That poor dear

It is awkward enough when I tell people I am a women’s studies major and they chuckle awkwardly, look surprised and ask the inevitable question, “And what do you plan on doing with that!?”  I then proceed to tell them about all the possibilities I’ve looked at (law school, social work, PHD, non-profit work, something entirely different that I have not thought of yet).  It is even more awkward when people ask me about my Independent Study (IS) topic, and I answer with “Fat Positive Feminism.”  Some just take that to mean body image and jump immediately into talking about Queen Latifa or Oprah or a plus size model from the recent cycle of ANTM.

Others look at me, confused, and ask me what I am talking about.  I then try to explain that I am looking at the interactions and intersections between the fat acceptance movement and feminism.  Sometimes I have to explain the fat acceptance movement.  But most people I talk to about it get really uncomfortable when I talk about fat or fat acceptance.  I think a large part of the reason is because I, myself, am fat.  This makes it a touchy topic and so most of the time people do not delve much deeper into questioning me about it because they do not know what to say or how to discuss fat with a fat person.

This summer I worked at an inn in a vacation community on a lake in New York state.  Some nights my responsibility was just to sit on the porch and house-sit, making sure everything was ok.  One night I was doing this and reading Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession which is edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley (a very interesting book, I enjoyed it).  There were a couple of elderly women sitting nearby.  I could hear them whispering to each other (they were really bad at whispering)

“What is that book she is reading over there?  Does that say Fat??” asked one.

“Hmm? Oh!  I think it does!”  the other one answered in the tone people usually use when talking about scandalous things.

“That poor dear.  She probably struggles a lot with that.”

They then proceeded to start talking about they’re friend’s grand daughter who is struggling with weight loss right now.  All I could do was chuckle a little in my head at the meaning they gave to a fat girl reading a book called Fat.  They felt pity for me and my supposed weight-loss struggle.

The most common reaction I get when talking about my IS topic is surprise.  People are so not used to hearing a fat girl talk freely about fat in a way that is not self-deprecating or geared toward weight loss.  I think it also makes many women uncomfortable because often they, themselves, are trying to lose weight so fat positive discussion is not really on their radar or it is even seen as siding with the enemy.

My mother, on the other hand, has been extremely impressed by my project and enthusiastic about my topic.  I think she likes that it has helped me become happier and more accepting of myself.  She has seen me struggle my whole life with my body and, in true motherly fashion, my struggle has become her struggle.  There is probably a sense of relief that I have called a truce with my body and I also think she admires that.  However, when it comes to looking at herself, she is not as nice or enthusiastic.  She is quick to criticize her body and still purchases special Weight Watchers food even after she reached her recent goal of fitting back into her old jeans.  I think that she has been wary to discuss fat, food, and weight around me lately because she thinks that I will judge her for wanting to lose weight.

What accounts for people being uncomfortable talking about fat with a fat person (specifically, a fat girl)?  Is it a matter of politeness, is it a fear of offending?  Or is it bigger than that?  And how is it many of us will gladly applaud other women’s body-positive attitudes, but find it so hard to apply such attitudes to ourselves?

3 responses to this post.

  1. Oh it’s a minefield isn’t it?

    I have a mixed reaction from people when I have a go at talking fat acceptance with others.

    Some are uncomfortable because they do not wish to offend. Others, while are generally nice people, have a deep fat phobia, and fat acceptance terrifies them. And then there are those that you can tell are thinking “Oh listen to the fatso delude herself that she’s healthy and beautiful.” They don’t say it, but it’s there.

    I even find within the fatosphere that there is resistance.

    Some because of very low self esteem themselves, and they tentatively applaud other fat folk, but when it comes to themselves are still on the self loathing ride. It’s the hardest point of the whole process IMO.

    But I’ve even found that passionate fat activists can not fully get it. They’re so wound up on insisting that THEIR WAY is the only way. Particularly around the perception of fat women. It’s like the opposite extremity – the insistance that we go from desexualised and ignored to hyper-sexual and ultra-vocal. With no other points along the spectrum. Not everyone wants to be a tub thumping activist – some just want acceptance, not attention. It’s finding that balance for everyone, how individuals feel and their needs.

    I hope that makes sense, I haven’t had my coffee yet!


    • Thanks for being my first comment, Kath! I can definitely see what you are saying. It seems to me, though, that the “self loathing ride” you mention is most often a characteristic of women rather than men (just one example of where feminism comes into play, in my opinion).
      And I agree, I think that in any activist effort there will be those who are so set on their way that they think it is the only way. We do need to find a balance for everyone because your version of fat acceptance is just as valuable as theirs.

      Thanks again!


  2. Posted by hsofia on October 26, 2009 at 3:30 am

    I really like your writing! Just wanted to say … I’m a newbie here.


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