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Speaking Out About Fat Oppression and Liberation

I have been fat since age four. I don't remember making a decision to become fat. I do remember making a decision to eat, and from an early age I became addicted to chocolate, cakes, biscuits, etc. My brother ate this way, too, but he stayed thin, although he probably ate more than I did. It looks to me like many people have food addictions, but some become fat and others don't. It is fat people who are targeted, oppressed, and discriminated against.

As a fat child I was subjected to persistent bullying which took the form of verbal and physical assaults. The excuse was my size. I was also excluded from games and activities because not many people wanted to be associated with a fat child. When I look at photos of myself when younger, I was not very fat, but bigger than what is considered okay. As I became a teenager, I was the one who didn't get invited to parties or discos or out with boys. I was generally not "cool" for boys or girls to be seen with.

The result of all this exclusion and isolation was that along with everyone else, I saw my size as the problem. I began dieting seriously at about age nine. This meant that some of the time I was literally starving myself, felt very hungry, and as a result became more preoccupied with food. I hated my body and began doing things to try and cover myself up. In summer, when everyone else was wearing shorts and T-shirts, I wore a huge coat. I also began wearing a tight girdle to hold my stomach in (and had trouble breathing). Some days I found it difficult to go out of the house. I had no one to tell me that the oppression had nothing to do with me. Fat people then, as now, are blamed: "If you don't like it, lose weight."

The result of the oppression was that my life became more and more limited. Years of being humiliated on the sports field meant that I did anything I could not to involve myself in games. Humiliation on the dance floor meant that I stopped dancing. Constant beatings at school meant that I stayed in the classroom at break time. I felt completely unattractive and horrible about myself.

My mum and dad are fat and had already internalised a lot of self-hatred and blame, which they, in turn, passed on to me. My brother was ashamed of having a fat sister. I became lonely, and food became my only source of comfort. As a result I became bigger, only to stop eating, lose weight, then put it on again.

When I was nineteen I discovered the women's liberation movement and began to start thinking about myself as a fat woman. I always knew inside that the treatment I and other fat women received had nothing to do with us. I stopped dieting and to a certain extent began to do things that I hadn't done for years. I had relationships with men, exercised well, ate healthily.

In my twenties I began RC. I didn't counsel much on fat oppression to begin with because, as in the outside world, not many people in RC had attention for it. However, over the years (I am now thirty-one) I have discharged, thought about, and led on this issue. Taking leadership itself has been a massive contradiction for me as a working-class fat woman. Previously, I'd spent most of my life trying to remain invisible in the hope that I would escape the oppression (which I didn't anyway). I am not saying that the mistreatment has stopped now that I lead, but I now know that the only way to end the oppression is by assuming my rightful place of leading people. I now exercise regularly and eat healthily. I hardly ever get ill and I am still fat. I may lose weight in the future, I don't know, but at the moment I remain a large woman.

MY THINKING ABOUT FAT OPPRESSION

Although fat oppression is more "advanced" in predominantly white, Western countries, as far as I am aware fat oppression exists and is advancing in most countries and cultures throughout the world.

Fat oppression is like every other oppression in that it exists to divide the majority of people and make money for a relatively small group. There are billions of pounds made from thriving diet, "beauty," and "health" industries.

Fat oppression, like other oppressions, is perpetuated by individuals and institutions. There are jobs from which fat people (particularly women) are excluded, i.e., air hostess, waiter/waitress, receptionist, shop assistant (particularly clothes shops), night club worker, etc. I know of a nurse and a catering worker who recently lost their jobs because they were considered too fat.

In the United Kingdom there are very few shops which stock clothes any bigger than size sixteen (even though forty-five percent of women are size sixteen or over). There is a famous London nightclub where the owner is open about his policy of not admitting fat women. Seats in public places or transport are often not accessible for fat people. An airline was recently reported as asking a fat man to pay double because he could not fit on one seat.

The medical industry's attitudes towards fat people are more often than not based on prejudice rather than concern for our health. Many fat people would rather avoid doctors altogether, whatever state their health is in, rather than put up with the "tellings off" and lectures. It is not uncommon for health professionals to withhold treatment to a fat person unless he or she loses weight. Many gyms and health clubs do not welcome fat people, feeling we are bad for their image.

I think it is important to not simply accept without question statistics and medical evidence that equate being fat with being unhealthy. The fact is, there is a lot of money to be made in proving that fat people are unhealthy. Scientific data can be "used" to prove whatever anyone wants it to, for example the experiments that "proved" that men are more intelligent than women or that black people are more likely to commit crimes.

Some research shows that lifestyle and diet are more important factors in health than body size, and that thin people can be more unhealthy than large people. And most research does not take into account the effects of fat oppression on one's health. Apparently in countries where standards of beauty are different from those in Western countries, fat people do not have the illnesses associated with being overweight. This may indicate that the stresses foisted upon fat people play a part in creating ill health.

We are surrounded on a daily basis by media images which show thin as beautiful and fat as ugly. Positive images of fat people are hard to find. We are often objects of ridicule and derision, or treated as "jolly" figures there to amuse. Even in socialist movements the owning class are referred to negatively as "fat capitalists" as a way of portraying greed.

Stereotypes abound of fat people as lazy, unintelligent, and clumsy creatures who have no self-control. Studies have shown that fat young people are often regarded in this light by school teachers. Research in schools has also found that when pupils are asked what sort of person they would least like to be friends with, the answer is commonly a fat child.

On a day-to-day basis fat people are subjected to name-calling, violence, scapegoating, and blame. Unlike some oppressions where this type of behavior is seen as unacceptable, fat oppression is generally not recognized as such but is seen as the fault of the fat person, who "should get his or her act together and lose weight."

WHY FAT PEOPLE'S LIBERATION IS IN ALL OUR INTERESTS

Fat oppression affects everyone. As long as a particular group of people is targeted for their body size, others will fear becoming fat and thereby receiving the same oppression. Many people become preoccupied with losing or with not gaining weight. Because of sexism and the extent to which women's worth is based on our appearance, the fear of becoming fat dominates many women's lives. The inevitable result is the increase in behaviors known as "eating disorders." Many women risk their health with slimming pills, cosmetic surgery, and a poor diet. Women often say that they are scared to give up smoking in case they put on weight. In the present climate, where being extremely thin is fashionable, I know of women as young as eight years old on diets.

The reality is that we are all completely beautiful in all our shapes and sizes, and it is not in anyone's interest that fat oppression continues.

FAT PEOPLE'S INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION

Not surprisingly, without correct information and discharge, fat people have internalized the oppression. When counseling a fat person, it is important to be aware of this. I see the following as being major components of fat people's internalized oppression:

  • A deep-seated feeling of self-hatred and shame attached to our bodies. When we are constantly told that the reason we get treated badly, isolated, and targeted is because of our size, then we also see our bodies as being to blame.

     

  • A belief that others are disgusted with us and do not want to be close to us. It is difficult not to believe this when the messages are so overwhelming.

     

  • We feel ugly and unattractive.

     

  • Fear of humiliation can make visibility and leadership seem terrifying, and we avoid it.

     

  • Some fat people flip into the other side of this pattern and may present themselves as objects of derision, or may be extremely loud and flamboyant. The idea seems to be, "If you're going to laugh at me, I'll do it to myself before anyone else does," a sort of patterned attempt at self-defense.

     

  • The self-hatred and blaming make us believe that the oppression is our fault, and we don't organize against it. In fact we often want to draw as little attention to the issue as possible and "keep our heads down."

     

  • Feelings of self-consciousness and fear of being laughed at mean that our lives can become limited. We often don't exercise, wear certain clothes, go dancing, lie on the beach, or become serious performers, leaders, etc.

     

  • We can become confused around food, viewing some foods as "good," and others as "bad." We are defensive around food, and this can make it difficult to share our struggles and irrational behavior, or to make rational decisions about food. For instance, I tried every diet I could get my hands on at one time, even though some of them were obviously dangerous and unhealthy.

     

  • We have been silenced and as a result find it hard to talk about our experiences and struggles.

     

  • We put our lives on "hold" in the hope that we will one day be slimmer and able to do all the things we long to do. One small example of this is that many fat people's wardrobes contain clothes that have not fitted us for years and are probably nicer than the ones we presently wear, but we feel that we don't deserve nice things or nice people until we are slim.

     

  • We may find it hard to trust others.

     

CONTRADICTIONS TO FAT PEOPLE'S INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION

  • Take leadership, be visible, take ourselves seriously. This cuts at the heart of fat oppression. Our natural place is up front as leader.

     

  • Build a fat people's liberation movement. We need to get together, develop policy, campaign, fight the discrimination, and take a huge step out of feeling powerless.

    This is not an easy task. It feels like together we are more visible and therefore more vulnerable. Often the only time fat people get together is at diet clubs where the emphasis is on feeling bad. The fantasy of being slim seems like the only way out of the oppression, not building a fat people's liberation moment. I have found that at first it may be easier to unite fat people around issues such as health and exercise.

     

  • Make allies. Lead thoughtful discussions on the subject. Push for the development of policies which make organizations and services inclusive of fat people.

     

  • Discharge early memories of eating. Chances are that we have irrational eating habits (most people do). However, whether we feel that this is an issue for us or not, it's what the oppression throws at us. I have noticed that the person who is doing the oppressing often feels bad about his or her own eating distress. We need to become expert at counseling people on their feelings about food/eating.

     

  • Love ourselves. Use the Reality Agreement to notice and decide that we are beautiful right now, as we are.

     

  • Reclaim our bodies for ourselves. We can touch ourselves gently, using directions such as "my body," "my precious body," etc.

     

  • Live fully in the present moment. Fulfill our dreams, reach our goals, love ourselves, make close relationships, find a lover, wear nice clothes, do activities we enjoy, take care of our bodies now-not once we have lost weight. We are special, beautiful, deserving human beings.

     

  • In session, tell our stories. We have been silenced, and our hurts have not been taken seriously. Just having someone listen is a huge contradiction.

     

  • In session, make the decision to lose weight. This can be helpful for discharging feelings of defensiveness and shame. Or consider always being the size we are now or bigger-to help us discharge the feelings that get hooked into the fantasy that one day everything will be different when we are thin. Losing weight may or may not be rational for a particular person. Ninety-five percent of people who lose weight on a diet regain it again. Diets in themselves can be dangerous for one's health.

    If changes in eating or exercise patterns are necessary, this comes through loving encouragement and attention, not blame. Whatever the case, losing weight will not make fat oppression go away.

     

  • Make friends with other fat people. We often steer clear of each other for fear of being targeted or because all the bad things that we feel about ourselves we feel about other fat people. Friendships with other fat people can be valuable sources of closeness, strength, and solidarity.

     

  • Form alliances. Our oppression has commonalties with other oppressions, e.g., that of disabled people.

     

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle based on loving ourselves. If we learn to eat when hungry and regain our enjoyment of exercise, the body will come to a size and shape that is right for it.

     

  • Surround ourselves with positive images. There are many fat people who have done and do wonderful, brave things in the world and who inspire those around them.

WHAT ALLIES CAN DO

When people ask me what they can do, I tell them these are things I've found useful:

  • Take this seriously as a liberation issue.

     

  • Commit yourselves to ending the oppression. Talk about it in terms of an oppression in which fat people are targeted. Make changes in the world to end discrimination against fat people.

     

  • Counsel on early memories of food/eating.

     

  • Counsel towards fully reclaiming your love for your own body and being fully in touch with your own beauty.

     

  • Counsel on your own fears of putting on weight and on what "disgusts" you about fat people.

    (Doing the above will be re-emergent for you and will also deal with the distresses that are rehearsed at fat people.)

     

  • Discharge on what it has been like to see fat people being oppressed and mistreated. Remember times you have interrupted the oppression and times when you have colluded with it.

     

  • Remind fat people of our beauty and attractiveness. I have noticed that to some counsellors this seems oppressive, particularly if the client is a woman. But fat women have suffered huge hurts in this area, and it is an important contradiction to convey our attractiveness to us in all ways possible. We won't be confused that physical appearance is the most important thing about us. I have spent session after session on this.

     

  • Encourage fat people to be visible and to lead. Remember how frightening being the focus of attention can feel to us.

     

  • Thoughtfully encourage us to take risks in being visible, i.e., wearing something we normally wouldn't, taking up a sport, starting a new job, having photos taken, becoming a public figure (member of Parliament, etc.).

     

  • Make friends with fat people. Your lives will be better for it.

     

  • Ask us how our lives are as fat people. Listen to our hard bits and struggles as well as cheering on our successes.

     

  • Interrupt fat oppression when you see/hear it. Most discussions and actions around dieting are based on self-hatred. The vast majority of women who diet do not do so for health but to try and maintain sexist standards of beauty. Also, think how it feels for a fat person to be in a group of thin people talking about how disgusting fat thighs are, or a big stomach.

     

  • Think about our physical comfort. For instance, make sure there is seating at workshops big enough for us to sit on.

     

  • Learn how to counsel us; learn our issues.

Mel Cowell
New Basford, Nottingham, England


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00