The Hidden Virtues of Superficial Lip Service

meowser-48.jpg posted by meowser

Buffpuff, who doesn’t blog anywhere near often enough to suit me, the other day blogged the following regarding the infamous Gruen Transfer mock-ads:

I’m not trying to infer that fat discrimination is worse than racism, anti-Semitism, ableism or homophobia nor am I trying to say it’s exactly the same in nature. They’re all different, they’re all life blighting, they all still go on and they all stink. What I am saying is that here, in my experience, sizeism has yet to be acknowledged as a form of discrimination at all – by the media, the government, the medical profession or anybody else save a handful of those who experience it. There is no public discourse, no self-examination, no glimmer of change on the horizon, no protection enshrined in law which, given that we we make up half the UK population, is shameful. That doesn’t make tackling sizeism more important than tackling any other type of discrimination, but it does mean there’s an awful lot of work to be done before it’s taken as seriously.

I completely agree.

Now, before anyone starts yelling “Oppression Olympics!” at Buffpuff or at me, rest assured that neither of us confuses a social justice movement being taken seriously, or at least being given lip service, with actual lack of prejudice or hate. We’re well aware that none of those other prejudices are “over,” or can no longer be considered serious problems — of course that’s not the case, or all those social justice movements wouldn’t still exist. I haven’t changed my mind about fat hate being a repository for all kinds of prejudice people feel they need to talk in code about.

What I want to know is, when are people going to have to start talking in code about us? (And when I say “us,” I of course mean the part of “us” that’s fat, regardless of whatever other identities we inhabit.) When is being vocally against human rights and humanistic treatment for fat people going to cost anybody anything ever? Bear in mind that the mock-commercials in question were being created to “sell the unsellable.” Us. We’re what’s unsellable. Of course fat rights is a big fat joke! All you people have to do is eat less, and everyone will like you just fine! (That is, if you don’t belong to any other stigmatized groups, either.)

Almost everyone thinks this. Even most of our fellow fatties, who still imagine they’re just a few passed-up sodas and spurned candy bars away from the acceptance they crave way more than sugar. That’s how bad it is, folks; if you showed me a really naturally-skinny person and a really naturally-fat person side by side, and I knew nothing else about either one of them, and you asked me which of them would be more likely to be down with fat acceptance? I go with the naturally-skinny person. Every time. I’m really not kidding. Why? I have no clue (although it could have something to do with the fact that the really skinny people know they couldn’t attain anywhere close to my BMI if they tried). But when I try explaining this stuff to people, I’ve noticed over and over again that my odds are better with people with BMIs under 22 who don’t diet than with people with BMIs over 32 who do. If fat people were on their own damned side, fat acceptance wouldn’t feel like shoving an anvil off a five-mile cliff.

I’m in total agreement with those who say the Gruen Transfer presentation was appallingly sexist, smug, smarmy, and self-congratulatory (sssssss), and I continue to maintain that there is no such thing as someone who truly loves everyone but fatties. What’s happened is that fashion has changed so that people such as these telegenic young(ish) white men are now required to give their share of superficial lip service to being against other (although certainly not all other) forms of prejudice.

Look, I grew up in the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when American suburbia was all white-flight haven. In those suburbs, I was surrounded by white people, Jewish and not, who were visibly relieved they didn’t live next door to poor black people (although they were also visibly relieved when there was an affluent black family around who spoke the King’s English better than they did). These same people also despised George Wallace and Richard Nixon and everything they stood for, and voted for JFK and Lyndon Johnson and were outraged by things like segregated bathrooms and voter literacy tests, and were thrilled to see the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed. They may not have wanted to live next door to poor black people, but they were downright proud to vote for people who made it easier for those poor black people to vote too, and to move about in public without being dogged by Jim Crow.

Is that good enough? Does that prove lack of prejudice? Of course not, squared. But it was something. Superficial lip service in favor of black civil rights by whites, arguably, is what finally got the law changed, even if white people took their sweet time coming around to it. (And yes, I’m well aware that there were white people who were true believers and put their lives on the line for the civil rights movement in ways that totally put me to shame, also, including women who would later go on to spearhead second-wave feminism.)

Same went with the women’s movement, as we called it when I was a baby fatty. No, we couldn’t get the ERA passed, even with a majority of Americans in favor of it, because Schlafly et al managed to convince just enough people in the exact right places that it would require men to wear pantyhose and take their wives’ last names, and 7-year-old girls to use the men’s room and have to be exposed to strange men whipping out their willies to pee. Silly shit, but boy, it was effective. But a whole mess of other, smaller laws did pass and mores changed along with them (Daisy’s Thank a Second Wave Feminist post lays this out spectacularly) that allowed women to get medical care without their husbands’ or fathers’ permission, and wear pants to school and work, and have their own credit, and about a squillion other things that women nowadays take as givens. Is that because people forgot all about sexism all of a sudden? Need you ask? Nope, superficial lip service struck again. (The swelling chorus of millions of women who all seemed to realize simultaneously that they were getting the fuzzy end of the lolly for no good reason didn’t hurt, either.)

I don’t care if people like me or think I’m pretty or healthy or nice or that I smell of sandalwood soap (not elderberries!), or any of that shit. Okay, maybe I do (at least give me credit for my deodorant working), but that’s not the most important thing to me at the moment. Most of all, I want the fucking laws off my fat ass. I want it to be illegal for people to pull the kinds of shenanigans the airlines have pulled on us. I want it to be illegal for people to refuse to hire us or to fire us or to spurn us for promotions or to slap fines on us just because of our weight. I want it to be illegal for schools to refuse us admission or landlords to refuse to rent to us because we’re fat. I want it to be illegal for insurance companies to refuse to cover us, or doctors to refuse to treat us for the problem we came in for, no matter how potentially deadly, until we get thin. And if we can’t make it entirely illegal, I want it to be extremely painful and costly for them to do those things. I want it to be more than a few of us who have been labeled fringe goofballs saying it shouldn’t be. I don’t care why people protest on our behalf. I just want them to frigging do it.

Hell, I remember when things like same-sex marriage and trans rights were considered just as “unsellable” (says the woman who lost her job as a teenager in 1980 for saying she thought gay people should be allowed to get married to each other and adopt kids). There’s still untold miles to go in both of those battles, and plenty of hatebags to defeat, and millions of people who are way more prejudiced in either or both of those areas than they’d ever cop to. But would anyone who’s paying any attention at all claim those causes are “unsellable” to almost everyone now? Things can change, drastically and quickly, so I wouldn’t say there’s no hope that our rights will become “sellable” too. However, one thing I will say — and once again, I’m with my fellow Jew Buffpuff on this — I’m not among those offended that someone would compare the plight of the Jews to that of fat people. No, there haven’t been fat pogroms or concentration camps, and I’d like to keep it that way.

But I also know that when there have been violent uprisings against Jewish people (and not just in the last century), they didn’t come out of nowhere. It took decades of escalating scapegoating and hatemongering before those eruptions took place. Nazism was not a one-decade fluke where people temporarily lost their marbles; any Jew could tell you that. And as long as fat people are portrayed more and more often in popular and alternative media as the Awful Ugly Greedy People Whose Fault Everything Is, and with our rights actually becoming more curtailed than they were a decade ago, I’m not willing to say it couldn’t happen to our fat asses (Jewish or otherwise), too. (And yeah, I know all too well that “my” people have been some of the leading fetishizers of thinness, unfortunately, because stoutness has an unbreakable association with the dreaded shtetls and thinness has long been linked with fitting in with upper-caste WASPs.) I’m a lot more concerned that people won’t learn from what happened to the Jews than that they’ll think about it too much, frankly.

It’s tempting to say the “support” of people who (I think) are assholes is worse than no support at all. And I still don’t intend to allow diet or yay-weight-loss talk on this site, for the simple reason that I don’t get much of a safe haven from that stuff elsewhere and neither do most of my readers. But as far as whether or not you, yourself are actually dieting or hoping to become thin(ner), and want to know if you can still work for fat rights and say your own fat is no good? Or what if you think fat is unhealthy, but that all the things I mentioned should still be illegal? Let’s just say this. There’s a huge difference — I mean, the size of the Grand Canyon — between who I feel I can stand behind as a movement leader and who is “fit” to be a supporter. I hesitate even to type the latter part of that sentence, because it sounds as if I have some kind of Fit Supporter Rule Book and I really, really don’t.

But just because I don’t want to hear about your diet or applaud while you pull out the waistband of your fat pants doesn’t mean I hate you, or don’t want your support. (I think most people in fat acceptance have meatspace friends and relatives who diet and don’t hate their guts for it, even if we don’t want to hear their blow-by-blow weekly scale reports.) When it comes to getting the laws and the culture changed, we need all the support we can get, even from calorie counters, even from people who are decidedly not perfect in other ways. If only the pure of heart could effect any sort of change, we’d be in big-assed trouble.

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22 Responses to “The Hidden Virtues of Superficial Lip Service”

  1. wellroundedtype2 Says:

    Bravo!
    Brave-O, too!
    As another Jew (white, middle class, suburb-raised, too), I think I can say, yes, go ahead, compare fat hatred to anti-semitism. I think there are some useful comparisons.
    1. “If you want to avoid being discriminated against, just stop being Jewish. We will accept your conversion anytime. We’re waiting. (with torches).”
    2. “Oh, you used to be Jewish? How do we know you aren’t really still Jewish? Maybe we had better kill you anyhow, just to be sure.”
    3. “It’s not being Jewish per se that is what makes me hate Jewish people, it’s just how they are all (greedy, ugly, declasse, corrupting, etc. etc. etc.). The Jewish people who are just like us are a-okay with us. But, a few years from now, we might change our minds, and go back to thinking all Jews suck.”
    4. “If you Jewish people would just give up your whole Jewish sthick, you would stop attracting the hatred to you. There’s a reason people hate you. Sure, you can go to your church on Saturday instead of Sunday, that’s okay, but so many of your rules are so weird.”

    Maintaining ones “okay not very Jewishness” is pretty damm hard and taxing. There’s the whole fear of dropping the facade and the acceptance all disappearing in puff of smoke. The idea of not discriminating based on creed is a relatively recent concept.

    I wish I had $100 for everytime someone said, “I didn’t know you were Jewish” with surprise in their voice. I feel the fat hatred in my face so much more than anti-Jewish stuff, and realistically, I’m much more likely to be discriminated against for my weight than my gender, creed or age. Why? Because the others are illegal.

    I can’t speak to anyone else’s experiences of discriminiation. Mr. Rounded certainly has experienced color discrimination and immigrant discrimination, and all I can do is to listen and not minimize his experiences.

    Okay, this turned into a post in itself, but really, I am all in favor of each of us speaking from our experience. Our brains can’t help but see the comparisons.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    I don’t want to get involved in the Oppression Olympics either, for sure, but I do get frustrated with resistance I see to any comparison of oppression–and not just because I think there ARE similarities among the many kinds of hate, but because I have found comparisons to be REALLY, REALLY USEFUL.

    Talking about FA with people often goes nowhere for me until I can light up that little bulb in their heads that signifies “unjust,” and bringing up other (current of historical) forms of oppression and the similarities I see there works quite well. The light often goes on.

    I usually use homophobia (sorry, Dan Savage), because my friends/family are pro-gay, and being queer myself gives me some cred–but I wouldn’t mind, AT ALL, a straight person making a similar argument. Especially not if it worked.

    And it’s not like the person hearing the argument is going to say, “OK, you convinced me! I now care about size oppression and don’t give a fuck about gay rights anymore! Hurray!” If anything, thinking about the comparison brings BOTH to mind and thereby strengthens both. In my opinion.

  3. meowser Says:

    Yep. I do think that inasfar as there has been a decrease in anti-Semitism in America, assimilating (trying to be as indistinguishable as genetically possible from one’s WASP peers) and intermarrying have been contributing factors. (Also, there’s been a lot of name-changing — Allen Stuart Konigsburg and Robert Allan Zimmerman, anyone?) Each successive generation of Jewish-Americans, apart from the Chasidim and other Orthodox sects, is less distinguishable as Jewish. Hence we’re not as much of a “threat.”

    (ETA: This refers to WRT2’s comment.)

  4. Miriam Heddy Says:

    This:
    If fat people were on their own damned side, fat acceptance wouldn’t feel like shoving an anvil off a five-mile cliff.

    I do think that the only possible way we’re going to get somewhere is for thin people–naturally thin people–to take a stand, speak up, and draw the analogy that fat people are not unnatural aberrations.

  5. Rachel Says:

    Meowser: If you could condense all the awesomeness in your posts so that they that take less than three minutes to read, you would be beyond fabulous. You don’t post regularly, but when you do, they’re treats to be savored.

  6. Lori Says:

    Another great post. Personally, I think one reason it’s important to make the connection between fat acceptance and other social justice movements is because so many of the most fat-hating people I know are people who would otherwise consider themselves good progressive who are right on board with other social justice movements.

    I also find, personally, that homophobia can be a useful point of comparison for people who don’t understand why fat acceptance should be an issue. The parallels–people thinking you can change if you just try hard enough, people thinking your lifestyle is unhealthy and immoral, people believing that because you’re making a “choice” discrimination is justified–can, I think, help people to understand that the rhetoric they are using around fat is extremely similar to the rhetoric that some religious conservatives use around homosexuality. That doesn’t mean I think the two issues are identical or that one is more or less pervasive or damaging than the other, but that there are commonalities between them that can make people–especially liberals who would be appalled to realize how similar their reasoning for hating fat people is to people’s reasoning for hating gay people–rethink the way they view the issue.

  7. Anita Says:

    I think it’s far less problematic for people who are members of intersecting oppressions to analyze the difference than it is for someone who is a member of one (or neither). That isn’t to say I don’t think I have anything to contribute on other oppressions, but that comparing an experience I know about peripherally to one that I’m having is bound to have downsides. This is especially true when a lot of what the general public knows about Jewish oppression (for example) is pretty limited – the Holocaust, and maybe slavery in Egypt or possibly the Inquisition.

    I’d be uncomfortable with a straight person making comparisons between queerness and fatness, even though there’s some excellent comparisons to make. So a lot depends.

  8. Anita Says:

    Oh hai ther, Lori!

  9. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Thank you very much for writing this. I find that perfectionism just makes me crazy.

  10. Lori Says:

    Anita, I totally see your point there. I’m a straight woman married to a bisexual man, and I really don’t feel qualified to make comparisons between different sorts of oppressions, but I do think that sometimes it’s the only way to get people–particularly liberals–to understand why their feelings about fat are unacceptable. Sometimes an imperfect metaphor might be the only way to open people’s eyes.

  11. Anita Says:

    Do you find this works?
    In my experience, the idea of fat as something that can be changed (via “lifestyle changes”) is very ingrained, especially among the environmentalists. (I generalize!) This is very similar to the response when I tell people I have really horrible migraines:
    “Oh, well, you wouldn’t be fat (have migraines) if you stopped drinking soda/stopped drinking wine/took this strange plant extract from Belize/exercised more/ate less/ate a different time/stopped taking prescription meds/stopped eating HFCS” etc. ad nauseum.
    Gayness is seen less as a choice amongst the progressive population, but I find the progressive population even more resistant to the “diets don’t work” idea. This is based on my completely unscientific pool of friends, so I’m curious to know what works for you.

  12. Lori Says:

    You know, I don’t know how well the comparison works. I do feel like some people I know how been persuaded, but I’m not sure if they changed their view on why people are fat or if they just realized that it doesn’t matter why: people deserve to be treated with respect regardless.

    Personally, I don’t see much usefulness in comparing being fat to being gay, or being fat to being Jewish, or being fat to being black, or anything along those lines. I think the point where the comparison can be made is around the rhetoric used to discuss fatness and queerness and Jewishness and blackness.

    I don’t think it would be useful or desirable to convince people that being fat is like being gay. It’s not. I think what can be useful is pointing out the ways in which the rhetoric used to discuss homosexuality by religious conservatives is strikingly similar to the rhetoric used to discuss fatness by many self-described liberals. It doesn’t matter, IMO, whether the situations being discussed are similar, but that the arguments being used when discussing them are almost identical. And, I think the point at which maybe people can be persuaded to rethink assumptions might be not where they become convinced that, just like being gay isn’t a choice, being fat isn’t a choice, either, but where they realize that, just like it would still be wrong to discriminate against LGBTQ even if it *were* a choice, it’s still wrong to discriminate against fat people. Because the issue isn’t, when you get down to it, whether it’s a choice or whether it’s right or wrong or whether it’s healthy or unhealthy, but that human beings all deserve to be treated with dignity no matter what you think of their personal circumstances or why they are in them.

  13. lola Says:

    Interesting post–esp. liked this, so perfectly put:

    “I’m a lot more concerned that people won’t learn from what happened to the Jews than that they’ll think about it too much, frankly.”

    Another similarity between anti-Semitism and anti-fatism is the use of esthetics to cement dislike and hatred of the group. Goebbel’s propaganda played up supposed ‘racial’ differences (noses, hair and skin color, head size, etc) in an effort to paint Jews as both physically repulsive and fearful; the same physical revulsion is used (sometimes adroitly, mostly not) to marginalize fat people for their ‘disgusting’
    physicality. Fat flesh is meant to be eradicated, not accepted (never mind celebrated).

    And I bet that tucked away somewhere (ignored as trifling) within the larger message of the Third Reich is anti-fat propaganda. All that fetid romancing of young blond Aryans hiking–in suitably manly and womanly manner–through the sunny fields of the Fatherland must have some kind of dietary & body conformity message attached (something beyond a spartan, pro-rationing mindset: with all the reams of propaganda targeting hausfraus & Hitler youth, I bet there’s a moral message attached to being fat in Hitler’s Germany).

    (btw–wrong thread, but wanted to say that your singing voice kicks ass.)

  14. Meowser Says:

    Aw, Rachel, thanks. I’ll try to write shorter, but it always seems to be such a dilatory process with me, because I write something and then I think, “Oh, I forgot this,” “Oh, I’d better qualify that,” oh oh oh. I never know what to cut. Maybe I need a ruthless editor.

    Anita and Lori: I do think inter-group comparisons work best when you are a member of both of the groups under discussion, but the whole “people would like you just fine if you, or other people in your group, didn’t do x, y, z” thing is pretty much a stigmatized-group universal.

    And Lori: I don’t think it would be useful or desirable to convince people that being fat is like being gay. It’s not. I think what can be useful is pointing out the ways in which the rhetoric used to discuss homosexuality by religious conservatives is strikingly similar to the rhetoric used to discuss fatness by many self-described liberals.

    Yeah, that too.

    And Lola, thanks so much! You’re welcome to compliment me in any thread you want. And yes, the physical caricature stuff is indeed very similar.

  15. wellroundedtype2 Says:

    I’m going to need to write post about this, but in the journal I found from 20 years ago, I mapped out some kind of cool stuff about how there being a name and acknowledgement of discrimination allows for some righteous anger, and the ability to rally around the injustice, and how damaging the lack of recognition is.
    Also, recognizing the internalized hatred is so important. When I feel that internalized anti-Jewishness welling up, I say, “oh, yeah, that’s what that is” and I am less likely to be an asshole toward my fellow Jews. But without understanding fat hatred and how it works, that’s it’s not a helpful diet aid or something beneficial that helps keep fat people in our place, the internalized fat hatred goes unrecognized.

  16. wriggles Says:

    Lori,

    Personally, I don’t see much usefulness in comparing being fat to being gay, or being fat to being Jewish, or being fat to being black, or anything along those lines. I think the point where the comparison can be made is around the rhetoric used to discuss fatness and queerness and Jewishness and blackness.

    Very well said.

  17. Kat Says:

    Another great post!

  18. Anoif Says:

    Thank you for writing this post.

    This is all that I could not find the right words to express in the face of the “DON’T YOU DARE COMPARE THESE GROUPS OR WE WILL BITCHSLAP YOU” reactions to people examining discrimination against one group with respect to discrimination against another group.

    Of course they’re not the same… but there are some pretty obvious similarities, not among the groups themselves but in the treatment and portrayal of said group by the privileged group, that might be worth thinking about.

    Sry if this makes no sense. I am still apparently no good at voicing my opinions on this issue. :p

  19. brilliantmindbrokenbody Says:

    I’m a person with a disability, so I’ve heard my fair share of the Oppression Olympics.

    I think it’s like this – once you’ve got a form of discrimination that is recognized and disallowed by the law, it’s like being in a boxing ring instead of in a street fight. It doesn’t take any less courage to continue the fight, nor are you guaranteed any less of a beating, but at least certain moves are no longer legal.

    FA is still in a street fight, and will be until this form of discrimination is recognized as just that – discrimination.

    ~Kali

  20. BuffPuff Says:

    That’s a fantastic analogy, brilliantmindbrokenbody. And, meowser, thanks so much for getting what I was on about. It’s been a long time coming.

  21. BuffPuff Says:

    (… which is to say I’ve been standing on my own tongue for a very long time, unsure of exactly how to express what it was I was feeling).

  22. Meowser Says:

    It was totally worth the wait, BuffPuff, thanks!


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