Dealing With The Anger of Fatphobia

Angry FrustratedOne of things that changed for me (and that others often tell me changed for them) when I became a Size Acceptance Activist was that I started to see all of the size-based stigma, bullying and oppression (that I used to think I deserved because I had a fat body) for what it was.  And then came the anger.  Recently a reader asked me a question about this:

Hi Ragen, I am a fat woman who has been following your blog for years now and I had a question. How do we keep the anger from hurting us? I’m talking about my anger at the world for treating me so badly for being fat. I have a major chip on my shoulder about this, but it’s not like I’m holding a grudge against someone who did something to me in the past. I’m angry at a world who treats me horribly every day. This anger can help with activism, but I am suspicious of others, less friendly and open, and just generally angry all the time. I know this anger and resentment is hurting me. Channeling it into activism seems to make it even worse – the more I focus on the injustice, the angrier and more resentful I get. How do you deal with this? How have others you’ve known dealt with it? Any help you could provide would be much appreciated!

Before I get into this let me be clear that these are the ways that I deal with anger, and your mileage may vary.  It’s also cool if you do something else – each person gets to choose how to deal with the oppression that comes at them.

The first thing that I do about anger is remember that it is valid.  It’s not in my head – the way I am treated as a fat person in this society is severely fucked up and it absolutely shouldn’t be happening. There are lots of ways to deal with anger but for me first and foremost it’s about not internalizing it and not letting it eat at me.

So the second thing that I do is put the problem where it belongs, which is with the entity doing the stigmatizing, shaming, and oppression, and not with my body. I constantly remind myself that the crap that comes at me on a daily basis is not my fault and that, though it can become my problem because I have to deal with it, I’m not actually the one with the issue here.

Once I have those two things sorted I have a lot of options and what I do varies depending on the situation, the person, my goal in that moment, the day I’m having, and any number of other factors.

Often I choose some form of activism – blog about it, write an email or letter to the offending party,  sometimes I discuss the issue with someone in person.  I might put it on Facebook and suggest that other people get involved etc.  The tone with which I do this also varies depending on the situation.

Often (especially in person) I go for the teachable moment  – taking their intention into account, finding compassion, looking for opportunities to build bridges etc. But sometimes my goal isn’t to help them overcome their bigotry and/or I just don’t have it for the teachable moment and in those situations I sometimes react with anger and I don’t apologize for that – anger is a completely reasonable reaction to shaming, stigmatizing, and bullying.  It’s important to remember that when we quell our anger at being mistreated and go for the teachable moment we’re not fulfilling some obligation, we’re doing a courtesy to someone who is behaving badly

In a similar vein, I think it’s important to understand the techniques that people will use to derail conversations about oppression, or in defensiveness when they are called out on bad behavior.  Everything from can’t you take a joke to I’m just concerned about your health to all the other ways that someone (or a company) who has just had their fatphobic behavior pointed out doubles down on that behavior. I may or may not decide to continue the conversation but I again go through the process: recognize it for what it is, correctly assign the problem to the person doing it and then make a decision about how I want to handle it.

The final thing that I do is remember that I have all the options available to me.  One techique that people who engage in fatphobia often use is trying to tell you what you have to do – that you have to do this or that, that you have to prove this or that, that you have to react a certain way or use a certain tone or say certain things.  I always remember that the truth is that telling people who you are actively oppressing what hoops they have to jump through to woo you into not oppressing them anymore is the veritable definition of being a complete jackass.  The people who are telling me to hate myself (and have no business doing that) are also not the people who should get to dictate how I deal with that oppression.  So whether I politely ask someone if they wouldn’t mind not oppressing me so much, or I go home and hit a pillow with a tennis racket, or something in between, those are all valid reactions.

For me one of things that I think is important if I’m going to use activism to deal with my anger is to make activism the goal in and of itself, and consider any change that comes from it to be a bonus.  I can’t control other people’s behavior so I engage in activism for what it does for me – because standing up against the oppression that I deal with helps me to feel good about myself and not buy into the negative messages that get pushed on my for other people’s fun and profit. That said, if you find that participating activism is harming you then one completely valid option is to take a break, surround yourself with supportive people and go to your happy place.

Also, instead of focusing on injustices, you can focus your activism on supporting other fat people.  There are a bunch of fat people out there who are angry at their bodies instead of the people that stigmatize, shame, and oppress them because of their bodies, and while I have no interest in telling them how they have to live,  I want to make sure that they know there is another option.

So that’s me, as always other ideas are welcome in the comments!

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Published in: on October 14, 2014 at 11:33 am  Comments (12)  

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve been following your blog for a while now and I have taken lots of inspiration from your posts…

    In the last five years I have gained 70lbs and I have noticed that I am treated differently in public since my weight gain. While my family, friends and long-term partner are always supportive, there are those that have openly commented, have called me names when on a night out and who are very dismissive of me. Perhaps, I am being over-sensitive because I lack confidence in the way that I look and would assume this is the case if it was just a one-off, but I can recall a number of occasions where I have been treated differently to my much skinnier friends… It isn’t something that I would discuss openly with others but it is something that has bothered me for a while now.

    Thank you for helping me to be a little more accepting of myself.

    • You’re not over-sensitive, Susie. You’re being oppressed and it sucks. As Ragen says, the best thing to do is to correctly assign the blame where it belongs: on the person who is treating you badly. It takes time and practice to do this consistently, so don’t beat yourself up for them if you can’t get the hang of it right away. But I hope you’ll keep trying, because it really is a great confidence builder to remember that it’s not your fault if someone else decides to be a jerk to you.

      From there, it’s up to you when/whether/how you respond when it happens. But I have to say that while it still (of course) hurts to be treated badly for something I didn’t do to or at anyone, just realizing it really honestly isn’t my fault I get treated that way does wonders for my self-confidence.

      Besides, the fatphobes love to pull out the ‘you’re over-sensitive’ and ‘can’t you take a joke you humorless landwhale’ victim blaming horse hockey. Nothing frustrates them more than seeing that crap not stick to the target. And few things make me feel better than seeing them lose their tiny minds over not being able to make me an active participant in my own oppression.

      A recent poll of ten-year-old found that 85% of them would rather lose a limb than be fat. You can’t turn on a TV or the internet without being bombarded with diet ads, mostly working on the Big Scare tactic. Scholarly works are published about how much fat people ‘cost’ society, how sick we all are, whether we are more mentally or physically ill, and how to eradicate us completely by a certain date. When we go to the doctor, everything from hangnails to broken bones to pneumonia gets diagnosed as fat-related. Every mom I know frets over how to keep the kids from getting fat so they won’t die before they turn thirty… even the ones whose fat genes are doing just fine at forty-five. Airlines blame us for not fitting in the tiny seats on planes, restaurants expect us to squeeze into little chairs with arms or booths built for much, much smaller people. Fashion designers demand that the women who wear their clothes be as much like a hanger as possible so as not to disturb their artistry – an artistry that cannot come alive except on a three-dimensional body to begin with.

      Fatphobia is so endemic as to be invisible… until the day you see it for yourself. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it. But you can take full advantage of a community right here that sees it, too. We’re here for you, and we have seen what you see.

    • The dismissiveness–yes. That’s what I encounter a lot. For instance, the other day my thin co-worker, who knows nothing about books (but works in a bookstore, go figure) was drawn into a conversation by two thin, trendy-looking customers about a book the customers loved. It was clear that my co-worker didn’t know anything about the book, but the customers kept trying to engage her. They eventually let her go, sounding mildly disappointed. Later, at the register, I tried to strike up a conversation with them about the series. With me, it was all nods and polite smiles, even though I had read the book they wanted to discuss.

      This isn’t the norm for me. Most people are great, I find. But I do notice when things like this happen, and I notice that they happen with greater frequency as I age and become fatter.

      I don’t get very angry about this stuff, though. I just imagine what life must be like for people like those two customers if the *only* people they’ll talk to are thin, trendy-looking people. How limiting. How sad.

      • I’ve grown accustomed to the dismissiveness as I’ve been very fat my entire life (weighed over 200 lbs by the time I started middle school and 300 lbs by the time I started high school). The dismissiveness is something I’ve always noticed (teachers passing me over when I raised my hand, people not looking at me when talking to me, people chatting up my friends but ignoring me, etc), but as I have gotten older I’ve noticed it’s gotten worse and worse.

        Used to be if I took the time to smile at someone (something I often do as I’m generally a happy person), 7 times out of 10 I’d get a smile back, even if it was just a quick smile that doesn’t quite reach there eyes or become a “genuine” smile. But any more, people don’t smile back MOST of the time ..often times they even just narrow their eyes at me like I had done something offensive just by looking in their direction or daring to look them in the eye and smile.

        The one I’m getting most often over the past couple years is the “dismiss” – you know the look, where you know that they saw you look at them, you made eye contact and smiled, but they look away with a mild look of annoyance or contempt like you’re some piece of trash that the wind blew past them. THAT is something I’ve been experiencing a lot over the past couple years and more and more frequently. It’s really heart breaking, like I’m not even human to them.

  2. Thank you! I am 58, the heavy one in my family. It’s wonderful that I just discovered you. Self loathing, hatred, shame of myself accepting self worthlessness and it is demanded from the so called normals that I hate myself. I just may smile again. Just read your second post and want to thank you again! It’s like some little sparkle or smile and I feel it deep inside and wanting to come out!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. I am very guilty of being very angry all the time. I have been in counseling for pretty much my entire adult life and have received inpatient psychiatric care three times. I have to constantly remind myself that nothing that has happened to me is my fault. I weighed just under 10 pounds when I was born (yeah, haters, tell me I’m not genetically “fat”), I was the victim of horrific verbal and physical abuse by proxy (my dad would taunt the members of my sports teams and neighborhood kids to fix his “sissy” kid–i.e. beat the snot out of me daily) that has left me with permanent mental and physical disabilities. I was gay for 40 years before the world finally started coming around to see me as a person. I’ve been fat forever and I’m still subhuman.

    Here’s the thing world: I’m angry. Fucking deal with it.

    You give me a judgmental look over my grocery cart with soda and cookies; you will get a spectacular tongue lashing from me.

    Your a server and you “mishear” me and automatically bring me a diet coke; I will get your manager and demand you be fired.

    Your kid makes a fat joke at my expense; you AND your kid will hear about how mad it makes me, you will walk way embarrassed.

    The list goes on and on and no I’m not a rage-aholic but I flat out refuse to put up with shit any longer.

    • I am sorry to hear about your childhood, Simon ): Almost the same thing happened to me too. All my childhood I was more or less “normal weight”, because my parents starved me, beat me up every day and my father sexually abused me from the age of three. I kept gaining weight, mostly because I feel it protected me from having to deal with the outside world, on the other hand it made me more vulnerable, too. I agree with the thing about the grocery cart, the waiter and the kid and can tell you countless examples of how that happened to me too. It’s like people assume we don’t have any feelings… So you don’t have to think about twice who is in the wrong.

      • OMG so many of us have suffered physical abuse, but I had no idea about the sexual abuse. I’m so sorry. 😦

  4. What a glorious and empowering topic. As usual, kudos, Ragen, for tackling this so compassionately and fiercely.

    I want to throw this in the ring in case it inspires others who might feel guilty about their anger: Your anger is okay. Not only is it okay, it’s expected. Not only is it expected, but it’s an awesome motivator for social change and personal healing. And not only is anger okay, but so is fury. And, IMO, even resentment and bitterness, at least at first.

    When people who are oppressed and blamed for their own oppression open their eyes and see they’ve been duped, their natural reaction is fury. For many of us who are recovering from a lifetime of pain and oppression, we are overwhelmed with rage. Sometimes our anger and betrayal are so big, so corrosive, our need to express them so profound, we have to externalize them. During this time, it kind of sucks to hear from other activists that we need to be compassionate and not blame those who hurt us and/or who benefit from this inequality. “After a lifetime of pain, and without the ability to expunge it, where does this mountain of fury go?” we ask ourselves in anguish.

    Given all this, I not only expect but happily provide space for political newbies. They need their anger to heal those wounds, to channel that pain outward. Yes, their anger may splash over me and others in an indiscriminate or hurtful fashion, but I try to offer them compassion during this time. Feel your anger. Get pissed. Express it, even if it’s not always in the most productive ways. Everyone may be telling you to attract more bees with honey than vinegar or you need to be the change or compassion rocks or whatever, but I argue it’s okay to feel and even express that pain in whatever ways we can access. It’s an early stage of healing, IMO.

    I sincerely believe asking new activists to balance the agony of their new awareness with the social responsibility of being unfailingly fair and compassionate can hurt them and invalidate their need to acknowledge and express this oppression-fueled rage.

    After the newbie activist has expressed her/his fury and has begun to heal, then I think it’s time they learn how to work collaboratively and to learn the necessary but fundamentally unfair behavior of being kind to people, even when they mindlessly reproduce the oppressive system and/or benefit from it. This, IMO, is the next, and mature, step in becoming a social justice advocate. I just don’t think it’s fair or realistic to expect all or even most of us to get to this step without first allowing for a period where we splash around in our new, righteous anger.

    To be clear, I’ve been on the receiving end of this corrosive anger. It hurts, it sucks, but I remind myself they need to have an enemy to focus their anger. I will be that enemy in that moment if it helps them validate their lifetime of pain. Then, in months or years, when they’ve moved on and embraced a more collaborative approach, we will work together.

    This is the first stage of activism, and I honor it. I encourage anger, even if it’s unproductive at first. It’s what validates their oppression, unites them with other people, and solidifies that person as an activist. Not everyone needs this, but for some, it’s a necessary first step.

  5. For what it is worth, one way I deal with anger is to spend it with people who never make me feel bad.

    This takes a time and effort and if you can’t find anyone near you, may not be possible.

    But seriously, if I feel safe to be myself, like with my good friends, or here on this blog, I don’t have to feel on guard, which is one of the things that makes me angry. Being on guard is exhausting. Not being on guard can lead to being surprised by bad stuff.

    For me, personally, remembering there are good people in the world is a help and joy.

  6. I love you for this! I’ve often struggled with the anger that comes from the way I am treated every single day as a fat person in our fat-phobic society. This is very very helpful! Like a “fat person survival guide”. lol Love you so much for this and all the work you do to help make life a bit easier for us fabulous fatties!

    And THIS is just awesome:

    “..the truth is that telling people who you are actively oppressing what hoops they have to jump through to woo you into not oppressing them anymore is the veritable definition of being a complete jackass.”

    hahah That was such a wonderful read (I may have to quote you on that in the future when talking to said jackasses lol) and it was one of those fantastic light bulb moments for me – We don’t have to be nice to the people who are oppressing us, we don’t have to buy into the “tone police” bs, we don’t have to PROVE that we aren’t lying when we talk about our life experiences, we are totally within our rights to be angry and rude to those who oppress us. It’s a lesson I have to re-learn about once a year as it’s hard not to let the masses convince you otherwise when you hear it so often.

    Thank you again for this! This one I definitely had to book mark! heheh

    • “we don’t have to PROVE that we aren’t lying when we talk about our life experiences”

      That whole “burden of proof is eternally on YOU, fatty!” mentality is one of the most infuriating things to come out of the War on Obese People.

      Excuse me, but *we* aren’t the ones with the sixty-billion-dollar incentive to lie about weight science. *We* aren’t the ones who’ve been caught falsifying information (oh, excuse me, experiencing “computer errors”) over and over and over again. We aren’t the ones who lose a fair trade lawsuit at least once per year. Yet when we try to tell the truth about the latest anti-obese-person propaganda the diet industry and their allies in Big Pharma have shat out- truth we’ve learned from peer-reviewed research, from our own and other peoples’ daily personal experiences, and from the fact that the industry has a long history of lying to sell its products- *we’re* the ones given the third degree. Every. Single. Time.


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