The Fat Identity. First Attempt: How is Fat Different?

fatfu-48.jpg posted by fatfu 

“I will say that fat hate is one of the last forms of prejudice in which even most people who are subjected to it think they are getting exactly what they deserve.”

That’s one of Meowser’s great summations that rattles around in your head for a while, planting its seeds.

In some ways fat seems so much like other marginalized identities. The way the culture constructs around us (and out of us) a nightmare image of plague and disease, moral dissolution and societal collapse is so reminiscent of (for instance) the way it has traditionally operated against sexual minorities.

But fat is also different. In part exactly the way Meowser says – the way we readily join in our own victimization. The pathetic rarity of a fat person who won’t bash themselves at the drop of a hat. Who will even suspect that prejudice and abuse is something we should resist. If not for ourselves, then for people like us.

But why are we like that?

I think in that last line - “people like us” – there’s a clue.  We don’t really see ourselves as part of a group.  And when we forget that we’re part of a group, when we see ourselves only as lone individuals with a “problem,” we forget that there’s more at stake than just our own individual welfare.

For one thing, there’s the welfare of an upcoming generation of fat children. Who are growing up in a world that so completely vicious and hysterical about weight that I can’t imagine what it must be like for them. (And I grew up in a world that was pretty damn horrible about fat.)

But what’s behind our failure to identify with and ally with each other is an even deeper, more basic failure of identification: our inability to see our fatness as a fundamental part of who we are. To own it. .

How often do we listen to the most grotesque and offensive comments about fat and feel weirdly unable to respond as the ones being attacked? We think: “No, that wasn’t about me – that was about fatter people”….or: “I’m only fat right now, I’ll be thin later“…or: “I’m fat, but only because I’ve let myself go”… “This isn’t my body“…”This isn’t the real me.” 

Somehow, even while the culture demonizes us to the point of overkill and exhaustion, it denies us the one useful side effect such hate campaigns usually create: the formation of a group identity that we can see ourselves as belonging to.

And without that group identity, we don’t quite know, even, how to take offense when offense is given.

We’re pinned by twin myths, which tell us we must not identify with fat, as fat, and with other fat people. And these myths are thrust upon us us with same urgency with which we’re told our bodies are dangerous and unacceptable. 

The first is myth that our fatness is temporary and transitory, that we can expect to become “normal” at any time (and should always be trying). Even if it’s an escape that almost nobody manages for any meaningful length of time. 

The second is the myth that everyone has the same potential to become fat, and that – outside of our being responsible for the decline of civilization - there’s nothing really different about us. That the differences between fat and thin aren’t (as they are) an elaborate patchwork of genetic, physiological, biochemical, psychological, behavioral and experiential differences. But instead can be reduced to a mind-boggingly reductive equation: calories in minus calories out.

These two myths do make fat different from other identities – like race, gender and sexual identity - whose oppressions lie in large part in having been conceived in completely the opposite way - as fixed and immutable polarized identities, so essential to who you are that they circumbscribe the behavior and opportunities you’re allowed. Seeing gender that way, for instance, leads to a world where men and women each have their own rigidly defined place, and where transgendered individuals have no place at all.

But going too much the other way - refusing to recognize and respect any difference  - creates its own oppressions. For instance, denying gender differences exist or are important is just as dangerous as insisting that men and women are totally different species.

And that’s where we are with fat. We’re paralyzed in our own defense because of the culture’s extremist refusal to recognize and respect the reality, complexity and intractability of our differences.

It’s that extreme, unrealistic conception of fat that’s behind the bizarre categorization of fat as a “choice” and (often seen in public health literature) a “behavior.” Instead of what it so blatantly is: a physical trait.

And because fat is conceived in such a distorted way, we’re only allowed to say that fat is what  we are, but not who we are. And so we aren’t able to let the identity which so defines us define us in a way that would help us – to see ourselves as part of a group with shared interests and a shared fate.

And that leaves us confused and isolated, abandoning ourselves and (most importantly) abandoning each other. Leaving us utterly at the mercy of the cultural hatred.

22 Responses to “The Fat Identity. First Attempt: How is Fat Different?”

  1. Zilly Says:

    The second is the myth that everyone has the same potential to become fat

    OMG YES. Exactly. I think this is even more problematic than all of the other misconceptions about weight. Only recently I once again encountered someone who said, “In order to be thin, one always has to exercise.” I was like, “Uhm, no. I never had to.” They haven’t replied yet, unfortunately! If only we could get a large group of naturally thin people to speak up about their experiences (= inactivity and “unhealthy” eating don’t necessarily lead to weight gain in everyone), maybe the world would finally realize that fat people are in fact different biologically. That you can’t tell someone’s lifestyle from looking at them. That even if they do fit the stereotype, it is not what made them fat.

  2. Emerald Says:

    The second is the myth that everyone has the same potential to become fat.

    Interesting how that adds to the prejudice. People who are never, genetically, going to be fat still have this inner fear of possibly becoming that way themselves, and project that fear out onto the people who, for their own mostly genetic reasons, weigh much more than them.

    And on the ‘not wanting to identify’ thing – I long ago accepted that I was fat when I realized that people, including some family members, hated me for the size of my body. I have a husband who thinks I’m amazing, but can’t understand why I go on the Fatosphere because I am ‘not fat’. When I ask what he’d regard as fat, he goes ‘Well…maybe twice your size’. I’m around 180, and I know there’s no way you have to be over 300-odd to be treated as a fat person, i.e. as poop. (Didn’t some study say the prejudice starts just 13lb over ‘ideal weight’ for women?) Often, the people who genuinely love us don’t want to accept that we’re part of a hated minority either, so can’t see it even when we can.

  3. Rachel Says:

    Studies place some 60 percent of the nation’s population as overweight or obese, and yet fat people ironically remain a marginalized “minority.” The fact that we are so is exactly because of the reasons you describe above. You cannot rally around a shared group identity when people desperately seek to identify as anything other than a member of the group.

    For one thing, there’s the welfare of an upcoming generation of fat children…

    When I grew up (I graduated in 1997), I was one of maybe three fat kids in my high school and my graduating class boasted about 300 students. My sister graduated in 2005 and I often had lunch with her in her senior year. She was one of many fat kids, and because they had instituted “small schools” and my sister was in the arts and drama group, the students seemed much more accepting of her fatness than when I was forced to endure the torture they call high school. But on the other hand, we’re also seeing rising rates of reported eating disorders and disordered behaviors amongst teenage girls and boys, as the war on obese people gains teeth. Even the American Psychological Association has voiced this concern and asked educators and anti-obesity activists to be more sensitive in their rhetoric on childhood obesity.

  4. Vidya Says:

    This is a wonderful analysis! I think you should really try to work this into a publishable journal article!

  5. spacedcowgirl Says:

    But going too much the other way – refusing to recognize and respect difference at all – creates its own oppressions.

    Wow–I never thought about this with respect to fat. But you’re right, it is the same thing that can make the “color blind” mentality (or as you mentioned, denial that there are any differences between the genders) very damaging IMO. Of course, you’re right that fat is different–as you said, there are very few other marginalized groups where the “majority” group lives in constant fear and vigilance lest they become one of us, and falsely believes that it will be their virtue or failing that dictates whether this happens.

    I’m not comparing fatphobia directly, but perhaps the most similar thing, at least from the standpoint that you have laid out here, would be homophobia. Many people still believe that being gay is a choice that is dictated by weak moral character, and therefore in theory anyone could become gay if they were “bad” enough (in some people’s estimation). Although I still don’t know if homophobes live in fear that they personally might “become gay” just by letting their guard down, so it isn’t quite the same, of course (again, I’m definitely not trying to use the comparison to say that one form of discrimination is or is not “as bad as” another… just drawing parallels in my brain).

  6. Twistie Says:

    Spacedcowgirl, you made the precise point I was going to! And how long did that attitude towards sexuality keep gay people from organizing to fight prejudice against them? A hell of a long time. And there are still serious pockets of the attitude now. Hence the popularity not so long ago of programs to turn gay people straight.

    And like you, I draw the parallel without trying to compare the effects on a ‘my prejudice is worse/less terrible than yours’ level. Still, the similarities are there.

    This is a great article. I heartily second the motion of trying to turn it into something that could be published on a wider basis.

  7. Meowser Says:

    Although I still don’t know if homophobes live in fear that they personally might “become gay” just by letting their guard down

    Oh, I think some of them do, for sure. Or that it could happen to their kids. I remember having an argument with some woman at work about 15 years ago, and her position was that we had to keep telling kids being gay was unacceptable “because some of them could go either way.” The notion of “deep closeting” simply had not ever occurred to her.

    Hell, I’m enough of a dinosaur to remember when even liberals thought not strictly hetero = perverted. I remember when surveys of straight people indicated that something like 80% thought gay people could be straight if they really tried. I remember when AIDS was thought of as the “gay plague” and people were scared shit that their sons would be gay and inevitably catch it.

    Know what the gay-rights movement did? They hammered it into people’s heads day and night, night and day that QUEER WAS NOT A CHOICE, including convincing LGBT people who thought their sexuality might be mutable of that fact. (And believe me, most LGBTs DID have it rattling around in the back of their heads that they could “straighten out” if they really worked hard at it, found the right therapist, etc.) And now, decades later, most people buy that, even hetero conservatives.

    I personally don’t care if queer OR fat is a “choice” or not. But most people seem to hold to the idea that conforming to certain social norms is really, really important and that you only get a pass if you just can’t. “Liberal” people think they’ve let all that go, but they haven’t, not when it comes to weight.

    So yeah, maybe besides convincing the fat people that they didn’t “choose” their weight — not even the binge eaters and junkfood junkies, since many binge eaters and junkfood junkies are thin — maybe we ought to impress upon thin people that the vast majority of them do not have the genetic capacity to become “obese.”

  8. Laura Says:

    I’ve always seen my fat as part of who I am. I’ve always felt that if I lost weight and became thin, I wouldn’t be the same person. People tell me that’s just an armor I put up to protect myself from the world, but I insist it’s just that I embrace who AND what I am instead of hating it. I used to whip my friends into a frenzy about my “fat power” and how it shall be used in the name of good! And they always responded so positively. I did all this for years and years before I ever heard a peep about a fat acceptance movement.

    I took a discussion course on race a couple of years back. We had to pick the top 3 things we’d use to desribe ourselves (religion, race, color, ect…) and write a paper on it. Then we shared them with the class. I couldn’t believe that my fat rant was so universally accepted there. Everyone was amazed because I had spoken out about something they had never even thought of and they were so supportive of my journey and my obvious awesomeness. This happened on a whole weekend devoted to the course and at the end of the two days we were asked about the high and the low points. Several of the students cited my speaking out so eloquently and honestly about the fat issue as a high point and something they would draw strength from in the future. I was so incredibly touched by that. I feel that we all came out of that class better people having been able to speak so candidly.

    It’s harder in the cold, corporate world. So much of the bonding revolves around food and diet. My coworkers order salad while I order a spinach and feta calzone. Then they spend lunch time talking about what they might eat if they weren’t dieting and I find myself ticking off pionts in my head, “Mmmm… I had that on Tuesday…. oh and I had what SHE wanted last week!” But I can’t participate in body negative talk like that, so I cannot bond with my coworders. I will always be seen as an outsider here because I am not on a diet.

    Is my fat power useless in the face of such forces? That’s something I’m trying to figure out. I don’t really want this desk job and maybe that’s part of it. What I really want is to write! Lengthy, in-depth magazine articles. About bias and racism and poverty and fat hate and starvation. Will my fat power work for me in that profession? I’m afraid the answer is no. I’m afraid people won’t respect me when I go to interview them. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to stand on my feet and wait long enough to get the story. I’m not sure if this is what’s stopping me at the moment, but something is. I’m trying to gather my thoughts into an idea for an article, but it doesn’t seem to be coming to fruition in my mind like it usually does.

    I’m afraid that I’m afraid of the fat hate and I’m holding up my life for it. What happened to my fat power?

  9. integgy Says:

    Thank you, so much for this article. Before I accidentally fell headfirst into the fatosphere (and I have no desire to try to get out again), I never thought of fat as a marginalized group. We do have the biggest tendency towards self-blame, because by mainstream society, fat is seen as a result of “lifestyle choices”, and there’s such a prevalent idea of fat being the fault of the person who supposedly chose to lead a sedentary lifestyle, and eat whatever they wanted. Now I realize that what I’ve been saying has been said before, and by many, but I guess I knew before, but did not full realize the extent of how we, as fat people, have such a hard time coming to terms with being a group.

  10. fatfu Says:

    Whoops. Was trying to edit my comment and accidentally deleted it.

    Um to recreate – what I was saying was that I think that homophobia/sexual orientation is the unavoidable analogy. And that calling it a “fixed identity” like gender and race is Iknow problematic because it’s so controversial how much and when it became fixed. (I’d say it tilts towards “fixed” at about the same time we label(ed) it a stable pathology – which, btw certain groups are trying to do with “obesity” right now, supposedly with an eye towards fighting stigma along with selling drugs and weight loss surgery).

    But I lumped sexual orientation in the fixed category mainly because I figured the people who were reading this would understand it that way, and because the most recent homophobic oppressions have framed it that way – as a stable identity (although obviously not all of them – a lot of Christian Right groups, e.g. view homosexuality as a sin anyone can fall into).

    If I were to talk about that analogy more directly, I’d say that fat is moving towards where we were in the late 1800s through the 1960s with sexuality. Where it was viewed as some mixture of sin and disease.

    Meowser – I think you’re right we have to find some means to beat back that assumption, but I’m not sure how I’d phrase it. You can’t make the analogy with sexual orientation total, because fat is different in the way that it manifests itself, changes and our thresholds for what we consider fat, which are pushed very close to the normal range.

  11. Bree Says:

    One problem I see with fatphobia is that the majority of the medical community, the media, and random haters lump all fat people into one huge (pardon the pun) group of lazy overeaters. They put blinders on when it comes to genetics, diseases, and medications that cause weight gain with no real sustainable way of keeping it off. To them, we are gross gluttons who refuse to do any physical activity and spend our lives at fast-food drive thrus and buffet lines, forgetting that thin people like to visit those places as well. That we obsess and think about food 24/7. If that’s all I did, I would be fired from my job and really wouldn’t have a life to live.

    They want us to self-blame, so they can feel better about ourselves and get more of our money going on their diets. When we refuse to diet and accept ourselves for who we are, they get threatened and get use more scare tactics (under the guise of “concern for our health”) and step up the insults.

    I am fat. I will probably always be fat, and if people can’t accept my fat, they have the weight problem. Not me.

  12. Rachel Says:

    Right on, Bree. I don’t struggle with my weight, others do.

  13. nuckingfutz Says:

    exactly the way Meowser says – the way we readily join in our own victimization.

    Guilty!

    Before I found the fatosphere and FA, I was SOO bad with that. I would readily expound to any and everybody who would listen to me about how bad a person I was, just because I was fat. After all, that’s what a ‘good’ fat person does, right?

    But in the back of my mind, there was always a niggling doubt. Why, after being on diets for all of my life, hadn’t any of them worked? Why would I look almost exactly like my own mother did at my age? Why do I have a similar body shape to my great-grandmother? Why would I have to work SO HARD to lose any weight at all, only to gain it back again once I started to live my life ‘normally’?

    It was only once I found FA that I realized I wasn’t some crackpot thinking those things – thinking that maybe I’m supposed to be fat. Maybe that’s who and what I am, and trying to change that would be like suddenly trying to change the fact that I have Polish ancestry. (But for a long time, I would keep those thoughts to myself, because I really did think it was crazy of me to even consider the fact that maybe I’m supposed to be the way I am and changing it would be tantamount to beating my head against a brick wall.) And the funniest thing happened.

    I became happier (read: less depressed). My marriage became better. I started noticing the things that my self-hating had started to do to my children and I took steps to try and change that. At the same time, I became angry. The fat-haters aren’t the only ones with blinders on. The self-deluded fatties who still think they have to change have blinders on, too, because in their self-hatred, they don’t realize that they are part of a larger group of people, and we’re all being persecuted for something that is largely out of our control. So I became angry not only for what had been done to me, but for what has been and is continuing to be done to others like me.

    Personally, I see that anger as a good thing. It’s led me to stop body-hatred in my personal life – I won’t put up with diet or body talk. And it’s led me to wonder: what can I do? I don’t want to just sit here angry, I want to do something, to make sure that nobody else has to go through the kind of struggle to self-acceptance that I went through. I want the world to open its eyes and realize that people ARE different, and we’re SUPPOSED to be. That’s a GOOD thing, not something that needs to be fixed.

    I don’t know what – if anything – I can do to make that happen, but the desire is there. I don’t want to leave anybody at the mercy of cultural hatred. Regardless of whether they’re fat or not – whatever they are, it’s a good thing, because that’s the way the world should be.

    (And if my rambling didn’t make sense, I apologize. I’m dealing with an infection over here and trying my best to write coherently, but I realize I may have failed miserably.)

  14. AnnieMcPhee Says:

    Well Bree, being gay was considered a “disease” by the medical profession too – when was it even removed from the DSM? (I thought it was in there.) One of the reasons why many gay people prefer “gay” to “homosexual” same as non-self-loathing fat people prefer “fat” to “obese.”

    The first hurdle is to get fat people *themselves* to stop treating themselves in conversation and in reality as diseased and “having a problem” that they need to “work on” and “fix.” How many people do you see on the fat-hatred forums who say “Well I’m fat and I DO eat too much and I AM trying to lose weight and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s what I need to do” and get seriously defensive. It’s tricky because you can’t tell someone what to do with their body, but you also know the vast majority aren’t going to sustain that. It’s a matter of raising consciousness and continually, as meowser said, harping on it and saying it enough, and loud enough, until first the fat people and then the rest of people freaking listen. That’s not going to be easy and it will take time, for sure.

  15. Top Posts « WordPress.com Says:

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  16. spacedcowgirl Says:

    her position was that we had to keep telling kids being gay was unacceptable “because some of them could go either way.”

    I didn’t think of that, the “corrupting the children” argument. Of course you are right.

    If I were to talk about that analogy more directly, I’d say that fat is moving towards where we were in the late 1800s through the 1960s with sexuality. Where it was viewed as some mixture of sin and disease.

    Yes, exactly. I didn’t say so, but I was thinking more of this time period as far as the attitudes I was describing. And “some mixture of sin and disease” is a perfect description.

    The fact that this way of thinking about fatness is the prevalent belief, yet is truly archaic, actually–in a perverse way–gives me some hope that we as a society may someday be more “enlightened.” (This reminds me also of how nothing is ever really new in the world of dieting, like the 200-year-old diets profiled in Rethinking Thin that are still being tried–and failing–today.) I don’t always feel so hopeful about that, but right now, thinking of it in that way, I do. Surely at some point we’ll get this figured out as a society?

  17. wellroundedtype2 Says:

    Thanks for this post — it’s quite clarifying. I have often thought that what makes it hard for there to be a fat acceptance movement is that combination of these myths — fat is temporary and fat is something that could befall anyone at any time.

    In some ways, class is another area of intersection. Consider these myths: Being poor is something that can be “overcome” and also that anyone could become poor at any time, if they aren’t careful. And if someone is poor, it’s their own fault.
    These myths are pervasive and deeply wrong.

    While some people who didn’t grow up in poverty do end up there, and others who started out in poverty may climb the class ladder, these are by far the exceptions rather than the rule. And while it’s not genes but social policies that often cause and sustain poverty, the myths and fears keep people from organizing, and instead encourage them to focus on being rich someday, and believing they are to blame in the meantime.

    That’s probably an oversimplification, but I thought the comparisons were worth mentioning. And since I’m from a middle-class background, it’s entirely possible that I have gotten it wrong from my vantage point.

    Oh, and there’s the whole intersection between fatness and class that causes fat people (especially women) to be downwardly mobile, and thin people (especially women) to move up.

  18. fatfu Says:

    Wellrounded: yeah excellent points. I think the intersections and analogies with poverty are incredibly important. Poverty is constructed like fat (in the U.S. in recent times anyway), and the poor have had similar difficulties with group identification in their own defense. There’s a “what’s the matter with Kansas” issue with both fat and poverty. Both groups acting against their own interests.

    Oh, and there’s the whole intersection between fatness and class that causes fat people (especially women) to be downwardly mobile, and thin people (especially women) to move up.

    Oh yeah. And IMO, wondering why fatness is more prevalent among the poor is akin to asking why poor people tend to have such dark skin. Hmmm…it’s a highly heritable, highly marginalized trait: where exactly do you expect it to cluster?

  19. Bilt4Cmfrt Says:

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  20. wellroundedtype2 Says:

    FatFu, do you think that when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started organizing poor people, he became an even larger threat to the status quo, considering how many people in the U.S. would have come on board?
    What would a fat organizer have to say to break these myths? What would our coalition look like? I dream of a time when fat people would be part (a welcome part) of a coalition against hatered, discrimination and breaking of the human spirit. Which is why fat hatered in communities rising up against oppression stings me so badly, even if I understand the dynamics of it.

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