Yesterday at lunch, the subject of the “obesity epidemic” panic came up briefly. I scoffed a little, and a coworker said “you know, it’s funny. On the one hand, medically, we have all these doctors talking about health. On the other hand, socially, people are telling you to love yourself. Surely there’s a happy medium.”
I said “it’s called Health At Every Size,” and launched into a little backstory about the physical and psychological harm of dieting to make the point that hysteria, even from doctors, doesn’t necessarily constitute sound medical advice. But what I should have said was this: “That’s only weird if you think that loving yourself and taking care of yourself are mutually exclusive.” It’s only in the context of a diet-obsessed, Puritan culture that self-love seems antithetical to public and personal health.
Anyone who’s read fatosphere blogs for any length of time will tell you that we are huge proponents of nutritious eating and regular movement, though for their own sake rather than for weight loss. Even the people who aren’t all-HAES-all-the-time are interested in encouraging people to normalize their relationship with food — to stop seeing it as a source of sin or fear or love or comfort, not to turn around and make gluttony the main focus of our lives. But we’re constantly being reviled — or at least treated with suspicion — for pimping overindulgence and inactivity. Why? Because we advocate treating yourself well, and that gets people’s Puritan hackles up. Treating yourself well — doesn’t that mean engaging in constant sinnery? Things that are good for you are supposed to feel like constant punishment, so if you’re not punishing yourself, how can you ever do yourself good?
Since I’m steeped in the size-positive movement most of the time, looking outside it sometimes makes me feel, as Temple Grandin put it, like an anthropologist on Mars. I see twists of logic like this one and think “who are these people, who think that health is a reward you get for punishing yourself sufficiently? Who are these people, who can’t see how you could possibly treat your body well if you liked yourself?” When I hear someone complimented for weight loss: “Who are these people, who think that the most valuable thing your body can be is smaller?” When children’s wellness campaigns focus on weight loss and invoke the specter of childhood obesity: “Who are these people, who can’t see the good in having active, nourished children if those children aren’t also thin?” I’m not even talking about trolls, people who think that if they don’t want to fuck you, you must be a morally reprehensible subhuman. I’m talking about regular people who read the latest medical news uncritically, and form their opinions accordingly, with thinness at the tippy-top of the pile of public goods. Who ARE these people?
Well, they’re our friends and coworkers and parents, and sometimes us, so it behooves us to remember that these attitudes don’t come out of a vacuum. As with other issues that I consider no-brainers, like comprehensive sex ed, we’re struggling here against decades or more of cultural fixations and prejudices, many of them carrying the kind of religious undertones that absolutely decimate logic. It ties in with fear of sex: enjoyment is sinful, and anything that gives pleasure (including food and activity) must be suspect if undertaken for its own sake. It ties in with racism and classism: the poor and the non-white must be willfully ignorant and willfully unhealthy. It ties in with ablism: illness and disability must be somehow deserved, or we’d have to face up to the frightening fact that they can happen to anyone. It ties in with misogyny: a woman’s highest goal is to disappear. It’s fear of the other, upon whom we project all our insecurities and insularities. And it’s a cornerstone of our current society.
If we’re hoping to — slowly, painstakingly — help birth a more enlightened society, we have to realize how deeply these attitudes run in our current one. Fatphobia is something of a fad right now, but only because it’s the latest in a long line of scapegoats; it may be trendy, but it comes from a deep-seated place. And as we try to tease it out, we have to recognize that its roots — xenophobia, parochialism, moralism, fear of the unknown — will try to anchor it. That’s why fat activism has to consciously undertake intersectionality. We’re not going to get anywhere just chipping away at fatphobia from above, when all the real action is under the surface. When you encounter anti-fat attitudes, think not only about how they manifest, but where they come from. We need to be ready to get at them from the root.
And take care of yourself because you love yourself. In case we haven’t made that clear.