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.

on allies and comedy.

I’m getting ready to facilitate a training on white privilege this weekend.  It’s one of the most challenging workshops I facilitate, and it’s one of my favorites.  Why?  Because it’s heavy on accountability, and it’s even heavier on humor. It’s a conversation about oppression with privileged people: it requires holding people accountable to the misconceptions that they perpetuate and the racism they’ve internalized. But if our first conversation about our shared privilege were only serious, heavy-handed accountability, I’m pretty sure we’d all implode, or at least be so terrified at the prospect of implosion that we’d disengage. So, to engage new allies in thinking critically about their own privilege, humor is a must. It allows us to keep conversations political and dive deep into difficult conversations that many of us spend a lot of time & energy trying to avoid.

Conversations with allies are necessary.  Where I live, there aren’t enough queer and trans people to comprise a majority and make widespread social change on our own.  Same goes for communities of color, immigrant communities, and most marginalized people.  In order to create change, we’ve got to be good at educating and engaging allies.  And when we’re doing that, humor is paramount.

I’ll start by saying that this is strictly a first-person narrative—I’m speaking only to my own experience of comedy.  The clips I’ve chosen don’t offend me, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally inoffensive.  What I want to talk about here is the power of humor to make us recognize privilege and oppression, and I’ll do that in the first person.

I have one friend who’s spectacular when it comes to joking about identity.  It’s a master class: in one quick turn of phrase, he can identify the power, privilege, oppression and interpersonal dynamics that are happening in the room at that moment.  When he makes a great joke, I feel delighted, impressed, jubilant and, with the jokes designed to call out my privilege, a little bit embarrassed.  It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.  And I’ve seen it work with volunteers, movement leaders, strangers on the street, and even my most recalcitrant family members.

On a person-to-person basis, it works.  And when that happens on a wider stage, something magical happens.  It’s social alchemy. It’s movement building.


Louis CK and Privilege

Case in point: Louis CK, a white comedian who jokes about identity constantly.  Take this appearance on the Tonight Show:


Did you see what just happened?  On one of the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road TV shows around, Louis CK spent several solid minutes talking about race, history, neocolonialism (!), privilege, and experience.  He damn near has an accountability session with the white folks in the audience.  Had this been a serious conversation, it could have looked like the nightmare scenarios that many of us have experienced and continue to relive: the kind where things quickly devolve into personal attacks and someone ends up storming out. Instead, because it was funny, this audience laughed and applauded. 

Exhibit B, the first scene from an episode of the FX series Louie (very NSFW):


It’s not inoffensive, but it’s authentic.  And in amongst the dick jokes and shit talk, this scene manages to do more public education about gay men’s culture, history and experience than just about any other mainstream show I’ve seen.  It speaks to many straight men’s squeamishness and ignorance, allows them to feel it, and ultimately gets them to deeply experience a gay character’s world-weary familiarity with his daily experience of homophobia, and their role in perpetuating that homophobia.

And that gay character’s demeanor is important, too.  He doesn’t come across as a tragic victim, although he’s aware he could be, and many gay men are.  He appears to have a fairly thick skin, taking his lumps just like any of the straight guys around the table.  And when you get down to it (for once!) this queer person, speaking from his own experience, comes across as one of the most reasonable people in the room.  This is a notable break from the usual options of Brokeback Mountain tragic queers, impossible-to-please angry queers, and inconsolably hypersensitive queers.

The scene is, as far as I’m concerned, a little coup.


Maria Bamford and mental illness

Maria Bamford is an accomplished comedian who, in 2006, released a YouTube series called The Maria Bamford Show, chronicling Bamford’s recovery from a mental break (also NSFW):

As with Louis CK’s work, Maria Bamford’s comedy manages to speak in a deep way to the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life, and how that impact is specific and distinct for women.  It also conveys the tangle of mutually reinforcing systems of internalized sexism, relational aggression amongst women, homophobia, and the stigma of mental illness.

And her work is deeply vulnerable.  She’s dealing with the humiliation of returning to her hometown, and facing the nightmarish realization that, while she’d left her hometown for years, her hometown didn’t forget her.  In her work, I can see myself and people I’ve known and in so doing, I can reach some greater realizations about my parallel experiences.  Plus, it’s a cathartic release to laugh at those experiences and begin to let them go.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that way.


Why humor matters

Neither of these comedians are unassailable.  Like any comedian, they have certainly offended someone (or lots of people) at some point.   And, as viewers, many of us have been offended. (I certainly have.) For me, the difference between the clips provided here and the infamous EstroMaxx sketch is how humor is used. In so many cases (EstroMaxx included), humor is used as a tool of harassment and humiliation. It isn’t the same thing as face-to-face harassment or physical assault, but it’s certainly on the same continuum. It illuminates just enough oppression to perpetuate it. In the cases of Louis CK and Maria Bamford (and, I would argue, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, and other deftly brilliant comedians), oppression doesn’t illuminate humor, humor illuminates oppression, shining a light on privilege’s cover of darkness. Humor isn’t an end here, it’s means to an end.

But the point here isn’t to set a seal of approval on a comedian’s full body of work.  It isn’t to create a rubric for determining which jokes are progressive enough, and when.  It’s to recognize the ways in which comedy can move us forward, engaging unlikely allies in even more unlikely settings.

Humor can gain access to spaces, people and attitudes that our communities and movements would otherwise struggle to engage.  In the sweet violence of laughter, something cracks, and we open ourselves up to others’ experiences in a way that, without humor, would feel too vulnerable to bear.  There really is something revolutionary about humor.  When it works, it allows us to see ourselves and others clearly, bringing us closer together, and bringing our differences into sharper focus.  It affirms our experiences and the experiences of those around us, and engages us in deeper conversations about power, privilege and oppression than we otherwise would.