On Being Fat

Illustration by Hana Jang (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Sara Benincasa’s essay “Why Am I So Fat?” was one of our top five reads last week, and with good reason — it was honest and cutting in all the right ways. It was brash and unapologetic and funny as hell (and also suggests that perhaps Fader was slightly premature in declaring, earlier this year, that “fat shaming is dead”).

It was also problematic, and many fat women applauded the piece while also wishing it had pushed harder and skirted some problematic tropes. Luckily, many other writers, scholars, and activists have also been publishing wonderful pieces on fatphobia: their experiences, the cultural and institutional ways it is entrenched, and more. They might not have gone viral, but their voices are important — and just as honest, cutting, brash, and funny.

First, Sara Benincasa is conventionally pretty. She has an hourglass figure, which is the “acceptable” way for a woman to be fat. She may not be stick-thin, but she certainly isn’t what a medical professional might call “morbidly obese;” this gives her a kind of social capital that most fatter women, who are simultaneously invisible (read: unattractive by conventional standards) and profoundly visible (read: physically large) do not. In “Fat Shaming Is Not an Individual Problem, It’s a Cultural One” longtime fat activist and author Lesley Kinzel uses Benincasa’s piece as a springboard for discussing why, precisely, the essay was both important and also not enough:

All of this is to say that when an indubitably average-sized woman is praised for writing about the terrible injustice of being called fat by a stranger, I have a very complicated suite of feelings to go with that. I agree wholeheartedly that it is bullshit that she should have to suffer such nonsense. I validate her ferocious refusal to apologize for her body. And I also feel angry, because I know the same perspective written by an obviously, visibly fat woman, a woman who is not sorry for being fat and who is not attempting to become smaller — in short, a woman who looks like me — would not get anywhere near as much praise and support.

Because I am the woman who should be sorry about my body. I am the woman who doesn’t get to rail against the injustice of being called fat, because that is what I am. I’m actually fat, the kind of fat that makes some people not want to look me in the eye; the kind of fat that makes some people assume I am dying of obesologizing disease, like, right now, dying; the kind of fat that makes me embarrassing, or weird, or gross. Meanwhile, in that other oft-repeated situation, where a woman in a size 10 dress is castigating the establishment that finds her body unacceptable, many of those people who wouldn’t make eye contact with me? They’re cheering for her.

How fat is Kinzel? Three hundred pounds and not afraid to state it publicly, squashing the stigma by owning the reality. She not just plus-sized, or curvy, or “fluffy,” she’s fat — as is Meg Elison, whose friends would rather cut themselves open than look like her:

More than once I inherited someone’s favorite outfit in its entirety, replete with the story of how it made her feel. I would wear that outfit later and remember that she wanted to stop being this so badly that she let someone cut out a large section of her intestines. She had an anchor-shaped scar across her entire abdomen. She vomited every day and shit herself at least once a week, but at least, thank god, it was all worth it because she wasn’t fat anymore.

Extending support to a chubby but attractive, not-obese woman who seems not to have dealt with major fat discrimination in her life? Doable. To a fat woman, the kind whose headless photo might grace a CNN article about the “obesity epidemic”? Harder.

Second, Sara Benincasa’s essay makes it too easy to continue conflating “fatness” and “poor health.” Near the end of her piece she mentions losing weight to stave off the Type 2 Diabetes to which she’s genetically inclined, and some of her weight-gain story is related to mental health — both truths for her but troubling for fat activists, who work hard to separate out the ways thinness and health are often unnecessarily conflated, to see in such a bandied-about piece of writing.

For those interested in the research, Marilyn Wann, in a section from her book Fat!So? offers a point-by-point takedown, backed with copious citations, of the popular myths around fat and poor health markers. The larger (ha!) point: you can’t tell someone’s health status from their size. This is the crux of an excellent piece on Medium, “On Your Concern for Your Fat Friend“:

It hurts me as a fat person because of the message it sends. Well-intentioned advice, day after day, week after week, year after year, shows me that I am seen first — and sometimes only — as a fat person. It is a tidal wave of reminders that I am, despite everything else, failing the one measure that matters. No matter how hard I try, how much money I spend or how many calories I ration, no matter how strong my mettle, it doesn’t matter. It can’t be seen. I don’t have the luxury of an uninterrupted day. Every day someone finds a way to show judgment, disdain or concern for the maligned vessel that carries me through the world.

Fat people learn quickly and deeply that our bodies are not our own. They are public property, to be commented on, judged, prodded, rejected. Others are always entitled to our bodies, and they are never our own.

You asked if you should care about my health. Of course you should. I would want you to care if I fell ill, or if I were struggling with a health condition. But I’m not. And looking at me won’t tell you how strong I’ve become, the contents of my doctor’s files, the oceans of blood that my sturdy heart pumps through me. My dress size isn’t my medical chart. My body — all of our bodies — are too complex and wonderful to be reduced to that.

(For those truly concerned about the health of fat people, consider the risks of the drastic measures some people attempt in pursuit of thinness: earlier this year, the New York Times devoted considerable (virtual) column inches to the latest research on America’s favorite fat-shaming entertainment, The Biggest Loser. Most contestants have not only regained the lost weight, but are coping with permanently compromised metabolisms.)

For the few, the proud, the special snowflakes — for that is what they are — who manage to maintain a weight loss, it’s a lifetime commitment. This Alana Massey piece in The New Inquiry is over two years old, but no less painful in the reading for its age. Behold the work of thinness and the risks of revealing just how much work it is, unmasked:

As relationships advance, romantic partners become visibly disappointed and even annoyed that maintaining thinness is not a matter of a quick jog and 100 crunches. When he goes to find a refrigerator staple like butter, I can claim I simply ran out the first time but I must eventually admit that I don’t keep it in my home. My getting up to run eight miles the morning after sleeping together is admirable in the beginning but becomes frustrating when it means he almost always wakes up alone. I fool no one when I claim that really, this salad made of translucent iceberg lettuce is my favorite menu option at the diner. Meals are never skipped but they are rarely thoroughly enjoyed either. Despite taking care never to mention the cycle of calculating, scheduling, and calibrating, there is a mountain of damning physical evidence.

The revelations are slow but they come. A calorie tracking mobile app has better real estate on my smartphone than my calendar. The sudden realization that I’ve never been “that hungry” when we go out. The suspicious number of claims I make about simply not liking universally popular foods. I’ll let the cable bill wait but my gym membership is on time, every time. But these symptoms do not aggregate into the appearance of a disease but rather, into a certain temperament. It makes them exclaim, “Relax!” rather than, “Get help.” The level of control the symptoms reveal hovers close to illness but doesn’t cross far enough over the line so as to become sad, merely unattractive. And it is easier to walk away from someone who is unattractive than someone who is sad.

Amy Stephenson takes a longer view in “What Does My Body Actually Look Like?,” sharing 31 years’ worth of vignettes from a life largely organized around avoiding fat and finding and hanging on to thin. “I’m 18, I’m 21, I’m 25, I’m 27, and I have dreams about being thin. I’ll catch a glimpse of a body I know to be mine, and dream-me is lithe, strong. The yearning for thin-me is as sharp as my dream hipbones, as the cheekbones framing hollows carved by X-Acto knives. These dreams are aspirational.”

Rather than reading all this, I could have just commended you to Roxane Gay’s 2011 analysis of the novel Skinny on Bookslut; although a review, it does a masterful job of unpacking so many of these ideas: the in/visibility of fatness, the amount of mental and physical energy devoted to disliking and trying to change the body, the challenges of reading about the experience of fatness as written by a non-fat woman. (Sorry about that!) And to expand the conversation further (and shrink the overall whiteness of most of this even more), Ashleigh Shackelford’s “Bittersweet Like Me: When the Lemonade Ain’t Made for Fat Women and Femmes” is worth the reading; representation of fatness is important among and across many identities.

(I should also say, at the risk of speaking for her: I don’t know that Benincasa would actually disagree with any of this — we can welcome her piece while we also ask for more — and she’s been sharing Kinzel’s response piece on Twitter.)

One wonderful thing Benincasa does show us, and that we need to see more often, is that it’s possible to be fat and happy — for the merely chubby, yes, but also for the fat-fat. From “I Choose to Be Fat,” by Laura Bogart:

Some argue that classifying obesity as a disease — as the American Medical Association has recently done — destigmatizes it, but the language of disease is unremittingly aggressive: We say “Fuck Cancer” and “Beat Diabetes.” We speak of people in treatment as “fighting a battle.”

I have fought against myself for so very long, against everything I’d internalized: everything my father told me I was, everything my mother told me I couldn’t do; everything the kids at school told me I looked like, everything my (supposed) care providers swore I should be. I’ve laid down my arms. I will simply be.

I am not a pathology. I am breasts and belly that bounce softly with my every step, thighs that sweep each other, and a rear end that rolls along behind me like that final note after a song has ended.

When I need reminding of this — for I too am fat-fat! — I return often to the writing of Lindy West. I recommend her book, Shrill, with the greatest gusto, and love the celebratory Guardian column she published after her nuptials, “My wedding was perfect — and I was fat as hell the whole time“:

Choose your rituals, but make them yours. If you want to look like a flower market ate fat Betty Draper and then barfed her up in the middle of a haunted forest (YEEEESSS!), great choice. If you want to get married to a burrito while wearing a barrel with suspenders, I’m cool with it. If you think the very concept of marriage is hot garbage, that’s legit. But regardless, remember that you absolutely do not have to “fix” your body, chase after “flattering,” be somebody’s dark secret, or beg for permission to be happy.

Hear, hear.

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