Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"It's Okay - I'm Fat, Too!": Well-Meaning Dismissals

I recently read a blog article by the amazing Ragen Chastain, she of the Dances with Fat fame. She addresses a question that often arises when people like her, Frannie Zellman, writer Lauri J Owen, or I profess oneself a “fat activist,” “fat scholar,” “fat writer,” or, heck, even just “fat.”

I won’t go into her response or the politics of reclamation (or reappropriation in general) other than to say one of the first things groups do when forming and becoming politicized is to decide how to define themselves. One of the stops they make is considering what to do with the negative words used to marginalize them (all oppressed groups are verbally derided). Some groups choose to demonize the stigmatizing words, while others feel better reclaiming them. When a group reclaims the word as theirs, as a sign of solidarity rather than shame, they’re saying no one can ever use it against them again. As Ragen says, it’s “one of the ways that I tell the bullies they can’t have my lunch anymore.”

Something else she said near the end of the blog tickled me.

Often when I go to meetings with people I haven’t met I’ll say “I’ll be the short, fat, brunette.”  Very often they’ll respond “Don’t call yourself fat!”  Nobody has ever said “Don’t call yourself brunette!” 

I’ve discussed how to identify myself when meeting peeps for the first time. Her example, though, reminded me of what happens all the time when I use the term “fat” to describe myself. In fact, it happened just two short days ago as I interacted with a coworker I quite adore. She’s a short, White, and spectacularly nerdy thin woman. It went something like this:

Elle: “A student gave me a great backhanded compliment the other day. She said when she
first met me she was like, [yes, the first sentence is a quote] ‘Who the fuck does that fat chick think she is, putting on lipstick? She doesn’t have any claim on beauty. Then, you stood in front of the classroom, with all your energy and your confidence, and you redefined all that for me.’ I was pretty hurt, but mostly I was super flattered.”

Coworker: “That was the best kind of compliment. In a way, it meant more.”

Elle: [Not quite as enthusiastic about the experience, nodding halfheartedly.]

Coworker: “And, you know, being fat.” Grabbing a handful of imaginary fat on her very thin frame. “I know what that is, having had four kids and all.”

For real, what an awesomely sweet thing for her to say. In her paradigm, she was minimizing the threat of fatness by chumming with me, by pretending it applied to her, too. It touched me. It also amused the heck out of me, since that thin woman wouldn’t know a fat cell if it texted her pictures of itself vacationing in Trinidad. Not that she doesn’t have any claim to beauty. (Oh, snap!) She just isn’t fat, no matter how much she wants to spare my feelings from the imaginary pain of this three-letter word.

I know it makes peeps feel awkward when I drop the word, when I open up the metaphorical trench coat and reveal what everyone knows but no one publicly acknowledges: I am a fat woman.* All that said, when I drop that particular f-bomb, I wish folks wouldn’t feel compelled to minimize the awkwardness they think I feel. It’s a tough word to let sit, but I kind of like the way it plunks with a splash into conversational waters, shattering the smoothness and rippling ever-outward. Really – no need to mitigate its effect; I like the productive possibilities of awkwardness.

My current Facebook profile pic. The "& FAT" part was
designed by Jeanette DePatie, AKA "The Fat Chick"
A lot of people feel too uncomfortable to let it go. I get it: they’re trying to make me feel validated, or perhaps the word is too toxic for them not to contain. Last time I met up with someone and used the f-word to describe me, she said something to the effect of, “No worries. I could stand to drop a few pounds, too.” That happens a lot, too. She may wish to drop pounds, and I really do feel touched that someone wants to commiserate with me about what they (erroneously) regard as a guilty confession. However, I’m disappointed that anyone would assume I want to diet. Given its 95% failure rate and the host of physical and psychological problems it introduces into dieters’ lives, I most assuredly do not want to diet.

After reading Ragen’s post, I started wondering what this kind of incongruous denial would look like mapped onto other identities. Yes, yes, I know identities can’t be compared and we shouldn’t engage in some kind of Oppression Olympics. I also know oppression on some groups goes unnoticed and unremarked till we use other, more familiar scenarios to show how ridiculous the rhetorics or ideas are. Given all that, I came up with another scenario.

Coworker 1: “I had a student say something kind of offensive and flattering all at once. She said when she first met me, she thought, ‘What the fuck does that lesbian think she’s doing, putting on lipstick? She has no right to that kind of heterofeminine brand of beauty. But then I saw you teach, and you’re so full of confidence and passion, it made me redefine what “beautiful” means.’”

Coworker 2: “That was the best kind of compliment. In a way, it meant more.”

Coworker 1: [nodding]

Coworker 2: “As for the gay thing, yeah, I mean, I totally know about that. I kissed a girl once. Okay, I was drunk and it was in college, but still, I have known the gay.”

Coworker 2 is being super sweet, rooting through her memory for that single thread she can wind between her experiences and Coworker 1’s. It’s very loving, very kind. It’s also not entirely, well, helpful. Dipping your toe in the waters of fatness or queerness isn’t exactly the same as living in a culture where your membership in these groups calls your morality and personhood into question. It’s the teensiest bit like a White person saying, “Yes, I know the sting of racism, for once, I got a very dark tan and was mistaken for a Latina.”

People usually mean well, and I honor that. I also think it’s important to provide a space for folks who experience discrimination to define their own experiences. So, with much kindness and respect, I told my coworker I actually identify as fat and consider myself a fat studies scholar. As for my student, I’m still ambivalent about her proclamation, but as I mentioned, I’m choosing to regard this as a win for fatkind.


* You may be fat, too, or you may not. You may even choose to define yourself using other adjectives than “fat” or “thin.” You, like me, have the right to define yourself. 

4 comments:

  1. I admire your compassion, and your willingness to attribute good intentions to very bad behavior, but I can't be as . . . I don't even know the right word for it. "Kind" isn't right, altho it applies. "Less angry," and "less willing to break noses" get us closer to how I feel. To me, it's sort of about compassion. Not mine, but theirs. And judgmentalism. Again: theirs. I hate it. Not hyperbole; I HATE it. And I think the people who think like that - "what does that fat chick think" - need to be chlorinated right out of our genepool.
    That said, I am proud of you, and your strength and willingness to fight despite the odds and the opponents' evilness. It's kind of like Sam Vimes muses in _Night Watch_ about how those who do evil are those who kiss their kids goodnight and drink coffee out of teddy bear mugs. We all have the capacity to be evil, and it's our responsibility to do our damndest to not be. Comments like your students' earn her nothing but my eternal disdain.

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    1. Ya know, I thought about you when writing that exchange. I knew it would make you feel bad for me. As always, I so appreciate your compassion and your eternal loyalty. :) Yes, I agree her original thought was cruel and stupid, and I have to wonder why she told about it using the unvarnished language she did. But it ended in a beautiful way for her, and that makes me happy. Believe it or not, she's begun (in a small way) a journey into deconstructing beauty and body ideals. I'm super pleased and, well, kinda proud.

      Also, I figure a lot of my students think this. I'm honored that my intelligence, my happiness, and my confidence in my physicality (as well as my willingness to discuss it) changes students all the time. I'm so thrilled to be in this kind of position. So, in spite of her somewhat verbally violent words, I figure she ends up where a lot of people do when they encounter a strong and confident fat woman: rethinking their assumptions.

      And I also agree that evil is a verb, not a noun. (Okay, you may not be saying this per se, but I am.) :-D As you know, I think everyone is capable of evil acts, but I've never met someone who *is* evil. Okay, well, there was Evil Angela from 1999, but she was more petty and gross than evil... mostly.

      Anyway, thanks for wanting to protect me. I knew you'd get cranky at the student, and I don't blame you; I would have been furious to hear someone talking to you like that. <3

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  2. Yes indeedy Lesleigh. You DO own fat. And you certainly do MAKE IT WORK! I heart you soooooo hard!

    TFC

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    1. I heart and miss you so much, too! And I am so blessed to be in a community with brilliant, loving, and inspiring peeps like you. MWAH!

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