02 October 2012

Fatphobia and the outdoors

This is where we were walking
A few weeks ago I went for a walk in the Cumbrian countryside with my girlfriend. We were aiming for a place where you can swim when it's warm, a series of waterfalls and natural pools. It was too cold to get in, but I still wanted to see the water. The walk was short, less than a mile, and took us across a campsite, along a river, and up and over a rocky patch. It's very rainy in that part of the world, and there were some areas where we had to hop on rocks to get over a stream.

One stream hop was somewhat precarious, and we hooted and laughed as we scrambled over. A man and a woman were walking towards us as we teetered forwards over the water. The man wanted to be in on our fun, and he said as he walked past us, without missing a beat, and smiling: "You need more exercise."

There are a handful of reasons why this comment was a no-no, and I will explain some of them here.

Our bodies as fat women are public bodies, commentated bodies, dehumanised bodies too. We're not assumed to have the power to articulate our bodies for ourselves, but we are presumed available for others to describe, define and constrict. Without knowing a thing about us this (yes, white, older, normatively-sized, able-bodied, middle-class, appropriately-dressed, straight-looking) guy felt entitled to comment on what it is we are and need based on nothing more than momentarily seeing us teetering and giggling over a stream. This happens to fat people all the time.

If fatphobia was not part of how fat women's bodies are commented upon, "you need more exercise" would not be a tricky statement, but the man's comment came saturated with a discourse of judgment, hatred and morality. This discourse is so everyday and accepted that the guy didn't even appear to think that it was a problem, he was likely just stating a fact in a friendly way and was probably baffled by my angry response.

Whether or not we need more exercise is not his judgment to make. Maybe we could do with more, but here we were, walking to some ponds, just like him. This makes me think that we are getting enough exercise, that we are able to judge for ourselves the appropriate amount of exercise we need and want. We weren't fast or agile, but we were doing things in our own way, and this is allowed.

"You need more exercise" offended me for another reason. I live on streets, not by mountains. Walking out in the wild takes courage, when I am scrambling up some rocks or finding my way over unfamiliar ground I am vulnerable. A casual order such as "you need more exercise" is insensitive. A welcome to the hillside, and congratulations on having got that far would have been a much better bet.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth I replied: "No we don't" in the tone of a sullen teenager. It's not a great response, but I am glad this was my default, rather than something that communicated an apology for existing. Then I got angry and called him a judgmental prick. The woman scurried along behind him and I felt like shouting that I felt sorry for her, but I didn't.

I hate getting riled by strangers, I usually stay silent because shouting back rarely makes me feel good. So it was with this incident, it cast a pall over what had been a pleasant walk, and I worried afterwards when we stopped for a rest that we would see him and have a confrontation in the only pub for miles.

This is a bitty post, I think the main thing is about documenting fatphobia. It was a tiny (but big) thing said in an unlikely place, out in the wild, there really is no escaping people's hate.

The episode has made me think about what it is to put yourself out there in nature when you are fat. I can't speak for Kay but I know that I tend to feel like a fraud when I am walking in the countryside. I go slowly and carefully, I'm not one of those striders. I don't look the part. I wear boots I got from the Big Bum Jumble, but I don't have any special gear, mostly I just put on some jeans, a hoodie or a raincoat. Not that I could wear anything else, fancy walking gear doesn't come in my size. Outdoorsy marketing would suggest that the hills and lakes are the domain of wiry and muscly white people who run everywhere. Of the other people we saw whilst we were out and about in Cumbria, none really looked like us.

The fraudulent feeling is connected to a broader sense that I don't belong out in the world, that exploring wild terrain, or feeling a connection to nature is for other people, like the man we encountered, not me. (I know that some black and Asian people in the UK have written about not going to or feeling part of the countryside, with good reason, I too associate country politics and culture with intolerance). Anyway, this is a terrible feeling, not helped by that guy's thoughtless comment, or organisations like the Ramblers Association and their bullshit anti-obesity campaigning. I want to feel more able to enter wild places and feel that I belong there as a queer fat woman. Suggestions as to how to do this are welcome.

Edited to add: Sazz has ideas about this.


BetsyBlue said...

It's amazing to me how often people will make these kinds of comments when I am joyfully engaging in some kind of physical existence.

If I'm slogging through an airport, head down, miserable with jet lag, I'm likely to be left alone...but if I'm playing around on the empty people-mover, running on it like a treadmill, being goofy and laughing, then it's like an invitation to tell me that if I only did this and that I'd be fixed.

I don't know if it's that the happiness makes me seem approachable as a vessel for such ground breaking advice or if (more disturbingly) my presence as a joyfully moving fat woman is too upsetting to leave unremarked.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I think there was something about our happiness and fun that made him feel entitled to speak. He looked as though he was having no fun at all with the woman accompanying him.

Also, though, I think a person could go crazy trying to work out the variables of when fatphobes attack.

Sazz said...

I started writing a brief little snippet and it turned into this huge thing. I posted it at my journal, here:


I do hope you try again with your outdoorsing. Best of luck!

Charlotte Cooper said...

Your post is really wonderful Sazz, thank you.

Sharon said...

Ugh, sorry to hear you had to experience that, in the glorious outdoors, of all places! My experience when walking is that people tend to be a lot friendlier there, with a lot of "hello"s and "good morning"s when walkers cross each other, as compared to the abuse I get when cycling (from drivers, not from pedestrians or fellow cyclists).

As for suggestions as to how to get out there and feel a sense of belonging, I reckon that the more you get out there and do it, the more it feels like a place you're entitled to enjoy. And we are all entitled to enjoy it, publicity materials be damned. Our taxes, all of our taxes, help to support the countryside, paying for things like path repair, for example.
It is so wonderful to get out there and experience lovely fresh air and fantastic scenery - how dare people try and make others feel like they don't belong!

The other suggestion I have is concerning having the right equipment - not the "right" equipment in terms of some snobby ideas about what is fashionable to wear, but the right equipment in terms of comfort. Feeling comfortable makes a huge difference to the enjoyability of outdoor experiences and indeed plus-size equipment isn't exactly as available as it should be. One thing we could do is to share more when we do find sources of equipment.

I have managed to find sources of plus-sized fleeces and waterpoof outer coverings. For sizes larger than those, in the past I've found that a poncho, such as that used by cyclists, can be useful, although they aren't great in windy conditions.

I haven't managed to find decent outdoor trousers: for me, jeans, if wet, are uncomfy and painful, and don't dry well. I use trousers of softer jersey fabric, which don't dry that fast but at least they are flexible and don't rub at the seams.

If you're sufficiently heavy that it's a strain on the knees, then walking poles are a real boon, hugely useful for supporting knees when going downhill, as well as useful for testing how deep that boggy bit is before you tread on it. Also I plan routes that don't involve too much up and down, e.g. a route round a lake is often ideal.

Anonymous said...

It's a tangent, but your article got me thinking. People treat me so poorly because I'm over weight. It's little things too. The other day my plastic bag holding my groceries broke and all my groceries spilled out all over the ground. People walking by couldn't be bothered to even help me. Yes, I know this is humanity i'm talking about, but I can't help but think that if I was pretty and thin, a guy would be so much more inclined on helping me out. People also never hold doors open for me, and they give me funny looks when I walk by. Luckily my parents taught me that people who judge others by looks are shallow pricks, but I can't help but think that i'm sub-human sometimes. Also the happiness thing is a major thing. Every time I've had some one say something terrible to me about my weight, it is usually when I'm having a good time. In a way it hurts more, like they are putting me in my place, I'm supposed to be sad and worship their bodies.