The Right Way to Wear a Fat Suit?

Actual SizeI received this question today from reader Suzanne about the practice of wearing fat suits to better understand the experience of fat people:

I was doing some research on the idea of wearing a fat suit and I came across the thing you wrote about some dancers who did it.) I agree with your criticisms of the dancers. It’s just that it seems that if wearing a fat suit helped someone empathize with the plight of fat people then it would be a good idea. I guess I’m wondering… are there any circumstances under which you would support someone wearing a fat suit?

It’s a good question and there are a lot of layers to this, I’ll try to break down my thoughts.

First, I do understand that it’s possible that wearing a fat suit might help someone better understand the oppression that fat people face, and I definitely appreciate their good intentions.  But my question is – why couldn’t this person believe the many accounts of what it’s like to be fat that have been written by actual fat people?

If someone finds that they can’t believe and/or empathize with people’s accounts of their oppression unless they actually “dress up” like them, then I would suggest working on empathy rather than donning a fat suit.

Still, to answer the question (and with the reminder that, as always, I’m only speaking for myself here and other fat people may disagree) I would suggest that they do it as an entirely personal experiment with a very clear understanding of the limitations

First and foremost it’s important to realize that pretending to be fat gives someone a very narrow and limited view into what it’s like to actually be fat, and depending on other identities the person holds, it may not give them insight into what it is like to be a fat person with multiple marginalized identities (for example fat people who are also People of Color, Disabled/people with disabilities, older, Queer, Trans etc.) Also, pretending to be fat for a little while will not give someone the experience of fat people who have faced years of oppression. (These reasons are why I’m suggesting that it will likely be better to read about the experiences of lots of fat people, believe them,and respond to requests for support, rather than having a singular, limited experience of pretending to be fat.)

When the experiment is over, I would suggest that the person not give interviews where they talk about what it was like for them to be fat. (If they do that, they take up space talking about being a pretend fat person when they could center the experiences and voices of actual fat people.  Despite the limitations of their experience they are more likely to be listened to because part of sizeism is the belief that thin people are more credible than fat people, even when it comes to the experience of being fat.)

Instead, they could center the voices of fat people by saying something like “As a personal experiment I wore a fat suit for x days and it reinforced the things I’ve read about from [links to accounts of sizeism by fat people, including fat people with multiple marginalizations] and the need to end sizeism and celebrate the full diversity of body sizes. Here’s some stuff we can do…”

So those are my thoughts. Thanks for asking!

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Published in: on May 27, 2016 at 12:38 pm  Comments (22)  

22 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The idea that a thin person in a fat suit can experience what it’s like to be fat is absurd. People will stare and react with disgust at someone in a fat suit, but more than likely, they’d be reacting to the weird costume. I haven’t seen a fat suit yet that looked realistic. Also, wearing something heavy, even a costume made to simulate body fat, feels nothing like having a fat body. Having a fat body actually doesn’t feel all that different from having a thin body, physically. But that’s just my experience, and I’m a Fatty McFatterson. Why should anyone believe me?

  2. I think the only appropriate time for someone to wear a fat suit is if they are portraying a character that has gained or lost a lot of weight – rather than try to manipulate their weight greatly it would be healthier to use artificial means to show the difference.

    • Exactly. Costumes are for acting. That’s pretty much it.

    • Heaven forbid that a studio should hire a fat person to play a fat character! Much better to get some skinny actor in a fat suit!

      • I think you’re getting Pyctsi wrong here. The idea would be to use the same actor for fat and thin “versions” of the character, which would probably often be easier to do in a semi-realistic manner with a thin actor.

        • Yeah, same as hiring an able-bodied actor to play the part of a person in a wheelchair – OK IF the character walks at some point in the production. If the character never gets out of the chair, hire an actor already in a chair.

          If a character changes sizes during the production (such as over the course of a lifetime), then it may be necessary to have a thin person in a fat suit. But if the character must be fat, for the script, then for goodness’ sake, cast a fat actor!

          Meanwhile, we have really dedicated actors who are literally starving themselves one month, and bulking up the next, to change their appearance during the course of a single movie, and it’s just heart-breaking to me.

  3. Wearing a fat suit to gain insight into being fat is a lot like using stilts to gain insight into being tall. The mechanics are going to be difficult and unwieldy, and, while you might learn certain things (i.e., very tall people have trouble with standard-size doors, clothes, get tired of hearing “oh my, you’re very tall!” and see a world of dust that others don’t) you are not going to really get the true experience.

    It would be understandable if the stilt-wearer or the fat-suit wearer (or the pregnancy-belly wearer, to add another) got the wrong idea entirely. None of it looks real or feels real. Donning a lot of weight does not feel like gaining weight, any more than wearing stilts feels like being tall, and it seems from what I’ve read people often focus on the difficulty of CARRYING the weight, which is not realistic, than on the societal censure fat people face day to day, week to week, month to month, and so on.

    • One big difference between gaining weight and carrying weight in a fat suit is that your body adjusts. If you carry 250 pounds in body weight, 24/7, every day, your legs will get really strong. But if you are thin, and suddenly put on a fat suit, complete with extra weight, you will feel overwhelmed by the unaccustomed weight. This, I’m afraid, will add to the stigma that fat people must be weak, because the person wearing the fat suit will feel weak, as they struggle with the unaccustomed weight.

      Fat people are, in general, remarkably strong, at least in their legs, because they work those muscles more, just going about their daily routines.

  4. Thank you, Ragen. I especially appreciate the point about intersections with other identities! I would add to your critique of the idea that the experience of being fat is in the physical experience of a thinner person putting weights on their body – yes, thin people think the “plight of being fat” is the experience of the heaviness they imagine feeling if they were to have more weight on their body. As you note, that is not our physical experience, since we are experienced with our body weight already – we are not physically weaker or less experienced with moving that weight, the way someone thinner will be. So this is yet another example of people with privilege centering their own perspective even when they are trying to empathize. But also, I think the idea that one can experience “the plight” because one is experiencing heaviness is another example of the relentless training to locate problems in bodies rather than the environment – like all the “risk factor” literature that focuses on body traits rather than how we treat people with those body traits. Our “plight” is located in the social and physical and structural forces that are oppressive.

    • Yep.

      Another aspect of “the plight” of being fat is that fat people learn to gracefully maneuver in a world designed for thinner people. A person in a fat suit is going to feel clumsy, bump into lots of things, not be prepared to squeeze through narrow spaces. A fat person knows how to do all this, and it is second nature. “Oh, I have to get past this obstacle? turn sideways, suck in stomach, whatever, and it’s done.” We don’t even think about it, unless the pathway is just too narrow for us, in particular. We’re used to it.

      Fat people can be remarkably graceful, but we don’t get credit for it.

  5. I’m going to differ slightly here, and I don’t think I am lacking in empathy (that’s what they all say, I imagine, but consider believing me; you know, like you’d believe another fat person their different experience😉.

    I know there is an experiential level to things that adds something to anything I might imagine just from feeling empathy, and I generally like simulations for that reason. It’s not that I don’t believe people who experience it, I do. But I gain some visceral information from going through it myself. It added a lot to my understanding to wear a blindfold, just around my own house, in order to feel a smidgen of what it might be like to turn blind (I was and am afraid of that, and I know what I experienced wasn’t anything like real bllndness, but it added to my understanding of the difficulties). I just went to an earthquake simulator too, to experience some of what an 8.0 magnitude might feel like.

    So if somebody wants to have that bit of experience, I’ll say more power to them, and I see no reason to accuse individuals — doing it for their own understanding rather than a publicity stunt — of lacking empathy. It’s a whole lot better than just believing the crap put out by the MSM and just about anyone else. It might actually enhance one’s empathy.

    As long as, indeed, one doesn’t confuse it with the real experience of living as a fat person. It will be more instructive of how people treat us than it will be of how it feels to be fat. We didn’t just put on a bunch of pounds one morning; we grew into it, and most of us don’t really feel very differently no matter how many pounds go on — and how it affects the mobility of able-bodied fat people really depends much more on how fit we are than how fat we are, and you can’t be fit in a fat suit unless you wear it for months and work out in it. And please don’t forget that this will be YOUR experience, as a thin person doing an experiment. It will contain what baggage you bring to it. Careful with extrapolations to other people (always a good idea, even if you share a group with others; we are all individuals).

    But I do believe it could be instructive in how difficult it can be to deal with a society that disdains us and rarely accommodates us.

    • I agree with that very limited endorsement. The personal experience that comes to mind for me is the two months that I spent confined to a wheelchair after an accident. I thought I was already empathetic to the challenges faced by people who can’t walk, but I was a hundred times more so after personally experiencing what it was like to be able to get into a bathroom but not be able to get out, for example, because going out required pulling on the door, which I couldn’t do while getting close enough to it to grasp the handle. There were many other experiences of this kind, and it changed my perspective forever. So, while I think the typical use of a fatsuit as a publicity stunt is despicable, I do think that some people might benefit from discovering what it’s like to have to wait in an office, eat at a restaurant, go to a movie theater, fly on an airplane, where all the seats have arms between which your ass/thighs will not fit. Architects, office furniture designers, car designers, airplane designers, etc. ought to have to experience their designs from the point of view of someone larger, smaller, taller, shorter, weaker, etc. compared to the average.

      • When I was in college, I took part in an experiment where participants drew a “disability” out of a hat, and had to commit to living it for a full day. I was “deaf,” and issued really powerful earplugs.

        Fortunately, I was already taking sign language, so I was actually kind of excited about it – really practicing with some meaning, instead of just doing exercises for class.

        It was rather more eye-opening than I expected. However, I’d never make it part of some publicity stunt or think that I can somehow speak for deaf people. At most, I can empathize more, and think a bit more about how to meet their needs. For example, if I were in the movie business, I would want to be sure there are subtitles on ALL the films I produced. Also, I now put subtitles on, whenever possible, because actors mumble, anyway, and I just really like them. But even non new releases, they’re not always available, and what’s up with that? There are LOTS of deaf movie-goers!

        For that matter, there are blind movie-goers. One of my classmates was deaf, and once, she and her date were right behind me in the movie theater, and I thought it was great how her date whispered descriptions of the action. “He’s giving her a look of consternation.” or “She just picked up the pencil he left behind and stuck it in her pocket while grinning like a loon,” or other such things, where the actions were not discernible from the soundtrack. I have, on extremely rare occasions, come across movies on DVD that actually provide an “action track” for the blind.

        People who 1) listen to and believe the experiences of others, and/or have a small taste of those experiences, themselves, are more likely to be allies and push for help in those needed areas.

        What’s upsetting is when they start thinking of themselves as acceptable spokespeople for the group. Or saying things like “See? I’m thin, and I actually experienced some fat hatred, while wearing my suit, so maybe, just maybe, some of those fatties were telling the truth, some of the time.” Instead of just, “You know, they’re probably telling the truth when they tell their experiences,” and just listening.

    • I agree with this as well, in the vein that I know people who just cannot grasp ideas without actually living them. We all learn things differently – some can be told, some can read a book and learn, some have to have the hands-on experience, some need to watch, etc. It’s not just “working on empathy” That to me is in the same school as telling someone facing depression they need to just work on being more cheerful by reading and watching happy things. Both rely on the mind’s processing power beyond our personal control. One may be able to “work on empathy” – but by only offering one way (in this case reading and/or watching vlogs) only those who can learn from that method would walk away with any sort of benefit.

      That’s just the thought that cropped up in my mind. As laid out by you, pir, I agree with the thought of doing it as your own way to try to understand and not as a publicity stunt.

  6. I think donning a fat suit to experience life as a fat person is…

    Well it’s a bit like rich people living with easy access to fresh produce and a lot of free time, who put themselves on a food-stamp budget for a week to “experience food poverty”.

    They do not get the full experience of living with food poverty. They do not experience the difficulty of obtaining *any* decent food due to not having access to a farmer’s market or a large, accessible supermarket. They do not experience the exhaustion of working 2+ jobs to just barely make ends meet, which makes it easy for them to find the time to spend 3 hours turning a sack of dried beans into something palatable. They do not experience the struggle of feeding a family without access to a fridge, or a freezer, or a slow cooker, or other kitchen amenities.

    They – often – will plan a week-long diet that puts them under their required number of calories and will post up pictures of tiny portioned foods, and yammer excitedly about the prospect that they might lose weight while on the challenge. Forgetting how this misses the point. Because a person who is truly in food poverty can’t under-eat for a week and then be okay. They might be in their situation for months, years. That kind of continuous under-nourishment could have serious long-term consequences.

    More than anything else, they do not experience the constant, nagging, low-level stress and worry and fear that is ready to bubble up from under the surface at the slightest provocation, that comes with truly having no guarantee that they will have access to the same food today, a week from then, a month later. Or the slow-burn howling pit that is not knowing if you will ever, in your entire life, find yourself in a better situation.

    So you’ll see these food bloggers posting proud photos of their vegetable crates, talking about how they “cheated just a tiny bit” by using herbs and seasonings they already had at home and how they “only went over by 10p” on one day, and how they understand *so much more* now. Because it was hard work to find creative ways to make tasty meals each day with a limited budget. Because they got bored with the food they were making. Because it was hard to go a whole week without their fancy coffee-shop coffee. And it is so very obvious to anyone who has actually experienced food poverty, that they understand NOTHING.

    ***

    Wearing a fat suit will not give you the experience of what it feels like, physically, to have a fat body. The weight is not carried the same way. It will not give you the experience of what it feels like to have someone talk about your body and to actually connect their words to *what you are*. They will not experience workplace discrimination due to weight. Or their children coming home in tears because of the way the world treats fat children. Or the struggle of searching for clothes that fit for a job interview. Or the difficulty of getting a doctor to treat you seriously when you want evidence-based medicine.

    You just get to feel, briefly, a bit hot. A bit heavy. A bit less flexible in a weighty padded suit that doesn’t even slightly mimic the movement of a fat body. A bit less socially-acceptably pretty. And then you get to take it off.

    • I volunteer at a food bank, and many of the clients are repeat clients. Sometimes over years. Also, single mothers, and families appreciate getting anything, especially if it’s something good. Last week, the “cookies” that were delivered were Nature Valley granola thins, that were half chocolate. We also had a giant box left over from the previous day. The family gave one to their oldest son (age 4?) and he liked it, so they took half of the giant box with them, since it was a treat that they all could enjoy, especially the children.

      • Bunny’s post is very poignant. I wish my dad could pull his head out of his rump long enough to get this message but he likely never will. He seems to think that his experience is everyone’s experience. He has worked hard almost his whole life and continues to do so and has lots to show for it.

        He isn’t rich by any means but he lives comfortably. My grandfather, his dad, isn’t much better in regards to his thinking, which I shall describe below.

        I remember waiting in the car with my grandpa whilst my grandma was in the store when we saw a beggar near us. “They’re lazy!” he scoffed. What a good Christian you are, Grandpa, judging people like that.

        Possible TW below:

        In my dad’s mind, if you are poor it’s because you are lazy, and do not want to work hard, or hard enough — he said as much the last time we got together. He thinks that he is a fool because he continues to get up 6 days a week to work while there are “welfare leeches” (my words, not his) who are living it up on his dime.

        I have come to find that he has never really been a truly happy person…

        • Ya know, Dad is more than welcome to chuck the job and join the beggar. Grandpa can accompany him. They have that option available to them. The beggar does not.

          Certainly Grandpa and Dad know about avenues available for those who are experiencing hard times -right? And they make sure to inform folks of assistance available them -right? And they contribute what they can to institutions that assist those in need-right?

          If not, then I’d have to conclude that they are jealous of the beggar’s circumstances. Hmmm. Curious.

    • Oh, so much truth!

  7. What do you think about virtual reality scenario like they have done with schizophrenia? Would it be possible and/or ethical to write a realistically oppressive script? This doesn’t get around the criticism that first you should believe real fat persons, but for those who would find a simulation useful for themselves, would it be better than a fat suit?

  8. So this is a topic I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about, mostly because I have worked in a university lab devoted to weight stigma and body weight issues and they have been conducting research on the use of fat suits. I am a fat person but the only one in the lab that identifies that way so we’ve had some discussion about this. The professors that oversee the lab are both in health sciences and teach a lot of kinesiology courses. There are not a lot of fat kinesiology students but most of them have the goal of becoming physical therapists and will need to work with all body shapes and sizes. They are currently testing the use of the suits in a course that is specifically about weight, in order for the students to get experience understanding how a large body moves differently. In discussing this, I agreed that the use of the suits is helpful for this, as the students get experience in order to serve their fat clients/patients better, without having to wait for a fat client to “practice” with. There is no presumption that these students will gain any insight into what it might be like to live as a fat person and all that comes with that, but it does provide them training in how to serve a wider client base without having to seek out willing fat volunteers in order to practice skills and understand how to modify treatments for different sized bodies.

    What are opinions about this as a use for fat suits?

    • I’m not convinced that they can get a really accurate experience of working with a really fat patient, but it’s better than nothing, I guess. And if it takes too long to wait for a fat patient to come in, then I’m glad that they are at least addressing the issue, and TRYING to give the training these people will need. It’s better than the safety industry, who doesn’t see any need to test seat belts and such with fat (read large and heavy) crash test dummies. So, yeah, I’m glad they’re doing it. I just wish they could get the real thing, because fat suits are very limited in their verisimilitude.

      I don’t suppose they can actively recruit fat patients? Do they actively recruit patients, at all? Or is it more of a “We put the information out there, and hope people show up,” thing?

      I have to admit, though, that this is a valid use of fat suits. It’s not something most people would have even considered. And if the medical community would be more welcoming of fat patients, in general, it would probably be unnecessary.

      You know, I heard that medical schools, that need cadavers for their medical students to study, actually turn down fat people, because they don’t want their students to practice on fat people? And then their graduates say, “Oh, I can’t treat a fat person! They’re too different, and I have no idea how to treat them!” And then, they have to learn on-the-job, which means ON LIVE PEOPLE! Ugh.

      So, yeah, if this helps medical personnel learn to work with fat people, then YAY!


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