Tag Archives: shame

The Real “Small Fat Complex”

Last week, Bustle published an article by Marie Southard Ospina titled “The Small Fat Complex in Body Positivity and Why it’s Not Entirely Justified.”  And the content of that article was enough to inspire me to write something for this blog for the first time in over a year.

My initial feelings when I read Southard Ospina’s opinion piece were hurt and angry, but I decided to put off writing my response until I could approach it more calmly. To tell you the truth, I still feel hurt, but I think it’s important to highlight that articles like this contribute to the marginalisation of very fat people within body positive circles and beyond. Articles like this characterise us as mean, bitter, hateful and exclusionary, and attempt to position small fats as hard done by on all sides, victims not only of mainstream body shaming but of forcible eviction from the exclusive fat acceptance club as well.

The thing is, there isn’t an exclusive fat acceptance club, nobody has the power to evict anyone else from the fat positive movement, and the only “small fat complex” I can see is the need some smaller fats have to be the centre of everything.

That sounds harsh, and I know I run the risk of turning plenty of smaller fats against my argument by putting it in these terms, but I honestly don’t know how else to put it. Smaller fats already enjoy more public visibility, more mainstream acceptance (even if that acceptance is not complete), more access to things like fashionable clothing and medical equipment that is sized for them to use. Smaller fats are already the face of the body positivity movement in most places. But somehow not being welcomed and embraced by very fat people, who maybe want to surround themselves with people who look more like they do and share more of the experiences of fat hatred that are unique to very fat people, is enough to utterly ruin their self-esteem. For people who claim we are “a movement that’s at its strongest when banded together”, it seems awfully convenient to me that the main threat to a smaller fat person’s self esteem is people who are fatter than they are. If you are able to embrace your fat identity in the face of the entire fat-hating world telling you fat is bad, why would a relatively small number of people saying “you’re not fat” – for reasons that you claim to understand and be sympathetic to – undo that?

Southard Ospina says that “within fat acceptance bubbles on the Internet, there’s one body type that often receives a bit of flak”, meaning the small fat body. That is to say, those who are fat but who wear smaller plus sizes, or may even be able to squeeze into the high end of straight sizes. But it’s not actually the small fat body type that receives flak.. Criticism relating to small fats is actually about two things:

  1. The mainstreaming of fat positive ideas into “body positivity” for all (not just small fats, but thin women as well) has tended to focus on more socially acceptable deviations from the normative ideal body type – smaller fats, conventionally attractive fats, hourglass-shaped fat women, and white fat people in general. This allows people in these categories to enjoy more thin privilege than they previously did, which feels good for them, but does nothing to demolish thin privilege altogether and leaves larger or less “acceptably” fat people in the cold;

  2. The attitude some smaller fats have in responding to critiques and complaints about point 1 from larger fatties is defensive and hostile, and tends to lead to these critiques (which are legitimate and important!) being dismissed as mean, hurtful and exclusionary instead of considered on their own merits.

It is not “invalidating” to point out that a smaller person’s experience of sizeism is fundamentally different from the experience of a much fatter person. The author even goes into quite a lot of detail demonstrating that she knows and understands that experiences of fat stigma vary depending on size! But this seems to be just a rhetorical device to make her argument seem more reasonable, because her conclusion that critiques of the prominence of small fat images and voices in the body positive movement “only create divide” and undermine the strength of the movement seems to contradict her claim that she thinks fat shaming can be worse for very fat people.

In fact, it’s very telling that so much of this article is talking about shame and body image. Good body image is important, and hating your body because the world tells you that your size is bad really sucks. It’s draining, it’s hurtful, and it can escalate into all kinds of awful mental health problems and self harm. I’ve had an eating disorder that started from a “normal” weight loss diet, I get that wounds to one’s body image are not nothing. I’m sad for anyone who feels ashamed of their body, and happy for anyone who doesn’t fit the extremely narrow mould of conventional beauty who has managed to transcend mainstream messages about what is beautiful and feel beautiful as they are.

But feeling beautiful isn’t the main or most important goal of fat liberation for me and other fatties who are size 26 and over. Feeling ugly isn’t the worst thing I face as a very fat woman. Compared with being less likely to be hired for a job than a thinner person, being routinely denied proper medical care and being either excluded or made seriously physically unsafe by furniture and equipment that isn’t designed to accommodate me, some dickhead telling me fat girls are unfuckable is kind of small change. Yeah, it can hurt immensely, and the world would be a better place if it didn’t happen. But if the only thing “body acceptance” achieves is allowing me to feel pretty despite being systemically victimised for my body size, I’m still pretty much fucked.

In addition to this, when you are very fat, even body positive circles tend to be full of rhetoric that either excludes or actually vilifies you. Being a bit fat is fine, as long as you’re not too fat. Being fat is fine as long as you’re “fit” and “healthy”. Look at all these gorgeous size 18 models! I’m all for body positivity, but isn’t that just unhealthy?  Isn’t it great that this department store is now catering to ALL BODIES with their range that goes from size 0 to size 22? Here’s a discussion about whether or not very fat people’s critiques of small fat prominence in body positive circles are “entirely justified” in which I interview ONLY SMALL FATS.

Southard Ospina argues that “to tell someone whose body — even if that body is a smaller type of fat body — that their experiences with eating disorders, excessive exercise, fat shaming, body shaming, or body image issues in general are invalid simply because they aren’t “that fat” is unfair to that person.”

And she’s right, it would be unfair if someone said that. But that actually isn’t what most people in this ongoing conversation are saying (maybe some people are, there are dickheads everywhere, but it is not the prominent or prevailing sentiment). Saying “you’re not fat” or wishing out loud to see more larger bodies represented in body positive circles (even in a rude and dismissive way!) isn’t actually the same thing as saying “your experiences with eating disorders are invalid.” After all, “she’s not even that fat!” is a common cry made in support of thinner women who experience body shaming, as if it is this alone that makes the shaming reprehensible. And of course actually unequivocally thin women experience body shame and eating disorders as well, not just fat women. That doesn’t mean thin women should be the only bodies represented in body positive circles, or that it is cruel and invalidating to point out that they have thin privilege.

Southard Ospina concludes her article with a touchy-feely appeal to fat people of all sizes to come together as one, saying “although we should always be self-aware enough to acknowledge our privileges in this world (and self-aware enough not to identify as fat when we are very clearly thin), I believe we should also be self-aware enough to acknowledge where society and culture are doing us wrong. All of us.”

What this seems to be saying to me is that it is just as important for very fat people to talk about the struggles of small fats as it is for small fats to acknowledge their own privilege. And that is a contention with which I fundamentally disagree. It is always incumbent upon all of us who have privilege to use our privilege to support the struggles of those less privileged than ourselves, even in contexts where we also experience some marginalisation. We get to talk about our own problems too, but we are not entitled to have our lesser struggles prioritised by those with less privilege, who have their own damn work to do, and we should take notice when talk about our problems is eclipsing the public discussion of more severe oppression. This is why white feminists must promote and fight for women of colour, why currently able bodied people must promote and fight for people with disabilities and why small fats must promote and fight for super fats. Because a body positive culture that frees super fat people from fat hatred will free small fats as well, but a body positive culture that works as far as freeing small fats from fat hatred and then rests on its laurels leaves a lot of us still marginalised and still suffering.

And if you feel like having your fat identity actively validated by everyone you encounter is just as important as someone else’s struggle for access to adequate medical care, and deserves just as much prominence and discussion time, I am not sure if you really do understand how much worse fat hatred is for very fat people.

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Everybody on Imgur thinks I’m Taylor Swift

Today I found out one of my family members has cancer, and then I got stuck in traffic for an hour while I really needed to pee.

All things considered, a little copyright infringement and mean-spirited impersonation is just a bit of vomit icing on the cake of shit that was my day. So when I got a facebook message from a friend who had seen my photo posted on imgur as part of a fat joke I was upset for a bit, and then my capacity for distress overflowed and it just became…funny.

I’m not going to do the imgur troll the compliment of linking to their spectacularly unoriginal attempt at humour (a rehash of a joke that was tired and pathetic the first time it was made at the expense of another anonymous woman on the internet), but they stole this photo and attached it to a fake facebook post that said “tired of not being able to go to the mall because everybody thinks I’m Taylor Swift.”

Me (a fat, blonde white woman) doing a selfie with a big smile on my face.  I'm wearing neon yellow eyeshadow and a necklace of neon yellow and gold skulls.  A little of my white short-sleeved jacket and black scoop neck dress can also be seen.  There is a camellia bush in the background.

Me (a fat, blonde white woman) doing a selfie with a big smile on my face. I’m wearing neon yellow eyeshadow and a necklace of neon yellow and gold skulls. A little of my white short-sleeved jacket and black scoop neck dress can also be seen. There is a camellia bush in the background.

If you’re confused, the joke is that a hideous fat lady who thinks she looks like thin, attractive Taylor Swift is obviously deluded. Hur hur self-confident fat people exist, what’s up with that? Except…I’m not hideous. And, hilariously, several people in the comments of the image said they thought I really do look a bit like a fat Taylor Swift.

Did the person who posted this expect to deflate my self-confidence by encouraging people to mock me? Sorry dude, I look fucking awesome in that photo. That’s one of the reasons I put it on the internet.

Several of the commenters disdained the joke – the fact it was a fake post, the fact it was a tired old fat joke, the fact I was a human being who maybe deserved a little respect – but not all of them were so kind. There were a few cheeseburger jokes (seriously, the nineties called, they want their fat joke back) and so many variations on “you mean you ate Taylor Swift, hyuck” that my eyes just about rolled out of my head. The people who commented to say I looked like Richard Griffiths obviously haven’t read my post about selfies, in which I offered up several awkward photos of myself, or the facebook post I made recently in which I compared a recent passport photo to the demon Balthazar from Buffy. Photos can be hilariously unflattering, and I’m happy enough about who I am that I’m cool with that. Plus, Richard Griffiths was awesome! It doesn’t bother me to be compared to him because, unlike the ones making the comparison, I don’t think being fat is bad.  But also that photo isn’t unflattering. I look better in that photo than I do in real life! Is “look, you’re a fat person!” really supposed to be an insult to a fat activist who writes a blog all about being fat? Shockingly, I know that photo makes me look fat. Because I am fat. I’ve been aware of that fact for some time now.

In all seriousness, though, this is the kind of abuse most fat women receive when they dare to have a presence online. It happens all the time: we are taunted, our photographs are stolen, and many of us receive far worse harassment than I have experienced today, including stalking and death threats. Websites like imgur offer very little protection for people who are targeted with this kind of abuse, and trying to get stolen images taken down is an exercise in futility more often than not. When a troll used this same photo of me as a userpic on a fake Twitter account and I requested they remove the image and suspend the user, I was told that using my photo without my permission and pretending it was theirs did not constitute impersonation and they were not going to do anything. Luckily a friend of mine had already asked the user to stop using my photo and they had, although they were rude about it, so the problem was solved (no thanks to Twitter). When I asked friends for advice about the imgur incident today, several people said they had never had success getting stolen images taken down from other sites. I’ve sent imgur a notice of copyright infringement, but I don’t know if it will result in anything.

As attempts to deflate my self confidence go, this one was laughably pathetic, but others are not, and the lack of seriousness with which host sites approach this kind of thing is very disturbing. These websites are willing to enforce their own Terms of Service only when it suits them, or when big media corporations with well paid lawyers are breathing down their necks. Ordinary people trying to protect their own image are offered no recourse.

So what’s the solution? Plenty of people would say that by putting photos of myself on the internet I am relinquishing my ability – if not actually my right – to control what happens to them. It’s certainly true that once something is online it is, to some extent, out of your hands. You never know who has saved or screencapped something, and the internet has a long collective memory. And yes, the internet is full of horrible people who either care more about their cheap laugh than your dignity, or are actively trying to hurt and undermine you and people like you. But host sites could do more to respond to issues like this. In Twitter’s case it wasn’t that they didn’t have time to investigate my complaint – indeed they did investigate it – or that it wasn’t clear the photo originally belonged to me and is associated with me as a person – I sent them links to my blog where the photo was originally posted and other parts of my online presence, including my own Twitter account. They just didn’t care. And they knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

Maybe I should take down all the photos on my blog and never post any new ones. That won’t take this photo off the internet – it has thousands of likes on imgur and it’s on Reddit now too, so who knows how many people have saved it, reposted it elsewhere, emailed it to their friends, whatever. It’s a bit nauseating to think about, but I don’t want to let it change my behaviour either. I’m not ashamed of that photo, and I refuse to be made ashamed. I will feel easier if imgur upholds my copyright claim and takes the image down, though.

The one thing about all this that is funny, though, is that before today nobody had ever said I looked like Taylor Swift, and today multiple people have. I don’t see it myself, but I think that means the joke backfired.

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Chrissie Swan’s Body Isn’t Your Business Either

So, today Chrissie Swan “confessed” to smoking while pregnant. I’m putting “confessed” in scare quotes because every media outlet seems to be using it and everyone, even Swan herself, is behaving as if she has committed a horrendous transgression against humankind. She made the revelation under duress, because a paparazzo photographed her without her consent (as they always do) and then her management team lost the fight to outbid Women’s Weekly for rights to the photos. Swan has spoken on her radio show and on television, obviously very distressed and breaking down in tears during both speeches.

There are so many things wrong with this situation, I hardly know where to begin.

First of all, I never stop being appalled at our collective lust for the private details of celebrities’ lives, especially our hyena-like hunger to tear them apart at the slightest hint of wrongdoing or flaw. Secondly, I’m disgusted by the way the media and audiences are treating Swan like a naughty child who needs to be scolded and patronised. It’s clear she knew perfectly well that smoking while pregnant was not ideal, and that she struggled desperately both with the smoking itself and the decision to keep it secret. She does not need to be schooled on the evils of cigarettes (I’d be surprised if ANYONE living in Australia is unaware of the health ramifications of smoking these days).

On that note, I’m sure everyone must realise this, but cigarettes are addictive. Nicotine, like any other drug of addiction, changes the chemical makeup of a person’s brain and makes quitting hard for most and all but impossible for some. Just because you – or your mum, or your auntie or your boss’s brother – have had success in quitting permanently does not mean everyone will have the same experience. We’re all dealing with different things in our lives and we all have different bodies which may respond differently to nicotine and to withdrawal. Lots of people quit multiple times before they are finally able to stop smoking for good and sadly plenty of people quit multiple times and still die of smoking-related diseases. It’s not an issue of sheer willpower. Willpower is not always enough.

There is a psychological and emotional component to cigarette addiction as well as a chemical one. When I was nineteen I smoked, at parties, bars and clubs, for a grand total of one month. I only got through one pack of light cigarettes before I decided to give up, so I was far from addicted and I didn’t so much have to quit as just not buy another pack. And even I found myself craving a cigarette sometimes, in stressful situations (especially social ones). As recently as last year – over seven years since my last cigarette – I smelled the nostalgic combo of bourbon and tobacco on a friend of mine and, to my great surprise, desperately wanted a smoke. There’s no possibility that I have ever been chemically addicted to nicotine, and yet the impulse remained.

I’m mostly in favour of the lengths the Australian government has gone to to restrict when and where people can smoke. I enjoy being able to go to a club or a bar without coming home smelling like an ashtray, and I imagine that would be even more the case if I worked in one of those places. I approve of making various public spaces no smoking zones, and from the research I have read on its efficacy in preventing uptake of cigarette smoking, especially in young people, the plain packaging initiative seems like an excellent idea to me.

But this incident and people’s reactions to it are not the same as a public initiative to restrict smoking and deter people from smoking. This is the court of public opinion attacking a single individual person for smoking while pregnant. The government initiatives, even where they add to stigma against smokers, are about reducing the harm caused by cigarettes (to smokers and others) and assisting people to make good decisions about cigarettes, by deterring them from starting to smoke or helping them to quit smoking when they want to. This furore isn’t about trying to help Chrissie Swan or anyone else quit smoking, and I suspect if she wasn’t pregnant there would be little scandal around the photographs at all, even though it might be embarrassing to her. This isn’t even about reducing the harm caused by cigarette addiction during pregnancy, or people might recognise that by limiting her smoking as much as she can Swan is trying to reduce harm to her foetus, and struggling.

This is about pregnant women’s bodies being public property. Because Swan’s uterus has a future person inside it, people not only believe that her body is no longer solely her own – which is a larger issue for another time, perhaps – but that her body is now THEIR property to comment on. Even when they have no relationship to her or the foetus she is carrying. Even when they don’t even know her. And pregnant women get this all the time, over all sorts of things; their eating habits, their weight, exercise, medication, alcohol and so on. Not just from the health professionals they deliberately engage to discuss their pregnancy, but from family, friends, and complete strangers in the street. The more information we have about possible risks during pregnancy, the more people think that pregnant women’s bodies and behaviours are their business.

My mother told my a story as we watched the news this evening about when she was seven months pregnant with me. She went to a bar with some friends and had a single glass of wine, her first since she started trying to get pregnant, and a friend of hers came up to her and said “you’ve waited so long to have a baby, do you really think you should risk drinking while you’re pregnant?” This was a double shot of presumptuousness because mum hadn’t been trying to get pregnant for long even though she had been married for around eight years, but furthermore it was fucking rude.

Perhaps if there were not such stigma and shame associated with people being unable to quit smoking (or other drugs), and if it were not compounded with the additional stigma and shame associated with being seen as a Bad Mother (TM), it would be easier for someone like Chrissie Swan – who wanted to quit smoking while pregnant and found she couldn’t – to seek help and support from a doctor and those close to her.

It’s the golden rule all over again: Not your body, not your business. Not even if that body is pregnant. Not even if that body belongs to someone famous. Not. Your. Business.

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I Don’t Care if You’re Healthy

A button style badge, half pink and half white, with the slogan "NOT YOUR BODY. NOT YOUR BUSINESS".Source: Everyday Feminism Shop

A button style badge, half pink and half white, with the slogan “NOT YOUR BODY. NOT YOUR BUSINESS.”
Buy from the Everyday Feminism Shop

Let’s be clear. I don’t actually give a flying fuck whether being fat is or can be healthy or not.

A person’s right to an enjoyable life, to be treated with respect and to have access to all the things I want fat people to have access to, such as quality medical care and clothes that fit, is not predicated on how healthy they are.

I am not interested in proving my worth to others by living up to anybody else’s standards of healthiness. My worth, like the worth of every human being, is self-evident. The right to basic human respect is not conferred upon us once we fulfil certain conditions, every one of us is inherently entitled to it.

How healthy I am and how much effort I put into developing or mainting “good health” is nobody’s business but mine. Not mine and my friends’ and family’s. Not mine and my doctor’s. Not mine and taxpayers’. Mine.

Undoing harmful stereotypes is valuable work, and I completely understand the desire of fat athletes to push the message that you can be fit, athletic and fat, and that fatness does not preclude displays of physical prowess. I think fat dancers and fat marathon runners and fat gymnasts and so on are excellent, and deserve as much credit for their skills as any thin athlete.

But where does promoting the existence of fit fatties leave those of us who are not athletes, who are not paragons of fitness, who have chronic illnesses or disabilities, or simply don’t care very much about jogging or eating all our vegetables? To me, the dark side of “fat people can be fit and healthy too” is an implicit support of the notion that being fit and healthy is what confers on fat people the right to respect and fair treatment. It isn’t. Being people is why we have a right to respect and fair treatment.

That only healthy fatties deserve respect is not the message fit fatties are trying to promote; I don’t for a moment think that activists like Ragen Chastain or other fat athletes who spend time pointing out what they can do believe fat people who are less fit or flexible or active than they are don’t deserve the same respect they do. But it’s a message that sometimes comes across anyway. Fat activists seem to spend so much of our time and energy debunking myths about what fat people can’t do, and yet fat stigma persists (as is clear from Ragen’s numerous posts about confronting fat hate with demonstrations of her own fitness). How many times have I heard thinner people or media say “I’m all for body acceptance, but you’ve got to be healthy” or “fat acceptance is fine as long as you’ve got a healthy lifestyle”?

No. Fat acceptance is fine, the end. If your “lifestyle” is not hurting anyone else then it is nobody else’s business.

You know what does make fat people unhealthy? Internalised fat stigma. And as long as not being fit enough or healthy enough or active enough or not putting some arbitrarily determined amount of energy into “being healthy” is an excuse to treat fat people like subhumans, then fat stigma and its negative health outcomes for fat people will persist.

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