22 September 2008

Is weight loss like the closet?

I've had a couple of conversations recently in which I've been thinking about weight loss being a bit like the closet.

Marilyn Wann makes a useful point about fat people being in a pre-Stonewall state, and I agree with her. Adding to her argument, I'd say that before Stonewall, more queer people chose to stay closeted because circumstances made it nearly impossible to be out. These days, I think that the closet is a pertinent analogy for weight loss.

It is my feeling that weight loss is not revolutionary and that it supports fatphobic systems, though I'd be interested in hearing opinions and thoughts to the contrary. I think positive social change around fat is more likely to happen if people choose not to buy into weight loss as a viable choice.

But I recognise that not buying into weight loss is a hard path to follow given that, as citizens of 21st century Western society, we live in an extremely fatphobic culture, one which affects super-sized people in particular. It's as though fat people must choose between two things, weight loss/living fat in a fatphobic society, that the choices are crappy, and are not really choices because they really just highlight what limited options there are for you if you are fat. Thinking about why people remained closeted pre-Stonewall, and in various contexts today, it's easy to see why people make that choice, and also why people might choose weight loss, despite the associated risks. I think people have agency, and their own sense of internal logic, and make decisions based on this.

I've heard of the closet and weight loss being contextualised as personal choices, yet I'm sceptical that these choices can ever be purely personal because I think bodies are public and political entities too, whether or not we want them to be. I'm bothered by the individualism inherent in weight loss and I try and make choices that don't only benefit myself but also try to support wider social change.

I don't want to demonise or shame people if they try to lose weight, even though I don't choose this route for myself. I think that using the closet as an analogy for weight loss, and thinking about fat people being in a pre-Stonewall state, as a population with agency but little choice, is a helpful way of thinking about fat activists who choose weight loss. It recognises the social context for weight loss, acknowledges the pressures on individuals, suggests that social change could still happen despite these constraints, and is a more compassionate approach than finger-wagging and rule-setting.


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post. You make a lot of valid points. I'm a straight, fat woman in a very fatphobic, homophobic family.

I'm one of the few straight people in my family that isn't homophobic and supports gay rights, including gay marriage but I often don't argue with my family about that just because of the fact that they have a hard enough time swallowing the fact that I'm the "liberal" one.

People really don't understand. Also, as a black woman, I've noticed that a lot of churches are now using Jesus to try to target people to lose weight. I actually heard a commercial on the radio station that went something along the lines of "Jesus wasn't fat."

It's sad, it's sickening and has frightening implications to use God to promote an agenda. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next twenty years.

SharonC said...

"It is my feeling that weight loss is not revolutionary and that it supports fatphobic systems, though I'd be interested in hearing opinions and thoughts to the contrary."

I'm generally in agreement with you.

I think that if our culture were different - imagine a truly size-neutral society - then weight loss (or indeed gain) wouldn't be viewed as any more or less fatphobic than changing hair colour a few times, not because of an "anti-blonde" agenda but just because one fancied a change! Although of course it would presumably be a lot more effort than changing hair colour, unless someone invented a magic pill.

So whilst I don't think deliberate weight change per se has to be fat/thinphobic, in this society that we do live in, it's pretty much impossible to escape the link.
And whilst I support people's rights to do whatever they like to their bodies, any resulting significant weight changes aren't exactly private. So even if a fat person wanted to lose weight in private and not promote that sort of activity, the resulting difference in public image can't be hidden.

I suppose I see it as a more general conflict between what an individual does privately, and what happens on a public level. Unfortunately the two can't be completely orthogonal - just ask Fern Britton, who certainly wasn't trying to promote WLS before the press got mad at her.

Charlotte Cooper said...


Yes, I think you are right and that context is everything.