N.B.: Megan, the author of the article in question, got in touch with me and we discussed the unnecessarily harsh judgments I passed on her article (which, if I’m being perfectly honest, I was just using as a launching pad for the speaking up discussion — and you kind of jump all over launching pads, as a rule, without caring about their feelings). Turns out Rachel was right all along and Megan’s got a lot more guts than I gave her credit for — so much guts that she doesn’t mind my leaving this post up as-is, criticisms and all. Which means, as far as I’m concerned, she’s well on her way to telling off every asshole doctor on the planet. Just a matter of time. Hopefully she won’t end up SO tough that she stomps on people who strike a nerve with her, like some people I could mention.
A few weeks ago I was sent an article called “How It Feels to be Newly Thin.” Reading the article made me think a lot about our responsibility to speak out against fatphobia when we encounter it. See, the article’s subtitle is “I may be thin now, but that doesn’t mean I share your opinions about fat people.” But in reading it I discovered that it should have had a sub-subtitle: “But that, in turn, doesn’t mean I’m ever going to say a goddamn thing when you spew bigotry.”
My best friend Bea places nannies in elite homes in Los Angeles, and more than once she has been explicitly asked not to send overweight applicants, no matter what their qualifications. Recently she had a candidate of the highest qualifications and glowing references, but this particular candidate wore size 16 jeans. When she found the courage to share this last detail with the client, the client immediately justified her prejudice by explaining that there were a lot of expensive antiques in her home, and narrow hallways. Fat, this woman believed, was simply unacceptable. If I had been there, I’m sure I would have simply nodded in quiet acquiescence.
I did as much recently when I went on a date with a young doctor. As I batted my eyelashes and enjoyed my newfound attractiveness, he recalled his morning spent helping in the delivery of a baby. “The woman was morbidly obese,” he leaned over and whispered. Who, he wondered, would have wanted to have sex with that nine months ago? I said nothing and just let him buy into the illusion of me as someone who has only ever known a normal, healthy weight range.
First thought: What the FUCK, lady? Are you seriously writing a whole article about how you’re too much of a sniveling wuss to pipe up when the people around you are acting like flaming assholes? You’d think that she’d go on to say that she’s a little ashamed of her meekness, but it doesn’t really happen. She does end on the note that she “can only hope” she won’t keep her mouth shut next time someone talks shit about fatties, but after several paragraphs detailing “the day-to-day humiliations of obesity” and the splendors of gastric bypass (which hasn’t caused her any health problems AT ALL!), you can’t help but think that perhaps hoping isn’t quite enough.
And lord knows we need some thin people standing up to fatphobic commentary. Shapely Prose sloganeer Cacie recently talked sense into some coworkers slinging uninformed commentary on obesity, and as she walked away she heard them say “wow, we should be careful what we say in mixed company, you never know who you’re going to offend.” People need to be caught off-guard like that. We need to convey that bigotry offends all right-thinking people, whether they’re in the oppressed group or not. It won’t stop people being bigots, but at least most of them will stop being proud of it.
It’s not just the surprise factor — it’s the fact that thin people, by virtue of being thin people, are not discounted by other thin people. I know you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, and to a certain degree I really do believe that, but from another perspective, the master’s tools are already inside, and that counts for something. If the master’s house has a metal detector, do you really think you’re bringing in an axe? To get less metaphorical: It’s easy to dismiss a fat person talking about fat issues, just as it’s easy to dismiss a woman talking about feminism or a person of color talking about racism. The fat person is making excuses, the woman is hysterical, the person of color just needs to calm down. But to hear the sentiment from the mouth of someone approved by the dominant paradigm — that’ll cause cognitive dissonance, but it’s not so easily dismissed. Sure, people do their best to write off male feminists and so forth, but the fact is they’re speaking up against injustice from a position of power, which means a position that’s hard to ignore. In a sense, it’s the responsibility of the dominant group to speak up for people who will otherwise be dismissed and marginalized — that’s how you show the rest of the dominant group that real people, people who count, care about these issues. Does it fucking suck that you have to exploit bigotry and dehumanization in order to counteract it? Yeah, it fucking does. But if I’m not considered a real person, a person who counts, I can scream in the wilderness until I’m dead and nobody has to listen.
Second thought, more charitable: speaking up is really hard. It’s easy for me to say “you non-fatties, and you fatties too, you have a responsibility not to keep silent.” But can I even really practice what I preach? I talk a good game here and elsewhere online, but in the name of interpersonal peace I have been known to give up face-to-face arguments after a token “you know that thin doesn’t equal healthy, right?” Rather than arguing, I tend to reframe: if a coworker beats herself up about not going to the gym, for instance, I’ll say “I know, I’m dragging too — maybe we should do a little yoga in our offices to perk us up.” A radical idea, for some, that exercise might be for making you feel good — but hardly a radical action.
Granted, I’m not a member of the thin paradigm — I’m easy to write off. In fact I’m just the right amount fat that it could be really awkward for me to have these conversations in a frank way with anyone who’s not prepared. I would expect to be met with a token “but you’re not fat” that’s just dubious enough to be uncomfortable — an unpleasant situation where they try to derail my point by making false and unnecessary efforts to shore up my self-esteem. I don’t need the headache. And it would probably be even more awkward if I were fatter, and people didn’t even feel they could default to “but you’re not fat” in order to avoid the conversation — who knows what they’d do instead, and I might well be in for some personal attacks or at least concern trolling. For a fat person, taking a stand against fatphobia is basically an invitation to delve into people’s more perverse conversational defense mechanisms. For a thin person, it’s an opportunity to be marked as incurably weird. And for both, there’s the chance that your friends and neighbors show themselves to be bigots, and who likes that? (I learned about this the hard way, when I got stroppy and goaded a friend into saying some pretty racist and sexist shit. In a sense I was glad to know his true colors, and I didn’t suffer any pangs of conscience in dropping him and the misogynist crowd he’d been running with. In another sense, though, if I hadn’t gotten all pugnacious, I could have had fun at the dude’s parties indefinitely without being any the wiser. And the people who took his side — I don’t want their friendship either, but at least they would look me in the eye.)
It’s complex and difficult, deciding what kind of social tensions you’re willing to endure in order to say your piece. Every regular reader of this blog has the ammo, but does everyone have the gun? Does everyone need to? Probably the most compassionate solution is to say that those who can write, can write; those who can argue, can argue; and those who would rather change the conversation in subtler ways can do that instead. And meanwhile, those who don’t feel strong enough to speak up at all can read and converse and listen and build up courage. Not everyone needs to be a radical, but everyone needs to eventually get up the strength to stand up for themselves. If you can stand up for others in the process, all the better.
But don’t ever let me catch you writing articles in Newsweek about how you stand idly by while people badmouth fatties. That is trifling.