101: Ableism and Fat Activism

By | February 9, 2009

A few days ago I got an email on a subject I’ve actually gotten several emails and comments about recently, and which (for my own stupid reasons which are delineated at the end of this post) I have avoided discussing:

As a wheelchair user the biggest insult people seem to throw my way is that I am fat. I am beautiful. I hadn’t let myself be photographed for a long time and a friend snapped a candid photo of me and for the first time in my life, 100 pounds heavier than I used to think was fat (I am only 260 at 5′6′’) I finally saw how beautiful I am. That was my reaction to the picture.

I want to know why I have to justify my weight. A blind person and I started to discuss things recently and she actually told me I should find a way to excercise, when my doctors insisted I stop due to the sheer danger of it and my fragility. Why is it the world’s business if I am heavy? Can you address this for me, and others?

When did my body become public property? When did it become alright to tell a person in a wheelchair to get up off of their fat ass and walk? Why is this socially acceptable and if I call someone on their wretched behavior I am the villain?

Let’s be clear, for any new folks in the room: your body is not public property. Your body is not public property if you’re disabled; if you’re a sex worker; if you’re female or female-identified or of indeterminate gender; if you’re ill; if you’re scantily dressed; if you’re homeless; if you like boys or girls or both or neither; if you’re pregnant; if you’re a person of color; if you’re intoxicated. There is nothing you can do that makes your body public property – no action you can take, no decision you can make. No one’s body is public property. Everyone’s body deserves individual respect and recognition; there are no circumstances in which this isn’t true.

Furthermore: everyone’s body is different. Everyone’s. Body. Is. Different. Just because my body, at 5′9″ and 300-something pounds, can engage in some particular activity doesn’t mean that everyone who is my height and weight can or should be able to do so. In the same way, just because someone is fat and uses a wheelchair does not mean they experience the same challenges and joys as every other fat wheelchair-using person, or that they are somehow lazier or more voracious eaters than a thin person who also uses a wheelchair.

This is the ideal – that these differences be universally recognized both individually and culturally. The reality is different, and is rooted in the strong connection between fatness and disability in broader cultural discourse. Setting aside for the moment a more politicized definition of disability, of our primal fears, illness and disability rank near the very top.* Depending on the person you’re asking, even death may be preferable to a life without sight, or the ability to walk or speak.

When other people make our bodies public property, they are taking away our power. They are impinging on our agency, our sovereignty over ourselves. This doesn’t always come from shadowy outsiders, either. Our families do it. Our friends and coworkers do it. Our lovers and our partners and our wives and our husbands do it. Our children can do it (just as we can do it to them). It doesn’t have to be rude; the intentions behind it can be good. But anyone who’s ever offered uninvited commentary on your body and your abilities has, to some degree, made your body a common object.

Further: when we interact with a disabled person (and the “we” in question can be able-bodied or not, since disabled folks are not immune to internalized ableism either), we are reacting to an unfamiliar strangeness that is clearly written on the body.** As I said above, I can pretty easily imagine that everyone my size has an experience similar to my own, even though it may not be true. I can imagine this because there’s nothing overt about a body that looks like mine on a superficial level to make me think that body would be different in practice. When I see someone in a wheelchair, or using a cane, or with a body that is clearly functioning in and experiencing the world in very different ways than mine, my reaction may be one of confusion or embarrassment or frustration or fear. In trying to mitigate these feelings, I may inadvertently try to take possession of that person’s physicality, and tell them “oh, you should/need to do x, y, and z!” instead of asking questions and listening and trying to understand something of their experience from their perspective. When I do the former, it is because I am making the situation about me, and my confusion or embarrassment or frustration or fear. This is both counterproductive and disrespectful of the person I’m trying to connect with.

(That’s looking at things from a personal, emotional perspective. But that’s not really was ableism is all about. Ableism is not just the words and actions of individual people any more than racism is. Wordily defined, ableism is about a culture and a society that is specifically designed to support able-bodied people (see: privilege) and which fails to accomodate the needs of disabled people such that they are fully empowered to participate in culture and society as full-fledged citizens.)

A lot of otherwise size-positive folks will bristle at any possibility of associating fatness with disability, because many of us are so invested in being good fatties – you know the ones, the fatties that eat vegetables, have gym memberships, and get clean bills of health from the doctor at their annual physical every year. In other words, the fat folks who live their lives as daily confrontations of every negative stereotype about fat people. But for better or worse, fatphobia and ableism are connected if only because culturally, many not-fat folks react to fatness in the same way as they do disability: with fear or barely-disguised revulsion. Many people are just as afraid of becoming fat (particularly DEATH FAT; i.e. so impossibly large as to become unable to buy clothes in regular stores, or to fit easily into a single coach-class seat on an airplane) as they are of becoming disabled. Because many people believe that suffering changes in one’s body and ability (inevitable anyway, given the aging process) automatically equate to a loss of enjoyment of life. When you have a person who is both fat and disabled, culturally-speaking, said person may as well be wearing a t-shirt that says “I clearly don’t know how to take care of myself.” Conventional wisdom tells us we are supposed to help the infirm, the elderly, the disabled, but sometimes they neither want nor need our help but simply want to be treated with the same respect you’d give anyone else.

As a final note: being able-bodied myself it’s challenging to write about the cultural links between disability and fatness, and the inherent ableism that’s often rampant and unexamined in many corners of fat activism. I can take small steps of awareness, like not assuming based on a person’s appearance that it’s cool if we take the stairs instead of the elevator, or that five blocks isn’t too far to walk, or that because we wear the same size you must be as active (or inactive) as I am. When writing entries like this, I spend a lot of time thinking, “Shit, am I saying this wrong? Is my language here offensive? Am I doing it right?” Thus it’s difficult to put posts like this out there, because I am always running the risk of looking like an asshole. However, speaking for myself, I’ve come to understand that I really don’t learn anything without being willing to look like an asshole, without being willing to confront the unfamiliar, the stuff that makes me confused or embarrassed or frustrated or scared.

Looking like an asshole is no big thing so long as I can do it in the service of educating myself and others.


* Because this is a blog and not an academic paper I’m not messing with footnotes here, but there’s been beaucoup psychological studies that have looked at this over the years, if you’re inclined toward the research.

** Even when the writing on the bodily wall is done in invisible ink.

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