Feminism

How to Stop Patronizing Your Fat Friend: Fatphobia Edition

Trigger Warning for Body Image Issues and Eating Disorders

Ah, fat — that charged, overloaded, connotation-carrying word. There is a lot I could say about the word, but for the sake of my point, let us fast-forward past the debates over fat-shaming, Health at Every Size, thin privilege, BMI, and so on. Let us make even more haste as we zoom right past people who simply hate fat people for whatever (or no real) reason.

Oh, and for the love of all that is creamy and delicious, let me acknowledge that I am aware that thin women face incredible amounts of body-shame, body image issues, and lookism as well. My discussing issues related specifically to being a fat woman does not invalidate thin women’s problems and pain. As a lifelong fattie, I simply cannot speak for them.

I want to focus on the well-meaning friends, relatives, and lovers of fat people who, in their haste to reassure the people they care about, can’t see the difference between discussions regarding external reality versus talk about self-image.

Over and over again, well-meaning people take away fat women’s ability to discuss the issues that affect them. Often, when a fat woman dares to mention anti-fat bigotry in society, she is told that she should “accept herself” or some variation of that sentiment thereof. Alternately, she might be told that the person in question finds her attractive. What happens is that the assumption that all fat women need to be cheered up and reassured takes precedence over anything the fat woman in question is actually saying.

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Some of the most confident, self-assured ladies I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering are lectured about self-esteem and self-acceptance instead of having their thoughts acknowledged when they speak of anti-fat bias. How incredibly condescending it is to insist that someone is talking about personal sadness when they are describing the reality of their lived experiences. How disappointing it is to the lady in question to find that others’ perceptions of her self-image automatically override the words coming out of her mouth.*

Although I’ve lost a decent amount of weight in the past 18 months, I still firmly qualify as fat, especially here in sunny, superficial Southern California. After years of self-loathing followed by years of working on my self-image issues, I’ve come to a few conclusions, conclusions about which I speak only using the most carefully-curated of words. No matter how much I try to denote exactly what I’m saying, I still get well-meaning but wholly misguided people attempting to soothe me where I needed no comfort in the first place. Worse, their focus on what they perceive to be the issue, i.e. my self-image, robs me of the power to talk about a real issue that affects me, i.e. fat-hate.

I do not think that I am ugly. Au contraire. Why would I spend so much time and effort on buying fun clothing, experimenting with make-up and hair products, and hunting down cute shoes that fit my size 10-11 wide feet — because I think I’m not worth looking at?

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Ha.

There was certainly a time when I thought I wasn’t worth much at all. I shrouded myself in dowdy clothing and applied overly-thick black lines around my eyes, hoping to bring attention to what I thought was my only good feature. That time is well behind me, thank you very much, and I’d like to be treated as the woman I am, not the self-loathing girl I once was.

Though the personal is often political, the political is not always personal.

So if I don’t think I’m ugly, why bring up fat hate? call myself fat or a fattie? mention anti-fat bigotry that has been hurled in my direction?

As good as I feel about myself most of the time, that I don’t live in denial of fat-hate doesn’t mean that I think of myself as unattractive, it means I acknowledge my reality and my lived experiences. I direct attention to society’s hatred of fat people for the exact same reasons that I clamor for attention for unfair discrimination of any kind: in the hopes that people will recognize what they’re doing and, you know, work to change it.

I’m talking not about any perceived ugliness in myself, I’m talking about how ugly society can be.

So, how exactly can you stop patronizing your fat relative, friend, or lover when she speaks of that kind of ugliness? If she mentions society’s shitty treatment of her, you can stop denying her experiences and instead say, “Wow, that is really shitty!” Even better, when you see shitty behavior, you can call it out or at least not participate in it.

* If she is actually hating on herself, that’s a different matter, one to be addressed in a future post.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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10 Comments

  1. Oh, and for the love of all that is creamy and delicious, let me acknowledge that I am aware that thin women face incredible amounts of body-shame, body image issues, and lookism as well. My discussing issues related specifically to being a fat woman does not invalidate thin women’s problems and pain. As a lifelong fattie, I simply cannot speak for them.

    That you felt you had to include this caveat bespeaks volumes about the every-asshole-with-a-defensive-opinion problem online. I don’t have eye muscles strong enough to roll them at thin women who want to butt into a discussion about fat-shaming with, “But I have problems, too!”

  2. “Lookism” – I like the word.
    There’s two of us “vertically and horizontally challenged” types working in one room here and some bastard put a sticker on the door saying “I’m a bit heavy” It was meant to be a health and safety sticker advising against lifting heavy weights without assistance, but in the context of the culture here it was probably an attempt at anonymous bullying.

    Fortunately neither of us really gives a rat’s tossbag about our appearance, but I was disappointed when my colleague removed the sticker because I was working on ideas for a bit of creative alteration! (See previous posts regarding the BUGGA UP anti-cigarette marketing campaign)

  3. You’re dead on target here. This is absolutely a problem, and you nailed exactly the right response for a one on one interaction.

    I’m not sure what we can do about it in the wider culture, though, and that’s really frustrating.

  4. I love the reflexive “you’re not fat!” people the most, I think. It doesn’t matter what context I mention being fat – even if it’s something along the lines of, no, I can’t shop there, they don’t carry my size, people do the “but you’re not fat!”. Dude. I’m 5’3″ and weigh 250 pounds. When you say “but you’re not fat!” you just look completely ridiculous. Saying “I’m fat” is not a character judgement, it’s not saying I hate myself, it’s simply a statement of fact. I am, in fact, fat. By every measure of the definition, I am fat. Please stop thinking that denying facts is somehow going to make me ‘feel better’ when I didn’t feel bad about stating the fact in the first place. (Especially in relation to the fact that, no, I really can’t shop there, they don’t carry plus sizes.)

  5. Right on.
    I must admit I used to be that person. I had a body that quite conformed to the beauty standards (extremely thin and tall) and I used to tell my friend who would complain about fat issues that I thought they were beautiful and that I wish I had sexy curves like them. I can’t believe I thought that was appropriate.
    Then I gained a lot of weight after health problems about 4 years ago, and I can now only blow my nose in my old clothes. And I get to taste my own medicine.
    I hope awareness can help people see their privilege in this case. I really think these are receptive, caring people, they just don’t hear why their compliment is patronizing. Deft just like I was.

  6. “* If she is actually hating on herself, that’s a different matter, one to be addressed in a future post.”

    Count me as a fat, ugly woman who hates on herself. I do not like or love my body and face. I’ve had years of social interaction (and lack thereof) that has reinforced that I am not attractive. How can I NOT hate my body when society constantly tells me what a piece of shit I am? I don’t have the energy to fight the negativity. And I don’t blame myself for the negative thoughts I have regarding my appearance—that falls on society and everyone who shames. I don’t think I have character flaws. I like who I am for reasons that have nothing to do with my appearance. I would like to be attractive for 2 reasons: so I can stop hearing so much negativity and so that I have a better chance at a social life. How people treat others does have an impact on self-esteem—I am not strong enough to ignore the criticism thrown my way. I wish I could.

    1. Amen to this. I know I’m a good person with a sharp sense of humor, a taste for thought and contemplation. I have a number of helpful life skills, and I’m an excellent friend. However, because I am fat and “objectively unattractive”, I have not had a single date or flirtation or friendly overture in over five years. People judge from the outside, and no matter how much they claim to value intelligence, humor, self reliance,etc. they refuse to take the time to find out if you possess these traits if you’re not what they want to be looking at. Even if you dress nicely, take the time to appear put together, you won’t get a second look.
      What is galling to me as well, is that long ago I was in fighting fit shape, which I have since lost due to multiple health issues, but even then, the attention you get as a young woman STILL is merely for access to your body. I’m a better person now than I was then, but the fat makes it pointless.

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