Truth be told, I’ve needed to write this post for a long time now. But I’ve been putting it off. Mostly, I’ve been putting it off because it requires admitting something that I somehow think no one will notice if I don’t draw attention to it: that I am fat. Not only do I have to confront that, but in writing this post I have to risk a deluge of the kind of insults and attacks that have plagued me for my entire life. However, what I am about to say is important, and it bears saying despite all of that.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been overweight. I genuinely cannot remember a time in my life when that was not the case. And, all through my childhood and early adulthood, I was shamed for it. People on the street routinely treated me with disgust and derision. I have been shouted at, insulted and sworn at by entirely random strangers simply because of the size and shape, and it’s left me incredibly over-conscious of my own body. Basically, it’s become a way of life for me to avoid situations in which my weight is an issue, or I otherwise risk drawing attention to my body. Within the last week I have declined an invitation to go abseiling, not because I get vertigo and am afraid of heights as I told the person who invited me (I do, and I am, but I would very much like to face my fears despite that) but because I didn’t want to take the risk that none of the harnesses would fit me. I routinely take the stairs to work in the morning, and every time I do I try and judge it so that I won’t run into anyone else on my way up for fear they’ll see me out of breath and smirk and shake their heads at the lazy fat woman making another futile attempt to lose weight. The people I work with are all wonderful, by the way. They’ve given me no reason to think that they would even consider judging me like that, but they don’t have to. I’ve heard it enough times that I do it for them.
I’m not sharing all of this because I want any of you to feel sorry for me. Honestly, pity is almost as bad as venom and hatred. I’m sharing it because these are my experiences: this is the world that I live in, and I’m not sure how intuitive any of it is to people who are (and have always been) thin.
If Being Fat is Such a Big Deal, Just Go On a Diet
It’d be nice if things were that easy, wouldn’t it? It’s something that’s been said numerous times before, but it bears saying again: if there was any way to shame fat people into being thin, the you can bet your ass that everyone would be skinny as a rake. So, here’s the skinny (pun entirely intended): I have spent almost all of my life on one kind of diet or another. I have tried pretty much everything that’s going, especially when I was in my late teens and early twenties, when I felt the pressure to diet most intensely. Occasionally, through pretty much outright starvation, I’d succeed in getting few pounds off here and there. But starving yourself is miserable, demoralising work, and the second I stopped doing, it the weight would always pile straight back on again.
Also? Shaming and hating yourself for anything is the absolute best way to ensure that you give up. It’s genuinely not possible to force yourself into doing anything, long term, if you are miserable in doing it. Believe me, I’ve watched people try to write novels that way, or learn guitar, or keep up with various resolutions, and they will always, always end up failing because the desire to do what their doing doesn’t come from the love and enjoyment of life–it comes from shaming and self-hatred.
But Fat People Are, Like, Really Unhealthy
As I said above, I’ve always been big. However what I didn’t mention was that when I was younger I was also incredibly active. I played football pretty much every day with my friends. We’d cycle 40 miles in a day for the sheer joy of it. On the weekends, I would walk the mile across town and swim a couple of hundred lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I did things that would be beyond impossible for me to do now.
So, why did I stop? Well, mostly because at about the time I started to reach puberty, people (almost universally men) began throwing abuse at me for daring to be a fat girl visibly out there and exercising. For a while, I tried to find away around it: I shifted from swimming and cycling to taking a half an hour run first thing in the morning when the streets were mostly empty. However, after a few times of being yelled at from the windows of passing cars at 6am, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for me to be out on my own so early. It is one of the most perplexing double-standards of our society that we shame people for being fat because they’re ‘unhealthy’, and then shame them all the more when they dare to do anything to improve their physical health.
At the moment, I’m nowhere near as fit as I have been. But I’m working on that (not that it’s anyone’s business but my own), and my diet is probably better than at least 90% of the rest of the population. I’m vegan, and cook pretty much everything that I eat from scratch from fresh fruit, pulses and vegetables. The only fat that goes into my diet is a couple of teaspoons worth of vegetable oil to cook things in.
Also? Let’s throw it out there at this point that the myth of Fat=Unhealthy and Thin=Healthy is seriously fucking dangerous to all of the skinny people out there who have bad diets, live sedentary lifestyles, and are edging closer and closer to a heart attack–all in more or less blissful ignorance because everything they see around them tells them that if they’re not fat then there’s no problem. Fat-shaming doesn’t just damage the lives and sanity of fat people–it screws with us all.
But Fat People Cost the NHS (and the Tax-Payer) Money!
Yeah, and so does everyone who smokes, or drinks too much. So do people who do extreme sports, or young men who drive their cars too fast and too aggressively and end up in accidents. Go and shame them for a while, would you? I’ve had pretty much enough of that shit. As I’ve said, there’s pretty much nothing that I can do about the shape of my body, and even if I could, that’s no one’s business but my own.
Fat, Environmentalism, and Anti-Capitalism
So now I begin to get to the point of me writing this article in the first place. You see, I’ve mostly learned to live with the trials and tribulations of being a fat woman in mainstream society. I’m slowly re-learning to love myself and my body, to take care of myself, to strive for health instead of thinness, and to brush off a lot of the shit that gets thrown at me by the media, the newspapers, and random strangers who nevertheless feel entitled to police my body for me. It sucks that all of that shit gets inflicted on fat people (and particularly on fat women), but I’m old enough and ugly enough now that I can cope with it. However, something that I can’t deal with is the tendency amongst activists to buy into the myth of fat-shaming.
I genuinely cannot count the number of images I’ve seen blithely shared around in anti-capitalist circles where ‘capitalism’ or ‘progress’ is depicted as a person who’s horrifically gluttonous and overweight. Images that repeat over and over again the message that I am part of the problem. That my body represents everything that’s wrong with the world. That I literally embody everything that we are meant to be fighting against. And don’t give me that shit about it being a shorthand, and there being no other way of conveying the concept of greed–satirists have been drawing the greedy for centuries without the need to just draw endless fat people. It’s not just unnecessary–it’s lazy. It’s lazy, and it immediately tells me that I’m are not welcome in your discussions.
Equally, I see an awful lot of articles trashing the processed/junk food industry–and rightly so, our modern methods of food production are horrific and disgusting and should be challenged in the strongest possible terms. However, I don’t even get to the end of many of these articles. I stop reading about the second or third time that they encapsulate the problem by talking about the ‘obesity epidemic’. I am not an epidemic. I am a person. I have a voice, and what’s more I have a right not to be judged as lazy, or gluttonous, or part of the problem, just because of the shape of my body.
The reason why this makes me so angry is because I expect activists to know better. Most of the time, sadly, they just don’t. Instead, I end up just as shamed and ostracised amongst other environmentalists, anarchists and anti-capitalists as I do by switching on the TV or walking down a busy street on a Friday night. None of us, activists especially, should be seeking to police the bodies of others based solely and entirely on what they look like. If we must wade into the issue of judging other people’s lifestyles at all, then we should want them to be healthy, not want them to be thin.
There are plenty of places where things are beginning to change–from campaigns such as Health at Every Size to mainstream magazines like SliNK. However, as long as activists continue to be complicit in shaming, degrading and excluding people because of their physical appearance, we still have a long, long way left to go. So long as those of us who want to change society for the better are still propagating the idea that you can judge a person’s health and lifestyle simply by looking at them, we are still a long, long way away from building any kind of better world for anyone.
So, if you’re an activist reading this article, and you want to take one thing away from it then let it be this: the next time you’re talking about consumerism, or junk food, or capitalism, or the meat industry (or anything else you happen to be writing a blog post for, or chatting with your friends about), and you feel the need to make your point by stigmatising fat people–don’t. Do me a favour and talk about good diet and well-being if you must talk about public health at all, use other metaphors to represent greed, or just plain let your arguments stand on their own two feet without shaming fat people to back up your point.
Then, maybe people like me can read your awesome thoughts and comments and agree with you, instead of being given yet more reasons to hate our bodies and be reminded of the fact that we aren’t welcome.