Bodies of the West: Part 1. Fat Shaming and Fat Bodies
By Greg Scorzo –
It’s best to try and cultivate a realistic view of humanity. Such a view should ideally balance between expecting too much and too little of people. Expecting too much leads to cruel kinds of utopianism. Expecting too little doesn’t encourage humanity to reach its full potential. Without that encouragement, humanity has no incentive to move forward, becoming more sophisticated, more humane, or more creative. This is because, without incentives, we tend not to progress very far in our journey as a species. That’s an unfortunate part of the human condition.
In order for progress to be possible, we also have to communicate with each other. We all see the world in sometimes radically different ways, so communication becomes the means by which we turn these differences into collective agreements. These agreements then become a bridge towards the better futures of humanity. In any liberal democracy, criticism and debate are the electricity by which better futures gain their transformative power.
Of course, it’s all so easy to romanticise criticism and debate, ignoring the extent to which both things are difficult to engage in without a good deal of frustration and pain. However, there comes a point where this frustration can elicit responses to one’s opponents that are both callous and cruel. Callousness is when human beings make statements without a filter: that is, without any consideration of how their words may effect the emotional well being of others. Cruelty is when human beings use words and behaviours to destroy that well being; to deliberately hurt other humans.
Cruelty should be universally condemned, regardless of which sector of the political spectrum may roll their eyes at such a view. Cruelty has no constructive impact on human beings that ever outweighs its destructiveness. So it’s desirable for society to have an etiquette which demands that people not be cruel. I would even go further than this: I think it’s ok for people who are relentlessly cruel to lose people in ways which might be devastating to them. That is, I think it’s ok for them to lose friends and partners, be socially ostracised, and even lose out on relationships with their children.
This doesn’t mean one should never empathise or help a relentlessly cruel person, especially if said person wants to change. But the help they receive is less important than the fact that they stop making a habit out of acting like a mean bastard. Hence, no one is obligated to be friends with a relentlessly cruel person. Such friendship is always an undeserved gift – a gift many cruel people are often quite lucky to receive.
Callousness, on the other hand, is a more complex phenomena. Here, I think it’s ok to complain about callousness in the friends, relatives, and partners of your personal life. But in the public discourse, callousness can often be a way that legitimate criticism is presented. The legitimacy of this criticism is, morally speaking, more important than the callousness of how it is expressed. Public discourse functions best when it is a realm where people can be free to say what is true. Sometimes the truth hurts. It can hurt, even when there’s no deliberate cruelty involved in its assertion. But when any painful truth is important, it’s also important to be able to hear it. That is why, without some tolerance for pain, you can’t engage effectively in criticism and debate.
On the other hand, without some appreciation for the limits of how much pain a person should endure, you can become far too tolerant of cruelty. Unlike callousness, cruelty is never justifiable, even when it’s motivated by a desire to speak truths and make the world a better place. Social progress is, among other things, the project of finding that space between cruelty and hypersensitivity; the balance between expecting enough of people not to delude them, but not so much that one ceases to exhibit compassion for their pain.
I understand the need for this balance, to some extent, because I was a fat kid.
Fat People and the Patrons of Pity Parties
I wasn’t as fat as some kids. Although I was very depressed throughout much of my early teens, I’m not certain I can attribute this solely to feelings I had about my weight. But my weight certainly played a big part in feeling absolutely worthless, like planet earth would have been better without me in it. I even tried to commit suicide once. I can write honestly about this, without feeling too much pain, because it does feel a million miles away. I’m no longer a fat kid. In many ways, my life now is the polar opposite of my life as an adolescent. That’s not completely an accident. To a large extent, I made it that way.
Nonetheless, I can understand the motivation for the new public discourse about how we treat fat people in Western society. For most of my life, it was simply accepted that fat people were something like second class citizens. Their mere presence made the world feel uncomfortable. And so the world would, in subtle and not so subtle ways, showcase its disgust. You would never see fat people on any billboards or advertisements. Thin people would often laugh and snicker at fat people, suggesting that a fat person didn’t have the right to join the same public spaces that any thin person could relax in.
More perspicuously, fat people were treated as the underclasses of the dating pool; they were expected only to make sexual or romantic advances towards other fat people. And if they did fancy a thin person, it would only be appropriate if that thin person was also very unattractive. If a fat person happened to be in a relationship with someone who was conventionally attractive, people pitied the attractive person in ways that were normally quite loud and aggressive.
If you were a young person who happened to be fat, the message you could read from society was that your presence is very much not wanted. In other words, if you feel like joining other humans in social interactions, it’s best to do it at home. If you do leave your house, don’t make too much noise. Don’t eat in any restaurents. Don’t make yourself a target for ridicule. Don’t pretend you can talk to strangers in pubs. Don’t make a fool of yourself by going to the beach. Don’t force people to look at your unsightly body.
If it’s a warm summer day, don’t let that fool you into thinking you can wear shorts or a t-shirt. If you don’t want to endure the heat, just stay indoors. It’s better than wearing light clothing. Don’t force everyone else to look at any more of your body that they would care to. And whatever you do, don’t EVER let people see you with your shirt off. And please please please, don’t ever dance! It’s funny looking. Someone might film you dancing and it could wind up on the internet. If you want to be disgusting, please keep your disgusting body to yourself.
Earlier this year, a fat man called Sean O’brien was photographed dancing merrily at a wedding. The kids who photographed him on their iphone were sneering at him, verbalising disdain many fat people are terrified that the world around them is holding in for the sake of being polite. Sean O’brien stopped dancing once he heard them laughing. Or at least, this is what one of the kids who photographed O’brien stated underneath two photos of O’brien that he posted on 4chan.1
In the first image, it looks like O’brien is dancing and having a good time. The second image looks like O’brien has stopped, feeling suddenly embarrassed. The two pics were posted to express this kid’s disapproval of a fat man for having the audacity to dance with everybody else. Fat people need to know their place, so says the social norm that, for most of my life, society seemed to tacitly condone.
Nowadays, many people no longer want to condone it. It’s hard to see that as anything other than positive, especially for someone with my personal history. However, I am surprised at just how much the backlash against this social norm seems destructive. It’s destructive because it seems to have much in common with other political movements happening on social media; it demands the old social norms be replaced with an etiquette that’s patronising, delusional, and prioritises feelings over reality. It turns even the public display of compassion for Sean O’brien into something kind of sinister.
This sinister compassion arose as the 2 images of O’brien that were posted on 4chan ignited a social media firestorm. People understandeably didn’t like seeing a dancing man bullied in a public space because of his weight. A nice woman called Casandra Fairbanks then decided to start a hashtag campaign (#FindDancingMan). The aim of her campaign was to invite O’brien to a star-studded Hollywood party to promote the Dance Free Movement.2
The Dance Free Movement is designed to raise awareness about people who have been bullied while dancing because of their age, gender, disability, or weight. How it can raise awareness amongst teenage bullies who like to publicly humiliate adults is anyone’s guess. In fact, it’s hard to understand how such a movement could “raise awareness” in anyone who doesn’t already view the treatment O’brien faced with repulsion. But my skepticism towards this movement, does not in and of itself, make me disapprove of Fairbanks. Her campaign to throw O’brien a party, however, is another story altogether.
Fairbanks sent O’brien an invitation on behalf of over 1, 700 women, an invitation which read:
“Dancing Man, We don’t know much about you but a photo on the internet suggested that you wanted to dance and were made to feel like you shouldn’t be.
We want to see you dance freely and if you would have us, we would love to dance with you. We are prepared to throw quite a dance party just for you, if you’ll have us. To be clear, it’s 1, 727 of us. And we are all women. If this isn’t appealing, we’re okay with taking no for an answer, but we’d like you to know – the offer stands.
May we have this dance?
An occasionally overly enthusiastic group of young women in California.”
O’brien responded to this invitation and was then flown out to the United States where he made an appearance on the Today show. During his appearance, O’brien danced in front of pop singer Meghan Trainor.
O’brien later had dinner with Monica Lewinsky (the woman who had an affair with Bill Clinton) before attending his celebrity adorned party – a party DJ’d by Moby that included guests like Pharell Williams, Tatyana Ali, Whitney Thore, Susan Sarandon, and Andrew W.K. O’brien also got the chance to throw the opening pitch at a Dodgers baseball game, and was spotted on a date with burlesque model Dita Von Teese.3 Even Monica Lewinsky wasn’t content to just have dinner with him; she also bought him a relaxing foot massage.4
All of this creates an uncomfortable ickiness in me. Theoretically, I should love the idea of a public spectacle where people show compassion for any victim of bullying. I know how much this spectacle meant to O’brien. I know what it’s like to feel like you can’t dance in a public space because you’d be laughed at. I know the pain of worrying about being humiliated when you dare bring your big body into a space where attractive people are relaxing and having a good time. I can understand the thrill of being fawned over by attractive celebrities; I can appreciate the contrast that is to constantly having to worry about arseholes at pubs and weddings.
But I also know what it’s like to be patronised. Being patronised is quite distinct from being the recipient of the compassion that comes from others who empathise with you. When people patronise you, you get the apearance of their compassion, underneath which they hide quite strong feelings of superiority.
How can you tell the difference?
People who patronise you take it for granted they can bear certain harsh realities you are too fragile (or too damaged) to know. They don’t believe in your ability to struggle and grow, regardless of the horrendous circumstances life may have thrown at you. They see themselves as your protectors, shielding you from any reality you could potentially make better. They’re attitude towards you is like that of the adult who doesn’t want teens to know of things like sex, violence, or profane language.
People who patronise you also allow themselves a dignity they take away from you: the dignity that allows them to acknowledge and work through their misfortunes. It’s like they feel a compulsion to protect you from certain painful truths, truths that might actually be useful in alleviating your hardships. In fact, people who patronise you often go to extraordinary lengths to keep you deluded.
It makes them feel good about themselves, because unlike the harsh and cruel world, they can’t bare the thought of treating you like an autonomous adult that can cope with truths they assume you can’t face. They relish treating you like a child, feeling like proud parents who can then go through elaborate machinations to pat themselves on the back for being so compassionate.
The #FindDancingMan campaign seems like a classic example of patronising behaviour. The initial invitation addressed to Sean O’brien assumes much more than the fact that he was bullied on the dance floor. It assumes, without any evidence, that O’brien is heterosexual. Secondly, it assumes he is pained by the fact that women he wants to dance with aren’t interested. Why else would the invitation mention that it’s coming from a group of 1,727 enthusiastic young women from California? If the invitation were simply a protest against bullying, there’d be no reason for the gender or age of the protesters to even be mentioned. It would be quite bizarre for all of them to be young women.
The reason it isn’t bizarre is because the invitation and celebrity party are both examples of something much more creepy than a pity fuck: pity flirting. It’s creepy because it’s an attempt to show compassion to O’brien by shielding him from an obvious truth: if it weren’t for the #FindDancingMan hashtag, it’s highly unlikely 1, 727 enthusiastic young women from California would ever want dance with him. This is because Sean O’brien looks like he’s self-harming. The appearance of self-harm is generally not attractive to women; any women. It’s not attractive to men either.
Moreover, women often dance not simply to dance. Dancing is a mating ritual. Being on the dance floor is one way women meet men they fancy. There’s an assumption that if O’brien were on such a dance floor, he’d be the only man who couldn’t participate in the mating ritual; that is, he could only just dance. The other men could, in principle, go home with at least some of the other women.
I’m not discounting the possibitily that there may be some cases where this generalisation doesn’t apply. But in most circumstances where the sexes meet on the dance floor, it does predict what actually happens. That’s why I imagine many women would feel uncomfortable dancing in a club next to Sean O’brien. They’d feel sorry for him. And then they’d feel pressure to talk to him, to treat him (for a few minutes) as though he’s no different to any other man on the dance floor.
To me, it looks like Fairbanks and the celebrities attending O’brien’s party are turning those few minutes into a gigantic parade – a parade more about appearing compassionate than actually helping fat people. Again, I’m not optimistic about the Dance Free Movement. I don’t think any movement like this can actually change what happens to fat people who are targets of kids that bully. After all, it’s not as if the kids who bullied O’brien were highly thought of by society, prior to O’brien’s celebrity bash. And it’s not as if either his party or the anti-bullying campaigns it funds will make them stop behaving like nasty little shitheads. Anti-Bullying campaigns tend to make two dubious assumptions:
(1) Most bullies care about being disapproved of for bullying and
(2) Most bullies are hurting inside.
The reality, of course, is that most bullies simply enjoy hurting people. It’s fun (for them). And they don’t give a fuck about what Moby or Monica Lewinsky think.
In fact, I can imagine one of O’brien’s bullies staring at the photo of him with Deeta Von Teese, laughing, thinking to himself, “I did that guy such a huge favour.” And as mean as that is, a part of me thinks it’s true. He did do O’brien as much a favour as Cassandra Fairbanks did. He gave O’brien a chance to be adored not because of who he is, but because he’s a victim people can pity. Think about it. A group of celebrities and over 1, 000 enthusiastic young women are partying with a fat man. They’re not partying with him because he’s charming and cool and interesting. It’s because he was bullied. That’s like Angelie Jolie wanting to party with me because I got punched in the face at a party. Partying with me becomes her statement of support to all the other guys who ever got punched in the face.
No thank you. And no, if I was Sean O’brien, I wouldn’t party with Cassandra Fairbanks and her enthusiastic Californians. Sitting next to a stranger who treats you like an individual is always better than a celebrity party where your identity is tied to being a victim.
It’s as if being victimised gives you a strange social capital; displaying compassion and interest in you becomes a way for the social status of others to rise. Empathy becomes like an expensive dress a celebrity can wear while walking down a red carpet. Meanwhile, the person who is the recipient of this empathy will get to momentarily bask in the limelight. And then go home.
After Sean Obrien’s Hollywood treatment, he will (in all likelihood) return to a life with most of the same weight related disadvantages. He may even have an incentive not to lose any weight, believing that if he can get a date with Deeta Von Teese, maybe all those english gals who wouldn’t date him were just bigots. That would be particularly tragic, as he would be internalising a very bad idea: It doesn’t matter whether or not you self-harm. If looking self-destructive prevents you from having any of the social benefits that come with looking physically healthy, this is a grave injustice; not a reason for you to stop self-harming.
Other fat men with similiar experiences to O’brien will, of course, not get anything like O’brien’s party or American tour. This party won’t stop any other kids from making mean comments when fat people step into social settings that make them targets for bullies. No fat American woman who gets bullied will be flown to England. She won’t have a star-studded celebrity party where enthusiastic young men from Essex want to dance with her. She won’t be going to any sporting events (as the guest of honour). There won’t be any dates with Colin Farrell.
Of course, in writing all of this, I’m not saying that Cassandra Fairbanks didn’t give Sean O’brien an amazing experience he finds life changing. By all accounts, he had a great time in the media circus Fairbanks orchestrated for him. But therein lies the irony of the situation: People often love being patronised.
Shortly after Sean O’brien’s Hollywood jamboree, another social media storm put fat people in the zeitgeist again. This second storm was prompted by a youtube Vlogger called Nicole Arbour, an attractive blonde woman who posted an acerbic Vlog entitled “Dear Fat People.”
Since Nicole Arbour posted her Vlog, several quite scathing Vlog rebuttals were posted on youtube, many of them relentlessly mocking or attacking her. She has subsequently stated that her Vlog was intended to be a piece of satire.5 This falls in line with what many of her supporters say. In fact, many of Arbour’s supporters have complained that her detractors are making it taboo for comedy to do one of its jobs: to childishly make fun of people who shouldn’t take themselves so seriously.6 I have some sympathy with her defenders, in this regard. But watching Arbour’s video, I didn’t feel like I was watching comedy. I felt like I was watching a persuasive speech (albeit one that tries to be witty). It feels like a speech advocating a thesis that’s very much intended to be taken seriously. There are, of course, different ways one can intepret this thesis. That’s true of any persuasive speech.
I interpret what Nicole Arbour says this way: She doesn’t like that acknowledging the problem of obesity is seen as “fat shaming.” Arbour believes that what is called fat shaming is actually anything that expresses a negative attitude towards obesity; including any health campaign that points out its physical dangers. Arbour also suggests that hashtags have become a way of normalising self-harm by promoting an unhealthy acceptance of any behaviour it pains people to be discouraged from engaging in. She imagines hypothetical smoking and crystal meth hashtags that discourage people from criticising smoking or crystal meth usage.
However, Arbour also endorses something that sounds like classic fat shaming: not hesitating to publicly remind people (including strangers) of the reasons they have to lose weight. These reasons include not just the health risks of obesity, but also the responsibility fat people have to their loved ones not to die young. I say this sounds like classic fat shaming, in part, because Arbour calls it fat shaming. She says it’s fat shaming after first denying that there is such a thing! One can only conclude that Arbour believes fat shaming is an (as yet) untested idea that would be beneficial, if put into practice.
Arbour then does a comedic rant about a fat family who caused her to nearly be late for an airplane flight; the time it took the airline to accommodate their special weight related needs prevented Arbour from getting a Starbucks before takeoff. She also has a dig at the fat son in this family, who she was forced to sit next to throughout the duration of the flight. She talks about this kid with a sense of repulsion, referring to him as “Jabba the Son.” She is particularly disgusted at how his love handles are so big and unwieldy that they have literally oozed onto her lap. Her discomfort at his fat makes her decide to lecture him (on the plane) about “making better choices.”
She probably didn’t do that in real life. But that’s the part of her comedic rant you’re supposed to think is funny. The idea here is that if you had to sit next to this fat kid, you’d want to lecture him too.
Arbour qualifies her message to fat people by saying it’s not intended for those fat people who are obese because of a medical condition. She is directing her criticisms at those fat people who are fat because they are lazy. If you are fat and lazy, Nicole’s Vlog is intended to make you laugh, light a fire under your ass, and tell you to your face what your friends should be saying. It’s tough love, Jenna Marbles style. Towards the end, Arbour softens her message a bit. She looks into the camera and says (addressing all the lazy fat people who might have been hurt):
“I will love you no matter what. But I hope what I’m saying makes you want to be healthy so we can enjoy you on this planet for a long time.”
It’s a massive miscalculation on her part. If you are or ever were overweight, Vlogs like this will most likely make you angry. I certainly felt angry when I saw it. But part of why it makes me angry is it’s poking at an uncomfortable truth. It’s more than just callous and insensitive (although it is that too). When I was fat, most of what she said I would have allowed to make me feel ashamed. So I chose not to think about being fat. Hence, I chose (for many years) to do nothing about it.
I was not a fat kid purely because of genetic factors. I was a fat kid, in part, because I coped with stress and emotional turmoil by eating tasty food compulsively, and in copious amounts. It took me many years to be able say this about myself (and say it truthfully).
The biggest obstacles to this acknowledgement were:
(1) A sense that I had no responsibility for my weight and
(2) Feelings of shame about my weight that were so painful that I thought I could (with justification) ignore that I was fat.
In other words, planning on losing weight would involve acknowleding I was too fat. That acknowledgement made me want to cry. So I believed I couldn’t reasonably expect myself to lose weight. Doing an eating plan would bring up feelings of shame about being fat. So I just didn’t do an eating plan.
Not wanting to cope with that pain is why I didn’t get down to a weight I was happy with before my early 30s. It would be easy to say, “I wasn’t ready yet.” Or maybe, “I had to get to a place where I could deal with the pain.” But that would be disengenious.
I didn’t lose weight because I didn’t force myself to look at what was causing me pain: I didn’t like feeling being fat was something I did to myself. I didn’t like being responsible for all the things that being fat did to me. I wanted to live in a world where body diversity was celebrated; where people of all shapes and sizes were depicted in mass media; a world where we could someday say that anyone who didn’t want to fuck fat people was like a racist or homophobe.
I wanted the world to insulate me from my own discomfort about my weight. If the world were attracted to healthier bodies than mine, I wanted the world to feel ashamed of this. I wanted the world to tell me that I was no less attractive than anyone else. I wanted this, even though if you asked me, I would have told you, “Looks don’t matter.” For me, “Looks don’t matter” wasn’t just an attitude. It was a political agenda. It was a way of smashing inequality, even capitalism. In other words, it was basically a giant self-delusion. Nicole Arbour is complaining, in part, about my two decade long, self-delusion.
My self-delusion was that I had a right to never feel shame; that I had no responsibility for what became of me; that my feelings were so important that I could engage in self-destruction to keep my more painful emotions from rising to the surface. I developed this attitude as a way of coping with the merciless bullying I received as an adolescent. Between the ages of 13 and 15, I received a daily barrage of insults, violence, and humiliation because of how I looked.
I suspect it was mostly for being fat but I’m sure some of it was for wearing unfashionable clothes and having brown skin. Bullying was the norm in school. Everyone bullied each other as a way of protecting themselves from even more vicious and intense bullying. The only kids that didn’t bully were the weaker kids; kids like me. I used to wear a hood over my head because I didn’t want other kids to see my face. That was not a wise move. It gave them an additional reason to laugh at and mock me.
Most of the bullying I experienced had a very gendered pattern. A good looking and confident male would normally do something violent towards me. Sometimes it was throwing food in my face. Sometimes it was hitting me in the head with the palm of his hand and laughing. Sometimes it was kicking my stomach during lunch hour, while I was eating my food on the floor. I often ate on the floor because that protected me from the barrage of insults (and general incredulity) that would happen if I dared eat at a table.
On one occasion, I was in the boys bathroom and some guys decided it would be fun to push my head against the wall and then shove my bleeding face into a shit filled toilet. To my surprise, there were pretty girls in the boys bathroom that day. They had crossed gender lines just to laugh at me being violently assaulted. That, in essence, was the difference between male and female bullying. It would start with male violence and end with female laughter, mocking, and (sometimes) sexual interest in the male who had been violent towards me.
All of this experience makes me primed to hate Nicole Arbour and her “Dear Fat People” Vlog. That Vlog, after all, brings back painful memories. It makes me feel like I’m 13 again.
Arbour, with her rant about the fat family, is basically saying that the worst fears of my adolescent self are entirely justified: attractive people think fat people are ugly, pathetic, and disgusting. Fat people are inconveniencing the attractive population by forcing them to look at fat bodies in public spaces. But not only that. Fat people are also slowing attractive people down (in queues) and crowding them in public transportation seats. On this outlook, fat people are a bit like the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crash. They take more than everyone else, make unhealthy decisions normal people don’t, force the world to deal with those bad decisions, and then make many nice people miss their appointments. Fat people are selfish pricks.
Of course, this outlook is also what underlies what Nicole Arbour thinks is funny about fatness. For her, it’s funny that people are so selfish in what they do to themselves and the world around them.
This is an attitude I know very well. It’s also an attitude I don’t share. It assumes being thin is easy. It assumes that no one ever really struggles with weight; that there are never psychological issues that can make being thin unusually difficult for a fat person. Like Fairbanks, Arbour is also presumptuous: She assumes the fat family she disapproves of isn’t trying to change their eating habits. She’s overlooking the reality that she can’t possibly know if any fat stranger is guilty of the things she wants to rail against. She doesn’t know anything about the choices the fat kid sitting next to her is trying to make in his life. She can only see the evidence of some of the choices he made in the past, choices he may have less responsibility for than his parents.
But it’s not just this presumptuous perspective that inspires anger in the youtube viewer. It’s also Nicole Arbour’s appearance. Arbour is a conventionally attractive blonde who uses picture icons of herself where she self-consciously compares herself to a Barbie Doll. She visually encapsulates every sadistic cheerleader who gleefully tortured anyone who was an outsider; the cheerleader who fucked the hot captain of the football team and delighted in making even the normal girls feel ugly (when they weren’t).
If you were a fat, male and heterosexual teen, she reminds you of those moments the young women who caused the first stirrings in your loins treated you like sub-human pond scum; like you didn’t have the right to be in their presence, much less have a hard on. In the world of adolescence (and some strands of Feminism), only hot guys are allowed to have hard ons that aren’t disgusting and threatening to girls who look like Nicole Arbour.
In this way, Nicole Arbour connects very strongly with her audience; that’s why she’s exploded all over internet over the past few months. She reminds you of what it feels like to be in the presence of someone who doesn’t give a shit about how they make you feel, someone who doesn’t hold back from telling you that the social hierarchies that separate you from them are deserved.
Like many viewers, I find her more callous than funny. I want to give the fat kid on the plane a hug. I don’t want to judge his family without all the facts. But I can’t help but see their past decisions with him as something approaching child abuse. No child should ever be allowed to be morbidly obese. I don’t want this kid to have diabetes or heart trouble by the time he’s my age. I don’t want him to give girls (or boys) reasons to find him unattractive even though they think he’s witty and delight in his company. That’s why I can’t do what I’d like to do; I can’t dismiss “Dear Fat People” as nothing but bigoted, and hateful bullying. It’s also saying some things it’s incredibly important to hear in our far-too-sensitive, far-too-cruel age.
We are not Gremlins
The most important of those things is that we’re creating a new culture where we normalise self-harm; where it’s becoming uncooth even to say that being fat is both harmful and something you have some responsibility for. I know at this point in time, these seem like redundant truisms. But I fear they won’t be, if current trends about fat shaming change our etiquette and understanding about being fat. Anti-fat shaming is becoming a prohibition against dealing honesty with the reality of what being a fat person is. Of course, it’s true that many people who are passionate about the harms of fat shaming would never deny that being fat is medically harmful and something people can take steps to control. But the movement against fat shaming, on the whole, seems more keen to de-emphasize the harm of being fat by focussing on tolerance, not hurting the feelings of any fat person, and re-directing anger and vitriol towards those who cause fat people to feel shame.
Herein lies the problem with the concept of “fat shaming.”
Literally anything can make you feel ashamed of being fat. It needn’t be nasty and cruel comments from the school yard. It needn’t be Nicole Arbour’s incredibly rude and insensitive speech to the fat kid on the plane. It could be a public health campaign which encourages people to be healthy. It could be another fat person who says they want to lose weight because they feel unattractive. It could be your lover who is concerned about you because they’ve noticed you’re suddenly eating huge amounts of junk food and have gained 30 pounds in the last few months. All of that can make you feel incredibly ashamed of being fat. And most of that is good for you to see and hear.
There are things that can shame you even more.
You might meet a person you have a crush on who enjoys your company and can talk to you for hours. You know (and they know) that your calorie intake means you won’t be boning each other. And if you ever hear, “I love you” coming from them, it will always be in the voice of a friend. This can be devastating. As a fat person, it’s probably one of the most difficult things to talk about. Everyone, male and female alike, wants to feel attractive. Yet wanting to feel attractive in our culture is associated with vanity, shallowness, and working hard not to look fat.
As unfair as it may be, being fat does put you at the bottom of society’s beauty hierarchy. Here, I’m happy to concede that physical beauty is subjective. But in a way, that doesn’t matter. If the majority of people can’t get wet or hard no matter how charming and cool you are, that doesn’t feel nice. Most of us want to have sex and fall in love. Unfortunately, most people would ideally like to do this with somebody who isn’t fat. I know that sounds horrible. In fact, I felt horrible writing that sentence. That’s why it was important to write. It’s easier, and it feels nicer, not to think about it.
Today, there’s a social reluctance to adequately acknowledge this problem. There’s a sense in many circles that my former delusions are correct; that having an erotic preference for the non-fat is some kind of injustice, an injustice caused by a capitalist culture that sells you the idea that thin is beautiful and fat is ugly. Although I no longer agree with this view, I still think there’s a grain of truth in it. Unusually thin bodies became fashionable (and hence more attractive) in the mid to late 20th century. You could make a strong case that this fetishizing of the ultra-thin is a social construction that could change in the future.
But that doesn’t change the fact that morbid obesity has never been attractive, throughout human history.7 It’s often true that BMI’s that are technically obese don’t always yield bodies that appear fat or unattractive.8 But when we use the term “fat person” to describe someone, we mean someone whose body appears morbidly obese. That’s important because it’s the morbidly obese we want to protect from feelings of self-loathing. People with obese BMIs who don’t look like fat people are not seen as suffering any great harm when encouraged to develop healthier eating habits. Hence, the discourse norms surrounding fat people are designed to protect the self-esteem of those obese people who actually look fat (and hence, unattractive by modern beauty standards).
There are lovely people who are fat, people who deserve to be loved by mates they are attracted to. Because of how they look, it’s much more difficult for them to attract these mates. Initially, I’m inclined to write this off as a horrible tragedy, a limitation born of the vapid qualities of our biological instincts. But the more I think about it, the more ambivalent I get. It’s terrible that lovely people who can’t help but look unhealthy will be at a romantic and sexual disadvantage. On the upside, it’s good that looking healthy is generally considered more attractive than looking unhealthy. If that’s an incentive which explains why so many people maintain their health (and weight), that incentive can’t be entirely bad.
If you are sexually disadvantaged because you’re fat, that still doesn’t mean you can’t find yourself a lover to have amazing sex with. It just means finding that lover will probably be more difficult for you than it is for everyone else. We should remember, for most people, finding a lover isn’t easy to begin with. But when you are fat, you typically don’t have the luxury of being able to seduce a person considered attractive by current beauty standards. Depending on how fat you are, you might not even have the luxury of seducing someone who is just average, according to those same beauty standards.
I understand that there are people who find nothing more erotic than the sight of an extremely obese body. These people are in a minority. And it’s not a minority that, if I’m honest, I would want to celebrate the sexuality of. To turn this minority on, you have to look like you’re hurting yourself. This is a sexuality that harms individuals when they change their bodies to satisfy it. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for people to get pleasure from it. Everyone should be free to get pleasure from looking at or imagining images of obese people. Becoming obese to satisfy someone else’s desires is an entirely different story.
While it’s true that not every thin person will live to a ripe old age, the medical community is still in overwhelming agreement that obesity is a health risk.9 Despite recurrent claims that it’s possible to be obese and metabolically healthy, recent studies show that the metabolic health of obese people is mostly a transient state. Even metabolically healthy obese individuals are at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and insulin resistence.10 There has been some talk about how some elderly and chronically ill people benefit from obesity. But according to the latest medical research, these people are still anomolies.11
The collective preference that people have for bodies that don’t look morbidly obese isn’t something I think generally harms society. For most of my life, I would have disagreed very strongly with the above sentence. I would have said that it makes people strive to achieve unattainable body shapes; that the obsession our culture has with being thin causes eating disorders; that it makes people feel ugly and undesirable when people need to love themselves unconditionally. The problem with this kind of thinking it places the responsibility for losing weight on culture, rather than on individuals. It describes fat people as though they are powerless, capable of only being healthy if no one ever acts like looking healthy is attractive. That’s degrading.
The reality is the sexual preference society has for non-obesity gives you an opportunity to practice self-love.
This is partly because the practice of self-love requires you to see yourself as something other than a puppet. It requires you to see yourself as a person who can behave responsibly; a person whose choices aren’t just the strings pulled by media messages. When you love yourself, you have a sense of your own agency; the confidence not to care about the fact that you don’t look like famous actors and models, people whose physical beauty is distributed to you as a consumer product. These consumer products exist precisely because the beauties being depicted look more beautiful (to more people) than most of the individuals on any given street.
These products are not a threat to the self-esteem or sexuality of the street. Most people who don’t look like George Cooney or Megan Kheegan can still meet people they’re attracted to and have good sex. If you feel sleighted because you don’t look like George or Megan, that has more to do with your own inflated expectations. The media doesn’t tell you that you should be beautiful like the hottest Hollywood stars. It merely presents you with their beauty and then you can choose to become indifferent, appreciative, or envious of it. It’s not a significant harm to you that you lack this beauty. It doesn’t dramatically decrease your chances of falling in love, having a family, or even having lots of good sex. It just makes you aware that there are beauty hierarchies in the world. This awareness can be painful. But so is the fact that lots of people you have carnal thoughts about (surprise surprise) don’t have the same thoughts about you.
Unfortunately, that’s life. For most unusually beautiful people, that’s life after middle age (and sometimes earlier).
Feeling like you are entitled to extreme attractiveness is no different to feeling entitled to riches, popularity, or fame. It’s not far off from feeling entitled to the sexual desire of people who aren’t even attracted to your gender. It shows an unwillingness to work with your natural talents and abilities. It’s even kind of narcissistic, although it rarely gets framed that way. When people feel envious of the extreme beauty of others, that envy is treated as an understandeable reaction to beauty hierarchies; not a character vice. I think it’s both. It’s difficult looking at people who are more adored than you are, especially if the reasons for the adoration have nothing to do with what anyone deserves. Beauty is skin deep. So when something skin deep creates such unequal treatment in equally good people, it’s understandeable that this causes resentment.
However, human sexuality is, in many respects, also skin deep. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t value sexual orientations the way that we do. We’re not tolerant of homosexuality in the 21st century, merely because it is of equal value to heterosexuality (it might be superior). We’re also tolerant of homosexuality because it’s ok NOT to want to fuck people of the opposite gender. It’s ok to feel no erotic desire for them, even though they may be wonderful people who deserve to cum and be cuddled by people whose desire they passionately long for. When a society reaches a point where it’s no longer sexually repressive, it’s reaching a point where it, in a compassionate way, tolerates the deep unfairness of human sexuality.
When you choose who to shag, your choices are more influenced by your taste than whether somebody deserves to get in your pants. Of course, the romantic partner you wind up with will probably deserve to be in your pants, if it’s a healthy relationship. But merely deserving you isn’t enough to make things work. You have to enjoy touching your partner, and that enjoyment isn’t something anyone ever earns. It just happens (or it doesn’t). There’s plenty of deserving humans who will never get to touch you that way. That’s not harmful to them, no matter how much they fantasize about fucking your brains out. Because it’s not harmful to them, it’s not a justification for any kind of resentment towards you. It is, however, understandeable that the resentment may be there anyway. Human feelings, like varieties of human sexuality, are often very unfair.
The physical beauty of models, actors, athletes, musicians, television presenters, and pornstars doesn’t make you obese. That doesn’t imply that being obese is always entirely your fault either. But elements of any addiction are always your responsibility. This is because you always have responsibility for doing something that could make things just a tiny bit better, even if that something is taking steps to effectively manage a condition you can do very little to change. You don’t have these responsibilities only in the case of eating disordies; they are there in cases of drug abuse, gambling, bi-polar disorder, and impulse control problems. You can only manage any condition by acknowledging you at least have a miniscule amount of control over how you manage it. Otherwise, there’s no way you can get better. As bizarre as it sounds, you need responsibility so that you can heal.
If you believe you have so little control over your health that a billboard of waifish Kiera Knightley is a harm to you, you’ve already harmed yourself. You’ve conceptualised yourself in a way that blocks you from acknowledging you have the ability to manage your potential addictions. You see yourself as something like a Gremlin. If you feed a Gremlin after midnight, it turns (against its will) into a monster. If you see the control you have over your own eating this way, an image of Kiera’s body becomes like a Gremlin’s midnight snack.
Against your will, her image makes you so envious that you can’t help but hate yourself after you see it. From that hatred, you either start eating too much or eating too little. You don’t see yourself as controlling your food intake. You see society as controlling it. You feel the need to censor what images society presents to you so that you can love yourself enough to eat healthily. Your love for yourself becomes conditional, where the condition is that society never shows you anything you let make you feel envious. I cannot think of a view more disempowering to people. It reduces you to something like a child, a child that needs easy, affirming messages that motivate you to treat yourself with respect and care. The messages must come from outside rather than inside.
This view also deprives you of an essential element of your humanity; your capacity for self-creation. Self-creation is about having the strength and psychological resiliency to become the person you know you can be. It’s about being able to do what is unpopular, what is unusual, what requires you to both think for yourself, practice self-discipline, and draw on strong personal values. Self-creation is the path towards any achievement in life, whether it’s getting over a trauma, starting a career, overcoming adversity, managing an addiction, finishing an academic degree, becoming a good parent, having a successful relationship or expressing the kindness and sensitivity that alluded you for most of your life.
Self-creation is impossible if you see yourself as something like a Gremlin. You can only self-create if you own your decisions; blaming only yourself for the ways in which you are influenced by media content. The process from which we go from childhood to adulthood is one in which we are supposed to learn self-creation. Adulthood, after all, is about reaching a point of maturity where one can safely expose oneself to media messages that are fantastic, transgressive, taboo, seductive, reactionary, infantile, crass, and violent. This is what the freedom of Western culture presupposes; that for every story or image that doesn’t clearly represent how the world should be, the world won’t crumble in the face of that story or image.