seconds, please: resisting food policing over the holidays

My family knows how to do Thanksgiving.  It’s our holiday.  It’s an extended family affair—dear friends make most of the food, my uncle makes a parallel vegetarian/vegan feast, we go through nearly a case of wine.  Everyone seems to end up in heartfelt, jubilant conversations, or singing, or dancing. It’s my favorite way to spend time with my favorite people: cooking, eating, talking, connecting.

But my family has been steadily trickling away from my hometown, so last year, I opted to spend Thanksgiving with my dad’s side of the family & his friends.  I couldn’t wait for the awesome, boozey, reckless good time that I’ve come to love so dearly with my mom’s side of the family.  But as the day unfolded, it was clear that this was something else: something quieter, less comfortable, more reserved.

No matter.  We’d get to the food and the wine, and the conversation would come.  Once dinner was served, I sat down at one of the two tables in the dining room, between two family friends’ family members.  The dishes began to make their way around the table, and I helped myself to a spoonful of mashed potatoes.  A friend’s aunt leaned over and said, “you should start with the salad,” then, laughing, added, “and maybe finish with the salad!  Just salad for you.”  As she said it, she took the bowl of mashed potatoes from my hands. 

My face flushed red, and I could feel myself recede beneath my skin.  I felt so small and so big, cumbersome, unwieldy, all at the same time.  I couldn’t seem to gather my thoughts, make my eyes focus, bring myself back to the conversation at hand.  When I finally came to, I realized that other people at the table had taken notice.  They were laughing.

I didn’t know what to do.  I felt certain for a moment that I couldn’t move.  When I tested my legs and realized I could, I got up and went for a walk in the rain.  I came back just a few minutes later, but found myself struggling to participate.  I wasn’t my usual hammy self—I just sat quietly, responded to small talk when it was directed at me, and disengaged.

I’m not generally a crier.  But when I got home that night, I cried and cried.  It wasn’t about what that one person said—it was knowing that that was the one person who said it.  It was feeling as if everyone there came ready to laugh at me as soon as they were given the opportunity.  And it was about the times—usually weekly, sometimes daily—that strangers, acquaintances, friends & family feel entitled to shame me in public.

For all the love and connection I got from my mom’s side of the family, I got just as much in alienation and dysphoria from my Dad’s.  All I could think about was my body, my gender, and the widening chasm between how others see me and how I understand myself.

That’s what these moments of food policing mean to me.  Despite being a generally take-charge lady in my personal and professional lives, when people voice those kinds of judgments, I feel completely and utterly powerless.  It’s a flood of all my memories of being judged, excluded, or humiliated.  And that’s true of many of us—these passing moments come to feel like combat, like unprovoked assault, like emotional violence.  We get triggered.  And we respond like people who are triggered—which, while absolutely valid, doesn’t always get the point across.

This year, I’m having Thanksgiving with my mom’s family.  Will it be better?  By a mile.  Will it be free of food policing?  Maybe not.  Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving, Thankstaking, harvest, or something else entirely, holidays and family gatherings are prime times for these kinds of interactions.  So here are some ways to respond to food policing wherever it comes up.

What food policing sound like.

Food policing ranges from official policies to unprompted remarks. Whatever form it takes, food policing seek to approve of certain behaviors and choices while dismissing, blaming or pathologizing others.  Regardless of the intent of the speaker, food policing can have serious social and mental health impacts on individuals and communities.  Food policing is there to remind you that your food choices and your body are not solely your own—that they are public property.

We’ve all heard it.  Remarks on our food, usually unprompted  “Are you going to eat all of that?”  “If you want to feel full, you should just drink water!”  They come out of nowhere, presuming that we’re on a diet, that we hate our bodies and desperately need to change them ASAP, that our plates are anyone else’s business. 

Even comments that just refer to oneself can be food policing.  “I’m being so bad!” “I’ll have to spend the next week in the gym.”  “I shouldn’t, but I might just have to indulge!”  While ostensibly about food, these statements have serious social/interpersonal impacts.  They turn food into an issue of morality or personal responsibility.  They make food into a battleground or a judgment day.  They make a social statement about kinds of food that are acceptable (“good”) and kinds of food that are unacceptable (“bad,” “sinful,” “trouble”).  Any which way, this kind of policing makes for fertile ground for eating disorders, and hostile territory for any kind of eating.

How to resist.

As with any oppressive moments, there are a few key ways to interrupt these challenging interactions.  Here are some options:

  • Affirm good intentions and identify impacts.  “I know you’re trying to look out for me, but when you talk about my food choices publicly, it’s really embarrassing and it makes me feel powerless over my own experience.”
  • Use humor.  “It’s a good thing you said something.  I was just going to keep eating until I passed out.  I’m glad you stopped me from that.”  “You know what’s on this plate isn’t the sole measure of my health, right?”
  • Articulate your understanding of yourself.  “I’m fat, and I’m pretty happy being fat—I don’t have a goal of losing weight.”
  • Ask questions.  “When you say that, what do you mean?” “When you say that, it makes me think you have some judgments about my body or my choices.  Do you want to talk about them?”  (Note: you should only use this method if you want to discuss their comments further.)

Whatever tactic you choose, be sure to make a clear ask.  What do you want the person in question to do, do differently, or stop doing?  Do they need to change their behavior?  Read up and learn more?  Think about their own experience or yours?  Clear direction provides a path forward for the person you’re talking to, and it paves the way for follow-up conversations if that person doesn’t respond to your requests.

Things to remember, no matter what.

Thanksgiving is a holiday about eating.  Shaming someone for eating at Thanksgiving is like shaming someone for opening gifts on Christmas.  It doesn’t make any sense.

One meal isn’t the difference between being fat and being beauty-standard thin.  No single meal determines your body size or shape.  And even if it did, it’s nobody’s business. 

Food policing is rooted in social scripts that are all about control.  Food policing isn’t about helping anyone make healthy choices—if it were, it wouldn’t be so public or so passive aggressive, and it definitely wouldn’t hinge on one meal.  This kind of policing presumes that you can tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them (congratulations, doctors, you’re out of a job!), that being fat or eating rich foods are failures of personal responsibility, and that it’s the job of those around you to remind you of those failings.

Setting boundaries and holding your family accountable can strengthen your relationship.  Being clear about who you are and what you need isn’t a jerk move—it’s the cornerstone of any meaningful, reciprocal relationship.  Don’t hesitate to have loving, clear conversations with your families.  And if they’ve got some accountability for you, accept it thoughtfully.  That’s how relationships adapt and grow.

As you move into winter holidays and more time with your family of origin &/or your chosen family, remember your favorite holidays, think about the relationships you aspire to have.  Food policing doesn’t have to stand in the way of that.  Create the environment you aspire to have with some caring, clear interruptions of fatphobia & food policing.  That’s what I plan to do.

‘a language we do not yet speak’: the radical implications of frank ocean.

The news of Frank Ocean’s most recent blog post has been heartening, sweet, and strange.  For those who haven’t heard the news, on July 3, Frank Ocean released a beautiful statement on his blog telling the story of his first love—a person he refers to as “he” and “him.”  The response has been lovely.  Russell Simmons released a poetic statement in support. Tyler the Creator immediately chimed in to congratulate his Odd Future collaborator on twitter.  Experiencing that kind of support is a big deal in any line of work—especially one that is situated so fully in the public eye.

And the news coverage has evolved significantly, even in the first 24 hours of the story breaking.  Early reporters like the Grio first ran headlines claiming that Ocean was gay, then that he was bisexual, then simply changed the headlines to things like “Frank Ocean: ‘My First Love Was a Man.’”  Even now, reports on the subject vary, with many news outlets still claiming a range of identities: gay, bi, straight, and more.

So bloggers and news outlets haven’t all reached the same conclusion on Ocean’s sexual orientation.  That’s for one simple, but easily missed reason: he didn’t cite a sexual orientation.  That’s kind of awesome, and definitely radical.  And he’s joined and recently preceded by Azealia Banks and fellow Odd Future collaborator Syd tha Kyd.  Frank Ocean—as well as Azealia Banks and Syd tha Kyd—are coming out in ways that stand to make significant impacts, both politically and socially.

Dismantling the race wedge.

For years, anti-LGBT organizations have driven a wedge between LGBT communities and communities of color.  The National Organization for Marriage, Focus on the Family, and countless other anti-LGBT organizations have run strategies explicitly designed to divide and conquer on issues of LGBT equality and racial justice.  And bizarrely, white LGBT people (like me) help our opposition drive that wedge, spreading myths like “communities of color are more homophobic,” claiming that “gay is the new black,” making inaccurate and alienating comparisons between LGBT rights and civil rights movements, and more, all of which we’ve discussed before at You’re Welcome.

Politically, there are all kinds of impacts of this destructive wedge: it stymies opportunities for building relationships between racial justice and LGBT rights movements, much less for building interdependent movements for social justice.  It creates a breeding ground for racist assumptions about people of color within predominantly white LGBT communities.

But perhaps most importantly, driving this wedge renders invisible the lives of LGBT people of color, whose identities and families are most at stake when the race wedge is driven.  Frank Ocean’s coming out stakes a claim for queer and same gender loving people of color, publicly asserting and affirming their existence, and quietly, but firmly, pushing back on the race wedge.  He is joined by some powerful allies: Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Will Smith, Jay-Z, the President of the United States, and many, many more.  Between those coming out and allies voicing their support, the race wedge is getting weaker every day.

Many are already discussing what it means for Frank Ocean to come out as an artist in what they describe as a historically homophobic community.  I can’t speak to that—as someone who listens to hip hop, but is far from being any part of hip hop communities, it’s not mine to say.

What I can say is to my fellow white queer people and straight white allies: the race wedge is only as effective as we allow it to be.  Like any political tactic, it only works when it echoed.  The race wedge worked in the wake of Prop 8, not because communities of color voted against marriage equality (they didn’t), but because we kept insisting that they did.  In the last few months, we’ve seen record numbers of straight allies of color come out in support of LGBT communities and our issues.  That support has always been present.  But we, as white queer people, have failed to highlight, celebrate and encourage it.

We can no longer allow the race wedge to be effective.  It was never true, and we have to let it die off.  Straight allies of color are doing a lot to dismantle that wedge.  It is up to white queer people to join in on that work, too.  So I hope that, as we continue to discuss Frank Ocean as a hip hop artist and as a newly out Black man, we won’t decide to make him the exception that proves the rule, using the same broad brush strokes that our opponents use to paint a fundamentally false picture of divided communities.

Shifting the focus.

Frank Ocean’s coming out is creating tectonic shifts in how we talk about LGBT people in communities of color, and in hip hop as a community and art form.  And he could create important shifts within queer communities, too.

As I mentioned earlier, Frank Ocean & Odd Future’s own producer, Syd tha Kyd, has been out for ages—and she doesn’t identify as a lesbian.  “I decided to do it [come out] because I wish I had someone like that [an openly gay female artist] while I was coming up. . . . I wasn’t always this way, this comfortable with myself, and I remember what that was like.”  Syd readily describes the day-to-day impact of experiencing homophobia:

I put myself out there because I’m sick of people asking. I’ve been asked it so many times. It’s annoying, it’s like, you can’t answer that yourself? And awkward because it’s not like they’re going up to the other guys in the group and asking if they’re straight. Now I don’t have to answer that question outright. Because I don’t want to. It’s not that I’m not proud of who I am.

Similarly, Azealia Banks’ work and presence is undeniably queer, and she insistently resists the identities that others try to foist on her: “Ms. Banks considers herself bisexual, but, she said: ‘I’m not trying to be, like, the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.”

So Frank Ocean’s coming out is a major event for hip hop, but it’s important to note that he’s far from the first hip hop artist to come out.  The coming out narratives of Azealia Banks, Syd tha Kyd and Frank Ocean are much more reflective of queer identities—that is, nonbinary identities rooted in resistance—than they are of more entrenched gay or lesbian identities.  Their coming out asks us to uncouple the idea of who we dance with, sleep with, date and fall in love with from the only social options available: gay, lesbian or bisexual.  They require us to grapple with the complexities of our histories, our identities and our hearts.  And for many of us, those complexities don’t include lifelong attraction or relationships with only one gender, and they aren’t fully conveyed through the language that’s currently available.

Plus, part of disidentifying with lesbian or gay identities can be disidentifying with whiteness.  Historically, after all, white gay and lesbian people have overwhelmingly set the goals, strategies, and yes, the vocabulary, of LGBT movements, expecting that queer people of color (and trans people, and immigrants, and many more) would respond to a movement and community that wasn’t created by or for them, and that actively resisted accountability around racism and xenophobia.  Those spaces couldn’t be further from the heartbreaking beauty with which Frank Ocean describes his first love.

And that’s the true core, the deep strength of Frank Ocean’s post: it is exquisitely, excruciatingly human.  I hope that, as we continue to celebrate Frank Ocean’s courage, we don’t forget those who came before him, we don’t forget the privilege that each of us bring to the table when we talk about someone else’s identity, and we don’t forget this moment of impossible intricacy.  I hope that, moving forward, we all continue to let Frank Ocean define himself.

a manifatso.

Last month I took an impromptu trip to see family out of state.  It was fantastic: a lovely time with my brother’s family, and exactly what I needed after a tough time at work.  I showed up at the airport, sad to go, but happy to have had the chance to catch up with some of the people who mean most to me.

When I got on the plane, things took a sharp turn. The flight was oversold, and I was assigned at the last minute to a middle seat.  As soon as I sat down, one of the people sitting next to me seemed to get agitated.  He got up four, maybe five times to talk to flight attendants.  He checked over his shoulder at least a dozen times.  Finally, a flight attendant crouched down next to him and whispered something I couldn’t hear.  The passenger got up and moved to a seat one row up.  Before he sat down, he turned to me and said, “this is so you’ll have more room.”

The flight attendant looked at him, puzzled, then looked at me and said, “this won’t be a vacant seat.  Someone will still be sitting here.”  The passenger looked away, then sat down.

Throughout the flight, attendants offered free beer, wine and extra snacks to the people sitting on either side of me.  They didn’t say much to me.  I folded my arms, locked my legs together, and tried not to make eye contact with anyone.  This was the moment I’d come to dread as a fat traveler.  I had been singled out—and so publicly—as a nuisance, a burden, a blight.  All of this, for having the body I’ve always had, nothing more.

No matter how good I was, no matter how small I tried to make my body, I couldn’t even take a fucking two hour flight.  I spent the rest of my time on the plane replaying the interaction in my mind to see if I was wrong, if I’d misread cues, or if there was something I could have said or done differently.  The landing couldn’t come soon enough.

As travelers filtered into the aisle to get their bags, the passenger who moved looked at me.  He said, “you know, I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker.”

“What?”

“I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker, or a pregnant woman.”

“I know,” I said. “That’s what makes this terrible.”

And there it was: a perfect stranger, telling me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t even want to be near me.  All because I’m fat.  All the doubt drained out of me and I felt the sting of humiliation—the same feeling I felt in grade school, when my parents sent me to fat camp.  The same feeling from middle school, when a fellow swim team member told me no one would want to see me compete.  The same feeling I felt at the doctor’s office last year, when another patient told me that “a woman your size shouldn’t wear belts.”  It’s the same feeling every time.  After this flight, it took days to feel like I’d even partly let go of it.  I still haven’t shaken it all the way.  Because of that cumulative effect, I’m not sure that I ever will.

So often, when I think of my experience as a fat person, these are the moments I think of: the rejection, humiliation, shame, frustration and struggle.  But my while my life is shaped by these moments, it’s not defined by them.  In that moment, on that plane, despite having a whole job centered around combating discrimination, and despite having spent years thinking and talking and writing about dismantling oppression, I completely lost my sense of self.  And that is, in part, because I didn’t have an affirming script to fall back on.  Or, at least, not one that I’d internalized as deeply as I internalized the hurt, frustration and anger.

I’ve been waiting to hear someone tell me what, as a fat person, I ought to be able to rely on, and what’s reaching too far, taking too much.  When am I reasonable?  When am I greedy, angry, insatiable?  I kept expecting to see some kind of fatty bill of rights that someone else would make, so it would feel official—more real than anything I could create.  But in a world where those affirmations don’t exist, we must create them for ourselves and one another.

So I’m starting that list here.  This is what I’ve needed to hear, but it’s not everything.  I hope you’ll add more in the comments.


A MANIFATSO.

We have the right to our bodies.  We have the right to weigh 90 pounds (or less), 400 pounds (or more), and every number in between.  We have a right to the bodies we have, the bodies we need, the bodies we were born with, and the bodies that reflect our gender identities.  We have the right to spaces that respect and accommodate our bodies, not bodies that shrink and change fit the spaces that exist.  We have the right to health care that provides the services that our minds and bodies need – not what others’ bias, prejudice and ignorance tells us we need.  We have the right to transition-related health care and non-medical transitions; to birth control, reproductive health, and whatever health care our bodies, minds and identities need to be our whole selves.

We have the right to eat. We have the right to eat salad and potato chips and lentils and pork ribs. We have the right to eat anything and everything: foods that reflect our families, histories and culture; foods that affirm our values and identities; foods that give us the nutrition we need, and foods that don’t. We have the right to access safe, healthy, affordable food, regardless of income level. And we have the right to eat all of it in whatever amounts we choose and are able.

We have the right to travel, regardless of whether we are the size, shape or ability designers and engineers expected.  We have the right to pass through airport security without every detailed inch of our bodies being projected to security agents.  We have the right to sit in any airplane, stand on any bus, ride any bike or drive any car to get us where we need to go.

We have the right to work without fear of discrimination.  We have the right to new jobs, to promotions, to bad days and big accomplishments.  We have the right to bring all of our talents, skills and passions to bear, and we have the right to whatever work supports ourselves, our families, and our communities.  And we, like all workers, have the right to respect, and to policies that keep us safe and our jobs secure.

We have the right to family, love, sex, all of the above, or none of it.  We have the right to sleep with and partner with the people we want, for as long as we want to, in whatever formation reflects and affirms us.  We have the right to date people we’re attracted to and who are attracted to us, without being criticized for having partners who are too fat, too thin, too plain or “out of our league.”  We have the right to be seen publicly with our partners, whatever their size, shape, gender or ability.

We have the right to raise children—fat children, thin children, and everything in between—without our fitness as parents coming under attack.  We also have the right not to raise children without being portrayed as lonely, tragic or defective.

We have the right to walk down the street without being met with glares, stares, verbal harassment or physical assault.  And we retain those same rights in restaurants, gyms, job interviews, and our day-to-day lives.  We have the right to the anxiety and hurt that results from this treatment, and we have the right to let it go.

We have the right to be wallflowers or social butterflies, awesome or awkward, without our personalities being attributed to our body size, shape, or ability.  We have the right to be our own people or tell our own stories.  We have the right to be romantic leads, action heroes, or just real people with real challenges and successes, without being relegated to the role of the fat best friend.  We also have the right to be fat best friends.

We have the right to health care that doesn’t reduce all of our health problems to our weight, or balk at healthy fat people.  We have the right to respectful, precise, accessible health care, with treatments and services that reflect our needs, our beliefs and our histories.

We have the right to be good people, bad people, people with our own sets of morals and ethics that are not defined by our weight, our diet, our exercise regiment, or our blood pressure.  These are indicators of what’s happening in our bodies, not telltale signs about our morality, our fitness to serve as role models, or our impact on our children, neighbors or communities.  We have the right to go to the doctor’s office, even just once, even just for a fever or a broken arm, without being lectured about losing weight.  We have the right to health care that helps us, not health care that shames us.

We have the right to safe and inclusive community free from racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and oppression on the basis of our race, ethnicity, nationality or immigration status.  We have the right to live safe, free lives without being scapegoated for social, economic, political or public health problems that are too often wrongly attributed to us.

We have the right not to be policed for the food we eat, for exercise, body size, or body shape.  We have the right to live free from body policing, wherever it comes from, be that the media, the world at large, our friends, our families, or even one another.

We have the right to resist fatphobia as a tool of colonialism, that seeks to dismantle our very bodies and senses of self by imposing white, Western beauty standards worldwide.  These are constructs of power, not constructs of our communities.  And like any tools of imperialism or colonialism, we will resist it. We have the right to understand and describe our bodies in a way that reflects our cultures and histories, and resists them as we see fit.  We have the right to know that fat is beautiful, powerful, worthy and good.  We have the right to friends, family and communities who know that, too.

We have the right to state our needs, then get those needs met respectfully, without reductive dialogue or petty pushback on those needs.  We have the right to our lives, our families, our identities, our histories and our communities.  We have the right to be who we are–all of who we are.

driving the wedge: what peta’s lesser-known tactics can tell us about their work and our own.

Trigger warning for racist, fatphobic and anti-immigrant language and images.

Perhaps one of the most deceptively simple aspects of organizing for social justice is building an inclusive movement that respects the struggles of multiple communities.  It’s similar to building any meaningful relationship.  Genuinely share power.  Know when to listen, when to support, and when it’s not your role to take the lead.  Take accountability for your own actions and privilege, and change your behavior to respect the boundaries of those close to you.  Invest in your own growth and the growth of those around you.

But that straightforwardness doesn’t make it easy—that’s why so many of us are still learning.  Doing this work has made me deeply appreciate organizers and organizations that take accountability gracefully, and that change their approach to reflect the feedback they receive.  It’s incredibly moving to see organizing that’s truly borne of love and compassion—enough so to change its course when it leaves communities behind.

The flipside of this appreciation is a deep frustration with those that continually dodge accountability, or become more entrenched in their privilege over time.  And in my experience, there is no more consistent offender than PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 

PETA has received consistent criticism for its sexist tactics, which sexualize and objectify women to drive their point home.  But PETA doesn’t just throw women under the bus—they target a variety of identities and communities.  And ultimately, it hurts their own work.  It stymies their ability to build a broader movement, and it alienates potential allies and supporters.  And, at its core, it exposes just whose support PETA is trying to win.

note. 

As with much of what we discuss at You’re Welcome, we’re here to talk tactics, and whether specific organizing reflects anti-oppression values.  This post will not debate the merits of veganism, vegetarianism, or the animal rights movement.  The discussion below is designed to focus on the tactics utilized by PETA staff and supporters to make their case.  And that, as we’ve discussed many times here, is what makes (or breaks) a movement.  It’s rare that we at You’re Welcome focus more on what’s going wrong than what we can do right, but I think there’s value in taking a hard look at what our tactics can say about our work, and what PETA’s says about theirs. I hope you agree.

exploiting racism.

In addition to its well-known sexist tactics, PETA leverages racist tropes and constructs to further their own work.  Earlier this year, they garnered some attention when PETA sued Sea World under the thirteenth amendment—the constitutional amendment that outlaws slavery.  Needless to say, this is shortsighted and overtly oppressive—to say nothing of the fact that, historically, comparing people of color to animals is almost exclusively the purview of explicit racism.  I’ll defer to Wyatt Cenac, who brilliantly dismantled this strategy on the Daily Show:

 

But the 13th Amendment strategy is just one in a string of racist tactics employed by PETA.  In 2009, supporters protested the American Kennel Club (AKC) and their Westminster Dog Show’s “purebred only” policy.  Their fliers read “AKC + KKK: BFFs?” and made the argument that both the AKC and the Klan wanted “pure bloodlines.”  Handouts were distributed by PETA supporters in Klan hoods and robes.  I wish I was kidding.  From the Associated Press:

Most passers-by seemed more puzzled than offended, though those who didn’t stop walked away thinking they really had seen the KKK. The most common reaction was to pull out a cell phone and start snapping photos. Police monitored the situation from nearby, but the scene was mostly calm. One shouting match broke out during the hour-long protest. Earlier, a man strode away yelling, "That’s disgusting! I’m going to buy more fur!"

Invoking images and even the apparent presence of the Klan, an organization founded specifically to disenfranchise and murder people of color, is beyond the pale.  But what could PETA possibly be trying to accomplish with these tactics?

On its face, this appears to be another attention-grabbing strategy.  And it is.  As organizers, we know that our communities often want to see us out in the streets, raising a ruckus that reflect the urgency of our work.  So we take to the streets at rallies and marches. But most of what we do is a lot less visible.  It’s the daily work of building support amongst potential allies, of changing the policies that impact our communities, and of martialing resources to meet our deepest, most basic needs.  It’s a lot of time on the phone, in meetings, writing and talking one-on-one with a lot of people who don’t necessarily support us.  It’s not the work that’s easy to see, but it’s the work likeliest to make concrete changes in our communities.  We often take on higher-visibility work to respect the struggles of those around us by publicly rallying around our shared needs.  And we do it to energize our communities for the days, months and years of day-in, day-out tough work ahead, and so that our communities don’t forget that we’re still here, we’re still working.

So for PETA to exploit those deep needs and daily struggles to rally their base and garner that attention makes light of all of that work, visible or otherwise.  But they don’t just do it for the attention.  Like all organizing, these tactics are designed with a specific audience in mind.

In this case, the likelihood that any people of color are going to approach anyone in Klan hoods is pretty slim.  In fact, the likelihood of engaging anyone who the Klan has historically targeted—people of color, non-Christian people, immigrants, queer and trans people—is largely nonexistent. 

But PETA’s not looking to engage us.  This tactic is designed to engage and build PETA’s base.  What this approach demonstrates, regardless of the organization’s intent, is that they want a base that experiences privilege around race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and more.  And they seek primarily to engage those who prioritize their own work at the expense of movements that might otherwise be engaged as potential allies. 

shaming fat people.

save the whalesA few years ago, PETA put up billboards in Jacksonville, Florida.  They included a bright image of a fat woman wearing a bikini, and read “Save the Whales. Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.”

In a heartbreakingly honest letter, one woman wrote about her experience seeing the billboard on the way to the beach with her family:

My family was visiting, and I was planning on taking them to the beach to enjoy the beautiful day when i saw a billboard that made me want to cry. It says “Save the Whales,” with a picture of an overweight woman in the foreground.

We all sat there and stared at it for a minute and everyone in the car was silent. No one wanted to mention my weight. I laughed it off as usual, but it really had made me so embarrassed, so self conscious and so ashamed about my weight that I dropped off my family at the oceanfront and left to go home, making the excuse that I wasn’t feeling well.

On their own web site, PETA staff responded to concerns of body shaming:

We agree that a world where self-esteem is unrelated to body size would be a wonderful place, but we also know that most people feel depressed and embarrassed about their weight and often need some tough love. Our aim was not to insult people who are overweight but to get people talking—and then persuade them to make a simple, positive change for their health.

gone billboardUltimately, PETA took down the billboards, but they didn’t go quietly.  The originals were replaced with billboards that read “GONE. Just like all the pounds lost by people who go vegetarian” – a masterpiece of non-apology.  This is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry you feel bad” rather than “I’m sorry for what I did.”  It’s an apology that undermines itself by dismissing the material harm it’s done, and restating the initial hurtful premise.  This is overt, paternalistic fat shaming at its worst.  Well, almost its worst.  On the Huffington Post, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk took a strident approach:

America’s obesity epidemic calls for tough love à la Dr. Phil and America’s Biggest Loser, not more coddling and mock shock over a billboard pointing out that the majority of fat people need to have some discipline and remember that being fat means being a bad role model to our children, many of whom are now so fat themselves that "teeter-totter" has come to describe their wobbly gait.

We’ve unpacked fatphobia at You’re Welcome time and time and time again.  What PETA staff are saying here is absolutely, unquestionably fatphobic.  As fat people, we have no discipline, we’re bad role models, we’re part of an “epidemic” that we’re somehow also responsible for—hell, we’re the reason children are fat.  Won’t someone please think of the children (by bullying them in print)?!

Yes, these billboards are fatphobic.  They’re also shrewd.  They were placed in a city located on the beach in the summer. And they were placed in a state with lots of vacation tourists and a strong representation of fat people. Last year, an estimated 25% of Floridians were categorized as obese. So when they put up these billboards, PETA was presumably prepared to shame and alienate 1 in 4 Floridians. 

So let’s be real.  PETA is not trying to “tough-love” fat people into weight loss with tactics like these.  They’ve proven that they are not concerned with stopping body policing.  No organization that would use such extraordinarily fatphobic tactics is.

Again, these tactics don’t win many new PETA supporters. So who’s left?  As with their racist tactics, it seems that this fatphobic approach is designed to keep PETA in the public eye—largely to rally their existing base.  With rhetoric like this, they certainly don’t seem to want any fat people around, whether or not we’re losing weight.

appropriating immigrant struggles.

Immigrant communities have long been targeted by wave after wave of anti-immigrant policies and on-the-ground activity from groups like the Minutemen.  This has all been powered by deep-rooted xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating for a variety of social, political and economic ills.

In 2010, PETA joined in the immigration debate.  Just following the passage of Arizona’s racist, anti-immigrant SB1070, PETA posted this billboards around the state.  And just last year, they posted similar billboards in Alabama:

PETA does not appear to do any work in coalition with immigrant rights groups, so appropriating their struggle is, as I’ve discussed before, completely inappropriate.  But it moves beyond simply inappropriate when you see how they attack opponents at Agriprocessors for hiring undocumented people:

You may remember that a few months back the slaughterhouse was busted because "76% of the 968 employees of Agriprocessors were using false or fraudulent Social Security numbers." This was the nation’s largest single-site immigration raid. That’s right, the slaughterhouse was almost entirely staffed by illegal immigrants who were exploited to do the dirty work—such as hacking into the throats of cows who were still conscious.

So PETA is playing both sides of the immigration debate—claiming, on the one hand, that “no one should need papers,” and on the other, utilizing inflammatory language like “fraudulent” and “illegal immigrant” to attack their opposition.  When combined with PETA’s lack of coalition-building work with immigrant rights groups, it becomes clear that they only care about the political capital of the immigration debate, not about the struggles of immigrant communities.  They will shrewdly, cynically play either side of an issue to garner media attention, shore up their own base, and get their point across.

what you can do.

To be honest, I’ve struggled in coming up with action steps around PETA’s work.  On one hand, PETA has been around since 1981, and has gotten more than 30 years of opportunities to apologize, change their approach, and build meaningful coalitions with organizations in potentially allied movements.  They haven’t done any of that—and that could certainly be cause enough to sever ties with the organization, or to begin counter-organizing.  On the other, if you feel invested as an animal rights supporter in an aspirational view of what the movement could be, that could investment could translate into more concerted accountability for an organization that doesn’t reflect your values.

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, movements are made up of relationships, and this movement is what you make it. Holding PETA accountable, vocally disengaging from the organization, and counter-organizing can all have impacts here, and all strike me as viable alternatives to simply laughing off their presence or ignoring their actions.  Make whatever choice makes sense for you, your community and your work.  But whatever choice you make, be sure you’re making it thoughtfully. 

And, of course, learn from PETA’s mistakes—don’t utilize these divisive tactics in your progressive organizing.  It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’d never use such overtly exclusionary tactics, because many of us wouldn’t.  But on a smaller scale, many of us make these missteps—often unintentionally—every day.  We do it when we say that we deserve rights as “taxpaying citizens,” which implies that undocumented people don’t.  We do it when we say that “gay is the new black,” an only slightly less ham-fisted message than PETA’s thirteenth amendment law suit.  We are already making these mistakes, and the biggest lesson we can take away is to be as attentive in our approach as we are in setting our goals.  Of all these tactics that PETA employs, perhaps the biggest threat they pose is making us falsely certain that we don’t, or can’t, make the same mistakes.

‘real women’ & those of us who aren’t.

In high school, I worked in a gift shop that sold gardening tools, books and trinkets.  One of our best-sellers was a Hanes Beefy-T that read “REAL MEN GROW ROSES.”  It tapped into something with customers—something about it felt clever, irreverent.  Women would tease their husbands with the shirt; men would swagger up to the counter to buy them.  But no matter what their reactions, gender was at the fore of how they responded—because what’s more gendered than claiming the experience of “real men”?

We see this meme a lot.  “Real men love Jesus,” “real women take care of their children,” and so forth.  But more insidiously, this meme takes hold in our movements and communities in big ways.  Many of us preface our own experiences or aspirations with that phrase – “real women have curves,” “real women aren’t a size zero,” “real women don’t do housework.”  We do it because, in a world full of restrictive social scripts, we seek to see ourselves reflected somewhere, anywhere.  That lack of affirming images—or any images—leaves us to our own devices.

But sometimes, we don’t even get so far as to claim who is a “real woman.”  For example:

when-did-this-become-hotter-than-this

This is body shaming, pure and simple.  And thankfully, that’s been clearly identified in response memes that add affirming text like “it didn’t—they’re all beautiful” and my favorite “LOVE ALL THE WOMEN!!!” (a la Hyperbole and a Half).

But this tactic, which appears simply to be a well-intentioned misfire, has much more to it than that.  Let’s unpack, shall we?

 

the pitfalls of flipping the script.

In so many marginalized communities, there’s a temptation—an easy temptation—to simply flip the script on oppression.  “That skinny girl just needs to eat a sandwich, am I right?”  “Imagine what it would be like if women ran the world—we wouldn’t have any of these problems!”  This exists in a number of communities in a number of ways.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in those statements—but they do lay traps for us to spring on ourselves later.

Here’s the problem: flipping the script leaves the script intact.  The assumption in the meme above is that there is a right kind of body to have, and the women on the top row don’t have it.  While body policing of thin women operates differently than it does with fat women, it’s still body policing, and it still feels like shit.

And it requires operating on the same old norms.  If you think “that skinny girl needs to eat a sandwich,” that means her body is too thin, too small, too something. In order for something to be considered “too much” of anything, there has to be an ideal, a template or a norm—and this thin woman deviates from that norm.  Reifying that ideal—even if we’re revising it—always leaves the huge numbers of people behind, and it almost always leaves out people of color, people with disabilities, gender nonconforming people, and many more.  A truly liberatory approach to fat positivity/body positivity can’t simply replace one ideal with another, slightly shifting the whole system of body shaming and policing, but ultimately leaving it intact. So why rely on ideals at all?  Why not just explode them with images of all of our bodies and stories of all of our experiences?

 

‘real women.’

The first time I remember seeing a phrase claiming to speak to the body of “real women,” I remember my face flushing with embarrassment.  It was a familiar feeling—a trigger, then the sear of humiliation.  As an intersex woman, my sex and gender are always in question, and there is never enough evidence to somehow prove who I am, validate my body, or make sense of my gender.  Despite my strong femme gender presentation and even stronger cisgender woman identity, my body will never fit all of the qualifications required of female bodies.  I am not a “real woman,” and I am never allowed to forget it.  “Real women” memes, despite being designed to create more space for more women, not only leave me out, but they bring up the string of moments of sex and gender policing I have faced over the years, and make me feel even less access to my own gender identity.

And I’m not the only one.  Historically, as we have explored, transgender women have been accused of not being real women.  Butch women and lesbians, too, are often described as too masculine to be “real women.” The “realness” of women of color has been contested through forced sterilization, birth control testing on Latinas, and much more.  None of us are consistently understood to be “real women.”  And not being seen as “real” isn’t just rhetorical—that perception is what leads to restriction to our access to resources, social acceptance, public spaces like bathrooms—even control of our own bodies.

On top of that, there are plenty of people who aren’t women who still need liberatory movements.  That isn’t to say that every remark we make needs to reflect every marginalized community.  But failure to be aware of who we’re leaving out makes it more difficult to include those people in the future.  And it replicates precisely the kind of narrow essentialism we were initially trying to escape.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anyone to feel the burn of recognition, frustration and humiliation I feel when I realize I’m not “real.”

 

what you can do.

Talk about your experience on its own terms.  Don’t do it at the expense of anyone else.  Describing the rights, respect and dignity that all of us deserve can be just as catchy as flipping the script—and it’s much less likely to leave those who share our struggles behind.

Adrienne Rich and transmisogyny: We can begin by acknowledging that it matters

(Trigger warning for transmisogyny, transphobia.)

I have complicated feelings about Adrienne Rich’s passing: respect for everyone I know who was deeply impacted by her work, and disappointment at her contribution to pervasive transphobia. This piece is mostly an attempt to compile insights from others. Because as I witness my friends and community members mourn her, I also witness friends and community members who are outraged by the lack of conversation around her transmisogyny. I think this is a conversation we need to have. And for those of us who aren’t trans women, it’s an opportunity to check ourselves.

What’s transmisogyny? “The intersection of transphobia and misogyny that specifically targets trans women,” Tobi Hill-Meyer further articulates in this incredible piece on Bilerico (seriously, please read it).

So what’s this got to do with Adrienne Rich? From Wikipedia:

Janice Raymond cited Rich in the acknowledgments section of her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire, writing “Adrienne Rich has been a very special friend and critic. She has read the manuscript through all its stages and provided resources, creative criticism, and constant encouragement.” In the chapter “Sappho by Surgery” of The Transsexual Empire, Raymond cites a conversation with Rich in which Rich described trans women as “men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration.”

If you aren’t familiar with The Transsexual Empire, it’s one of the defining manuscripts for hatred of trans women. In addition to attacking specific individuals, author Janice Raymond makes a (transmisogynist) case for why trans women should be excluded from, and are enemies of, the feminist movement and women’s spaces. One of her most infamous quotes, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Raymond is still cashing in on this book and has a thriving career in academia. And The Transsexual Empire has far reaching impacts which resound today – MadGastronomer described this well in a conversation on Feministe:

Do you understand that this book has been instrumental in denying trans women access to vital services, and even to basic public accommodations? To name just one example, it has been used to justify denying trans women access to women’s shelters. And women have died because of that…

In conversations about Adrienne Rich’s involvement in this book, her compliance with or endorsement of deep transmisogyny, many have said “nobody’s perfect.” But perfection is not the issue. You can still consider Adrienne Rich a great author and activist while acknowledging her failings. You can love her work and be critical of it. Or you can’t. And that’s more than fine, too.

Folks have also cited that Leslie Feinberg and Minnie Bruce Pratt thanked Adrienne Rich in their books as proof that she probably changed her tune on trans issues. Neither of these authors are trans women. As a trans person assigned female at birth, I’ve known more than a few people (including trans men) who’ve put transmisogyny into action by including/supporting/dating/respecting trans people like me while excluding and ridiculing trans women. So, like many people, Adrienne Rich could very well have supported trans men and/or gendequeer folks who were assigned female at birth, and been actively transphobic towards trans women and/or gendequeer folks assigned male at birth. And whether or not she changed her mind about trans women and didn’t share this publicly, The Transsexual Empire is still contributing to the destruction of trans women’s lives. Pervasive beliefs devaluing trans women’s lives are just as insidious and destructive as ever.

So what can we do? Speaking to this is, again, MadGastronomer on Feministe:

…If you claim to be an ally to trans people, to trans women, this is one of the moments to act like it. Don’t tell me how she did good things, too. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t say things like that. Actually criticize her. Actually talk about the things she’s done wrong. Don’t fucking defend her. Don’t talk about how you hope she’s changed. Talk about how we can change today’s feminisms to work on behalf of trans women as well as cis women. Take fire from one more of the old transmisogynistic guard passing (however much you liked her poetry), and take the opportunity to clean house.

When all is said and done, the conversation we need to have isn’t about Adrienne Rich as a person. It’s about our communities, movements, and transmisogyny.

kiriamaya said it best:

“We (trans* people) are not angry that y’all didn’t know that Rich was a TERF. We’re angry that you don’t seem to think it matters.”   (TERF = Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist)

If we claim to be allies to trans women, what will we do to eradicate transmisogyny? We can begin by listening to the countless trans women who’ve spoken and continuously speak to this question (just a few examples here, here, and here.) We can begin by acknowledging that transmisogyny matters.

on fat, trans, and the pitfalls of comparing identities.

A colleague and I recently gave a training on how to be a good ally to trans communities.  For those who’ve been through similar trainings, it’s nothing earth-shattering: respect people’s gender pronouns, don’t ask people when they’re having “the surgery,” and generally avoid forcing loads of intrusive questions or making a slew of judgments based on someone’s identity (or what you believe their identity to be).  Basic, right?

But something surprising happened at this training.  Many of the cisgender (non-trans) people in the room were struggling for analogies, for parallel identities and oppressions to help them understand a community that’s new to them.  But what surprised me was the number of people who compared being trans to being fat.  According to many, their perception of whether or not a trans person is “successfully passing” (that is: presenting as a gender-conforming person) is just like their perception of someone’s thinness.  If someone is passing well, or if they’ve lost weight, praise them.  If you clock them as trans, or if they’ve gained weight, it would be rude to mention. These comparisons were made left, right and center.

And as these comparisons were made, I felt myself begin to shake, from frustration, from sadness, from powerlessness, from anger.  Good as their intentions were, as a fat person, I felt more and more shameful, more and more erased, less and less valid.  I can only imagine how trans-identified people in the room felt.

We hear these comparisons all the time.  Being trans is like being gay.  Being a gay couple is like being an interracial couple.  Being fat is like being a person with a disability.  And everything, apparently, is just like being a person of color.

To their credit, this is often the way that allies—and many community members—struggle to find the language of oppression that hasn’t been taught to them.  They’re reaching to link our struggles, and that’s a good impulse.  The problem is, they’re doing it in a way that is substantially flawed and makes it deeply difficult to build relationships, coalitions and movements across lines of identity. 

 

why we compare identities.

Overwhelmingly, we do it because our intentions are good. Sometimes we do it to better understand allied communities—to deepen our understanding of the needs and experiences of other communities. Sometimes we do it to give voice to our own experience of oppression in a culture that doesn’t provide us with the tools or opportunities to speak for our experiences of marginalization. Again, the intention here is good: we’re trying to start conversations that establish various forms of oppression as real, valid and harmful.

The problem is that identity comparisons are often overarching and ineffective—and they don’t really help us meet those goals. While our intentions are good, these comparisons don’t create the impacts we hope for. So what I want to talk about today is the unintended impacts they create. So: what are the challenges with comparing identities, communities and movements?

(Note: I’ve focused here on race, LGBT, and fat, because those are the examples that I deal with most frequently, but there are many, many more.  Feel free to add yours in the comments.)

 

problems with comparing identities.

It glosses over substantial differences in experience in a way that can be hurtful, insulting and alienating.  After Prop 8 banned same-gender marriage in California, gay news magazine the Advocate published a cover story that declared that “gay is the new black.”  The problem is, this is frequently stated by white queer people.  And while white queer people have historically experienced hate crimes, police raids, and a whole lot more, we haven’t been lynched, been forced to sit at the back of the bus, or experienced the accumulation of oppression over generations on a single family or neighborhood.  Black/African-American communities have.  Intentional or not, claiming that “gay is the new black” is deeply disrespectful, and it’s often experienced as such. 

It’s an escape hatch for ally education.  When we compare our identities to others that we don’t share, we can unintentionally imply that we’ve got nothing to learn.  And sometimes we can even believe it. 

The logic goes like this: if I say that my identity is just like yours, then presto!, I have nothing new to learn about your experience or needs, because they’re the same as mine.  And if I already know all there is to know, I don’t need to change anything about what I’m doing to make spaces, communities or movements more accessible to people with differing identities. 

In that way, it also paves the way for pushing aside identity-specific needs.  If being fat is like having a disability, then I just need to make this event accessible for me, and it will automatically be accessible for you, right?  Wrong.  Many fat people don’t seek need ramps, bars, or ASL interpretation.  And making the comparison keeps us from grappling with the complexity of the identities of those around us.  It keeps us from growing, and it keeps others from participating.

 

problems with comparing movements.

It claims someone else’s work.  I’m a young white queer woman.  I wasn’t alive during the highest profile work of the Civil Rights movement, and I didn’t begin to take on anti-racist work until very recently, in the scheme of racial justice history in the US.  But if I say fat acceptance is “the next great Civil Rights movement,” I’m claiming that work as my own and conflating oppressions in a way that (rightfully) alienates communities of color.

Sometimes, it implies that other forms of oppression are “over” or “fixed.” Frequently, we hear that fat is the last acceptable discrimination. The implication here is that other forms of oppression are somehow remedied or obsolete.  Racism isn’t “fixed.” We haven’t “cured” our society of xenophobia.  But that’s the implication.

And all of that alienates potential allies. These comparisons, well-intentioned though they may be, divide our communities against one another.  LGBT communities know the pain of police raids, but we don’t readily and uniformly ally ourselves with immigrant communities, who face raids and deportation at staggering rates.  Fat people know the sting of discrimination and exclusion (see: Southwest Airlines policies), but many of us still dismiss concerns over ableism.  And when we draw sloppy parallels that make broad generalizations (while failing to pinpoint shared experience and values), we alienate the communities we are best positioned to support—and that are best positioned to support us.

 

drawing effective parallels.

This doesn’t mean that drawing parallels is out of the question—it just means that comparisons must be made carefully and thoughtfully.  Here are some ways to draw thoughtful, nuanced parallels.

Point to shared opposition & tactics of oppression.  A great example of this: Suzanne Pharr’s stellar essay, The Common Elements of Oppression.  In it, Pharr discusses the ways the common tactics used to oppress—but she is careful not to conflate communities or types of oppression.  Both immigrant communities and LGBT communities are accused of seeking “special rights.” That’s a tactic used to divide and marginalize us.  That means our struggles are linked—it does not mean they are the same through and through.

Point to shared needs.  Since our opposition (and their tactics) are shared, our communities often experience similar needs.  So when budget cuts target low-income people and communities of color, our needs are shared.  When bullying targets trans youth and fat youth, our needs are shared.  And when oppression and privilege are so poorly understood as a whole, many of our communities can benefit from some serious public education.

Be specific.  Sweeping generalizations (a la “gay is the new black”) are dicey at best, so specificity can be helpful.  Are you trying to draw a parallel between communities’ shared experiences?  Their shared oppressors?  Similar institutionalized discrimination?  Be sure to voice what you are specifically thinking.

 

what else you can do.

Support the work of allied movements.  If you’re a white queer person, like me, fight against police profiling and brutality.  If you haven’t experienced the criminal justice system as a prisoner, work for prisoner’s rights for those who have.   Believe in them, yes, and do something.  Write your elected official.  Phone bank.  Attend a rally.  Taking action is the most meaningful way to contribute.

Speak about the oppression you face on its own terms.  Grant it the integrity to speak for itself.  I feel fatphobia deeply enough on a daily basis that I can describe it in extraordinary detail.  I know, and trust, that those experiences speak for themselves, and do not need to rely on broad parallels to others’ oppression.

Use “I” statements.  I know, it’s well-worn and hackneyed territory, but it works.  Speak from your own experience, and avoid speaking on behalf of communities with which you don’t identify.

Interrogate your own privilege.  At the core of these comparisons is a deep desire to help those around us more fully grasp our own understanding of oppression.  And that desire is often paired with the internalized entitlement that comes with privilege—and that’s what creates the impulse to reach so readily for someone else’s experience in order to describe our own. 

Continuing to challenge our own sense of privilege and the internalized ways in which we appropriate others’ experiences is one of the most lasting ways to stem the tide of the comparisons that divide us while seeking to unite us.  And while that tide goes out, we can build more meaningful relationships across identities, and stronger coalitions across movements for true and lasting social justice.

losing weight & staying fat positive.



A number of fatties in my life have recently lost weight.  Not just a few pounds—hundreds of pounds, between them.  These are dramatic changes in the size and shape of their bodies. 

And it deeply impacts their politics, too.  Some have retained their fat politics, becoming even more vocal as their bodies shrink.  Others have brought body hate to a new level, drawing it into every conversation they have.  “I have fifteen more pounds to lose, then I’m at my goal weight.  Maybe then someone will date me.”  “I’d like to go to lunch with you, but I have to wait another three hours before I can have my next 250 calories.”

They’re in a tough spot: they’re finding validation that they haven’t gotten in years (or ever).  Their experiences of privilege and oppression are in flux.  And, on top of all that, they’re learning how to work with the dramatic change that has taken place in their bodies.  As a friend, I get that.

But as a fatty, it’s painful.  They’re seeking a lot of emotional support, and some of them are trying to retain their fat-positive politics, even as the world is beginning to see them really differently.  While those are genuine needs, it can be really tough to support them, when what they really need to work through is the conflicted feelings they’re experiencing about the privilege I don’t have.  While getting a lot of new, strange attention to your body is a legitimate challenge to work through, when I hear that (as a turbo fatty who largely doesn’t get affirmation for my body), it can feel like a poor little rich girl problem.

That said, I do want to help and support them as friends, and I recognize that this is often an elephant in the room in fat acceptance spaces.  So let’s talk: how can you lose weight and retain fat positive politics?

 

Be clear about your reasons.

If you feel like you’ve got unhealthy habits, change them.  If you want to do something with your body that you can’t currently do, change that.  If you want to eat more vegetables, move around more, or eat Cheetos, do it.  Your choices are yours to make.  The problem is, agency over your own body is not the focus of the majority of conversations around health, body shape, and size.

I’m not going to pretend like there aren’t serious social pressures associated with being fat, and that there isn’t relief in the thought of having a smaller body.  Fat people experience lots of employment discrimination, street harassment, and even discriminatory treatment from medical providers.  We’re subjected to social narratives that tell us that our weight determines whether or not we’re datable, fuckable, employable, intelligent, hygienic, or a valid person.

But if you’re losing weight to become more attractive, desirable or successful, or to fleshy peoplebecause of a non-specific “because health” reason, it’s important to know that you are actively contributing to narratives of fat hate and body policing.  And while you’re escaping those narratives of fat oppression on an individual basis, if you’re using weight loss to increase your social value, you’re strengthening the framework that keeps other fatties trapped.  Whether you intend it or not, you are contributing to the oppression of anyone whose body exists outside of body norms and ideals. 

Plus, you’re setting a big, wily trap yourself.  How much weight will you have to lose before you get a date or a proposal?  What number on the scale will get you your dream job?  How long will it take you to get there?  And why do each of those things have to hinge on your weight?  Isn’t your life, the one you’re living right now, worth more than that?

How to resist: Be clear about your reasons for losing weight, and give some deep thought to how and when those contribute to fatphobia.  And gently push those around you who assume that their weight loss (or yours) will increase social worth.  Push them to think about the (gendered, racialized, class-based) narratives that lead them to think the way they do.  Expose the superstructure that so deeply influences those lines of thinking.

Know that your health is your business.

Your business.  Not your friends’.  Not fat strangers’.  Not pundits’ or commentators’.  Yours.   That means that none of those people can tell you what’s best for your health.  And it means that you can’t tell them what’s best for their health, either.  Your personal health doesn’t reflect poorly or well on anyone else’s diet, mobility, agency, body size or body shape.   In short, no one’s health is a topic for public consumption.

How to resist: Don’t accept the link between health and fat.   Question people in your community when they feel license to openly discuss what they assume someone’s health needs to be. 

 

Abandon the language of “good” and “bad” choices.

“I’m so bad, I just had a piece of chocolate cake! It was sinful!”  “I’ll have the spinach salad.  I’m trying to be good.”  These remarks don’t mention anyone but the speaker, but they manage to pull everyone else in, with or without their consent.  Comparative language paints a clear picture that ranks every possible decision (and person) in a values-based hierarchy.  And you know what’s not fat positive?  Contributing to narratives that obliquely malign others’ choices and bodies. 

How to resist: If you don’t want to eat something, just say “no thank you.”  If you would like to go to the gym instead of hanging out with friends, just say, “I have other plans.”  Drawing out why you’re making a specific decision about food or exercise both seeks validation from those around you, and implicitly criticizes everyone else in the room.  Strive to create spaces that don’t pathologize fatness, but accept it as a valid way for bodies to look and work.

 

Don’t project unrelated values or outcomes onto weight loss.

We’ve discussed the incredible social pressure that fat people live with every day, and the narratives that tell us we’re destined to be ugly, lonely, unsuccessful shut-ins.  But no matter what social narratives tell you, those social outcomes la mar reducing soaparen’t a fait accompli. 

Losing weight doesn’t make it more likely that people will date you, it just means that different people may find you attractive.   It doesn’t mean that you will be seen as more valuable, it means that different people will see different kinds of value in you.  And those are personal decisions you get to make.  Do you want or need to spend time with people who heavily value your body size?  Or do you have the latitude to define other attitudes that are important to you?  Do you want to date someone for whom a very specific type of physical attraction is a priority, or are there other characteristics you’re looking for in a partner?  Every one of those questions is valid, and there are no right or wrong answers.  But it’s important to know that being fat or thin doesn’t make you a  better or worse person.  Losing weight just means that your body is slightly smaller & lighter than it used to be. 

How to resist: A friend recently spent a week with the flu.  When he went back to work, a coworker said, “you look really great! You lost some weight while you were out, didn’t you?  It looks good on you!”  My friend responded by saying, “I just spent the week throwing up—I wasn’t really going for a particular look."  That’s a pretty damn good way to resist.

 

Don’t seek validation from fat people.

The "fat best friend” is a longstanding archetype.  The story goes like this: your fat friend can absorb all of your concerns and troubles because, presumably, they have no life of their own.  Family, friends, coworkers and even strangers readily expect that we can, will and should support all of their emotional needs without receiving support in return. 

And it’s doubly true when it comes to talking through body image.  People of all sizes expect to be able to commiserate with me about how hard it is to “resist temptation from food” and to “feel fat,” and therefore worthless, unattractive or unhappy.  The problem is, I don’t feel that way, and being asked to support someone who does requires me to A) accept the premise they’re using, B) acknowledge that, by their thinking, I’m much “worse” and C) tell them that they look great, they’re not fat, and they’ll be fine.  In short, seeking support from a fat person around your body image puts that fatty on the spot, and takes away their power to engage with their body on their own terms.

And truthfully? The whole dominant culture of the US is built to affirm thinness and weight loss. You can get that affirmation from just about every other person around. Why pursue that same affirmation from someone who’s not getting it themselves?

How to resist: Don’t accept comments about your thinness as compliments – challenge them.  Create a network of non-fat people who you can talk to about body image.  And when you’re seeking support from a fat person, ask yourself what support from that particular person will offer you that support from another (thinner) person wouldn’t.

 

Closing it out

The intersection of weight loss and fat politics is tough for everyone.  It’s tough for fatties.  It’s tough for people who are losing weight.  It’s tough for people who are gaining weight.  Cultures of weight loss and fat hate are designed to trap all of us, and they do.  And for those of us who embrace fat positive politics, it can often feel easier and simpler to pretend that it’s not happening.

But here’s the thing.  Staying fat positive doesn’t need to be wildly complex, adversarial, or difficult.  It’s as simple as thinking through the impacts of your actions and, as Luchador puts it, not being a jerk.

round table: identity jokes & reclaiming power

Last Saturday, all three You’re Welcome writers got drinks together and recorded a great, meaty conversation about jokes, power, identity, and leaning into stereotypes. It’s transcribed below.

Before this conversation, we talked briefly about the lines between self-deprecating jokes and powerful humor. We recognize that self-deprecation can be empowering for some, but we’ve often found it to be damaging (especially as one of the only socially sanctioned ways in which many marginalized folks relate to our identities). Today, the three of us feel like we approach humor about our identities, for the most part, in a way that’s self-affirming rather than self-deprecating. This conversation is about the particular kinds of humor we find to be consensual and illuminating.

In order to track this conversation, it’s probably helpful to know a little bit about our identities. tenderqueer identifies as white, trans, and genderqueer. Luchador identifies as a queer xicano. Lunette identifies as a fat, white, intersex, queer femme.

That said, enjoy our first roundtable conversation about the power of identity-based jokes and leaning into stereotypes. Leave a comment to join in the conversation!

Lunette: So here’s what I want to know.  How do each of you lean into and joke about stereotypes? What are the stereotypes, jokes and preconceptions you lean into, what are the ones you push on, and why?  I’ll say that I definitely lean into the food-crazed fatty stereotype.  I enjoy food, I like enjoying food, and if someone pushes back, I can call them out.  It’s a little bit of baiting people, you know?  “Say something. Try me.”

Luchador: I do think there is a difference in how people treat fatness vs a racial or sexual identity., People are very open about their lack of acceptance.  When you lean into fat jokes, they have to think about whether or not that’s funny.  The reason I make a lot of race jokes is that it stops people, makes them think about what they were assuming, and makes them aware of what they feel entitled to say.

Lunette: There is a difference there.  Everybody has thoughts about race, and everybody gets that it’s a sensitive topic.  Everybody has thoughts about fat, but people think it’s a rude topic.

tenderqueer: A lot of cultures in the US & abroad value thinness and a certain physique.  “We all know that this is the best way to be, but you shouldn’t say overtly fucked up things in front of someone.”  It’s politeness.  But people are more confused about race.  White people are more confused about race.

Lunette: Yeah.  I think white people understand that they need to be sensitive around race, but some white people feel so sensitive around it that they just don’t talk about it.

Luchador: People talk about fatness like it’s an illness.  You don’t discuss someone’s illness in public.  But with race and gender, people know that they shouldn’t be that way, they shouldn’t have those thoughts, but they still do, so they have a lot of guilt.  And I’m talking about people who generally have an analysis—people who are progressive.  But that same group of people think of fatness as an addiction or an illness.  “We are aware of your feelings, so we won’t mention that around you.”  But addressing fatness can really challenge that.  When you make jokes about it, if you make those jokes well, they stop thinking of it as an illness and start thinking of it in an identity framework.

Lunette: I think, around race, that you, as a politicized person of color in a very white part of the country, you’re not something that a lot of white people encounter often.  There is the possibility to primarily, or even exclusively, engage with white people here.  So when white people meet someone with strong race politics, someone like you, they’re on edge.

Luchador: I don’t try very hard to make white people feel comfortable around me. Often, when white people ask me my name, they follow up and ask if they can call me something shorter, and when they shorten my name, they try to translate it into a whiter name.  If I wanted to make them feel okay about that, I’d say “sure, my friends have this nickname for me.”  But then there’s no acknowledgement that what that person said was fucked up or insulting. I also feel that if I don’t say something, this fool’s going to continue to talk to other people of color this way, and make them feel like their names are too long or funny or wrong.

In LA, I knew that white people, regardless of their politics around race, knew they would get their asses kicked if they said something fucked up.  And I’m comfortable with that kind of acknowledgement, because the alternative is no acknowledgment..

Lunette: I do feel like the stuff you do around race is a little bit about creating trauma.

Luchador: Well, trauma worked really well for me around understanding race. I have a lot of race-related trauma. I know my place is in society because I have experienced racism and each lesson has been traumatic through painful experiences with discrimination. I found out what worked and what didn’t because of this trauma. White people go without this trauma and get upset when they can’t say certain words that POC can say. I find myself in the position of having to explain a lot and frankly I need to make sure it sticks.

tenderqueer: I think I make jokes about being genderqueer or being trans in a tactical way to establish what’s messed up.  “Someone actually said this to me today! Isn’t that messed up?”  And I do a little bit of the “I can say that, but you can’t” jokes.  Or “one person can say that to me, but pretty much no one else can.”

Lunette: I see you do that with gender presentation stuff, too.  Pink backpack, daisies on your bike helmet.

tenderqueer: It allows me to make “man jokes,” and people understand that they need to take them differently because I have a pink backpack and sparkly things.  But if I didn’t have those things, I could make those jokes, and they would not be received in the way I intend them.  My goal with jokes is to help people understand what I’m saying, and I want to play to the person who’s least likely to get it.  I want the people in the nosebleed seats to understand that I’m making a joke at the expense of the assumptions they have about me.

Luchador: I also make jokes that my identity doesn’t allow me to make, to people I shouldn’t be making them with.  Like you guys.  If you ask me to do something, t, and I say I can’t, and you start to object, I can say, “it’s because I’m transphobic.”  And I say it in front of people I shouldn’t say it around.  And then you respond with, “well, I’m racist.”  You correct me on your pronouns, I tell you to learn Spanish.

We have extremes in our environment, with people who really understand identity and people who really don’t.  But there are a lot of people who just need some help to understand, and to make it normal.  I think that the way you make something normal is to joke about it.  But it also lets people expand and establish their boundaries.  “We don’t have the same identity, but you can make fun of this stuff with me, and we’re going to get through this together.  And if I say something offensive to you, we can joke about it.”

Lunette: And just talk about it, honestly and openly, which is really rare.

Luchador: Without it being a production.  That humor is a quick, efficient way of letting you know that I just fucked up, and you letting me know that we’re working through it, without a heavy series of one-on-one accountability conversations.  That’s not culture.  Culture is humor, culture can be light and creative, and when we lean into identity this way, we change the culture we’re in.

Lunette: If we get into those accountability conversations all the time, and never joke about identity, it’s never normalized.  It’s never okay.  The humor that you bring to it in particular, Luchador, is that you’ll give someone a lot of shit, but you’ll be there to help them through it.  “Yes, I’m giving you a hard time, but I’m also an open book.  I’m also here to help you.”

Luchador: I don’t want to lie to people.  Saying, “no, no, that’s okay!” when people say something offensive . I would be lying and it also wouldn’t address the issue. I take the risk that I may not connect with people by being polite but they won’t ever forget the conversation I had with them.

tenderqueer: It’s also approval, coming from you.  I knew the first time that you made fun of me, I thought, “that means you like me.”  And doing that gives me permission to do that.  Before I met you, I didn’t totally know how to engage with people this way, with humor.  And for me, part of it is healing.  You have to level with living in a world with horrible racism, transphobia, sexism, sizeism, all this horrible shit, and every day, each of us is feeling that in some way.  We’re very aware of the way the deck is stacked against us.  But if we can make a joke about it, that helps.

Lunette: And it’s building relationships across lines of identity.  It’s a really important way to learn how to deal with other people’s identities.  I learn a lot through humor.

Luchador: Humor builds our own analysis and the analysis of anyone who’s witnessing that conversation.  When I joke with you two, I try to say things that I think you want the rest of the group to know.  I try to bring things up so you don’t have to be in it alone.  If people are neglecting identity, avoiding talking about it, or talking about it in a way that’s oversimplified, we can say something about our identities that we might only say to other people within our community.  If we say it as a joke, everyone in the room is suddenly aware of that aspect of identity in a deeper way.

Lunette: And you can play off of each other.

Luchador: Right.  You make a fat joke about yourself, and it gets awkward, but then I make a joke that validates your identity, and suddenly it’s okay.

Lunette: It’s third party validation.  It’s theater.

Luchador: Sometimes it’s conscious, but often it’s very reactive.  It’s just a reflex.  It’s a response to being really overwhelmed.  In those moments, there’s so much education to do, and I can’t do all of it right now, but we can make a joke about it, everybody can see the social cues, and it’s so much faster than trying to facilitate a goddamn workshop around that one awkward moment.

Lunette: Plus, when we play off of each other like that, when we interact in this theatrical way, it takes the power away from the person who said the fucked up thing.  No one’s paying attention to them anymore.  Now they’re paying attention to us.  It changes the balance of power.

Luchador: Right.  Part of the goal is to educate people.  But sometimes the goal is just to get them to stop saying fucked up things.  And when we take control of the conversation, it’s suddenly on our terms.

Lunette: It’s one of very few opportunities you get in daily life to interact with identity on your own terms.

tenderqueer: There’s also a “cool kids” dynamic.  If we’re making these jokes, as people with complex identities, we know what we’re talking about, and people do take note of that.

Lunette: There’s also a degree of perceived elitism in that “cool kids” dynamic.  And for people who dislike engaging with identity, that dynamic can further alienate them.  It can make them more entrenched.

Luchador: Our jobs are identity-based.  Our jobs involve coming up with ways to talk about identity, to break it down, to affirm it.  So when we joke with each other around identity, it really messes with people.  It disorients them.  They do take the cue from us, and it’s confusing, since we’re the ones creating the framework and we’re the ones making fun of the framework.

And there’s a particular way we joke about things.  I would never joke with you about things that actually hurt you.  I would never use the wrong pronouns just to mess with you.  I would never say the things that people say when they’re trying to hurt you.

tenderqueer: There’s a level of respect there.  All of us have messed up with each other’s identities at some point.  We can have really good, honest conversations and still joke with each other.  However we deal with things, there’s a maintained level of respect that comes from being able to laugh at and with each other.

Lunette: When I get called out through a joke, it doesn’t haunt me the way an accountability conversation does.  If someone makes a joke that makes it clear that I stepped over a line, I just stop stepping over that line, and I move on.

tenderqueer: When someone tells me, “you crossed a line, and we need to have a conversation about that,” I have those moments burned into my brain.  But when someone makes a joke about it, I get it, and it’s over.

Lunette: And not every moment warrants that.

Luchador: Jokes can take care of a lot of awkward little moments.  You slipped, I’m going to clown you, and that reinforces that you should be thinking about it more, and it doesn’t turn you off to thinking about it.

Lunette: It also subverts some power dynamics.  If someone has more power than you, you might not be able to call them out directly every time, but you can definitely make a joke without putting yourself at too much risk.

Luchador: If you point out that the emperor has no clothes, then suddenly, everyone has access to the same information in the same way at the same moment.  It shifts the power.  Now everyone’s on the same playing field.  Joking gives people an opportunity to maintain your relationship with someone and still say an intense thing you need to say.  It allows you to say both “you’re not wearing any clothes” and “I know you noticed” at the same time.  And they can choose to laugh at the joke and save face.

tenderqueer: That piece about shifting the power really resonates with me.  I think that’s really true.  Sometimes the only way you can claim power is by making a joke.