13 January 2009

Fat activism and ambiguity

I'm writing in praise of grey areas, ambiguity, complicatedness, mixed-upness and flexibility. I like these things because they are the spanner in the works when people retreat into rightness and wrongness, party lines, insider and outsiders, polarisation, enemy and Other-making.

Lately I've noticed a theme doing the rounds in – ergh, I'm going to use the word – the fatosphere. The theme concerns the drawing of lines. There's a line, some people say, between Them and Us. Once you cross the line, you become one of Them. If you try to lose weight intentionally, or if you have weight loss surgery, you become Them. If you talk about it, you become Them, it doesn't matter how sterling your fat lib credentials are used to be, they are now worthless.

I've seen other social justice movements founder because of factionalism and it's depressing to see the same things going on in fat liberation. A feminist movement that won't accede membership to women who do sex work, or lesbians who refuse to accept the humanity of their transgender sisters are on the same trajectory as fat libbers who, for example, shut down people who present opportunities to talk about the complexities of choosing weight loss surgery because it's just too painful or awkward to process.

I am coming to realise that I am really not interested in being part of an exclusive movement of politically pure people who observe and enforce the rules. I don't think lines and barriers are very helpful in trying to create a diverse movement and I don't appreciate the resentful silences that are being created on either side. If there's a bad fit between theory and life that degrades and is excluding otherwise excellent people, perhaps the original doctrine is faulty.

I like grey areas because they remind me that dogma might sound appealing but that it is not really human. I like the messiness of humans, that we don't fit neatly into theoretical ideals, that there's always someone who doesn't fit. I think those awkward buggers who don't fit (and keep going on about it to those who do) are the ones to learn from. Shutting them out is plain stupid.


Lindsay said...

Absolutely brill.

It does beg the question: now what? What can be done about it, or where does one go from here?

(sorry i'm not more eloquent at the moment... brain's a bit fuzzy from a lovely little cold i picked up the other day.)

Anonymous said...

Best post ever!!

I am new to the FA movement, and trying to figure out my personal philosophy of fat acceptance. Personally, I favor body autonomy over blanket pronouncements against weight loss, dieting, etc.

I have friends who have lost significant amounts of weight in what seemed to be sane, healthful ways. I have no problem with their choices.

What I do object to is the assumption that such weight loss is possible for everyone, and that it's intrinsically desirable.

I think it's reasonable that some blogs and forums are "diet talk free." All that nattering about diets is so ubiquitous, and it's nice to have a break now and then.

I agree, however, that we shouldn't impose some sort of anti-diet gag-rule on the fat-o-sphere.

(And what's wrong with that word, by the way? I find it hilarious.)

Charlotte Cooper said...


I still think that weight loss is a bad idea for many reasons, and that people who choose weight loss aren't fat liberation progressives though I'm happy to be proved wrong. Katie LeBesco, for example, lost weight and her radical works on fat are some of my favourites. So it's complicated. I don't think it's acceptable to brand people as sell-outs or lacking in fat lib consciousness if they try to lose weight.

I suppose my post is more about the time and energy that I feel is wasted on policing, judging and shaming people who are living under monumental social pressure to conform to a thinner ideal. I'm not into that, I think compassion is a better way to go, and I'm not into silencing people either.

Charlotte Cooper said...


You tell me!

Lindsay said...

Heh. Charlotte, if i knew the answer to that one? I'd be telling everybody in ear's reach.

ltl said...

Halleloo! Yeah, that's kind of a Christian-y term, but it's what popped (loudly) into my head, reading you here, and in keeping with the messy humanity of that impulse (and the truth of the spirit it came from in me), I'm going with it.

wriggles said...

What you say on the face of it is fine, the problem is, people that talk inclusivity are just as likely to impose their own limitations and strictures on people they don't agree with. And because they feel that they are above it, they often don't notice it anymore than those who seem on the face of it to be more didactic.

The problem with the -I don't like labels type argument is it's shallow.
It throws the baby out with the bath water. Without labels categories etc, things descend into meaningless. So we all have our boundaries we all leave others out- we simply cannot avoid this to some extent. Those we leave out hurt just as well as we hurt when we are left out.

I agree with you that we can learn from those who don't fit in, although not necessarily anything particularly radical or enlightening, sometimes their not fitting in is surface disagreements but they concur with typical and rather unpleasant premises.

All we can do is to try and do regular inventories on ourselves, question ourselves and our motives and ditto other people. But above all be humble and not assume that we are not ourselves didactic about being lovers of grey areas, for instance.

Charlotte Cooper said...


I found your comment quite passive-aggressive and I think you're talking in generalisations and have set up a straw man argument. Neither of these things are helpful in creating clear, respectful and open conversation, or are a good foundation for listening and understanding. I'm happy to talk about this stuff, but I resent being the subject of this kind of patronising finger-wagging. If you want to talk to me here on my blog, be nice.

Are you saying that I am imposing limitations on people I don't agree with? I would prefer fat liberation movement to be more open to people who break the rules but I have no wish or power to police this at all. People can do what they want and the movement will continue in whichever way it goes.

I don't know where you got "the -I don't like labels type argument". How did that come about? I don't think I'm saying I don't like labels. You go on to say that boundaries are necessary in order to make sense of reality. I don't know what I think of that, it's a philosophical point that is beyond me right now, though I'll think about it. What I'm trying to say is that I dislike the shaming and exclusion that I've been witnessing lately. I prefer dialogue and understanding as a way forward. I may be in a minority with this, but it's still where I'm at.

I agree with you that we can learn from those who don't fit in, although not necessarily anything particularly radical or enlightening"
That's an amazing generalisation! And so judgmental! Maybe there is something radical and enlightening to learn out there, I'd think I'd kill myself if I didn't have that hope. god, is this all there is?!

sometimes their not fitting in is surface disagreements but they concur with typical and rather unpleasant premises.
Yes, maybe it is. I'm still interested in listening, even if people are presenting thoughts that I disagree with, or are "typical" or "unpleasant". How can people ever get on board if you shut them down or keep them out? I suppose I think that it's really ok for people to be different, that I don't need to be threatened by that.

All we can do is to try and do regular inventories on ourselves, question ourselves and our motives and ditto other people. But above all be humble and not assume that we are not ourselves didactic about being lovers of grey areas, for instance.
I'm assuming that you think I am being didactic here, which I'll take away and think about. The other stuff you talk about is honourable, though I don't see much evidence of it in your comment! Do you have examples of how you do that process with regard to keeping what I see as somewhat exclusionary boundaries?

Cassandra Says said...

Hi! I just came over from Shapely Prose.

It's interesting to me that literally every movement seems to go through this same process. You'd think that over time people would have learned through studying history how destructive it is, but apparently human nature prevails.

I'm very new to all this and right now i'm just taking the tack that the right thing to do is respect people's right as individuals to decide what's best for them. Even with something like weight loss surgery that can be dangerous, my first instinct is to jump in and go "wait, that's really dangerous and I care about you, please don't do it!'. But then I remember the intra-feminist debates over body modifications like tattoos or breast implants and remind myself how that's worked out in the past, having the movement make policy for other people's bodies.

It's a difficult question, though. How much does visibly doing something that seems to be in some ways at odds with your message undercut any movement? What about people with eating disorders for whom it's not as easy as just deciding not to diet? What about the fact that talk about health and talk about weight loss often bleed into each other simply because that's the way everyone has been trained to think? Is it reasonable to expect everyone to be a radical/progressive? To what extent can you really blame people for caving in to social pressure? I dunno, like I said I'm really new to this, but the intersection with feminist debates about appearance-related stuff is pretty striking.

Charlotte Cooper said...

@Cassandra Says

Thanks for your comments.

I'm not sure about the respecting people's rights as individuals thing, I sort of agree with that but it lacks something about how the combination of people's agency and the wider politics of why people do what they do. I think weight loss is undermining, as is WLS, but I also think that the movement is broad and that restricting "membership" and drawing lines is alienating.

It makes me think about gay life, there are many many different types of gay people, there are conflicts within the gay(sic) movement, but there are also enough crossovers to make it a viable community/movement too.

And yeah, I'm with you on the repeated mistakes thing...

Wren-chan said...

Thank you for this. I'm currently in weight watchers in an attempt to reach what I consider 'healthy'. The thing is, I know perfectly well by 26 years of acquaintance with my body that my ideal weight will still be what a lot of people will look at and call 'fat', and I associate myself with size acceptance because it helped me put words to this awareness. I'd always felt a bit bad, though, because I AM trying to come to an agreement with my body about what's good for both of us, and that felt like it would be some sort of betrayal. It's good to know it doesn't have to be.

Charlotte Cooper said...

@ wren-chan

Thanks for your response.

My feeling is that Weight Watchers is unlikely to be a place where someone might come to an acceptance of their fat body. It's a business that profits massively from valuing thinner bodies over fat ones. I don't endorse this at all and I don't think that going to a diet club is particularly helpful in generating a collective atmosphere of healing, fat-acceptance and radical action.

Having said that, I live in the real world and I accept that people have ambivalent feelings. I think that the way we experience our fatness is extremely complicated and that drawing a line, or creating new hierarchies of good and bad fat people is also unhelpful.

I hope that clears it up a bit.

e said...

thank you for this....i greatly respect your work, so hearing this come from you means a lot. i feel like i've been a fat activist, in the broadest sense for a good deal of my life. though for complicated reasons, i decided, with great difficulty, to have weight loss surgery at a young age. it is part of my reality, though i feel like i became more invested in fat activism after the fact. after attending a lecture on "fat activism 101" i felt the stings of exclusion, which i felt mimicked greatly the other exclusions i've experienced in my life from people i wanted to form alliances with (being poly & bi). i am an academic, who writes on fat activism and politics, but have always felt i'm in a different closet. so thank you for your perspective.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thank you for your comment.