The Thing About Experience

DefendI 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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Published in: on May 13, 2014 at 10:37 am  Comments (13)  

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “…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.”

    Perfect.

    “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.”

    Thank you for this. This speaks not only to “what can I do” for each of us, it is “what can I do that no one else can” — because each of us has a unique fat story, that no one else can tell, that no one else can enlighten the world by sharing.

  2. And also…red sweater vests?

    *shudder*

  3. Great post. Thanks again for this. As I work towards accepting my body where it is and working towards health and overall happiness in my life, I’ve been blindly focused only on me. This past week, and more to come since reading this post, I’m going to try to pay attention to my internal reactions regarding people of different sizes and physicality. I’m wondering what kind of internal mantra I might use to correct myself when I catch myself thinking those ‘age old’ thoughts about weight/behavior/value that I’ve grown up hearing for 50+ years. I don’t want to become self-punishing… but I do want to try and see how internalized those nasty little things are and work to remove the knee-jerk reaction in my head of thinking unkind/inappropriate stuff. After all, if I think those things of them… I’m still thinking it of me when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

  4. Exactly!

    I, as a white woman, cannot speak for black, Asian, or Latina women. I, as a hetero, cisgendered woman, cannot speak for lesbian, trans, or genderqueer women. I cannot speak for the physically or mentally disabled.

    But I can damn well shut up and listen.

    And when someone wants to know my story, believe me, I’ll be ready to tell it with five part harmony and feeling. Because while I cannot speak for others, I am more than capable of speaking for myself.

    So if you think you know my story by looking at my waistline? Do us all a favor and let me do the damn talking. I’m the one living in this body. I’m the one who knows my choices, experiences, abilities, and limitations. I’m the one who knows what it feels like when I do – or don’t do – the things you demand of me. I’m the one who has seen and felt the results.

    Wisdom is never demonstrated by sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling at the top of your lungs. Wisdom is demonstrated by knowing when to speak and when to listen and coming up with the right questions.

    Wisdom is rarely served with a heaping helping of ‘everybody knows.’

    • I love that last line.

    • Yup. And it’s funny how disinclined we are to share our stories when total strangers come right out swinging their club of Righteous Judgment. I want to tell stories about my experiences and what I’ve learned from them– or tried to learn. Hopefully I can first listen quietly to what other, more marginalized people have to say about theirs as well. No woman is an island, etc.

      But when I encounter the Body Police and their all-knowing lectures about everyone and everything, my first instinct is to clam up and try to get away, just like any “petty criminal” on some terrible cop show would do.

    • “Wisdom is rarely served with a heaping helping of ‘everybody knows.’”

      Love this! “Everybody knows” is usually accompanied by a side of “Common sense.” And, if we’re talking about weight, it’s “Calories in/calories out” for dessert.

  5. I believe I finally have some medical personnel that I can trust and work with. But seeing dieticians, dieting and taking pills, is out of the question. I am 69 and have been doing the diet motions for 64 years! So I have to keep reiterating my decision to stop. So far, no one I’ve seen has tried to pressure me into anything. I’m vegan now and love it! No more diets, ever again.

  6. This is a great post! So true.

    Just 30 minutes before I opened it, I was talking with a dear friend about something very similar. Perhaps even the same? We both have kids with autism and we were discussing how damn frustrating it is that everybody and their dog thinks they are an expert on autism. Even if all they know about it comes from that holy grail of ‘truth and integrity’ – the mainstream media.

    We were screeching in horror to think of all the things we ourselves must have opinions about, while actually knowing very little about them in reality. I told her the story of an interview I heard with someone who was an expert in a particular area of science. The interviewer kept pushing him to give an opinion on another, vaguely related subject.

    The man refused to give an opinion and said, ‘I know four subjects in this world very well, and I’m happy to talk about them. But I don’t know much about the topic you want me to comment on, so I won’t. I’ll leave that to those who do know.’ It was very humbling and refreshing.

    Hope I’m not diverting the topic too much. I just think that other people’s weight is one of those categories that everybody and their dog has an opinion about, while actually knowing very little of substance about it.

    If I can just be as humble as that scientist who wouldn’t give his opinion on something he didn’t have much knowledge about, I’d be a very happy person I reckon.🙂

    • Ooh, I like that response! I have to remember that!

    • All of the wisest, smartest, most competent people I’ve known have also been the most comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” Recently, a pediatric infectious disease physician came to do a few guest lectures for my med school microbiology class. During his first lecture, I asked a question, and after thinking about it for a moment, he said, “I don’t know. But that’s a great question, and I probably should know, so I’ll look into it and have an answer for you tomorrow, okay?” And sure enough, the next day he not only answered my question, but brought a copy of a recent paper on the subject that he had found. He’s a double-board-certified physician from a major pediatric/academic medical center, and was talking to a room full of first-year med students; he could have pulled almost any answer out of his ass and we wouldn’t have known any better than to accept it. But instead he chose to not only admit he didn’t know, but go out of his way to find an answer. I was really appreciative and impressed. I think that’s how knowledgeable people get knowledgeable in the first place, by being willing to admit when they don’t know something, and then educate themselves.

      • Wow, that sounds like a good doctor. I don’t think alot of experts or “experts” would be that humbling, they would try to make up something. I know that’s true in other fields as well. Just about everything I’ve learned since starting uni. has been self taught.

  7. “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.”

    That reads like the comments section in every Mark Bittman column in the New York Times, with added plugs for Gary Taubes, “Wheat Belly,” and veganism.


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