I hear these kinds of things all the time: I know that fat people eat this way because it’s what I did when I was fat, or because I’m fat and I eat that way, or because “everybody knows” that. I know that all fat people are sick because everyone who comes to my medical practice who is fat is sick. I gained 20 pounds after a bad break-up and lost it with Slim Fast (or whatever) therefore someone who has been fat their whole life and has been on 15 diets can lose 200 pounds by doing what I did.
This is going wrong on a bunch of levels. The first thing to do is to separate personal experience from research.
The mistake that I see most often is people confusing their own experience with everyone’s experience. Each of us can only speak for ourselves and what we think and our own life experiences.
This also leads to some issues wherein people’s personal sample is limited – I once had a counselor who specializes in Binge Eating Disorder say that I must have BED because in her experience everyone who looks like me has it. I reminded her that her experience included a sign on her door that indicated that she was the person to see if you have BED. By her logic I could say that everyone who wears a sweater vest had BED because everyone she sees in her practice who wears sweater vests also has BED.
It also leads people who simply have no understanding of a situation try to figure out how they would solve it if it were them, based only on their own experiences. Depressed? Snap out of it. Alcoholic? Stop drinking. Anorexic? Start eating. Fat? Get thin. These “solutions” aren’t evidence-based, they are what people think based on their limited understanding, and perhaps lacking the emotional intelligence and intellectual humility to understand that they may not have any frame of reference that would allow them to understand someone else’s experience.
It also leads to the false conclusion that if one person has an experience – everyone who is “like” that person in some way can also have that experience. So saying that one fat person losing weight and maintaining the loss means every fat person can do it is very much like saying that one person surviving going over Niagara Falls in a barrel means everybody can do it.
In the end, our experiences are a great way for us to learn about ourselves, and a horrible way for us to learn about other people – and the more different we are, the worse our experiences are as a tool for understanding others (which is really important as we work to make our activism intersectional.) It’s also one reason why there is so much power in talking about our lived experiences as fat people – and hearing from as many fat people as possible. Recently in a panel discussion of people who work on “childhood obesity” we were asked how to do that work and avoid stigma. I said that I didn’t think there was any way to call for the eradication of every child who looks a certain way without stigmatizing them (as in: I don’t want to stigmatize fat kids, I just want to make sure that within a generation they don’t exist.) The woman beside me mentioned that she had never thought of it that way. Often when someone sees me working out and asks how much weight I’ve lost they are completely shocked to find that I’m not interested in weight loss – they literally didn’t know that there are fat people who aren’t trying to become thin.
That speaks to one of the problems that fat people face which is that, from diet companies to that ridiculous letter written to a fat runner, people actively try to can speak for us – or shout over us – for their own reasons whether it’s about profit, ego, bullying or something else. The more we talk about our own experiences, the more we educate not just those who might mistreat us, but those who might not be aware that they have options like Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size available to them. That said, each of us can only speak for ourselves and our experience (and those who agree to have us speak for them) and it’s important to remember that as well. There is power in our experiences – our stories – and I think it’s worth it to fight to tell them, and to make sure that they are not told by others, and there is wisdom in knowing the difference between our experience and those of others and not confusing the two.
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