Speaking Hypothetically

Yesterday there was a post floating around on tumblr that was a drawing of a fat disabled woman with the signs “Fuck Diets” covering her naked flesh. What many people saw was a person rejecting diet culture and the shame that comes along with not only being fat but also being disabled. Something that was suppose to be positive was turned into a conflict due to a few trolls that wanted to decide that this fictional person was disabled due to an illness not being taken care of. I find it pointless to discuss the semantics of the whole conversation because I find the idea that people are putting a label of disease on a fat body, a disabled and fictional drawing of a body ludicrous.  It is truthfully the sign of how much fat stigma is alive in our society that even a drawing meant to be positive and show body diversity is turned into something it isn’t.

What I want to talk about is the reaction from the people who were trashing the drawing by saying that their response was a hypothetical situation the drawing could be depicting. When people say that they are speaking hypothetically what they really mean is that they are not talking about you, so you don’t have the right to find what they are saying offensive. This kind of response to a push back against negative comments is not only meant to try and negate the emotional reaction of those people who are offended, but is also a way to try and silence the ability of anyone who takes issue with the person’s harmful stance. By saying that they are talking about a hypothetical situation it also makes it so that a person who has had their own body read in a similar fashion has no space to speak out, because clearly they are not speaking about actual situations that have happened to actual people.

Attacking a drawing, that doesn’t depict a real person, gives people who are blinded by their own prejudice an ability to try and remove their own responsibility that is connected to the harm their words cause. The issue really isn’t that they are reading a drawing of a person that was meant to be positive, but that they are trying to negate the reality that their words have been said about real people, with real bodies that live in reality. Their lives and body should never be used as a hypothetical situation

When fat disabled bodies are read as a being the result of an inability to take care of ones self that is not only fat phobia but also ableism in action. When someone sees a fat disabled body and automatically assumes that the state of their body is the end result of mismanaged care that is directly related to growing up in a society where you are socialized with fat phobic thinking. We are continually taught fat people have X illness and that illness results in X state of body, then our minds fill in the blank. Without challenging social conditioning no one is able to break away from the fat stigma that is so ingrained within our society.

By not breaking away from prejudice, people create these hypothetical situations while forgetting that there are real people with real bodies who have and continue to deal with people who do not think hypothetically about the way they read their body. All of us learn to read bodies in a way that doesn’t allow for us accept difference in others but question why someone else’s body exists as it does. Instead of allowing for bodies to merely exist many react with fear and push back trying to understand through ableism and fat phobia, speaking in hypothetical’s to try and protect their own discomfort.

Bullying It’s Not Just for Kids

October is National Anti-Bullying Month and along with the video from Wisconsin newswoman Jennifer Livingston the conversation surrounding bullying culture in our society has ramped up yet again. Much of the discussion has not focused on the video itself but whether or not the email Livingston received was in fact her being bullied. In these responses you can find the issue that can come up when you have a movement like the one for anti-bullying that continues to be more focused on the interactions between children than the underlying reason for prejudice.

The current framing of bullying in our society treats intolerance with kid gloves. We are led to believe that bullying stops when a person gets a high school or college diploma. We are told “It Gets Better” when this is not always the case. Worst of all this treatment of intolerance as something that needs to be dealt with as delicately as possible removes the terms that most anti-oppression activists use that could further the discussion surrounding the unbalanced power dynamics. If we actually started calling bullying what it is and address it as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fat phobia and classism it would actually give children a better way to deal with the very same power dynamics they will face as adults, while also giving adults more responsibility to challenge the intolerance that is rooted within our society overall.

The idea that there is a distinct difference between the bullying we learn or participate in as children and the power relations we are forced to navigate through as adults is just as harmful to the culture of bullying as the actual bullying itself. It ignores that children are not the only people who are participants in the cycle of violence. If you are the product of this culture and have been bullied there is a large possibility that an adult in your life has used the same tactics against you. More often than not this has continued throughout your lifespan within everyday relationships at work and home.  One of the main reasons that adult to child power dynamics are so common is due to the lack of personal autonomy that children are given. We often treat them like we have unwavering authority over them as an adult or parents treat them like they are property. This kind of thinking continues through bullying culture and we come to accept these power dynamics once we are adults ourselves.

When we don’t address how the power dynamics in our society are based on real life forms of oppression it allows for children to be led to believe that those forms of oppression do not exist. It allows for the most privileged of people in our society to continue to dismiss the calls of discrimination from marginalized groups or as with the response from Livingston it allows for us to question the validity of her claim that she was being bullied. By disassociating forms of oppression from bullying culture it also lays the burden of proof of that marginalization on the person being discriminated against.  This reinforces the way people with privilege are not expected to own up to their own ignorance or prejudices.

As the product of bullying myself the notion that my experiences were not due to the way sexism and fat phobia is rooted in our society denies that those experiences have happened at all. It ignores that we have a history in our society of othering people due to their differences from what we consider to be “normal.” All the while continuing to shift the responsibility on the people being oppressed to speak up and challenge those of us with the most power. The binds on our access to power and the need for us to stand up for ourselves means that we are expected to challenge authority no matter the harm or violence that we might receive. This harm can even come through the dismissal of a person’s reaction to bullying because it makes people feel even more silenced by their oppressors as well as feel like their connection to reality is being challenged.

This is why the idea that some among us are willing to dismiss Livingston’s interaction with her bully is so harmful. It further frames the subject of bullying as something that only happens to children from other children but it also is continuing the cycle of violence where we do not address it for what it truly is. We need to start taking responsibility for the way all of us contribute to a society rooted in intolerance. The first step is to stop acting like we need to only address bullying with children because one day they will become adults thrown into a world where there are no kid gloves.

Don’t Tell Me How to Cope with Trauma!

*Cue Amy Poehler for the title*

One of the most ignorant things a person can do is assume that their own experience is the rule to live by in life. That they are the example everyone else should follow and while they do this they completely ignore that everyone is at a different place in their life. Some people are still having bad days, are surrounded by people who do not have their best interests at heart, have traumatic past experiences that are continually challenging them to reevaluate their life and are ever evolving because life is not as simple as “bad things happen, now move on.”

I am not a regular reader of Manolo for the Big Girl but when I was linked to this article by someone who was trying to use it as an example of fat women playing the victim when faced with discrimination while dating I immediately saw red.

Maybe that’s because in my travel across the fatosphere I’ve run into a lot of mawkish pity parties written by women in the permanent victim mode, those unfortunate souls unable or unwilling do the work required to move on from their teenage angst and so every human interaction is an affirmation of their deeply engrained flawed belief that they are not worthy of love, that everyone hates them or looks down on them because they’re fat and that their mother/father/seventh-grade boyfriend was right all along.
I have empathy for those girls, but at the same time I secretly want to shake them and say “Maybe you don’t have friends because you’re a total downer. No one likes a sadsack, regardless of the size of said sack. Get thee to a therapist and work that sh*t out. Then let’s have gin and tonics.”

Aside from the fact that this writer is coming into a community that I tend to get pretty mama bear about, I also find it really frustrating that they are basically writing a blog post that is allowing for people to excuse away prejudice. This whole “If fat women just felt better about themselves then people wouldn’t treat them badly” isn’t something I want to promote or condone in any way.

No one has the right to tell another person how to cope with trauma. No one has the right to tell another person how they should feel about their experiences or how they should live their life. No one has the right to make judgments on another person’s life because they feel like they know everything about them.

The whole idea that someone just moves past childhood trauma and they are free from their experiences is bullshit. Sure it might work for some people but the reality is that trauma shapes who you are. You don’t just move past trauma, you cope with trauma, you allow for it to be part of you or you don’t because people get to decide how they deal with their own life and the trauma that goes along with it. I also hate that people think that trauma only happens when you are a child and that we do not continually face traumatic experiences on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Traumatic experiences can happen to a person regardless of their age or how they feel about themselves, how they deal or cope with the past trauma in their life etc.

Let this be a lesson. Never assume that your experience is the only valid experience and if you are going to criticize someone for how they deal with their traumatic experiences at least think about how your words are going to be used to cause more trauma in the lives of others. Think about how your words are going to make people feel silenced because they don’t live up to your grand expectations of how they should live their lives.

The Right to Talk about Fat Experience

When fat people try to talk about their own experiences with body shame, fat stigma or weight based discrimination they are always challenged in a way to undermine the significance of them with people exclaiming that some of those experiences also happen to people in thin bodies. While the truth is that many of the shaming tactics used toward fat people do happen to thin people as well, the outcry from thin people to also feel as though we must validate their experience ignores the reality that they always have their experiences validated by every mainstream body positive organization or campaign that has ever existed.

The dominant discourse that surrounds the body acceptance movement as a whole is one that is directly geared toward thin bodies and the lack of voices from fat people are not noticed unless you are fat yourself. People who think that the voices of thin people are not being talked about enough in fat positive spaces are inadvertently reinforcing fat oppression. They do this by undermining the experiences of fat people because they feel as though it happens to everyone. Not only is this incorrect because the motive behind body shaming and stigma of a fat person and a thin person can be drastically different but the ways fat stigma takes part in being a fat person in society turns into actual discrimination. When dismissing fat experience by saying that thin people also have those same experience a person is completely ignoring that they still have the privilege that comes from living in a thin body.

Fat people do not have to make space for thin people when discussing their own experiences because of this privilege and due to the reality that thin people do not make space for our voices in their own discussions. When a dominant group tries to invalidate the experience of an oppressed group it is actively working to silence them. Coming from a place of privilege and expecting an oppressed group to make space for your experience is not only insulting but shows that you are not really interested in understanding the difference among experience or forms of oppression. This also happens within the feminist movement when white feminists expect black feminists to open their spaces to be ‘inclusive’ when those same white feminists do not make their spaces open for all women or experiences.

As a white fat female with some thin privilege I do not have the right to expect fat spaces for people who are larger than I am or any other group that I do not fit into to open and validate my experience. If they allow me to be part of their space I am not only grateful for it but I spend my time listening and learning not expecting them to include me. I also actively try to understand the privileges that I do have so that I can understand the difference between my own experiences and theirs. We should be celebrating difference not pushing it aside and ignoring it.

As fat people we have the right to talk about our experiences without being bullied into validating the experiences of thin people who feel like we don’t talk about the similarities among us. We need to start expecting people with thin privilege who are also advocates of body acceptance to make our voices heard and not brush them aside. We need to call people and organizations out for creating a form of acceptance that doesn’t challenge fat stigma or discrimination. We need to tell them that our experiences matter, that they are different and that difference is something that can help all people regardless of size.

Fear Mongering for the Nation

The last two nights I watched the new HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation” and was live tweeting with the hashtag #WOTN. While the producers seemed to try and make the film appear to be compassionate toward the plight of fat people, the pre-apocalyptic language and fear mongering used by many of the people interviewed as well as the lack of a well rounded argument that looked at both sides of the issue made this documentary a fat hate fest. In the four hours of documentary only one mention of a fat person being able to be metabolically healthy was mentioned. At no point was there ever discussion on the failure rate of weight based health initiatives (95% in the first 1-2 years) or that those who “succeed” by 5 years only manage to keep 10% of their body weight off. 1 At no point was there any mention that a lifetime of weight loss attempts leads to weight cycling and weight gained as well as other health complications.2 There was huge emphasis on the rise in type 2 diabetes in children but no mention that due to the escalation in fat phobia and dieting behavior children are more likely to have an eating disorder. 3

1. Misuse of BMI Charts

The films start with the history of BMI charts, interestingly enough they use modern day BMI chart numbers with no mention of the change that occurred in the late 90s that made millions of people “overweight” and “obese” overnight. There is no mention of reality that BMI charts were never supposed to be used as a measure of health or for large populations as a whole.

2. What About the Children?

Part 3 of the series is completely dedicated to the “prevalence” of type 2 diabetes in children. No mention that the CDC does not have statistics on how many children have the disease because it is so rare.4 There is also commentary that now that the “epidemic” has started in children it is easier to take seriously than “when it was only adults or people in less valued groups.” That comment summed up the tone for the rest of the films, showing how we will help people like children who are not thought of as having their own autonomy while simultaneously deeming the lives of adults or “less valued groups” as insignificant.

3. False and Unscientific Presentations

The most egregious clips from part 1 is where they are examining the 3 different hearts at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine. They show the heart of a “normal” weight 26 year old woman and compare it to not only a 50 year old man who weighted 500 pounds but also to a fat 71 year old heart. At no point was there any mention of the significant difference between the hearts due to aging only mentioning the difference in body size. Aside from the fact that this was completely unscientific it is a perfect example of the fact that a viewer will see this clip and not think about the information that is being left out. After viewing this clip myself I saw numerous tweets about how they couldn’t believe the difference in the hearts, everyone attributing that difference to body size not age. If they were truly interested in presenting an unbiased scientific opinion, hearts from bodies of people of the same age with different weights would have been the way to go. This was not only banking on fat phobic beliefs but instilling fear of fat in viewers.

They also followed a woman who was part of a study that had its participants eat an extra 1,000 calories a day at fast food restaurants. Other than the fact that they are showing someone drastically changing their behaviors, the adverse health affects of the extra calories is completely blamed on the small amount of weight that was gained. This is only a few examples of the film that showing an unrealistic approach from science to try and prove that gaining weight not changing behaviors is related to a change in health status.

4. Promotion of Harmful Weight Control Measures

During part 2 the film followed two women who are part of the weight control registry that keeps track of people who have kept of their weight “long term,” which the registry defines as 1 year. What they showed was obsessive calorie counting, keeping food journals and excessive exercise. Watching the women explaining the obsessive behaviors that they have mastered to control their weight was one of the hardest things to watch about the films. They also promoted weight loss surgery as an option. The man that they followed to his surgery, and then did a follow up after only 6 months, had many of the life threatening complications that happen with bariatric surgery but they were down played by his affirmation that he would have done it again.

5. The Fatpocalypse is Coming!

All of the films had commentary that made it seem as though the world was going to end if we didn’t stop this “epidemic.” One commentator said that the US would be crushed by it, another said that businesses would go overseas to find a workforce (because clearly fat people are only in the US), that we wont have a workforce in the US because everyone will be fat, and that our health care costs will continue to grow until Armageddon happens. They also mentioned the overused and misplaced study that said this generations children would not live to the same age as their parents.5

6. Risks

The documentary kept talking about risks associated with “obesity” but doesn’t explain that risk does not mean cause. The confusion between correlation and causation in understanding study results is astounding when research is written about in the media.

7. Fake Compassion

The film was very conflicted with its point of view on how we should feel about fat people. Not only did they say that we should know that people are fat outside of their own control, but many of the fat people who were interviewed said that it was their own fault or that they could change their body if they tried. The idea that they want us to see fat people as helpless while also giving “choices” on how fat people can lose weight is asinine. They are trying to appear to be compassionate and create less fat stigma when that is exactly what they are doing.

8. Structural Changes

There is a lot of time dedicated to the prevalence of poverty and body size in the films. How in low income areas there are no outdoor spaces for people to move their body, that they are often located in fresh food deserts (lies) and how junk food is the most affordable food available. All of this creates the idea that they don’t want to place the blame on people living in those areas while also presenting misleading information. The top suggestions given were creating safe outdoor spaces and access to affordable fresh foods. They also tried to tackle the prevalence of fast food restaurants in low income areas but didn’t mention a recent study that showed more middle income people eat fast food than people who live in poverty.6

9. The Food Industry

While talking about the amount of junk food in stores they also try to engage the food industry referring to it as something similar to the smoking industry. Many suggestions of reforming the food industry are not sustainable for the population of our country. Organic fresh foods, grass fed beef etc would not be possible with the amount of land we have and the population of the people we need to feed. As it is we have people that starve every day, stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods throwing out blemished foods because they don’t look good enough for their shelves. One commentator even made the suggestion that they should be required to make less food each year so that people would be forced to eat fewer calories. All of these suggestions mean someone completely more sinister than just trying to make people thin because if this were to actually happen people would die. We would need a smaller population for these suggestions to actually work and they would be created by the lack of food available for the current population. Also, none of the suggestions given would actually make the population as a whole thinner or make it so that fat people didn’t exist.

10. Conflict of Interest

Many of the contributors in the film as well as the National Institute of Health, the Institute of Medicine and the Center for Disease Control, all sponsors of the documentary, have possible conflicts of interest with people in their organizations who get money from companies that bank on fat bodies being pathologized. The NIH specifically had a panel that recently was called out for having conflicts of interest with the makers of Lap-Band.7 A few of the contributors of the documentary have been on this panel and every person who spoke in the film has a job that depends on fat bodies being considered diseased.

Final Thoughts

While the documentary banks on the normal ignorance surrounding weight and health, I found the worst parts to be the way they used scare tactics and misleading information. The length of the documentary was almost excruciating to sit through aside from the information being presented, they probably could have cut the time in half if they didn’t repeat half of the information numerous times in what I am assuming they hope will make people remember everything that they talked about.

One of the short films titled “Stigma: The Human Cost of Obesity” talks about weight stigma, but even in that portion the stigma is completely blamed on the weight of the person, as you can see with the title of the clip, not on society or fat phobia. In the clip Rebecca Puhl says how we need to not make this a fight against fat people but against “obesity.” The problem is that when you live in a fat body that science doesn’t know how to make thin you really are waging war against people.

Some more reading,

Bread and Circus (Hold the Bread):Weight of the Nation Deserves an Imperial Thumbs Down by Linda Bacon, Ph.D., MA, MA

Weight of the Nation Serves Up More Fat Shaming by Marilyn Wann

Debate the Weight: Deconstructing HBO’s The Weight of the Nation by ASDAH

the HAES files: Stereotype Management Skills for HBO Viewers by Deb Burgard, PhD

the HAES files: Top 10 Reasons to Be Concerned About “The Weight of the Nation” Documentary by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA

1. Do 95% of Dieters Really Fail – Dances With Fat

2. Weight Cycling, Weight Gain, and Risk of Hypertension in Women 

3. Incidence and Age-Specific Presentation of Restrictive Eating Disorders in Children 

4. Children and Diabetes – See Difficulty Detecting Type 2 Among Children

5. the HAES files: the cockroach effect

6. Fat Food’s Biggest Consumer: Not the Poor but the Middle Class

7. Health Guideline Panels Struggle with Conflicts of Interest

Skinny-Fat and Moral Panic

Last week I read an amazing post from Ragen Chastain at Dance’s with Fat about the term “Skinny-Fat” and she describes it beautifully,

If you haven’t heard this let me fill you in: “Skinnyfat” is a term used to describe people who are thin but not healthy – they may lack muscle tone, be sedentary, have poor eating habits, be genetically unhealthy etc.

Looking further into the use of this word you can see how incredibly gendered the whole situation is by seeing the bodies that are primarily targeted. There are no famous men whose names have been dragged into the debate but people like Nicole Richie, Gwyneth Paltrow and other female entertainers who look skinny but have a “high” percentage of body fat.

The Today Show taped a segment back in October about the new “phenomenon” where they measured women who fall into a “normal” BMI and found their percentage of body fat. Throughout the whole segment, the behaviors of being health eating well and exercising were discussed but those were not used as indicators of good health. They used the level of body fat, in the one women discussed she had 27%, and indicated that it was cause for concern. This was yet again another discussion based within the moral panic of fat, not actually talking about the health effects of not eating well or exercising but labeling fat as bad.

The discussion could have been positive if they had only talked about habits over body composition. If they talked about the fact that body size is not an indicator of good health this could have been a positive discussion because it would of discussed the things that fat activism has been saying all along, that habits matter not size. Instead what it actually appears to be doing is creating more panic about fat in bodies when there doesn’t need to be. But what actually brought me to looking more into this subject was not Regan’s post but a friend who directed me to a post made by the gym CrossFit (their South Bay, CA location to be exact.)

For those of you who are not aware of this gym, I would personally categorize it as a high intensity, ultra expensive (monthly dues average $150) gym that caters to people who are very athletic or want to be. I do think that their team mentality can be very motivating but as someone who sees the way this kind of gym could be not accessible to all people of ability and income as well as a potentially bad environment for someone with an eating disorder (their post is a great example of this), I would never join this gym.

This is where the CrossFit article comes in, the premise that they are trying to put across is that CF is for all women and that they get a lot of questions from potential members who are scared that they will “bulk up” if they join. They explain that they will actually gain what they consider to be a “lean toned body”, with a low body level of body fat.

I would disagree with their definition of toned, as it actually has more to do with the state or condition of the muscle, not the appearance of it under the skin. Basically you can tone your muscle without being able to see it (See video below)

This is not a response that I would be surprised to get if I was a trainer, sadly the way female beauty ideals dictate that women be waif thin without any apparent muscle tone is a reality.

What really stuck out to me was the body shaming that then ensued near the middle of the article where they compared the body of a crossfitter and a model, which the author said both had a body fat percentage between 12-15%. I’m not sure if CF strives for all of their members to get to this low of a percentage but it is extremely low. After reading this article I reached out to fellow blogger Ashley Solomon Psy. D, a therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness. ( <– Totally stole that from her site…Thanks Ashley!) She blogs at Nourishing-the-Soul.com

When asked about what levels of body fat is a cause for concern and the health consequences of it, this was her response,

I always hesitate to indicate a certain number as too high or too low due to the fact that each individual’s body is very different. In a room of ten people with the same body fat percentage, you could find ten different weights, shapes, and health statuses. That said, for women I would consider 14% to be very low. It could be healthy for a very active woman, one we would consider an athlete. But that would be the low end for an athlete, in my opinion. Again, this is not to say that someone lower (or much, much higher) would be unhealthy per se, but this would definitely be concerning.

The 12-14% you mention is the essential body fat, what would be minimally required for functioning. At low body fat percentage, a woman will stop menstruating (some say at lower than 17%), as you said, and runs the risk of losing bone density. Hormone production decreases and immune functioning decreases as well, making one more vulnerable to illness. One could be weak and fatigued easily and have difficulty recovering from illness and injury.

What has always been a cause for concern over CF is the fact that it is such an intense experience, creating the very place where female athletes could fall into a pattern of extreme exercising and dieting. Contributing to this concern was the articles further body shaming of fat bodies by assuming that someone with 30% body fat or above has no muscle mass at all and all I have to do is show you this video below to show you that is completely false,

Aside from that, either person the model or the athlete has the possibility to have health consequences, it doesn’t matter if you have muscle mass or not, having that low of a body fat percentage is cause for concern. Proving even further that bodies, skinny, “athletic” or fat can be healthy or unhealthy it’s all about each individual person not the way their body appears on the outside.

The use of the term skinny-fat yet again creates an even more stringent and small window where bodies must be within to be considered morally sound and sadly, CrossFit appears to be just another gym that not only is contributing to this moral panic but trying to profit from it as well.

Note: I have not found any place that CrossFit specifically recommended that low body fat  is required for good health, but some places have.  Making this whole use of the term skinny-fat even more scary and potentially hazardous.