on best/worst bodies lists or articles about how stars have gained weight or lost weight and don’t discuss them. Refuse to participate in conversations about it. Walk away, or give your opinion of Mylie Cyrus’s performance but don’t compare her body to Lady Gaga’s and point out that it’s not cool.
- Stop engaging in diet talk -including food moralizing (good food, bad food, sinful food, guilt-free food etc.) and a “crime and punishment” view of food (I ate a cookie so I have to do x amount of time on the elliptical…)
Level 2 – Your Social Circle
- Post fat activism things on your social media
- Bring fat activism up in conversations: when people are discussing dieting, talk about your Health at Every Size practice, when the subject of weight comes up, bring up things that you have read or heard about in fat activism
- Interrupt body snarking; It would be my suggestion that you do so gently, I tend to use global statements to help defray defensiveness – something like “I wish we lived in a world where all bodies could be respected” or “I wish we lived in a world where women weren’t encouraged to attack each other” etc. Something that can start a conversation without saying “I wish you would shut the hell up with your negative body talk!”
- Make your plans fat friendly: Does that restaurant have tables with chairs that don’t have arms? Does that theater have arms that raise? When you announce the plans, put these things in the announcement subtly so that your fat friends will know, without asking, that it’s a fat friendly environment (ie: we’ll be going to Jack’s restaurant – we’ll be at the big table in the back with the comfy armless chairs.)
- Remember that the problem isn’t that your fat friends need these things, the problem is that the business should have planned to accommodate people of all sizes and didn’t.
Level 3 – Your Community and Beyond
- Insist that everyone should have what you have: If you can get on a plane and fit comfortably in a seat, ask why everyone doesn’t get that experience. If you can shop at a variety of clothing stores with a variety of styles and price levels, ask why everyone doesn’t have that option. (This is part of the concept of thin privilege.) Write an e-mail insisting that they start providing the service that you receive to people of all sizes.
- Join projects – when you see fat activists creating petitions or starting letter writing campaigns add your voice. Sometimes fat activists get shut down based on the premise that our activism is an attempt to “justify our fat,” I think the fact that thin fat activists aren’t subjected to that criticism can have real advantages.
- Put your money where your activism is: If a venue doesn’t accommodate fat people (doesn’t have chairs without arms, doesn’t have armrests that raise, etc.) don’t spend your money there and tell them why – insist that they fix it. Walk into Lulu Lemon or Abercrombie and Fitch and let them know why they’ve lost you as a customer until they want your fat friends as customers (yes, even though businesses are allowed to choose target demographics.)
- Speak up against potential fat shaming at work – company “biggest loser” or other weight loss contests, wellness messaging that thin is good, fat is bad etc.
- Work to create size-based anti-discrimination policies, ordinances, and laws. Work to proactively create spaces that are size friendly at your job, places that you volunteer etc.
So that’s a start, if you have other thoughts on being a thin fat activist, please feel free to add them to the comments. If you are, or want to be, a thin fat activist then thanks, I appreciate it.
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