Fat People And Well-Meaning Paternalism

fat people have the right to existYesterday a Facebook friend of mine posted a video of a fat woman doing some seriously difficult workouts, including box jumps (standing in one place and then jumping up onto a box – remember this, it will become important in the near future.) I’m not going to post the video here because it was posted by her trainer and I don’t know the situation with permission.  Just trust me that she was fat AF and she was killing those workouts!

As always, and I don’t care if people get sick of my saying/typing it, nobody of any size is obligated to participate in fitness. Fitness/exercise/movement/health/body size are not obligations, barometers of worthiness, entirely within our control, or guaranteed under any circumstances. Running a marathon and having a Netflix marathon are morally equivalent activities. The Good Fatty/Bad Fatty dichotomy needs to die.

That said, there are a couple of interesting things I noticed right away. First of all, nothing in the video or the description said anything about weight loss. (The video was posted by the woman’s trainer and the caption was simply “Negative comments will be blocked from all my posts!“)  But sweet fluffy lord the comments. 

There were plenty of positive comments, which was nice. No negative comments (in my experience that means that her trainer has been doing the deleting he promised to do, so good for him.) But despite the fact that none of us know what her goal is, SO MANY people assumed that it was weight loss.
So. Many. People. 

People were assuring her that she would lose the weight (some seeming to suggest that it was ordained by god?) People actually asked for before and after pictures. We are so brainwashed by fatphobia that many of us literally can’t imagine a fat person working out for any other reason than to lose weight. People can accept that a thin person might workout to gain strength, stamina, and/or flexibility, to improve at an activity they enjoy, to reach a fitness goal, fatphobia tells us that if a fat person is at the gym, they could only be trying to manipulate their body size,

But that’s not all, because fatphobia also tells thin people that a fat body is a sign that the fat person occupying it needs to be given a heaping helping of paternalism and unsolicited advice. On my friend’s FB page, one of the first comments said something like “but at her size, isn’t jumping up on the box bad for her knees.” (I’m paraphrasing because the comment has since been deleted and I neglected to screen shot.)

I replied something like “I know you mean well [Of course I don’t know that, but I try to give the benefit of the doubt] but please don’t do this. A fat body is not a sign that someone needs paternalism, fat people and the trainers we choose are perfectly capable of making decisions for our knees.” The comment, and my reply to it, have been deleted, but I’m not sure if it was by the OP or the author of the comment. Either way I am grateful. (If you’re curious about fat people’s knees, I wrote about that here.)

It’s one of the ways that people maintain their fatphobia, even when fat people are participating in “good fatty” behaviors. Since they can’t say “That fat person needs to exercise” (and, of course, that fat person does not need to exercise) instead they say: “Fat people need to exercise…but not like that!”

But it’s not just among fat athletes. Everywhere a fat person goes, they are likely to experience this kind of paternalism and concern trolling. Sometimes it’s comments on food “You know, if you order that sandwich wrapped in Kale leaves it saves blahbbity blah calories.” As if most fat people haven’t been subjected to constant, harmful diet culture our whole lives and don’t know how to count calories faster than your fancy app.

Sometimes it’s about clothes – people trying to “help” us by insisting that the focus of dressing ourselves should be creating some kind of optical illusion that we are thinner/differently shaped (aka “flattering.”

Regardless of the subject, fat bodies are not a representation of failures, sins, or mistakes. Fat bodies do not exist to be the subject of public discussion, debate or judgment. Fat bodies are not a signal that we need help or input to make decisions about our health, or lives, (or knees!) Our fat bodies are the constant companions that help us do everything that we do every second of every day and they deserve respect and admiration. If you are incapable of that, then at the very least please keep your thoughts to yourself and those who have actually asked to hear them.

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15 thoughts on “Fat People And Well-Meaning Paternalism

  1. Oh. My. God. Yes! I used to go swimming regularly and one time a woman approached me in the shower (!) and asked me, shampoo on my head and all, if I’d like to join their weight loss group. Another time a man forced a conversation on me when I reached the end of a lap, trying to start a competition about who swims more laps and who lost more weight so far. Another time an older man approached me asking if “I was the lady he spoke to recently who had this weight loss surgery”. Uh! This is soooo annoying! And when I politely explain that I’m here to swim because I enjoy it and not to lose weight, they look at me as if I’m crazy… I’m so fed up with this! My boyfriend loves to go to the gym and would love if I came with him, he could train me and all, but I refuse because I fear that in gyms this happens even more often…

    1. This was about 25 years ago. I had done an intervals class at the gym I was a member of and was in the locker room changing. One of the other women who had been in the class said “how much weight have you lost?” I looked at her, baffled, and said “I have no idea. I don’t really pay attention to that.” She looked at me like I had three heads.
      This was actually at a point in my life when I was still very hung up on what the scale said, but I was trying hard not to let it sabotage me. Eventually, it did. The obsession with weight has pulled me away from exercise more than once.

  2. A concern troll is still a troll. There are only 2 scales I care about…musical and Richter. Your blog is a lifesaver, keep up the good work!

  3. This article got me thinking about all the people I know with joint issues. While I don’t know if any of them were fat-shamed by the doctor, all of the problems were caused by some kind of injury or by arthritis or some weird quirk of their own anatomy. Did you know if your knee is shaped wrong it can destroy your own cartilage? I didn’t until my friend explained her knee troubles.

    None of these problems were caused by fat, although some were aggravated by exercise. My friend with the cartilage issue unknowingly made it worse by running.

    These attitudes are ingrained, I don’t know how to change society, but I sure feel for anyone (including me) who’s on the receiving end.

    1. My doctor assured me weight loss would help my foot problem…happily the podiatrist I saw didn’t say word one about weight, and told me it was a bone spur on the top of the arch joint caused by an old injury. I suddenly remembered being stomped by my horse as a teen. He said he’d seen lots of similar problems in cattlemen in Nebraska.

    2. Yep. My knee caps don’t fit tightly in the grooves (something I was born with), and so I’ve had knee problems as a result 😦

    3. *raises hand* My granddad had 3 hip replacements. My dad’s had 2. Dad’s surgeon for his first one said “The balls at the top of your femurs are oval, not spherical, so they’ve worn unevenly from normal use. I would have liked to have seen your father’s x-rays prior to his replacements. I suspect this is hereditary.”

      I’m definitely feeling the same symptoms Dad had at the same age I am, so I think I’ve inherited the wonky hip joints too.

  4. Re fatphobes policing even “good fatty” behaviors:

    My parents and I were having dinner in a restaurant we frequented often. They had a good salad bar, and sometimes I selected it for my entrée.

    I piled up a plate of delicious salad bar selections and was returning to my seat when a woman at the next table said, “She piled her plate so high.”

    The woman said, “We’re not all Skinny Minnies like you.”

    Amused at the second woman’s answer, I thought, “How many of her friends and companions have been on the receiving end of this rude woman’s policing?”

    1. When I was a teen in the 70s I was on a date and ordered a Chef Salad for dinner. My companion was visibly unhappy and eventually said “I can’t stand it when girls diet instead of enjoying a date.” Woah! It was summer, it was hot, and a crunchy, cool salad was what I really wanted. Then he accused me of thinking he couldn’t afford to buy me a steak. He really had trouble imagining that I knew what I wanted–and that it had nothing to do with him!

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