I am Not an Epidemic

A stunning and brilliant sociology instructor stands before her class, leading a discussion on the environmental, psychological, and international effects of American consumerism. Heads nod, and she’s feeling good. They’re obviously getting it.

“Totally,” a student says. The instructor smiles. “That’s why we’re having so many health problems in the U.S. Everyone is eating too much, sitting around all day, and getting more and more obese.” More heads nod.

The instructor pauses, looks around. She wonders how many of her students are looking at her fat body and thinking she represents all that is wrong with the U.S. today.

I am fat, and this scenario happens at least once per semester in one of my classes. It always hurts, at least a little. It’s also a very simplistic, ill-informed, and incomplete picture of the causes and effects of fatness. But this blog post isn’t about my emotional smarts or even about the annoying myth that fatness boils down to calories in, calories out. It’s about the shock I feel every time someone talks publicly and blithely about the evils, dangers, and ugliness of fat right in front of a fat woman.

If I could divorce myself from my instructor identity and speak frankly to my students after such an episode, my response might go something like this: “OMG! WTF? Maybe my vertical stripes hid it till now, but newsflash: I am fat! Yeah. Those lazy, stupid, overconsuming fat slugs? Those are me! Are you insensitive or so steeped in The Obesity Epidemic© rhetoric you don’t realize or care how hurtful that is to every fat person in the room?”

To be fair to my students, I feel the exact same way when people talk about their diets in front of me. I always stare at them in fascination, wondering WTF they’re doing and why. (Well, and then I throw out one of my many body love phrases like, “I think bodies are awesome at every size, but if dieting makes you happy, I wish you luck.”)

For those who have done any of this, from fat talk to diet talk to bemoaning the fattening of America, in front of a fat person, please stop and think about what you’re doing. Terror of The Obesity Epidemic© may infiltrate every corner of your life, influencing what you eat, how you dress, when and how hard you exercise, whom you befriend and date, and how much you enjoy your body. I also understand that I may well represent everything you work hard to avoid. I get it. I do. I could rail against this understanding of fatness, this construction of it as a terrifying specter and potential contagion – and trust me, I have and do in my academic work. But that’s fodder for another post. For now, I’d like to point out we individual fatties are not The Obesity Epidemic©. We’re individuals. We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities, intelligence levels, and health statuses. Speaking about fatties as social problems (and we all know talking about The Obesity Epidemic© is really a medical-sounding proxy for “those creepy fat people” and the “War on Obesity” is truly a war on – you guessed it – fat peeps) degrades us, dehumanizes us, and, at least in my experience, hurts us. Hurting and degrading us into your version of health (if that really is your motive) not only won’t work, but it kinda makes you a jerk.

Most people I know aren’t jerks, though. This makes me wonder: How can so many people talk about the evils of fatness and the necessity of dieting right in front of me? Most of these folks don’t do it to teach me a point; I think they would be shocked to find their remarks hurt and offend. But, but how can they be so insensitive? I have pondered and pondered this until recently, when my partner casually nailed it.

I had been complaining, as I often do, about students enthusiastically playing Pin the Blame on the Fatties. My partner, also fat, sighed and said, “They just don’t see it as a social identity. ‘Fat’ to most people isn’t a class of people; it’s a disease. The AMA even says so. Your students don’t see you as a fat woman but a woman who is afflicted with the unfortunate disease of fatness.”

I admit it: I was like, “Whoa.” It shocked me to think of my primary identity, that of a fat woman, as a foreign concept to my students, to everyone. Instead of seeing me reclaim the right to define my devalued body type as beautiful and valuable, many, probably most, people see me as compensating for my unfortunate body type. I guess I knew this, but wow. Just wow.

And my partner is right. Just as “homosexuality” was listed as a psychiatric disorder in the very first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM, or the Bible for categorizing mental disorders), so is my fatness labeled an aberration, a horrible contagion, a national scourge. Given this climate, and the objectification of my body as a pathology rather than a collection of lived experiences, I guess I can understand how my students and others see me as a victim trapped inside walls of adipose tissue.

It’s no wonder they feel free to participate in diet talk and to vilify fat people as lazy gluttons while I’m Standing. Right. There.

But you know what? “Homosexuality” was only listed as a psychiatric disorder till the next release of the DSM (16 years later, but still). Massachusetts is currently hearing a bill that will add height and weight to a list of protected classes. And most of all, fat people like me are living happy, productive lives that stomp people’s assumptions about us. Change is afoot, my friends.


I know I look forward to the day when I can discuss overconsumption, health, and healthcare in my classes without waiting for someone to drop The Obesity Epidemic© bomb. Because you know what? I’m not an epidemic; I’m a big, round ball of chocolate-covered awesome. 

Comments

  1. Brava, and well said. Needs to be repeated over and over and over and over in every workplace, and school, and public sphere.

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    1. Thank you for your love and support, LJ. <3

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  2. I love your blog, and I usually agree 110% with everything you write. I am going to differ slightly with what you said, however, about your students considering you a "disease." I don't think they do. In my teaching experience, students who liked me did not think of me as fat. Students who either didn't know me or didn't like me were quick to label me "fat." To them, "fat" is more of an automatic put-down, to be used on anyone they really don't like, except if the person is superthin. (That is why so many girls want to be skinny these days - not because they dislike heavier people or bodies, but because they know that if they are super skinny, people they *don't* know won't call them "fat.")

    And make no mistake - you are indeed "a big, round ball of chocolate-covered awesome." Your students know that. Too bad they don't understand the emotional disconnect and detritus that accrue for the fat professor they appreciate when they talk about the Obesity Epidemic right in front of her. (I could also go ahead and talk about how students these days often have a very different relationship with words and also with what they read in the media than most sociologists, but that would take up a few posts..)

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    1. I think I get your point, Frannie, and if so, I agree with it, or at least some of it. I actually do think my students usually think of me of as a dynamic and smart instructor. I also agree completely that "fat" has a terrible, negative connotation. However, just as no one is ever really "color-blind" when it comes to race, neither do I believe anyone is ever really "size-blind." I don't think my fatness ever disappears from my interactants' awareness. I think others may admire or appreciate me *in spite of it* or see me as an exception to the rule of the slothful, gross fatties. If that's what you mean, I agree, but I definitely can't believe, given our rabid cultural hatred of all things fat, that my fatness disappears from their awareness. Because of my fatness, I am always at a disadvantage in every single social situation; I can relax this hypervigilant awareness only when with my fat positive friends and partner. Yes, it's exhausting to be so defensive and aware of power dynamics, but as any oppressed person can attest, that's the price we pay for living power inequalities.

      I would love to hear your thoughts on younger folks' relationships with words! That sounds super juicy! :)

      Hugs!

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    2. Since I like to keep my promises, I did a little research to try to elaborate on my still-not-very-well defended premise.

      http://althouse.blogspot.com/2008/02/nbc-wimped-out-over-pimped-out.html


      See this? It is a short article on how someone was referring to Chelsea Clinton as "pimped out." What they meant, of course, was that she was what we might call "dressed to the nines." Did they think of Chelsea as a prostitute? No. But it is yet another case of a kind of dissociative use of an expression on the part of a young person.

      Now, admittedly, your case is a bit more complicated. Yes, you are fat. Yes, your students should have considered that in bringing up the "Obesity Epidemic" in front of you (not only not to hurt you, but to consider that the idea is not valid, anyway). But I think what happens is that your students like you so much that they dissociate the word "obesity" from you when they refer to it, as that rather benighted young person did with "pimped out" and Chelsea. Explanation: The phatic function (words for the sake of carrying out a social function, as opposed to communicating an actual concept or idea) has become a lot more important; the communicative function is becoming less important. (What this also leads to is having more people utter words that they don't associate with the concepts that they seemingly evoke.)

      Clear? A little?

      Hugs!

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    3. Yes, this does make sense. Thanks so much for discussing this! Now that I get it, I think I agree with you, or at least partially or mostly. :) I do think my students tend to dissociate the notion from the teacher standing in front of them. And yeah, they're opening their mouths and letting popular rhetoric pour forth without a lot of critical thinking; the logic and compassion centers might be completely divorced from their utterances in that moment.

      Thanks again for this. Hugs.

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  3. Valid point. Fat people really are kind of a class in all the usual ways.
    And I think we need to start framing it that way.
    To get away particularly from this idea that somehow nutrition & health is hard-linked with "who thinks what looks good". Because that's a stupid bridge our culture has built there.
    There have been times & places (still) where being chubby was a sign of wealth & importance. Now it's the opposite.
    It's nothing to do with health what's beautiful...
    Some ethnics and races have predispositions to certain illnesses & diseases too.

    Besides, you can eat junk food & be thin.

    My husband was surprised to learn that some people can eat a LOT less than he can and not be as thin as he is. It astonishes people how he can eat and be so thin.
    I'm a tad plump myself, and I don't eat nearly as much as he does. I'm comfortable though.
    And, when I did put on weight (about a decade ago)... I got pretty chubby over the course of a couple of years. I was not overly concerned about it, though I didn't feel comfortable. I mean not uncomfortable with the way I looked... I felt physically uncomfortable. Turned out I had a polyp on a malfunctioning gallbladder. When it came to a head, I dropped the weight way way too fast, to the point where I was in starvation. After I had the gallbladder out, I went back to my normal usual weight with no effort at all.

    I have a family member who struggled to lose weight her whole life, and then had gastric bypass surgery. She maintains what seems to be a weight average-thin. But she eats almost nothing... just like she did when she was dieting, except she doesn't have to try now. Which makes me think... maybe eating more was just normal for her? She eats a lot less than I do.

    And the other point I thought of in terms of homosexuality is this.
    It's the same thing. I hear the arguments about how "well gay people are born that way". Yeah, like everything else, there's probably some physical reason that makes people tend one way or another. But does that really matter?
    What if someone chose to be gay? So what?

    So what if someone chooses to eat junk food? So what?

    I mean yeah, let's worry about children getting proper nutrition, access to healthy foods, and getting the opportunity to participate in normal childhood outdoor activities. That's valid.

    But I live in a society where the vast majority of people I interact with I wouldn't necessarily want to bop. I don't have to find someone personally attractive to respect them, like them, or tolerate them. There are superficially good looking people I've really despised.

    So people need to grow up & get over it. Just because someone doesn't personally find attractive, fat people, or black people, or whatever makes that person different... doesn't mean they have the right to dictate who people should be, what they should do, or what they ought to look like.

    What's most infuriating is that the same people who have that attitude are often the same people who natter on about their personal freedoms & crap like that.

    That said, I think youths and elderly have a tendency to make thoughtless remarks about people's weight. Just my prejudiced observation, of course. ;o) But maybe they can't help their lack of inhibition. lol

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    1. Thanks for the very thoughtful reply, Watermelon. Sorry I just saw it! :)

      I think you make a lot of lovely points that stand on their own. I did want to underline a few of your sentences: "What if someone chose to be gay? So what? So what if someone chooses to eat junk food? So what?"

      YES! Exactly! Although I know the research says people with more power will "forgive" those they vilify if the oppressed individuals can prove they're a victim of genetics, I won't go there. Was I born this way? Did some "malfunctioning" part of my body result in how I look? Or is it because I don't exercise enough or don't eat a Paleo diet or pray away the fat or whatever? As you said, "Who cares?" It's no one's business why I am who I am. If I'm not stepping on your rights, then our conversation is over. Why I am fat doesn't matter. What matters is my right to be me and to access the same rights as people who weigh less than me.

      That said, I do know the literature, and it says the "Don't hate me! I can't help it!" approach works for social acceptance and legal rights. This is why I love peeps like the Association of Size Diversity and Health and Ragen Chastain, AKA "Dances with Fat," who actively disprove fat stereotypes and challenge assumptions about fat and health. Thank goodness for what they do as activists, cuz I refuse to go there most of the time.

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