(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)
When I was 21 I studied abroad in Rome for three months as part of my university’s Italian language studies program. Because I was studying Italian language and culture, I was assigned to live with a host family (instead of in campus housing), which in my case meant a cantankerous little old lady named Paola who spoke almost no English… which would have been fine (I was there to learn Italian, after all!), except that Paola thought she was SUPER FANTASTIC at speaking English, which usually meant that all of our conversations ended in her screaming at me (in Italian) that I didn’t understand anything.
But Paola is a story for another time. This is about my fat.
When I first arrived at Termini train station, I met up with the rest of my cohort and, one-by-one, we were picked up by our families. When Paola laid eyes on me, she smiled big (or was it a grimace? I can hardly remember) and said “Ciao Margitte! Come stai?” (hello, how are you?) and then immediately said about five other things that were well above my Italian 101 knowledge. She helped me cram my (laughably oversized) bags into her teensy car, and we zipped off to her apartment in San Giovanni. After a traumatizing experience with her elevator (it wouldn’t fit the two of us with my luggage), she showed me to my room and I took a nap.
I awoke three hours later to the smell of delicious Italian cooking. Paola excitedly ushered me into her itsy-bitsy kitchen and sat me on a rickety chair in front of my dinner.
Which consisted of three plates of food.
THREE plates of food.
Now I had learned that it was customary in Italy to eat a lot of food at dinner, but Paola herself only had one plate. Not wanting to be rude, I smiled, said “Grazie,” and proceeded to try and eat as much of the food as possible. At a plate and a half in, I just couldn’t eat anymore. “Mi dispiace, ma non ho fame.” My Italian was pretty shaky, but I basically said that I was sorry but I wasn’t hungry.
“Mangia!” (eat!), she insisted. But I couldn’t, and Paola was shocked.
“Ma… come mai sei cosi grassata*?”
“Grassata” was not yet in my vocabulary, so I couldn’t answer. She just kept asking, over and over, “but how come you are so….?”, growing increasingly aggravated with my puzzled looks.
Then came the hand motions. “GRASSATA!!!” She exclaimed, making a curvy shape with her hands while giving herself a double-chin and sucking in air to make her face look bloated. She then grabbed her chunk of her belly. “Grassata!”
I finally realized what she was asking, but went to get my dictionary just in case I was imagining things. Horrified, I found out that I was right—she really had decided that asking me why I was fat was an appropriate topic of conversation (*the actual Italian word for fat is “grassa”… “grassata” literally means “greased” but is often used to describe fat people, from what I understand). I shrugged and said “Non lo so” (I don’t know) and tried to leave it at that.
Over the next few days, Paola badgered me about why I was so fat, growing more and more frustrated when she realized I didn’t eat a whole lot and that I was fairly active.
One night during that first week, I had a friend (who just so happened to be vacationing in Rome at the time) over for dinner. This time, Paola decided to ask Lauren why I was so fat. Was I lying about my eating habits? Did I really exercise? Lauren and I were, I think, equally horrified at this line of questioning. Then Lauren had the bright idea to take out the dictionary and look for the word “thyroid”.
“Tiroide!” I exclaimed, pointing to it in the dictionary.
Amazingly and suddenly, Paola was satisfied. All was right in the world, because it finally made sense to her WHY my fat body was so fat—because I had a bad thyroid. (In later years I would come to find out that I did not actually have said problem with my thyroid, but that is also another story.)
I’m not sure how often other fat people are asked by others about the how’s and why’s of their particular fatness, but I do know how often I’ve felt compelled to explain it to people even when they haven’t asked. Fat hate being as rampant as it is, we fatties often find ourselves in the position of defending ourselves against the stereotype. You know the one—the one that goes “fat people are ‘x’” and here ‘x’ can be anything as long as it’s negative (lazy, stupid, smelly, slow, unkempt, compulsive, weak-willed, gluttonous, unhealthy, etc.); indeed ‘x’ is often all of these things and more. Prior to coming to body acceptance, it is usually a fat person’s only way to be okay with him or herself: “Yes I’m fat but at least I’m not ‘x’.”
Generally, we are vindicated (or at least feel “safer”) if we can “prove” our fatness is the result of something outside of our control (i.e. genetic predisposition toward a certain body type or a certain amount of adipose tissue, or a non-“obesity”-related disease or illness that causes fatness). If we can prove that our fatness is not because of ‘x’, we can at least be “good” in our fatness.
There are many reasons why this type of thinking is poisonous, not only for our own bodies but for the bodies of other fat people, as well. The painful divisiveness of the good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy is discussed very frequently within FA, and not nearly enough in the general public sphere.
Last Spring I was waiting for the bus with a friend from my grad program. We were talking about fat. He (a thin athlete and vegan) came to the conversation with all sorts of assumptions about fat bodies and health; similarly, I came to the conversation with all sorts of assumptions about his assumptions based on my knowledge of his lifestyle choices. That being said, we had an interesting conversation, which ended with me explaining that I often feel pressured to be a “good” fat in order to be taken seriously within an academic context.
“It does lend you a certain credibility,” he admitted.
I didn’t like the implication of this statement, in part because it confirmed my fears and because it even implied that he might not take me seriously if I exhibited stereotypically “fat” behaviors or if I were to become ill with some sort of “obesity”-related disease. If I had type II diabetes, for example, would the importance of my work in fat studies be any less important? Would my claims of discrimination and call for better representations of fat bodies in popular culture be less legitimate if I sat around and ate Cheetos all day?
According to him, it seemed the answer might be yes.
How is it okay to say that only “healthy” fat people who exercise and eat “right” deserve to be respected? To see better images of themselves reflected in the media? To have equal access to health care? To sit in a damn seat on an airplane and not have to worry about the arm digging into their sides so much it makes them want to cry (this is of course from personal experience) or that they’ll be asked to leave the plane or buy an extra seat for “safety” precautions (the experience of Kevin Smith and many others)? The answer is that it’s not.
So I implore you—you, me, fat people everywhere (and especially those beautiful girls posting over at FYCB—to resist the urge to “explain” your fatness. Not only because these questions further divide us, but because they are, in and of themselves, incredibly problematic, embedded in a notion that we somehow can (and should) rid the world of fat bodies.
Every time you feel compelled to explain your fatness, you are participating (whether consciously or not) in a socially-sanctioned conversation about your fat body that is ultimately about “obesity” researchers’ bottom line: eradicating fatness.
I know that seems a bit harsh, but stay with me for a moment while I appeal to work by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (herself a fat woman) about a different oppressed group: the gay community.
In “Axiomatic,” Sedgwick argues that conversations about the “origins” of gayness—essentially the nature vs. nurture debate—are very problematic because the desire to know how or why people are gay is really about the desire to “cure” gayness. If, for example, people are gay because they “choose” to be, the cure is super simple: just decide not to be gay. Gay-hatin’ straights can do their part to encourage this by making the world a super inhospitable place for people who choose to be gay (yay discrimination and hate crimes. Not.). If we decide that gayness is “caused” by certain childhood experiences or certain child-rearing practices, we can just work to ensure those environmental factors (“nurture”) don’t happen. If most gay people are themselves correct, and they are actually born this way, then by golly the “cure” is a lot harder but researchers sure are working their asses off trying to find the “gay gene”. Can you imagine what might happen when and if they find this rainbow-magic gene? Can you guess? Because I bet it ends with preventing gay children from being born.
A similar line of thinking happens in conversations about the origins of fatness. If we are fat because of our own behavior, just change the behavior (so says the multi-billion-dollar diet & exercise industry). Choose to be thin. If we are fat because of some other environmental experiences (childhood trauma, “bad” parenting, school lunches and vending machines, bullying, etc. and so on), then stop those things from happening. If it’s genetic, spend billions and billons of dollars to find the fat gene, or some sort of drug that will alter our biology in order to make us thin. In the end, it really is all about making fat people thin people… which is really just about getting rid of fat people. End of story. Can you imagine what happens if they find “the fat gene” (as if there is only one)? Because I bet it ends with preventing fat children from being born.
Every time you feel the need to explain your fatness, you buy into this system.
But it’s so damn hard not to. I get that. Part of the reason is because, within the genetic argument, non-normative bodies are begrudgingly granted basic human rights provided that they are the way they are because they can’t “help” it. If it’s not our fault, then others have to at least tolerate our existence. Indeed, this is sometimes the only way for oppressed groups to be included in laws that protect them from discrimination.
Implicit in this is the assumption, first of all, that if we could, we would naturally choose to be “normal” (aka thin, or straight, or white, or whatever). When we have to “explain” our non-normativity, there is no room for us to make the powerful statement that we want to be this way.
Why am I not allowed to want to be fat?
Someone once asked me what I would say if given the chance to tell the whole world just one thing I wanted them to know about fatness. At the time, I said that I wished that everyone knew that fat does NOT equal “unhealthy”. While I still think this is incredibly important for people to know, in part because it has the potential to radically alter not only the medical community or the diet & exercise industry, but also the individual lives of people who have body fat (so… everyone), I don’t know that this is what I would say now if given the chance.
What I’m doing with my activism, and what I’m accomplishing in my grad work, cannot just be a fight to be seen as “healthy” or “good” or “genetically predisposed”. It has to be a fight for all fat people, regardless of how or why they are fat, to be seen as people, period. A fight for fatties to be acknowledged as having a multiplicity of identities, medical histories, eating habits, behaviors, childhoods, personal tastes and preferences, and life experiences. A fight to obliterate any notion of the fat experience as any one particular thing, to end the need to justify our existence or prove that we are not “stereotypically fat”. Rather than dividing us into groups of “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, “genetically fat” or “behaviorally fat”, we need to be understood as people who are just fat, end of discussion.
There are so many people who can be on board with FA or other fat-positive principles, provided the fat person in question is healthy, or “tries not to be fat,” or is conventionally attractive (and thus curvy or voluptuous or even “chubby not fat”). Fuck that.
I’m done with trying to please these people. And you should be, too.
For more information on divisive identity politics, eliminating “health” from the discussion of fatness, and other things I’ve talked about here, check out these fantastic blog posts:
Tasha Fierce’s “Fat As I Wanna Be”, Snarky’s Machine’s “You Are My Sisters”, The Rotund’s “Second Verse, Same as the First; Fat Acceptance is for Everyone” and Fatshionista’s “Q&A: On dressing femme, being a ‘bad fat’, and changing the FA blogosphere”