Guest Blogger Occhiblu: More Problems with Racism and the Fatosphere

Shapeling Occhiblu sent a version of this as an e-mail to us yesterday, hoping we could post about it. But she’d basically said it all, so we asked her to guest post. Thanks, Occhiblu!

Note to commenters: This thread will be moderated with a heavier hand than usual. –Kate

By Occhiblu

Sandy at Junkfood Science linked yesterday to a syndicated column published in the Indiana paper The Star Press. Sandy’s comment on the article was, “This is a profound article on where we’re being led in the name of perfect health and bodies, and in the war on obesity.”

The linked column, “Perfect expression of the communist machine,” was written by rightwing columnist Kathleen Parker; it is a pile of racist drivel about how the Chinese value collectivism because of Communist dictators and how “free” people value humanity while Communist people do not. [Note from Kate: If you want to read it, go via Sandy’s blog or Google it.]

Speaking about the substitution of Lin Miaoke for Yang Peiyi in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies because, she claims, Peiyi had imperfect teeth, Parker writes:

Sentimentality doesn’t enter into the totalitarian equation. In such a world, innocence is irrelevant, and deceit is a lesson best learned young. Who cares that a little girl was told she wasn’t pretty enough to be seen by the world and that her voice — though lovely — belonged not to her, but to the homeland?

That single gesture, relatively small amid the extravaganza, said more about China than all the fireworks, human kites and dangling dancers. It said: The human being — the individual — is of no importance. The objectification of that child, her voice commodified for the purposes of the state, was the real ode to the motherland.

As I commented at the Star Press site, while one could certainly make an argument that dictatorial countries prize perfection over humanity, this article is not that argument. Ms. Parker does an excellent job, however, of ignoring the United States’ mass-produced and internationally distributed form of aesthetic perfectionism — our Hollywood actors and actresses are not exactly known for their “normal” and “human” appearances, and the entire industry is pretty open about discarding the imperfect, the old, and the odd — and she quite glibly ignores the cultural importance of collectivism as a Chinese value, not just a Communist one.

Putting others first, working in harmony with the whole, and striving for the good of the family and the community rather than the glory of the individual were not invented by Lenin. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Eastern history and thought can trace these values back through Confucianism, through Buddhism, and through Taoism. Anyone with even a modicum of humanity can see the beauty, power, and wisdom of these ideals. While these values may have been co-opted to support a corrupt political system in China, presenting China as if it were the only country in which religious ideals were exploited in order to prop up a power-hungry leader and deny the humanity of large segments of the population ignores what’s going on in our own country.

Parker does not stop at ignorantly categorizing collectivism as some sort of totalitarian mind-trick, however, she also goes straight for the Godwin gold:

Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Just as China’s selection as host country signaled its emergence as a global power, Germany’s marked that nation’s return to the international community following its defeat in World War I.

Although Adolf Hitler was already busy rounding up Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others for detention and/or sterilization, the Games allowed him to pull a propaganda coup of peaceful tolerance. The Holocaust and World War II soon followed.

By implying that only totalitarian countries oppress their citizens, Parker ignores the United States’ wretched history of human rights abuses, including internment camps for Japanese- and other Asian-Americans during World War II, and sweeps away any bad that the West has committed (and there’s been a lot of bad). She’s also arguing that collectivist world views, which are strongly held by many non-Western cultures, lead to holocausts.

Sandy calling this article “profound” and explicitly linking it to weight-based discrimination in the U.S. is problematic, to say the least. Saying that this is where “we’re being led in the name of perfect health and bodies, and in the war on obesity” endorses this view that somehow the Chinese are more oppressively perfectionist than the West and uses the racism of the original column to erase the reality of Chinese culture in order to make a point about fat discrimination. She tosses Chinese culture and values under the bus in her effort to talk about why fat discrimination is bad.

I think it’s instructive to look at how the popular feminist site, Hoyden About Town, dealt with the same event. Writing about the substitution of one girl for the other, tigtog reinforces ways in which Chinese culture and Western culture are creating the same pressures on women. She writes, “Here’s just one high-profile example of how women are trained from a very young age to believe that their looks matter more than anything else about them, not just when it comes to finding a sexual partner, but also in terms of recognition and reward in other aspects of life.”

I am not Chinese or Chinese-American, so it may be possible that I’m missing ways in which tigtog’s piece glosses over or misses Asian cultural pressures that are different from the West’s, but I was really struck by how the feminist site took this event and used as a way of finding similarities in oppressions and of reaffirming the humanity of the two girls, while the site on the fatosphere linked to an article that erased the humanity of the Chinese and reaffirmed the primacy of weight-based discrimination.

And given that the linked article included the Holocaust and Tiananmen Square Massacre as the natural outcome of the Chinese worldview, that’s a very large claim that Sandy is making.

Sandy’s site does not allow comments, so the fatosphere feed now has an entry linking to a nasty racist screed, calling it “profound,” and aligning its argument with the struggle for FA, with no way of publicly questioning the blogger on this statement.

I find that really disappointing, especially since there has been so much discussion lately about racism in the FA movement. So this is my public statement.

Read ‘em: Elsewhere in beauty standards

Check out the Women of Color and Beauty Carnival on the yennenga LJ community. This looks like an awesome carnival, and I’m really excited to read all the linked posts. You’ll recognize Julia’s excellent post at Fatshionista, which we’ve been discussing around here; some of her posts on LJ are linked as well. Via Racialicious (which, seriously, is such an outstanding blog. If you’re not reading it regularly, bookmark it right now!).

I’m not following the Olympics this year for a lot of reasons, but if you are you should check out these two excellent posts on SP fave Hoyden About Town. Lauredhel writes about the unbelievable difference between the uniforms of male and female athletes in the same sports (example below). Meanwhile, Tigtog posts about the heartbreaking news that two little girls were exploited in the opening ceremonies for the sake of a beauty ideal: one sang behind the scenes, while in front of the audience a “cuter” girl either lip-synched or sang without knowing her mike wasn’t on. The girls are 10 and 9 years old, respectively. (In the US, of course, they’d be part of the “starter market.”)

Read ‘em up

From Julia of Fatshionista (also a frequent commenter here), a wonderful post about racism and the politics of beauty.

Presenting oneself well, in the best suit, was an important aspect of being the stereotype breakers. In order to have a chance of being taken seriously, you had to look clean and put together from head to foot. Your hair had to be neat (and for women carefully straightened) because frizzy hair made you look like a “bush person.” The best way to describe the look is “controlled.” If negative stereotypes about black people were about them being savage, flighty, ruled by emotion and lacking reasoning, then the way to counter that was to look modern, tailored, and never have a hair out of place.

Julia’s post is an important rebuttal to and complication of the stereotype that black communities are more fat accepting than white communities.

Over at Feministe, guest blogger Amandaw writes a PSA for well-meaning people who just have to tell people with disabilities about the latest health trend their grandma’s hairdresser tried one time (familiar to many fat people as “Have you ever tried diet and exercise?”):

On behalf of all those persons, let me say: Stop.

Think.

That person has had that condition for months, years, or even their entire lifetime. You, on the other hand, have possibly heard of that condition — and possibly not! — and certainly have no experience living with it. Maybe you know someone else who has it, and maybe that’s a person you actually know fairly well (but that is a very small minority out of those who make these comments).

Which of these two people, do you think, knows a broader range of treatment options for said condition?

Alas, the thread gets derailed for a while by someone insisting that people are just trying to help and you little ladies shouldn’t get so hysterical about people who just want you to be healthy, but otherwise it’s an illuminating conversation.

Must-reads on fat visibility, fashion, and racist imagery

If you don’t read NYLON or aren’t an obsessive Gossip fan, you might (like me) have missed a recent photoshoot with fat icon Beth Ditto that used racist imagery. Threadbared has a spot-on analysis of what’s so troubling about the image, which you can see reproduced in the post:

The housekeeper is meant to be invisible, working unobtrusively around the perceptual periphery of the guest, and this scene is no exception. She is part of the set dressing, in which Ditto’s bright and hard-edged New Wave styling intrudes to asserts itself as distinct, as foreground. This blandness, this generic and ordinary landscape, the photograph suggests, is not Ditto’s natural habitat. By implication, it is the housekeeper’s.

Tara at Fatshionista follows up by asking what we do when one of the vanishingly few icons of fat acceptance fuck up so deeply:

Is it “ok” to give fat media icons a little more leeway because there are so few of them? Is the willingness to lower the bar proof that the FA movement isn’t taking race and the racism in our community seriously? How do we hold a media icon accountable for their actions when we can’t always engage or interact with them?

Both posts engage in excellent analysis and ask urgent questions about the intersection of antiracism and fat acceptance; please check them out.

ETA: Comments that claim that the racism of this photoshoot is “just one interpretation” will not be approved because they give me a stabby pain behind my eyes.

Call for Submissions: Fat Women of Color Carnival

You may have seen this at Fatshionista already, but just in case:

The inaugural Fat Women of Color Carnival will be held over at saskaia.livejournal.com on July 23. The theme is general and open to anything pertaining to being a fat woman of color and our experiences in our communities, experiences on how our fat and bodies are racialized, myths about fat women of color, and so on. Please link all entries here by July 20. Please promote as applicable and appropriate.

Information on carnivals.

Quick hit: Racism and victory daps

The next time someone tells you that fatphobia differs from racism in being a “socially acceptable prejudice,” kick them over to this post. It’s a hilariously written but chilling roundup of histrionic reactions to the celebratory dap — sorry, GANG SIGN — between Michelle and Barack Obama last week, courtesy of Drive-By Assholes on the Internet. Here’s some of their more charming brainfruit:

It is more evidence of the penetration and corruption of our dominant culture by the minority.

I love the idea of a racist mullato being president. History has shown repeatedly, when Whites set up new countries and then give the control to the blacks, or any non-White race, it will soon collapse into another third world catastrophe.

I can’t be denied that just about all their dance moves , walks and crazy handshakes mimik some kind of animal motion. What’s next? the knee in the crotch-hands above the head greeting?

Another dispaly how Black “keep it real”-real dumb. Picture Obama and wife having to meet world dignitaries. 1st of all this Punk of a wanna-be presient doesn’t even salute his OWN flag. that will look retarted when the national anthem is played as he stands in front of other world officals.

You got to be kidding, The fist “bump”, .America “WAKE UP”, You are getting your first taste of what it is going to be like electing Barack HUSSEIN Obama for president. Next you are going to see southern fried chicken, black-eyed peas, corn bread, and watermelon as your daily meal. Let’s not forget what Obama’s middle name is, funny thing, he never wants to use his middle name on his campaign.

Racism may not be socially acceptable among the people we choose to socialize with. But there are entire communities of bottom-feeders among whom it’s a major social currency. Fatphobia is unusual, though not unique, in that progressives will be gleefully fatphobic, while they’d be ashamed to express racism overtly. But that’s progressives. There’s a lot of folks on this internet, many of them with real-world counterparts, who aren’t the least bit ashamed to be blatantly racist.

I read some of these aloud to Dan, including the one about having fried chicken and cornbread as your daily meal, and he said “hey, that doesn’t sound so bad.” He’s right — it wouldn’t be my first choice of menu, and it might get a little tedious, but compared to a bungled war and a tanked economy it looks pretty desirable. But this person didn’t namecheck fried chicken and watermelon because they were awful; he or she did so because they were racist stereotypes of food preferred by blacks. That’s how “socially unacceptable” racism is for some people — they’re more interested in just saying something racist than in saying something that actually conveys meaning. The idea, in theory, was originally to say something menacing about an Obama administration, but that goal is totally secondary. The real goal is just to be as racist as possible as quickly as possible without stopping for any reason. And these people aren’t doing this out of a self-flagellating desire to be socially shunned. They’re doing it to get accolades — but not the dap, that’s WAY too black — from like-minded bigots.

I know this isn’t news to most of you, but it’s a useful illustration of why official policy around these parts rejects the “last acceptable prejudice” bohonkey. Virulent prejudice — racism, sexism, homophobia, fatphobia, transphobia, ablism, stop me any time — is more socially acceptable across the board than many of us could ever imagine, or would ever want to imagine.

An anthropologist on Mars

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.

Addenda

Building on Fillyjonk’s post below, I want to announce two new changes to the comments policy, probably making it the longest goddamn comments policy on the internet.

Tenth Rule: If you are tempted to begin an argument against something we’ve said here with, “God, stop being so PC!” just stop right there. We are proudly PC and have absolutely no intention of stopping. Racist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and sexist comments are as unwelcome here as sizeist ones. That goes equally for unintentionally offensive language. If someone gets pissy at you for using the word “retarded” for instance, that doesn’t mean they think you’re an evil person who hates developmentally disabled people OR that they’re hysterical, overreacting thought police. It means there are people around here who find that word hurtful, and we’re a lot more interested in protecting their feelings than your god-given right not to think of a better word.

Eleventh Rule: If you say something like “Fat is the last acceptable prejudice” or “You could never get away with saying X to a black person,” expect to get smacked down. Occasionally, there are times when we believe that comparing the rhetoric of haters or particular expressions of bigotry is instructive, but comparing the systems of oppression themselves is always a losing proposition. (Not to mention, that is such a fine line to walk that even those of us who try to be extremely conscious of the nuanced distinctions there will fuck up and deserve to be called on it.) Every prejudice is still acceptable in some circles, and many of those deemed “unacceptable in polite society” are still woven deeply into the institutions of that society. That’s the reality, and we won’t be arguing about it around here.

While it is indeed more common to hear a vicious fat joke than a vicious racist joke on TV these days, for instance, that doesn’t mean fat prejudice is more acceptable–it means certain manifestations of it are more acceptable in certain places. But to suggest that this somehow means fat people have it harder overall than any other oppressed/marginalized group is flat-out fucking wrong and insulting. We don’t. We have it different. In many ways, we have it better. And those of us who belong to more than one oppressed/marginalized group have different forms of prejudice coming at them from all sides.

If you’re still not getting it, think about the difference between these two people:

Skinny Person A: You know, I really respect what you’re doing here, because people comment on my body and my eating habits all the time, and they assume I’m unhealthy just because of my weight. I don’t know what it’s like to be fat in this society, but I know what it’s like to have my body treated as public property and be judged negatively because of my size. It fucking sucks, so the Fat Acceptance movement resonates with me, and I hope I can be an ally.

Skinny Person B: People make nasty comments to skinny people all the time, too, so we have it just as bad! All prejudice is the same! We need a Thin Acceptance Movement!

Both those types of people show up here all the time. A’s get welcomed with open arms. B’s get ridiculed and banned. There’s a reason for that–and if you can understand that reason, you should damn well be able to understand why equating fat hatred to other forms of oppression with long and tragic histories is bullshit.

Besides, as The Rotund recently pointed out, if you believe fat is the last acceptable prejudice in “polite society”–if not our institutions–you really need to sit down and have coffee with a transperson.

Giving a shit

There’s been a lot of response to Tara’s extraordinary post about race in fat activism on Fatshionista.com. Lord knows I am in no mood to court drama right now, but it comes looking for me anyway, so let me take this opportunity to state my position on an important post and an important issue.

One very familiar response I’m seeing is “but what are we supposed to do?” I empathize with this, because I know it can feel really dire and hopeless when you’re a white person and you’re asked to simultaneously acknowledge that you’ll never fully understand racism and establish a more racially welcoming environment. (Or when you’re any privileged person asked to encourage community diversity from the outside.) It’s easy to get defensive if you feel like you’re being asked to fix a problem you didn’t think you were creating and would rather think didn’t exist, and so I think it’s easy to read a post like this as “I feel marginalized, and I would like you to bend over backwards to fix this right now, while I find new things to complain about.” If that’s how you’re reading Tara’s post, I truly understand, because it’s uncomfortable and difficult to try to use your privilege to ameliorate the results of your privilege, but without being privileged about it. I’ve had the same defensive reaction. But I encourage you to look again. I think you’ll find that the message is this: “I am being marginalized, and I would like you to bend over backwards to give a shit about the fact that I am being marginalized.” And I would be ashamed to refuse that request. Nor do I want to refuse it, nor do I have to.

See, here’s the thing. My capacity for giving a shit about stuff is basically infinite. Oh, it’s not limitless on any given day — there are fluctuations due to stress levels, and then every so often something will completely eclipse my shit-giving abilities. For instance this week I’ve been busy caring about a personal tragedy and haven’t had any interest in giving a hoot about anything else. But it’s infinite in the sense that, on a daily basis, caring about one thing does not diminish my ability to care about something else. The resources I put into one cause may limit the resources I have available for another one, but my compassion for that cause remains undimmed — I am no less of a fat activist for being a feminist, or being pro-gay, or opposing racism. I have the ability to give a shit about many things simultaneously. And so do you.

And I’ll go further: as people who are interested in social justice, we have a responsibility to give a shit about causes other than our own major concerns. Any oppression diminishes us. I am lucky enough to have a skin color that people can ignore, a relationship that I can get officially recognized, and enough financial stability that I don’t have to worry about where the rent is coming from. That means that racism, homophobia, and classism don’t affect me as much as fatphobia and misogyny; it means I could ignore them if I wanted to. But I invite them into my consciousness, not because I’m a glutton for emotional stress, but because I want to live in a just society. And I believe a just society is one in which the concerns and the marginalization of others matter to us.

Nobody is asking us to give up being fat activists and be anti-racism activists instead. But these things are not mutually exclusive; even if we don’t have the resources to do active work for both (or some other additional activist issue), we can give a shit about both simultaneously. If you do have the resources, by god, keep it up, but I know I just don’t have the energy to try to address all inequities and injustices. It’s hard enough to keep talking about large-scale attempts to disenfranchise and vilify fatties. But even if this isn’t a place where every oppression is equally addressed (which I don’t think anyone expects or even really needs), it’s really crucial that it be a place where every oppression is considered and important. That means that we do not minimize or dismiss people’s concerns. Right now, it means we listen to Tara when she talks about the things that hurt or alienate her; that we believe that these things are alienating; that we take this into account in the future; and that we understand that this awareness is not an unfair onus, but part of the greater work of social activism.

This is by no means a utopian fantasy: many feminist communities have managed to do a great job of acknowledging the intersection of feminism with race, class, sexuality, ability, and even fat, and I see no reason why we can’t do the same. We are compassionate people, and we have struggles of our own outside of fatphobia. We know that other people’s oppressions matter, and that it’s egotistical — even if it’s easy and natural — to believe that our challenges are the most important, or that caring about others diminishes our ability to care about ourselves. I trust you all to be able and willing to rise to this.

I haven’t been perfect about this and I will continue to be imperfect, because it’s easy to forget about struggles other than your own. It’s not hypocrisy, but an unfortunately definitional aspect of privilege: the privileges you have are all but invisible to you, even as the ones you lack are glaring. But it matters to me and I plan to do my best. I do hope people call me on it — just as I’ll keep dinging my progressive friends for talking nonsense about fatties, or making sexist jokes. And I hope you’re all with me in my desire to make SP a conscious, welcoming place.