by Linda Bacon, PhD, with Melissa A. Fabello, M.Ed.
Sarai Walker emails me, disillusioned, feeling beaten down after months of being in the public eye as a fat ambassador. Sarai is author of the recently released Dietland, a feminist manifesto wherein heroine Plum Kettle confronts her fantasy of becoming thin, the false promises of diet culture, the depths of socially sanctioned misogyny, and eventually learns to love her 300 pound body. Sarai is nervous the night before her heartfelt essay, “Yes, I’m Fat, It’s Okay. I Said It,” goes to print in the New York Times Sunday Review, where she describes the resistance – and outright hatred – she’s encountered since book release.
The fat-shaming Sarai has experienced comes not only from those who blatantly show their bigotry, but in the form of judgment (or pity) from those who profess to care, citing health concerns. Her experience is not unique – unfortunately, it’s shared by many writers and others who unashamedly “live fat.”
I struggle to come up with a response that might help her through the hard times, to hold her hand across the miles, all too aware that the (unearned) privilege of my slender body offers me some protection when I speak the same truth to power.
As a scientist and researcher with three graduate degrees in weight-related disciplines, I’ve come to the same conclusions Sarai has (and have co-authored on these topics in peer-reviewed journals and a book): that the health concerns blamed on weight are grossly misinformed and exaggerated (drop the “fat is bad” assumption, and the data take on very different meaning); that the mandate to diet and lose weight runs counter to everything we know about physiologic regulation of weight; that regardless of weight, or despite what is commonly believed about health, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect; and so on. I was glad to see Sarai’s reference to the Health at Every Size® and Fat Acceptance movements, which are helping to challenge the cultural assumptions and critically re-examine the data, supporting us all in inhabiting our bodies with respect, regardless of size.
I wish I had an easy response to soothe her pain, and that of the others who dare to inhabit their fat bodies, to help us all recognize sizeism for what it is, and relish the strength we’ve drawn on to survive it. My initial response seems so facile, and so universal. I want to reassure all: You are okay just the way you are, fat body and all, deserving of dignity and respect. The problem resides in the culture, not your body, though the pain is felt at the intersection. You are okay, not in spite of your fat body, but because of your fat body – because that body played a role in all the experiences that define your uniqueness, and what you have to contribute today.
While I don’t wish adversity on anyone, I do believe that embracing experiences of adversity can result in making us better people in the long run: kinder, more compassionate, more empathetic. It’s a sad truth that life doesn’t always treat us well, and some of us don’t have the experience of seeing our worthiness reflected back in mainstream culture. But places of refuge do exist, and we can continue to strengthen our communities. I wish for all our fat ambassadors, for all of us, safe haven, and, until then, the defenses to manage the cruelty and unfairness life dishes.
And a message to those who persist in “concern trolling” about health: Recognize this: respect should not be contingent on health or health habits. Educate yourself. Weight stigma and discrimination are much more health-damaging than fat tissue can ever be. If you are truly concerned about the health ramifications of someone’s large body, be part of the solution, not the problem: show others respect and compassion, rather than shaming and blaming people for their weight or suggesting they change it.
I also have some words of advice to slender allies who want to be helpful. It’s a little safer for those of us delivering a size acceptance message in a thinner body. My academic degrees, white skin, and a host of other privileges make my platform even safer. Our relative ease in moving in the world and naming these issues exists because of weight bias and perhaps other forms of discrimination, as much as we may not like to admit that. It was a hard learning experience for me to notice the ways in which I have benefitted from fat hate, even as it was unintentional complicity. But once I understood that, it changed the landscape: I realize that speaking out is not about compassion or trying to help others, but as part of finding my humanity.
And when I embraced diversity from true openness to seeing other people – not as a self-righteous do-gooder – I found my world so much richer and more fulfilled. This, to me, is the essential learning point: participation in the movement to dismantle the anti-obesity paradigm is not about liberating others, but part of my own liberation.
To all of us who want a better world, let’s unite in supporting one another and dismantling the damaging systems of oppression and privilege, in all the forms that takes.
And my final words to our fat ambassadors: Yes, You’re Fat. It’s Okay. Say It Loud. Or Quiet. Own It. You’re bigger than your detractors, in ways far more important than physical size.
Yours, in community…
Linda Bacon, with Melissa A. Fabello
Attribution: written by Linda Bacon, with editorial support and guidance from Melissa A. Fabello
Dr. Linda Bacon is an internationally recognized authority on weight and health. A health professor and researcher, she holds graduate degrees in physiology, psychology, and exercise metabolism, with a specialty in nutrition, and has conducted federally funded studies on diet and health. Well known for her provocative political and social commentary, Dr. Bacon has generated a large following on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, health and nutrition listservs and specialty blogs, and the international lecture circuit. She has published her work in top scientific journals as well as the highly acclaimed bestseller, Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Her more recently released book, Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, or Just Fail to Understand about Weight, co-authored with Dr. Lucy Aphramor, challenges mainstream assumptions and is transforming the weight discourse.
Melissa A. Fabello is a body acceptance and eating disorder activist, scholar in the field of sexology, and Jurassic Park enthusiast based in Philadelphia, PA. Currently, Melissa works as a Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, the largest independent feminist media website in the world, and is a doctoral candidate in Widener University’s Human Sexuality Studies program, where her research focuses on how women with anorexia nervosa experience skin hunger. You can contact her through her website and follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.