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August 19, 2009 / Katie

Subtle Fat Hatred

Melissa McEwan made an absolutely heart-wrenching blog post a few days ago over at Shakesville, called The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck. Here’s a quote, right after talking about how she often has a generalized mistrust of men:

My mistrust is not, as one might expect, primarily a result of the violent acts done on my body, nor the vicious humiliations done to my dignity. It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark my every relationship with a man—the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the careless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreaction, the eyerolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language (“humankind”).

The “mundane betrayals” are often where our hearts are really and truly broken. It’s the “little things,” the “careless” comments here and there. And this is the bargain that we strike: we either keep silent about these things and avoid conflict, or are honest with our lovers, our friends, our uncles, our grandfathers. The way Melissa words the dilemma is this: “Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?”

Go read her post, because it is extremely poignant and the 278 comments (before she closed commenting!) attest to how much this message is needed. And then come back and read the rest of this post, because I’m going to talk about the same phenomenon, but as it relates to fat acceptance.

I called this post “Subtle Fat Hatred” because I never really experienced fat hatred in extreme ways. I was not taunted or bullied the way so many fat kids are. The worst I’ve experienced is some anonymous online commenter saying: “shut up, fatty; no one likes you” on a personal blog I was keeping a few years ago. But I’ve experienced so much subtle fat hatred, that cut me to the bone, and forced me into a terrible dilemma: do I speak up and piss everyone off, get called “over-sensitive” or be told that I’m reading something that’s not really there? Or do I just stay silent, compromising my own sense of integrity, to keep the peace? Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?

This takes the form of coworkers congratulating each other on weight loss. It takes the form of a teenager looking critically at another and whispering to her friend, “she should NOT be wearing that—look at her fat rolls!” It takes the form of a friend sitting across from me, talking about the fat content in her candy bar as if it were the cyanide content. It takes the form of a female relative saying to me, “you could wear this dress of mine, but it wouldn’t fit you” even though I had never brought up the idea of borrowing it in the first place. I mention all of these because they are all real-life examples, and they are all times when I stayed silent—I swallowed the pain—and tried to ignore it. So I wouldn’t ruin the afternoon.

And then there’s the other kind of subtle hatred; the kind that minimizes, the kind that derails, the kind that says, “really? Aren’t you just overreacting?” It’s the kind that attempts to discredit the real-life experiences of folks who are oppressed. Monday night I made a critical post about Young Life and one commenter said:

Most of the previous comments talked about how the youth at their local YL group acted…anyone ever have any negative interactions with the local leadership, or even witness the negative behavior from these kids in front of their leaders? Just sounds like a strong bias against those popular kids who were YL members who made have made life in high school tougher.

Now, in fact, in my high school, the YL leaders did set the tone for exclusivity. The leaders would come to the cafeteria and eat lunch with the students—always sitting at the table with the “popular kids.” Not once in three years did anyone, a leader or a youth, approach me to ask if I wanted to come to YL, even if they knew me from other Christian groups like Philia, the emergent home church I helped lead! The comment also ignores the problem of invisibility. It assumes that identifiable “bad behavior” must have taken place and ignores the reality that many of us maybe were never treated badly by members or leaders of YL groups, it’s that we were never treated any way at all. We were ignored, invisible, silenced.

But all of that is truly beside the point, because in terms of pure ethics (setting aside pragmatics) the oppressed do not have to justify themselves to the oppressors, especially in a space like this that is devoted to liberation of fat folks. And I was pretty frank in pointing that out in comments, but I only wish I could be so frank pointing it out face-to-face. I all too often falter, let my gaze fall downward, smile and give a little giggle and say, “well, yeah, of course it’s true that some people had a good experience at YL, and maybe the word ‘evil’ really was too extreme… silly me.” But at the end of the day, we could argue forever about the terms “evil” and “sin” (which I think we shy away from unnecessarily, but that’s a different post) but by re-focusing the discussion on the use of semantics or the plight of the privileged, the voices of the oppressed are again marginalized, silenced, and discredited.

I wish I had an answer, I really do. I know that I am tired of being defeated, tired of the subtle hatred. I am tired of the “terrible bargain” that Melissa McEwan talks about regretfully striking. But I continue to do it, in some of my relationships, to keep the peace, to keep from “ruining the afternoon,” to keep my relationships intact. I will say this though, it’s not going to happen here. This is a place where we who are oppressed because of the size or shape of our body can speak, and be heard. I can’t guarantee that derailing, marginalizing, and silencing tactics won’t be utilized by others in comments (especially given that comments are not currently moderated) but I can guarantee that such tactics will not go unaddressed here. It may be a relatively small and insignificant space, at the moment, but it is going to be a place where fat folks can really speak our truth and not be silenced.

9 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Natalie L. / Aug 19 2009 7:37 pm

    Thank you for starting this blog. It is just what I need right now.

  2. tobebeautiful / Aug 19 2009 9:38 pm

    As someone who has been on both sides of the “fat equation”, I completely agree with you. There needs to be acceptance in the world. It may be a slow change. People may resist it and cling to their images of beauty and acceptable, but there will be a change. It starts with one person and eventually the snowball effect kicks in.

    So in response to you “not having an answer”, here is what I have to say: Yes, you do. You have your life. The answer lies in the moment you started to change what you see as beautiful and acceptable. It may not seem big or huge- but it is a start.

    Great post.

  3. Brady / Aug 22 2009 11:54 am

    As a fat folksperson, I agree that people need to feel like they can speak and not be silenced. However, we also need to allow criticsm, especially well-intentioned criticsm: as a learning tool for people new to the discussion and as something for us to learn from.

    It can be really hard to draw the boundary lines. I wish that you have clarity in that.

    I have the gift of never being afraid to speak up. (well, almost never. There have been a handful of times). I want to learn and grown and discuss ideas critically. I welcome dissent, as long as it’s well-meant and not hurtful.

    • Katie / Aug 22 2009 12:22 pm

      Brady, I don’t think we disagree at all in terms of theory :) In fact, if you see how I responded in the comment thread on the YL post I pointed out that disagreement isn’t only welcome here, I consider it truly necessary for mutual understanding (well, disagreement isn’t necessary all the time, just that if someone disagrees, it is necessary for them to feel safe actually, you know, disagreeing, or else mutual understanding can’t be reached). So while you and I agree in theory, maybe our disagreement is in practice—whether or not the comments I talked about here were “well-meant and not hurtful.” Or, as I would put it, “respectful and in good faith.”

      As you said, drawing the boundaries is hard. I spent a lot of time thinking about this situation to see what was really going on. The commenter I’m talking about came in and essentially said, “but what about the poor popular kids?” I engaged the commenter, asking him/her some direct questions, and was treated as if invisible by them (ironic, since that is the specific pain I was talking about healing from in the entry). They did not respond to me, they responded to another commenter, even though part of the comment addressed what *I* had said. Nothing about this fits my definition of “respectful and in good faith.” What I understood this commenter to be saying was: “oh come on, you’re making too big a deal out of this. What about the poor popular kids? All this is is a personal bias against them.” That’s minimizing and silencing tactics, not good faith criticism. There are many other ways that the commenter could have replied that would have brought up the same criticism (is “evil” too strong a word? That’s an interesting conversation! Let’s have it!) and I would have been delighted. But my experience in reading the comments was to feel the same exact thing that I felt wrt YL in high school: silenced, shamed, and invisible. I hope that makes sense, and I definitely appreciate you speaking up to clarify this!

      I also just want to say that it may seem I’m coming down hard but what I’m doing is twofold. One is I want to make the boundaries very clear at the outset because, ideally I’d like to not have to keep fighting this same battle over and over (we’ll see if that’s really the case). And two is all the other smallish fat acceptance blogs have moderated comments. And I can imagine why. By being very clear and firm about what my boundaries are, I’m hoping that will help with me being able to keep comments unmoderated here.

  4. Brady / Aug 22 2009 12:31 pm

    Katie, Thank you for taking the time to respond to my query and doing it in such a thoughtful way! I appreciate the clarification on boundaries and I think that I appreciate where you’re coming from. I look forward to being a continued reader of this wonderful blog!

  5. Anonymous / Aug 27 2009 2:29 am

    I thought you said your comments were unmoderated here? You just deleted my fairly civil comment without even answering my points?

    • Katie / Aug 27 2009 9:28 am

      comments are unmoderated in the sense that I don’t have to approve them; I do delete some comments and my comment policy explains the criteria I use.

      I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to delete or keep your comment. If you’d posted your email address I would have emailed you to discuss your comment outside the blog, because this really isn’t the place for that, but you didn’t list an email address. Feel free to check out my most recent post on the subject.

      I do hope you’ll stick around, I genuinely mean that. Please note however that this is not the place to challenge basic assumptions about Fat Activism. There are other places for that.

      • Mike Arthur / Aug 28 2009 1:35 am

        I read the most recent post and the items you linked and I’ll post my thoughts on your main blog post.

        I debated anonymity or not and I realised it wasn’t a good call and if I could go back and change it I would, as a result I’ll open up on the other post.

        Thanks for the reply.

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