There’s been a lot of talk recently about Carson Kressley’s new show “How to Look Good Naked.” I haven’t written about it because I basically don’t give a shit about new television (except Project Runway), and I think Kate’s about the same, and SM doesn’t even have cable — there are bigger pop culture mavens on the fatosphere who can handle it. I hope it’s sincere, I hope there’s lots of crying, I hope it gets more viewers than Biggest Loser (it won’t), and I’m not gonna watch it. That about sums that up.
What I want to talk about is the not-unexpected backlash, because it beats a tired, familiar, hateful old drum: namely, if you allow people (especially women) to feel good about themselves, they’ll never loathe themselves enough to change. It’s actually a really vicious mindset, one that I’m familiar with from abusive relationships — “if I don’t punish you, how will you learn?” But it’s such a popular attitude towards fat that people don’t even think twice about what a poisonous (and, for what it’s worth, counterproductive) outlook it really is. So counterproductive, in fact, that it ought to be funny, except that it’s real people under the lash.
As an illustrative example, let’s look at this review, which I found because some laudable commenter made an attempt at education by linking to the BMI Project. The post itself is pretty standard fare — I’m no model myself, but fat people are going to get diseases, and self-esteem makes you complacent. Barely worth snoring about, in the grand scheme of things. But what caught my eye was this comment, in which the author defends his position:
My wife and I were talking about this yesterday and both agreed that it was something I should have put in the original piece — those people that are in the place between “perfect” and “mildly overweight” (which, I think, is the _vast_ majority of Americans) have every right to self-esteem boost. I understand the pressure that’s on perfectly healthy women to try and starve themselves into an unnatural “ideal.” Anything we can do to make normal women feel, you know, normal, is an admirable pursuit.
That being said, the materials for the first episode say that the women Carson “helps” is 40 pounds over weight. Not obese by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly in area where health problems start showing up.
For one thing, while I’m sure this fellow is an expert and everything, 40 lbs “overweight” is certainly obese according to the BMI. Namecheck it or don’t, but you can’t have it both ways — either there are clearly-defined categories called “overweight,” “obese,” and “morbidly obese,” each with its own precisely defined level of risk, OR you get to define those categories yourself based on what you think is attractive and acceptable. It can’t be a reliable diagnostic tool AND your version of the 1-10 hotness scale.
But of course that’s a peripheral point. The real issue is the sentence in bold above, the one stating that normal women “have every right” to self-esteem. Fat women, of course, do not. Fat women do not have a right to self-esteem.
Now, this guy never said “fat women have no right to self-esteem,” not in so many words. He might even say that he would NEVER say something like that. But that is, in fact, the logical conclusion of what he’s saying above: of course I think normal women who think they’re fat have a right not to hate themselves, but real fatties have no such right, and should instead be told over and over again how abnormal and unacceptable they are, or they’ll never learn. Self-esteem is all well and good if you’re normal, but if you’re considered unattractive, you should be reviled for the freak you are.
Fatphobia is so ingrained in our culture that people see nothing wrong with this kind of mindset. After all, it echoes our attitudes towards other pleasant things, like food and sex and clothes — you can have nice things if you’re thin and pretty, but if you’re deemed unacceptable, all of those treats will just make you worse. Food will make you devour the world, sexuality will make you disgusting and ludicrous, clothes will just encourage you, and self-esteem will make you… well, it will make you think you might not need a complete physical overhaul in order to be worthwhile. And we can’t have that.
I mean, fuck that, obviously. Not hating yourself ought to be a basic human right, not one doled out by weight. And only the world’s biggest assholes would be willing to tell you to your face that you don’t deserve happiness or self-worth if you’re fat. Garden-variety assholes, the kind who just didn’t think or just didn’t think about it that way or really meant well or were only concerned, will find some other way to say it — some way that allows them to deal with the fear and jealousy (“if fat people are allowed to like themselves, what have I gained with all my privation?”) and unquestioned assumptions, but without having to face up to the basic cruelty of telling someone they don’t deserve to have self-esteem. Fuck that noise: it’s still cruelty and it’s still bullshit.
Never let anyone talk you out of liking yourself, or tell you that you don’t deserve it. People want to keep self-esteem away from you, because once you get it, you’ve already won — you’re that much closer to being immune to the rest of the ignorant, scapegoating shit they can throw at you. Nobody’s actually worried that self-acceptance will make you unwilling or unable to change; they’re worried it’ll make you realize that you don’t need to. And frankly, knowing that somebody finds the possibility of my contentment and happiness that damn threatening? Just makes me more inclined to flaunt it.