Systemic Fat Bias—is that a thing? (The complicated layers of race and gender that make it MAYBE a thing but also not)

(editorial addition: I forgot–part of what inspired this post was a spoken word that in four very blunt minutes captures what this blog fumblingly approaches addressing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxgpCfPqQpk)

I remember the first online dating profile I ever posted, in 2004, while I was in seminary. It was on Nerve (don’t judge—it was “for the thinking hedonist,” if I remember the tagline correctly, and it was more importantly networked to Salon.com and Onion readers—my demographic if ever there was one). My friend Jason helped me set it up, and as we filled in the various pieces of information, we got to “weight.” I looked at Jason nervously and said “I could just type in 200 pounds.”

“Nah,” he said wisely. “Then all you’ll draw are the fetishists.” I don’t remember the number we made up, or if we left it blank (which also raises red flags for “non-fetishists,” I now know). What I do remember is that I was lying by a good 40 pounds when I “confessed” to Jason that I was 200 pounds, and that was still a fetishist weight for a woman who’s only 5’10”. Don’t get me wrong–he was being both helpful and correct. It’s just that I haven’t found fat fetishists to be all bad. Or all that prevalent.

(I’ve weighed 200 pounds twice since the age of 14; once was in the midst of the most drama-saturated period of my life, when I was 20, and once was after two solid years of exercise and healthy eating, and even then it took a summer in India to drop the last 20 pounds.)

I made a flippant comment on facebook the other day: A thin friend of mine said she had never heard the expression “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,” which was a good reminder that thin people don’t have to listen to as much stupid ish as the other half of America. (On a vaguely related note, brown rice with spinach and mushrooms and cheesesauce does not taste as good as pizza, and I’m pretty sure tonight pizza would have tasted better than thin feels. But at least the temptation has passed until tomorrow.)”

I don’t know, man. That chocolate cake looks like it might taste as good as thin feels.

And I was surprised at the visceral reaction of a number of my facebook friends (all of whom are thin and beautiful) who said that EVERYONE is shamed about their bodies, and that they had to deal with being seriously mocked for being “skinny” growing up. My favorite sharing was from one of my favorite people who said she had, in desperation, gone on a PB&J diet to fill out her backside at one point.

(Please note that I’ve asked the thin and beautiful friends to consider guest blogging because their experience is different than mine, so keep an eye out for a future post, just in case they’re willing to share.)

That exchange and some subsequent in-person conversations has me thinking about a few things. This is the “size matters” flowchart as far as I can tell.

1)     All women are judged on their appearance, and all women are taught that they are inadequate. (Systemic sexism.)

2)     Race plays a weird and complicated role in what constitutes attractiveness. (Different cultures define aesthetics differently, while still playing out point 1.)

3)     That being said, systemic bias still preferences thin over fat, because the dominant culture still calls most of the shots. This makes things exponentially more complicated for people impacted by both points 1 and 2.

4)     The battle lines have been drawn between personal responsibility and systemic injustice. Wait, have I written that phrase before?

So, number 1 is obvious to anyone who’s paying attention, right? Women feel lousy about their bodies, and I blame society and systemic sexism. One friend pointed out that when someone posted an inspiring speech by Angelina Jolie, someone’s reponse was “yeah, the content was good, but she needs to put on a few pounds.”

When Hillary Clinton ran for President, her suits, the lines on her face, her hairstyle were picked apart. When her husband ran for President, people joked about his Big Mac-fueled spare tire, but no one questioned his fitness for office based on how he filled in a suit or even a tracksuit. Women constantly straddle the line of not dressing “inappropriately” while also not dressing in a “humorless” fashion, and the way they fill in whatever they wear is factored into judgment also. (And if any man tells me this is because men are visually oriented while women are more shaped by stories, I will seriously hunt you down and punch you in the nose, and finally I will have SCIENCE on my side! That, it turns out, is a big ole myth driven by evolutionary psychologists who have confused centuries of male privilege with biological wiring; women are JUST as visually oriented; they just don’t have the power to be as judgmental. Read What Do Women Want? for more information. Or wait til I get around to blogging on it.)

The website Do Something has a list of facts about body image that includes the following: “Studies show that the more reality television a young girl watches, the more likely she is to find appearance important.” So the media certainly plays a role, and I believe it plays a role in diminishing women’s sense of self-worth. (Check out the website Women In Ads for more research on the history and contemporary role of advertising in keeping girls down.) There’s even fascinating and depressing new research that suggests that women’s body image is impacted particularly when she strays outside of traditional female roles; in other words, positive body image is encouraged insofar as it protects patriarchy. Long story short, ask any woman if she’s been made to feel badly about how she looks, and she’ll probably say yes. Except for Samantha from Sex and the City. But she’s a fictional character.

 

I’m going to tread carefully with #2, out of a deep fear of perpetuating stereotypes, so please call me out where I’m off base here. I was recently reading Chimamanda Adichie’s new novel, Americanah, and in it one of the Nigerian characters reflects on how Nigeria is in its first generation of prosperity and therefore still sees fat as prosperous, as opposed to the legacy of wealth in America that now sees thin as prosperous. And I’ve heard more than a few people say that in poor countries, fat is still seen as a sign of prosperity and therefore desirable. I’m not sure that’s always true, although I’m not dismissing it completely. I do think different cultures value different forms of attractiveness, and those cultures change. (You may have seen one of many popular Marilyn Monroe memes that illustrate this point within White American society, for example. I remember back in the late 90s Calista Flockhart critiquing this narrative as perpetuating the shaming of naturally thin people who couldn’t gain weight even when they tried.)

The problem is that ALL of the images are still oriented towards objectifying women. Although those women on top need a sandwich. Oof–anti-thin prejudice.

The friends who responded to my facebook post with stories of being picked on or ignored or told they weren’t attractive because they were thin were not EXCLUSIVELY but were primarily African American. As a big girl, I will not lie—my body has been affirmed and appreciated most frequently in my dating life (and on the street—girls deal with a lot of objectification as well as appreciation) by African American and diasporan, Mexican American and some South Asian men (although not so much with second generation South Asian American men; my people do a good job of adopting western norms really quickly), and a blessed few White men who have bucked the stereotype of only liking stick figure women. I’m not the object of adoration by most White men or by many east or southeast Asian men. (There have been a couple of exceptions to this, and there have certainly been many Black and Latino and South Asian men who want someone much thinner than me.)

So it may depend on what the primary culture is in which you grew up exactly what type of body images you had to deal with. The one thing that we have in common is images expectations placed on us were totally different than those placed on men, by and large. And even if we perpetuated those expectations, we didn’t have much say in creating them. (Not meaning in any way to diminish the complex truths of the movie Mansome.)

So #3 is the meat of the article, if you’ll forgive the pun. (And you’d better, or I’ll sit on you. Why yes, yes that is something people pretended to be afraid of when I was in sixth grade; why do you ask?) I posit that while sexism means all women are objectified and found wanting, and moreso if we don’t conform to traditional female roles, bias against fat people is currently enmeshed in our culture, particularly fat women. The studies are so extensive that it’s almost boring: weight affects your likelihood of being accepted to grad school, it affects the likelihood that you’ll be found innocent by a jury of your peers, it affects your doctor’s treatment of you even in the face of medical evidence, it affects your psychologist’s opinion of your capacity for transformation (ouch, for those of us who have gone to therapy for self-worth issues), and it affects women more than men. You should definitely read Size Six: The Western Women’s Harem for a non-American perspective on this issue.

I think that point 2 in this article is true, and that all women are made to question their self-worth. And I think it’s demonstrably harder for a fat woman to get a job than a thin woman, all other things being held equal, because anti-fat bias is part of the culture around us. It may or may not impact our dating life (I’d really like to see the data on that in the United States, factoring in race, if anyone can track it down for me). It may or may not affect our sense of self-worth. (When the book I’m Fat, Get Over It came out, it was a tiny little manifesto for me, although ever so quietly, because fat girls historically don’t like talking about the fact that we’re fat.) But it affects the way society as a whole sees us and it affects the way we’re treated day-to-day and, the part that actually does trouble me, it limits our opportunities for life, health and employment. Some of this is illustrated by this tumblr and this top twenty list about “thin privilege.” (Privilege is usually invisible to people who benefit from it. There are “this is fat privilege” tumblrs, too, but they’re mostly pretty ugly and actually function out of some thin privilege–things like “fat privilege is eating as much ice cream as you want and then blaming society for rejecting you.”)

So #4 is where it gets messy, right? Because I don’t want America to face an obesity epidemic. And good on Michelle Obama for tackling that. Except that discussion of obesity in America has some nefarious crossover with poverty for a whole host of reasons. Also, obesity is often associated with laziness. See hiccup number one?

In reaction to the ugly assumptions made about plus sized people, there are a couple of different movements of which I am aware. I’ve toyed with embracing the Fat Acceptance Movement or Fat Positivity Movement, because I appreciate what they’re lifting up: fat people are not automatically unhealthy or lazy or inferior or completely devoid of willpower that thin people innately have, and “fat shaming” assumes that those things are generally true. That’s what FA gave me that I want to emphasize here: fat people are frequently blamed for something that is not their fault; even when thin people experience a lack of appreciation for their body type, no one attributes blame to them for it (except maybe Calista Flockhart getting called Anorexic, and what kind of monster blames a person for anorexia?). At the same time, and largely because of the socially accepted bullying and bias and so I believe out of a certain level of defensiveness, sometimes the fat acceptance movement dismisses that some of us are fat because of emotional eating or because we don’t take care of ourselves. In my own case, it is MUCH harder for me to be a lower weight than for other people; I have to work out a LOT as well as eat much more carefully than my friends, because that’s the metabolism I have. (Editorial addition–the original post left out this sentence: “But also, I stress eat and depression eat and self-medicate with food in times of crisis, and that’s a serious issue from all health perspectives: physical, emotional and spiritual.”) Do I feel better at a size 16 than a 22? I do. And I worry that wanting to feel better is selling out the fat acceptance movement because let’s be honest—people treat me better at a size 16 than at a size 22, also; that’s part of what feels better. And I’m not ready to give up wanting that relative privilege just yet. But that does make me part of the problem if anti-fat bias is solely a systemic oppression issue.

The opposite extreme of this (and it’s fairly well represented in the conscious and subconscious of the country but also explicitly claimed by some formerly overweight people) is the “I earned my thin privilege” culture, or the “it is people’s own fault that they can’t control what they eat.” (The link I provided is one person’s experience rather than from a movement, because any Jenny Craig or Bowflex ad captures this perspective–it’s pretty dominant.) And the fact is, there are a lot of personal issues people wrestle with weight, including sexual trauma, depression, and sometimes simply that the fat-sugar-salt triangle is yummy and we don’t always say no when we should. But there are so many people already happy to let me know it’s my fault I’m fat that I can’t get fired up about the “personal responsibility” approach to the issue.

There’s another movement a friend introduced me to called the Health At Every Size movement, which some people consider to be a Fat Acceptance Lite. It affirms making good life choices while decrying that size correlates to health or personal value. They also might be onto something because their willingness to talk about healthy lifestyle choices is sometimes viewed with suspicion by FA folks, while their belief that size doesn’t correlate to health makes the Personal Responsibility folks crazy (read more of that “I earned my thin privilege” tumblr if you don’t believe me).

As I write this reflection, I am aware of my heterosexual bias; there are layers of complexity to this issue that the queer community needs to unpack that I have little to offer by way of understanding. And I write it as someone whose childhood was shaped at home by very loving and accepting immigrant parents who didn’t automatically buy whatever cultural norms dominated and also as someone whose most influential schooling happened in a mostly White community outside of Akron, Ohio (and then a very affluent mostly White community outside of Chicago). So those social experiences shape my lens.

 

When I was reflecting on this with a really amazing and supportive (thin) friend, I said that of all the issues of oppression and privilege I look at on a daily basis, I’m not going to fall on my sword over this one. But it’s a largely invisible issue that’s been coming up for me a lot as I watch people my size wrestle with their weight and get judged for liking food while they’re wrestling with their weight (thin people don’t get judged for liking food, which you may see as thin privilege or simply a fact that fat people have to accept because if thin doesn’t come naturally we either need to accept being fat or work harder at being thin). So I wanted to name that, while I probably won’t join a campaign, and while I do actually belong to a small support group for weight loss and track my calories and belong to a gym (because thin privilege does not suck), I do think it’s a shame that there’s not a little more love mixed into the way we relate to each other on this issue. And I think part of that reason has to do with privilege.

Now excuse me while I go have some cherry cheesecake.

(Tell me you didn’t want to judge me a little bit for that.)

2001. 260 lbs. and hot.

2003–200 lbs. and hot.

 

 

2012–305 lbs. and hot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving 2013–280 lbs. and hot.

 

 

Comments (5)

  1. Laura Jean

    Well, I would definitely need some dessert had I just done that much sharing about *my* feelings about fat! (Of course, mine would have to include chocolate. In that sense only, I do judge your cherry cheesecake. 😉 )

    I do think the extent to which judging and shame are part of the dominant cultural narrative about being fat makes it hard for us to name the oppression that is real and systematic. AND, I think, makes it very hard for us to claim that identity. Because, (we are told, and told, and told) we *could* all be thin if we just tried a little harder and let that thin woman inside of us “come out,” right?

    That said, I definitely roll my eyes when people want to call fat-shaming as “the last acceptable prejudice.” It’s true that the rudeness and judging takes on unique forms, as do the shockingly racist, anti-woman, xenophobic, homophobic (etc.) things that people say (and are often shocked to be called out on).

    While it’s true that some women are perceived as too skinny (and that there does exist an alternative ideal in the African-American community), I also think some of the negativity (of the “eat a sandwich” type) towards very thin women is based in jealousy.

    The other thing that I would want to somehow add to the flowchart… is that lots of women think of themselves as fat even though they are not perceived that way by others. (Or, you know, by me.) I assume that’s because the dominant ideal is just way thinner than the vast majority of women will ever be? But I’ve been shocked so many times to find out that someone is concerned about her weight or wants to lose X number of pounds… and in that vein, I do want to clear something up for you. I doubt very much that your friend actually knew what 200 lbs would look like on your 5’10” frame (hence buying the lie). Pretty sure that BMI would NOT get you into fetishist territory (although the number itself might attract that interest, because numbers are funny like that and there’s a lot of lying in internet dating). And I think I can say that, since at 5’6″ I have tipped the scale at 200 myself.

    I, personally, am also so aware of how we pass these things on through our families. This stuff has begun to seem more important to me again as I realize that my daughters will not be babies forever and the stuff I inherited is NOT the stuff I want to pass on.

  2. Allen

    Thanks for taking the time and the nerve to delve into this complicated stuff! Isn’t it amazing how much 6th grade hangs around as we get older? (If I were blogging, maybe I’d do something about the terms “Blivot” and “Fem” and how they made me who I am today.)

    Like Laura Jean, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen CHERRY cheesecake – but I’m not going to judge you, our life experiences have led us to different places.

    And you’re right that the queer world (as if that were one definable thing!) has a whole different set of baggage and weaponry around anti-fat bias. A friend of mine recently informed me that he’s what is called “skinny fat” because while he is slender he does not have a visible six-back abdomen, in fact there is the *slightest* bit of softness above his waistline. Skinny fat is not a compliment, it suggests false advertising. The lesbian world operates on an entirely different wavelength, which I cannot accurately describe, but find refreshing sometimes. I am, of course, only talking about the dominant culture Urban USA queer world.

    I really draw a blank when it comes to objectifying women, but that does not make me a saint – I am quite able to objectify men, when the opportunity presents itself. It’s not an automatic, but it’s easy to go there. Not too difficult to get back from there, usually. Unless he’s *dreeeeeeamy* , then it takes me a few meetings to get over it.

  3. Sandhya (Post author)

    Laura Jean and Allen, what great reflections!!! I think there’s a lot of layers to this (and the passing-it-on-to-the-next-generation part is tough) and you’ve both added a couple that are really important.

    A friend shared with me after reading this that their family nearly lost their daughter recently due to an eating disorder, so I’m re-convicted right now about the theological importance of the message that God did not make mistakes with how we are created–color, orientation, gender, size. (Interesting, I facilitated a panel on this exact subject 9 years ago; themes just keep cycling, don’t they?)

    Allen, I would love to read that blog post. Although I wouldn’t want to make you write it. I would like my inner sixth grader to go back to sleep for a while. 🙂

  4. Rebecca

    I was just thinking about this again this morning, and needed to say that I think class privilege plays into size non-privilege A LOT. There are ways to look hot at any size, if you have the money. There are few ways to look hot at any size if you don’t have the money. This was well described in that recent post that was going around about the choices poor people make.

    That said, this is so complicated, and so personal, and so important. We must be gentle with one another and ourselves. I find that with many issues, I have to keep my thoughts and feelings on many levels. There is a place for my system-aware thoughts and reactions, which are the ones I will probably be public with. And then there is a place in my heart and mind for my personal thoughts and feelings, the ones that may be more complicated. It’s like the love a person can still feel for someone who has abused them, and the forgiveness they may offer that person, even if in actual life, they build up healthy boundaries and remove that person from their life. There can still be a place where they mourn that loss. Something like that can be how we both aim to become healthier, but also try to love ourselves as we are.

    We contain multitudes!

  5. Sandhya (Post author)

    Thanks, Rebecca! It’s interesting–this post has generated more meaningful one-on-one and private conversations than anything I’ve written, and it’s also such a difficult subject (and one not often publicly named) that very few people have posted publicly on it. I really appreciate you doing so. The class issue is so germane and rarely discussed. And what’s interesting is that so often my solutions to issues like this are systemic, and yet so many people have asked “So what do we do?” about this particular post and all I can come up with is along the lines of your second paragraph (although I’ll ramble a bit more): I think we model for our children and our friends and families what it looks like to love someone completely, without qualifying that love. We show them what it looks like to affirm healthy behaviors and simultaneously love who people are. And for those of us who have emotional connections to our eating (a friend of mine and I have talked extensively about the “fat suit” we wear that protects us from childhood sexual trauma, for example), any other response from the people around us is generally unhelpful in our addressing those issues.

    Also, my hero has never been Kate Moss; it’s been Queen Latifah. And with a little work I could get to her size, but I’ll never be able to wardrobe like her, so I totally take your first point, too. 🙂

    (For those of you who want to know what blog post Rebecca is referencing, I believe it’s “Why I make terrible decisions, or poverty thoughts:” http://killermartinis.kinja.com/why-i-make-terrible-decisions-or-poverty-thoughts-1450123558 )

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