Silentbeep posted a couple of weeks ago about fat acceptance as counter culture.
I haven’t ever really thought of myself as counter-cultural before. I mean, I’m a white woman with a family income that’s just about exactly equal to the American median. I’m not physically or otherwise disabled, I’m educated, I’m heterosexual and I identify as the gender my body was born with. I have three kids, a husband, and a safe place to live.
In other words, I have a whole trunk full of privileges. I am a pretty good representation of non-counter-culture.
I can walk into a store without being watched as a possible shoplifter.
If I contact a real estate agent, I am automatically shown houses in safe neighborhoods with decent schools. If I look at a house in a ‘bad’ neighborhood, I can expect that someone will stop me from trying to live there. (We took a trip to Carson City and looked at a rental house there. Everyone we spoke to about it, including the person who owned the house, warned us against renting it. Why? Well, one woman Kevin works with said that it’s a “gang area.” Her proof? She used to live in the neighborhood. There are a lot of Mexicans there, and they knocked on her door everyday trying to sell her mangos or corn.)
When my daughter was ill and in the hospital this winter, I expected to be treated well, even though we had no insurance. I was not disappointed.
I was able to marry the person I fell in love with. Twice. And have children with no one questioning my right to parent them.
I am not, of course, perfectly privileged. I’m a woman in a man’s world. And I’m fat.
But I’m privileged enough that even the things that might reduce my bag of goodies, like having spent several years as a poor single mother or coming from a broken family or having my dad in prison when I was a teenager, haven’t.
And then there is being fat.
Being fat comes with a set of perceived cultural obligations, right?
As a fat woman in America, I am expected to want to take up less space than I do. I am also expected to live with and take responsibility for whatever problems come from taking up too much. For instance, if I’m uncomfortable in an airplane seat, or make others uncomfortable by encroaching on their very limited space, then conventional cultural wisdom says that I am expected to accept that it is my fault and what I deserve for lacking the discipline to be smaller.
I have a cultural obligation to believe that I’m fat because of a defect in my character. That if I just made the decision to be thin, and then was willing to do the work to get there, I would be less of a burden on society, would take up less of the country’s health care and would live forever.
I am expected to have a gym membership, but if I use it I am expected to understand that the other people at the gym will either wish they didn’t have to look at my jiggling fat so often or gush over-enthusiastic pride at me for my dedication to doing something about my body.
I am expected to cultivate behaviors that in smaller women would be causes for concern. There are dozens of books, shelves of pills, commercial programs and white-coated surgeons all dedicated to helping me do this.
As a fat woman, I’m expected to eat less than anyone else in social situations. While thin people are praised for having big appetites, I’m expected to have a less than normal one, at least publicly. Stuffing myself full of snack cakes and bacon in private is pretty much assumed, whether it is true or not.
And as a fat woman, I am expected to try to lose weight.
Arguing against the other examples of what is culturally expected of a fat person doesn’t feel like I’m really flying in the face of much. I mean, fat acceptance is full of fairly radical ideas, but they aren’t totally outrageous. But this one, that I am expected to want to lose weight, is so universal that not trying to lose weight does feel like a counter-cultural act.
It’s so counter-cultural, that I have had to work up into it myself. I can say without hesitation that I deserve enough to eat or to live my life without ridicule. But it isn’t easy to look someone in the face and say, “I’m not trying to lose weight” when you weigh 340 pounds. It isn’t even easy to say it to myself. Not yet.
The desire to lose weight underlies all the other cultural obligations I’m expected to conform to as a fat woman. It’s okay if I need to ask for a seat belt extender on an airplane, as long as I’m doing what I can to shrink. And it’s okay to expose other gym-goers to my jiggling fat when I’m doing it to lose weight.
Not trying to lose weight puts me counter to the cultural norm that says that fat people, especially fat white women, must attempt to take up less space.
Culturally, it is far more acceptable for me to complain about the oppression that fat people are forced to cope with, if I can also say that I’m fat because of a metabolic or glandular problem, or if I have an eating disorder, or anything–as long as I can say that I am doing what I can to try to change my situation.
It’s a little scary, this being counter-cultural. I sometimes get anxious that I’m doing it wrong. That I’m going to offend someone. Or that with all the privileges every other part of my life affords me, I don’t have the right to feel oppressed by being fat. And it isn’t a simple thing to unravel decades of buying into the culturally normal idea that as a fat person, I am obligated to try to lose weight.
But then there is a little voice. It says that I have the right to my space. I have the right to be an athlete if I want to be. I have the right to eat enough. I have the right to stand up for myself and for other people who feel marginalized by what our cultural currently has to say about fat people. When I add my little voice to all the other voices, big and small, out there saying the same thing, it’s exhilarating. I get stronger everyday. That little voice gets bigger everyday.