Dear Fat Person: You’re Not Welcome

Author’s note: Characters are purely fictional. Trigger warnings for the kind of rank hate and annoyance fat people put up with every day. 

Dear fat person,

1. You’re not welcome to have this job, though you’re the most qualified applicant we’ve seen. Calories in = calories out is so simple, and so obviously true. You being fat means you’re stupid and lazy, despite your qualifications and experience. What we will do if we have to fly you places, pay double? We also can’t afford someone like you on the company insurance plan. I mean, you’ve got to be pretty unhealthy being so big, right? But we’d be happy to have you as long as you sign a contract to be part of our voluntary Biggest Loser program.

2. You’re not welcome at the reunion. Don’t you realize fatness means you’ve failed, regardless of what you’ve accomplished since high school/college? I mean, look at your old best friend–she’s still super hot. What, you won a Pulitzer? Neat. Whatever. Isn’t your friend hot?

3. You’re not welcome in this fertility clinic. Don’t you realize people like you shouldn’t get pregnant? That you’re putting your baby at gigantic risk at all stages of its development? You will surely get diabetes and have a huge baby and need a c-section, and later you’ll overfeed your child and let it watch TV all day. People like you are ruining the next generation. However, we will sterilize you.

4. You’re not welcome to respond to my online dating profile. What made you think I’d be okay with dating a fat person? You need to make your profile all about how you’re fat, otherwise it’s false advertising, baby. You’re just trying to trick awesome people like moi into dating you. Like that would ever happen. I’ll still have sex with you, though. But only because I’m in a dry spell. You know how it is.

5. You’re not welcome at this audition. It doesn’t matter how good your acting/dancing/singing/modeling is. You’re an eyesore. Who wants to look at you jiggling up there, too-large, lacking so much grace by virtue of your fat (though your form is impeccable)? It’s unfair to the other actors and singers, darling. How can you expect them to be able to work with someone of your…proportions? You’re talented, so I’ll make a deal with you: come back when you’ve lost some weight, and we’ll talk. Kisses!

6. You’re not welcome to exist as fat, especially if you want to walk around in public, or to comment on the kinds of blogs or articles I like to comment on. What would happen if a workaday troll like me didn’t harass you, didn’t let you know how unwanted you are? You might get to thinking you’re, I dunno, accepted or something, like you’re not some big ugly problem, or that–heaven forfend–you have the same right to respect as nonfat folks or dieters. Hey, don’t blame me. It’s your fault for daring to be fat at us.

7. You’re not welcome to decide how to take care of yourself, if that decision doesn’t place weight loss first and foremost. I know. I’m a doctor.

8. You’re not welcome in this society, though we expect you to keep making contributions to programs you’ll be barred from using, and paying taxes for a war against people like yourself. Oh, and I’ll appreciate your vote this November, thanks!

The 95% Problem

A much-touted number around the Fatosphere is 95%. 95% of diets fail to keep weight off long-term, and many diets add weight onto the baseline by the end of the diet cycle, and repeatedly as many times as a dieter cycles over his/her life.

I see this argument in comments on articles that bring out the fat-haters and concern trolls; I see this argument in blog posts; this argument has been used in fat studies and HAES literature.

What I’m going to address today is what I call the 95% problem. That is, why the 95% number fails to convince many people of the ultimate futility of dieting and the relative impossibility of making a fat person permanently thin.

The set of characters I tend to run across, enumerated below, accept and believe in the 95% number to some extent. They just don’t think that it’s a reasonable argument (or excuse, as they put it) for why the diet is failing, and not the dieter.

1. The anecdotalist. Sure, it’s hard to lose weight. But I personally (or a friend) just spent X weeks eating healthy/paleo/vegan/low-carb/low-cal/cleanse, and I’ve lost Y lbs. It was easy, and I don’t see any problem keeping it up. 

The implication being: that current dieters in the honeymoon part of their diet, or first-time dieters, or non-dieters (with the friend who lost weight) are part of the 5%. The 95% are all those inferior people who didn’t have the superior willpower/diet plan/education of the person who lost weight successfully.

2. The social engineer. Sure, it’s hard to lose weight. I’m not fat and I can afford to eat paleo/low-carb/etc, and the membership fee to a nice indoor gym. So we need to make it so everyone else can afford those things. There’s a reason most fat people are poor!

The implication being: that 95% fail their diets because they don’t have enough money to buy superior food, or that they don’t have access to superior food/exercise, and so on. The belief is that fat people can be made permanently thin if only they could eat a superior paleo/low-carb/vegan/low-cal/etc diet and exercise X min a day on socially-approved treadmills.

3. The moralist. No, it isn’t hard to lose weight. Fat people are just lazier than regular people. It isn’t surprising that 95% of them can’t manage to pry their butts from their couches, or bother to learn to cook vegetables. I mean, how hard is it to eat an apple instead of a Twinkie? Seriously. Oh, and those fatties who say they work out and eat right are obviously lying, or think that ‘eating right’ means snarfing S’mores on whole wheat graham crackers or something.

The obvious implication (the moralists don’t tend to mince their words as much as the others): that 95% diets fail because fat(ter) people are morally inferior to ‘normal’ people. It’s an argument from uninformed, bigoted logic that ignores all scientific points thrown its way. Moralists are also good at projecting their anti-scientific beliefs on others: when someone responds to their ‘lazy’ comment with a study or article disproving something they said, they claim the responder is ‘cherry-picking,’ then link to the CDC stats on obesity like this is an end-all refutation. Moralists also like to connect fatness to social ills like global warming and consumerism (if progressive), or lack of self-responsibility and bloated social entitlements (if libertarian).

4. The self-loather. Well, I’m fat (or recently gained weight) and I’m tired/lethargic/short of breath/in pain, and I know personally that I eat too much/eat emotionally/binge eat/am addicted to food/eat too much sugar/(reason du jour). Though it’s hard to make changes, I have to if I want to feel better.

The implication being: that all fat people are just like this person—they feel generally unwell, out of shape, they eat junk, and so on. The commenter is faux-sympathetic to their plight, but is certain that most fatness still comes down to bad behavior/brokenness/stupidity/ignorance, and not to any kind of biological mechanism. This person believes in the 95% number but still think they should forge ahead with their plan to ‘fix’ themselves. They believe that healthy/normal/smart/educated people are naturally thin(ner), or at least not as fat as they are/were.

5. The immortal. Well, X disease (correlated to fatness) runs in my family. So I need to diet constantly, or else there’s a good chance I’ll get fat and get X disease. Or: I have X disease correlated with fatness. I have to lose weight in order to deal with my condition/have the best chance of living normally.

The implication being: that fat causes X disease (not just correlated, and not the other way around), and that weight loss is the main treatment/preventative measure. These individuals might agree that 95% of people fail to lose weight and keep it off long term, but still maintain that they personally are required to. This attitude subtly implies that willpower and desire is the key to entering the vaunted 5%, and further, that those in the 95% must have less willpower and desire to lose weight than those who “have to.”

6. The genetic superior. Well, sure it’s hard to lose weight and I personally don’t have to worry about it, but you should still try to lose weight. Even if it takes the equivalent of a part-time job, loads of cash, and constant vigilance. Even if it makes you sad and crazy. Sorry. Them’s the breaks (dear gosh I’m so glad not to be you!). 

This one kind of explains itself. And yes, I was involved with someone once (a thin guy) who said I had to lose 50 lbs to be ‘hot enough’ for him, and when I cried, he said, “We all have our trials and tribulations.” This was also when I was near my thinnest.

What about you—what kind of arguments do you come across that try to refute the power of the 95% number? And did you have trouble accepting this number at first, or was it (like it was for me) a lightning-bolt to the brain of sudden, joyous, clarity?

Unpacking the Fat: People Like Me

1. People like me get thrown off flights, especially if they’re too full, and asked to pay double for the privilege of waiting for the next one.

2. People like me can’t shop in most malls. We get strange looks and downright condescension if we go into certain stores.

3. I can’t turn on the TV and expect to see someone like me, in general. If I do, then that person is almost always being portrayed as something broken to be fixed, or otherwise in a negative light.

4. When I see people like me talked about in the news, it’s about how horrible people like me are, and what is the best way to get rid of people like me.

5. If I go to an adoption agency I will be told that people like me shouldn’t be parents.

6. If I go to an infertility clinic I will be told that people like me shouldn’t be parents.

7. If my child is someone like me (which they have a good chance of being) I will be told I shouldn’t be a parent. My child might even get taken away from me.

8. I can’t open a magazine and expect to see people like me. However I can expect to see ad after ad for products on how to prevent becoming like me, or how to ‘fix’ someone like me.

9. If I ride the subway/bus, I get dirty looks. People don’t think someone like me deserves to sit. If I stand, they tell me that I’m in the way of everyone else.

10. If I take a walk down the street in a populated area I can expect to be told how horrible I am from passing cars, pedestrians, people in shops — anyone I meet. I might even get things thrown at me, like garbage.

11. If I go to the gym I can expect to get talked down to, and treated like the reason I’m there is to ‘fix’ myself from being so broken and horrible.

12. If I drive my car instead of walk it’s taken as proof of why people like me are horrible. If I don’t go to a public gym it’s taken as proof of why people like me are so horrible.

13. There is big money for people who are trying to eliminate  people like me. They especially want to eliminate children who are like me. Most other people, even some people like me, think this is a wonderful thing. They hail an ‘enlightened’ future world that no longer has people like me in it.

14. People like me are blamed for the broken healthcare system.

15. People like me are blamed for global warming.

16. People like me are told that we can’t do certain things, and when we do, we’re told that we’re the exception that proves the rule.

17. I pay three times as much as what other people do for clothes, and it’s often much worse quality, style, fit, and selection. Clothes for people like me are segregated in stores and online, if they are available at all.

18. With some regularity the media debates on morning and news shows if people like me should exist, and how best to get rid of us if not.

19. People like me aren’t in trendy establishments. We are either barred from going, or the place can’t accommodate us, or we get condescended to and pressured to leave as soon as we walk through the door.

20. I can wear the same style and cut of clothing as someone who is not like me, and told that while it is perfectly decent on her, it is indecent on me.

21. People like me are told that we shouldn’t leave the house because of how awful we are, but that we are so awful because we never leave the house.

22. People like me are denied life-saving surgeries and the opportunity to donate organs unless we change.

23. My friends and family think it’s their duty to tell me how horrible I am, and how I should change.

24. People like me are told that we are stupid, lazy, immoral, and broken with regularity. I can expect to hear this several times a day.

25. People like me are never the heroes of books or movies. We are usually cast as the villain.

26. People like me have a harder time getting hired. Employers believe that people like me aren’t good representatives of their company, regardless of our skills, work ethic, experience, or talent. People like me are much less likely to appear in employee circulars and marketing materials. There are even workplace groups and contests where people like me are rewarded for altering themselves, and people who aren’t like me are rewarded for not being like me.

27. People like me are told that we aren’t as intelligent as other people. We are told that it is impossible for us to be economists, health care workers, or honest debaters.

28. People like me are told that we are the worst witnesses to our own experience. We are called liars if we relay experiences that do not hold true to what mainstream culture says about people like me. People who call us liars aren’t just our enemies – they are doctors, nurses, teachers, and our own family.

29. For people like me, social events like family gatherings and class reunions are often battlefields.

30. There is a whole month of the year dedicated to eliminating or preventing people like me. It’s called “Resolution Season” and is widely viewed as a positive and constructive, rather than negative and destructive, phenomenon. During this time of the year it’s nearly impossible to watch television, open a newspaper/magazine, read online media, or walk down a city street without being reminded that people like me are undesirable.

31. Many Western countries have publicly funded campaigns which claim people like me are a problem to be rid of.

32. The very existence of people like me is called one of the top problems of our modern age.

DISCLAIMER: Not complete, nor in any particular order. A list like this is always a work in progress. I might edit to add more later. Feel free to add your own in the comments, and I might add them to the list. Thanks to the authors of the many privilege-unpacking lists I’ve seen in my time.

EDIT (2/9/12): Added #26 – #31. 

The Conflation of Poor and Fat

You’ve heard it around. It makes it onto the various fat feeds from time-to-time. It even regularly pops up on Progressive blogs that are otherwise less judgmental of people of size. That is, some version of:

“Poor people are fatter on average because they have less access to the ‘right’ foods and less ability/time to do the ‘right’ exercise.”

I won’t go into the much-pitched and varied solutions to the statement above; rather, I want to talk about the statement above as a statement of fact. Because I’ve rarely been in a space, even a fat-positive space, where the statement above isn’t taken as a statement of fact.

But really, isn’t this just another example of correlation = causation?

That is, where is the proof that if the average poor fat family eats the same foods and does the same exercise as the average middle-class, average-weight family, they will become average-weight?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

That’s what I fucking thought.

I’m tired of the “Poor fats are fat because of their bad habits!” whether or not their habits are apologized for afterwards as being not their fault (the case in Progressive blogs, not so much in conservative spaces). It’s condescending, elitist, and makes me fucking furious. Unless you can back up your claims please cut that shit out. The vast majority of people are fat because they’re programmed to be fat, with some variation in a narrow range (like 30 lbs). (see my Truth About Fat: References)

Also, the perpetuation of the “Poor fats are fat because of diet/exercise” trope silences actual useful research as to why poorer people in “First World Countries” (I hate that fucking phrase) are fatter on average than their richer counterparts. That is, I believe discrimination, racism, and expectations play a much larger role than we think, and that understanding those factors as they contribute to the “poor fat problem” would be enlightening,  interesting, and possibly useful, unlike the tired, recycled, useless “The poor need to be educated to move more and eat better!” bullshit.

What do you think?

Living Our Fat Lives of Active Isolation

This isn’t going to be the most coherent post. I’m angry, sad, and exhausted. I’m tired of being marginalized, and see no end in sight. I’m afraid of the opportunities that will be denied to me; I’m afraid of both hyper-visibility and invisibility — all due to the number on the scale.

My day job is in a corporate environment. Every year I help run a big event. Lots of photos are taken during the event — sometimes we hire photographers, sometimes students/staff take photos. We use the photos on our website and for promotional purposes afterwards. Since I help run the event, I’m there during all these ‘happening’ moments when most people are taking photographs. I tend to get into the photographs.

And those photographs I’m in? — get relegated to the dustbin, year after year. That is, there are no photos of me — though I’ve been helping to run the event for four years now — on the website, except in my profile in two shots of more than twenty people standing in a group.

Why, you ask? Well, because I’m both very tall (which isn’t any image-related crime in itself) and I’m very fat (bingo!) so in photos I often look like I’m from some planet of giants while everyone else are happy citizens of Normalville.

It’s pretty obvious. I see it. Still, I’ve got body dysmorphia from a near-lifetime of self-hate related to my body size, which I’m still working to get over (and might never get over), so I understand how I can see everyone else as normal and myself as the daughter of the Jolly Green Giant’s fat cousin.

But who the hell gave other people the right to just cut me out, like I don’t exist, like I don’t deserve to be there? Like my interest, my friendliness with the participants, my intelligence, my talent, my hard work — like those are traits of some invisible ghost and not a real, breathing, live, actual human who exists and takes up space?

I get it. Big fat people like me are a ‘blight’ on photographs, right? We’re ‘disproportionate,’ we stand out like ‘sore thumbs’ amidst the petite women and tall men (who are allowed to be a bit chunky, but not more than a bit). We ‘throw off the balance’ of the photo.

Except that that’s nonsense. How in the hell does a human throw off the balance of any group of humans? Do we not deserve to take up whatever space we’re programmed to take up? Says who? Are we any less human because we’re the size of two (or three) small ones? Is a ‘good’ picture one that lacks as much diversity of the human form as possible? Why? Why am I the ‘blight,’ the ‘disproportionate one’ — or is it that photographers just lack the skill to shoot fat people and thin people together?

And how does this effect the photographs we see of real people doing real things (not advertisements, that is)? As a fat person I often feel like I never see other fat people (especially fat women not in service roles) in photographs of conferences, schools, and professional events. It sends the message that fat people do not attend conferences, schools, or professional events. Could it be, rather, that fat people are being cut out of the photographs, or not photographed at all, because they’re an ‘unattractive blight,’ ‘throw a picture off balance,’ etc?

We attend conferences, schools, and professional events. We exist. Why are we being rubbed out? What is so goddamned offensive about our existence that we get treated the same as the accidental picture you didn’t mean to take of your blurry thumb, in the discard pile without a second thought?

No Empathy for the Fat in Healthcare

I saw this Scientific American article in my Google Reader this morning, and it struck me right away that this — THIS — is what’s missing from the average fat person’s healthcare, compared to the average thinner person.


Missing But Crucial to Successful Healthcare: Empathy

Sure, empathy is in short supply in many doctor’s offices and bigger institutions, with the growing shortage of healthcare professionals in proportion to those who seek care. But many of the horror stories from First, Do No Harm are about a very particular lack of empathy for fat people from those same professionals, whether they be doctors, nurses, surgeons, nutritionists, and so on down the line.

Underlying the lack of empathy is the appalling prevalence of bias against fat people in the medical community, which often starts in medical school.

Many medical researchers also seem to lack empathy for fat people, as they twist themselves into statistical knots trying to make their conclusions fit the anti-obesity paradigm, making recommendations that are tantamount to the eradication of a whole population of people or children without so much as thinking about fat people as individual humans. They never blink an eye at talking about ‘eradicating obesity.’ But there is no such thing as ‘obesity,’ there are only obese people.

Perhaps if doctors had a little empathy, they wouldn’t start in on the weight discussion when their patient just needs antibiotics for a sinus infection. Perhaps if they had a little empathy, they wouldn’t recommend a course of treatment with such a huge failure rate. Perhaps if they had a little empathy, they would help their patient get that kidney transplant/knee replacement/IVF without demanding they first physically uncover the thin person within as some kind of marker of worthiness; that is, they would help their patient find an anaesthesiologist who can handle a person of their size.  Perhaps if they had a little empathy, they’d think about how to make their patient feel better rather than using Ailment X as yet another ‘teachable moment’ about their patient’s weight.

Empathy is crucial to good health care, as mentioned by the article in Scientific American. And for fat people it is, sadly, in particularly short supply.

The Fat Balancing Act

This is a post initiated by Raznay’s “Some Studies Show Fat Is Bad… Mmmkay?” on the never-ending oodles of studies trying in every which way to investigate just why “fat people are so disgusting.” It discusses the implications of the mindset which is generated by assumptions made in these studies — that is, how fat people are commanded to strike an impossible, delicate balancing act in order to be granted the respect and dignity accorded axiomatically to their non-fat peers.

Like Raznay points out, this is often to the detriment of more deserving topics, like cancer research. Then again, many obesity researchers (not all — hi, Dr. Samantha! 🙂 ) I’ve run across in real life, in comments on blogs, and on their own blogs/articles, are convinced that fat cells and hormones are absolutely causing or triggering fat-related diseases in the predisposed.

But I think two major factors are never accounted for in most of these “fat is bad go mutilate yourself/starve your body/feel like a drain on society” studies: dieting history, and current dieting status of participants.

See, lots of fat people diet. In fact, we make up the larger proportion of dieters. (My ‘normal’ -sized stepdaughter would say, “Ew, diet! Why would I ever want to go on one of those? They sound awful.” — but that’s nurture as well as nature, there.)

And those of us who’ve dieted for any length of time know:

  1. Dieting makes brain fuzzy. Huh? What about the food I can’t eat now? Oh you were actually asking a math question? Mmm, math. (Homer drool)
  2. Dieting is very stressful. So is living in a fat-hating world. Researchers are finding out more and more about the deleterious effects of stress on physical health. What they find might account for some the more specious claims correlating cognitive decline and fatness — that is, it might be about anxiety, at bottom.

There are a great many novelists, scientists, and all-around smart people who are big. Some of my most beloved writers are big people. One of my favorite politicians puts Taft to shame. They’re all extremely smart. And they’re not outliers — in fact, I’m willing to wager that intelligent, capable people, correcting for the stress and side effects of a life time of dieting and social stigma, are present in fat populations to the same degree they are present in non-fat populations. If I could commission a study, I would.

Here’s one tweet from the #thingsfatpeoplearetold hashtag which rings particularly true with my own experience of being fat and mingling with ‘intelligentisia.’ —

“Fat people are stupid. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be so fat.”

I’ve especially gotten this impression from intelligentsia who are/were themselves fat and take it upon themselves to expound on their diet/reduction techniques:

“Oh, it’s easy, I just bag up smaller portions and do all my meetings on the treadmill. I rigged a laptop stand and I can just exercise all day if I want to!”

Of course, they’re smart, but they nevertheless don’t seem to make the connection between their twig-like human garbage disposal of a colleague who hasn’t seen a treadmill in forever, and metabolism and predisposition. If all it takes is living on an exercise machine and having bags of carrots and grain around, whose kind of lifestyle are you living? Your thin colleague’s — who is “better” because he is thin — or a horse’s?

And why the hell should fat people have to live like livestock in order to get the most basic kind of respect freely granted to the naturally-thin? (no insult intended to horses or livestock, of course)

Many fat people who’ve played this game long enough know that we’re expected to conduct a very delicate balancing act every day, seven days a week, until we die. We are supposed to “have it all” — aspire to the high-powered position, parenthood, hobbies, and community involvement — while still paying 15+ hours/week of penance on a treadmill, powered by a handful of carrots, oats, and apples. And advertising, of course, since fat isn’t okay unless you’re ‘doing’ something about it. Then you’re a go-getter! But not if you stay fat for too long!

Sound familiar? It’s chasing the dollar on a string. The dollar is basic human respect and dignity; the string is a tool of oppression, that with which we’re controlled and kept in our place. The man working on his treadmill, surrounded by plastic baggies of veg — is he free? And what is he chasing after? Is it thinness, or is it basic human dignity and respect, despite the fact that he is otherwise an example of success? Perhaps he runs to deserve his success in some intangible way unavailable to a person of his size unless human sacrifice is made? And is this the Puritan work ethic rearing its ugly head yet again, or is it something else?

Being seen as a successful, respectable fat person is a delicate balance, one which I’m not sure most people can strike. But should we have to? When do we get to step off of our treadmills, abandon our baggies of ‘good’ treats, and enjoy the world? When do we get to start being more than second class citizens? Isn’t this world — love, drama, beauty, art, travel, science, family, pleasure — isn’t it our world, too?