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.