Sometimes your body changes, and it sucks

(Originally published on tumblr, here.)

Historically, Fat Acceptance has framed body positivity in fairly stringent and problematic ways. I think a lot of work has been done to address these issues, but oftentimes these things get played out over and over again as new people come to the fold.

When you first discover body acceptance, after years and years of hating yourself and fucked up weight loss attempts and (for many) disordered eating, it can be so tempting to latch onto this mantra of “LOVE YOURSELF NO MATTER WHAT, THERE IS NO ROOM FOR COMPROMISE”. This results in a lot of fat activists advising others to simply “accept yourself”, and anything else is automatically Bad Activism.

Of course, not understanding the nuanced ways we experience ourselves/bodies and embracing this approach to self-acceptance often means trying (usually unsuccessfully) to sweep one’s more ambivalent feelings under the rug. It also means not being open to others’ discomfort with their own bodies in ways that can be racist, ableist, and cissexist.

In The ‘Fat’ Female Body, Sam Murray writes about one of the more insidious aspects of this kind of humanist logic: it reasserts a problematic dichotomy between mind and body. It says that we must, in our minds, overcome our bodies (and hatred of them). This is problematic for a couple of reasons: 1) this is the same strategy we are supposed to use, according to contemporary fat-hating society, to lose weight and become “normal” people, and 2) our bodies and minds are not ACTUALLY split—we perceive and understand the world THROUGH our bodies, and to imply that we can just “change our minds” about how it feels to be fat in a fat-hating world—in a world not made for our bodies—disregards this pretty important reality. Continue reading

super quick: thoughts on fat & disability

Over on my other blog, somebody asked me what I thought about fat as a disability. The following was my response:
Fat people and people with disabilities have a LOT in common. We live in a world that is not meant to accommodate our bodies—a world that, in fact, actively *excludes* our bodies. Our bodies are demonized, because we are not “normal”—and if there is a way to make us “normal” (i.e. surgery, etc.), we are expected (shamed, forced) to take that route. People stare at us, we have stareable bodies. They feel like they are allowed to talk to us about our bodies, ask us how we “got this way”.

People think they know something about us—our histories, our habits, our health—just by looking.

We incite fear in “normal”-bodied people; we are what they could be if they ever lost control. Indeed, most people will become fat, and almost everyone—if they live long enough—will become disabled.

I know this is probably not what you meant when you asked about my thoughts on fat AS a disability, but here is the thing: fat people—just like all people with devalued, non-normative bodies—are disabled. NOT because our bodies can’t do things, but because we live in a world that STOPS our bodies from doing things.

A fat studies scholar whom I really respect and admire wrote to the fat studies list-serve sometime last year, to discuss why there aren’t more intersections and collaborative projects between work done in fat studies and work done in disability studies. She speculated that part of the problem, at least, is a phenomenon called ‘mutual recoil.’ (Basically, this happens when each side of a group hasn’t worked through their own negative beliefs about the other group, and thus do not want to be associated with them.)

Then she asked what I believe to be a really radical question:

“What would happen if, as politicized fat people, we embraced the word ‘disabled’ and used it in the same way disability studies scholars and activists use it? Not as a label denoting a body that needs to be fixed, adjusted, cured, or sanitized, but a body that challenges narrow and normative constructs of the body and an environment that literally oppresses many of us in terms of mobility and existing in space.”

In the incredibly (emotionally, physically, mentally) exhausting world of social justice movements, the more we can work together, the better. The more we can share our experiences with each other, the better. We need more listening, more pooling our resources, more collaborative work. We need less ‘mutual recoil’. We need to recognize how society disables all of us, and we need to work together towards a world that isn’t set up to exclude any bodies—fat, disabled, or otherwise.

musings on fat bodies and exclusion

The following is a short response paper I wrote last quarter… it’s nothing revolutionary, just some food for thought:

“The human landscape can be read as a landscape of exclusion” (Sibley, 1995, p. ix).

Just as lines are drawn on paper to map out the boundaries of physical space (and thus assert what belongs to “us” as opposed to what belongs to “them”), humans practice boundary-making at a much more local level: the body.  While this act seems fairly cut-and-dry (I am my body, and anything that is not my body is not-me), the fact that we can never securely close off the boundaries of our bodies leaves us open and thus susceptible to contamination by that which is not-us.  This vulnerability renders us incredibly anxious, and we become obsessed with maintaining these bodily boundaries and repulsed by the secretions (bodily or otherwise) that seep through them.  Ultimately, this desire to keep oneself free of contagion is about keeping oneself pure, free of disease and death.  On a more practical level, the process by which we establish what is us and not-us creates social boundaries between us and other people—in an effort to assert what is ME, I exclude what is Other to me, and this Other (Mead’s “generalized other”) becomes imbued with feelings of fear and desire, marked as good or bad, and eventually, is stereotyped in various ways so that I may “make the world seem secure and stable” (p. 15).

This process of ‘stabilizing’ or ‘fixing’ the identities of others (in an effort to define the self) is not only conducted at the level of the individual, but on a much larger scale, as well.  Iris Young writes,

When the dominant group defines some groups as different, as the Other, the members of these groups are imprisoned in their bodies.  Dominant discourse defines them in terms of bodily characteristics and constructs those bodies as ugly, dirty, defiled, impure, contaminated or sick (p. 18).

The effect of these categorizations is ultimately to define what is opposite of them: those characteristics that are considered normal (i.e. attractive, clean, pure, healthy, etc.).  In other words, it is through the classification of deviance that we construct normality.  This is especially salient with the construction of the “diseased other,” who, according to Sibley, “has an important role in defining normality and stability” (p. 24).

It is interesting to me how well this narrative maps onto the way current discourses about the “obesity epidemic” frame fatness and fat embodiment.  Although fatness has yet to be proven as the cause of any disease, and while it is in fact documented as being protective against some diseases, many in the medical community keep pushing to frame or label “obesity” as a disease itself!  From a rational point of view, this line of reasoning is nonsensical.  However, if we understand the desire to construct disease as ultimately a desire about defining what is normal, and we view fatness as being “abnormal” or “not-us,” we can begin to see why people might want to claim the fat body as a diseased body.

It is also possible that, in our obsession with controlling and maintaining tight boundaries around the body, fatness—with its excess supposedly bursting at the seams—is seen as a threat to the tightly contained body.  Fat bodies become “the abject” because they threaten boundaries of “normal” body size, because they threaten to take up space (more than is “normal”), and this space may encroach upon non-fat others (this fear manifests as anger directed towards fat people in close quarters, such as the airplane or bus).  While it seems silly to ask, I wonder if there is somewhere (in the unconscious?) a fear that the fat body will “spill out” and “merge” with the non-fat person… or that fatness is somehow “contagious”.  This seems outrageous, but a July 2007 article (“Study Says Obesity Can Be Contagious”) in The New York Times confirms it: many “obesity” researchers, in fact, concern themselves with this very question.  Perhaps as a result of this fear of contagion by fat bodies, fat people are often excluded from many spaces (usually through lack of accommodations, but also through overt discrimination against them) and through their lifetime feel exclusion in a variety of situations.  While I’ve focused primarily on fat bodies in my analysis of exclusion and construction of the self, I think Sibley’s thoughts on how/why exclusion happens are particularly helpful because they can be applied in a variety of different situations and to a variety of differently oppressed groups.

(Note: page numbers are in reference to David Sibley’s Geographries of Exclusion.)