Fat Jaguar Versus Fat Elephant: FIGHT!

By | June 24, 2009

This morning I had an email asking me to respond to some (very common, but worthwhile nonetheless) questions. Excerpted below:

I used to be over 300 pounds, as many fatshionistas are. In principle, I believe in Health at Every Size. I thought I ate healthy and was not inactive, and my weight never went down. I know that crash diets are dangerous as well as ineffective, and that regimens like fasting were bad for your metabolism and counteractive to any sort of weight loss. I was sick of having a hard time sitting in “average” people seats and chub rub and strange boils and yeast infections. Even though I knew my cholesterol levels and blood pressure and everything else was fine, it seemed unnatural and unhealthy to have to deal with these obstacles. And you know, sometimes I had to admit – it’s really difficult to go about everyday activities with all this tush fat to carry around. It’s hard to think about this kind of stuff. I know it is.


I still think that big is beautiful and I love the way my fellow fatshionistas look. And I DEFINITELY believe society needs to stop berating people for being who they are and what they look like. But forgetting the issues of society, and leaving it to just the very large ones among us: Is it truly natural for us to be so fat? Not fat in any insulting way, but…fat as a descriptor sans connotations. I know this will stir some hard feelings but, biologically and nutrionally, should we really look like this? I’m not saying we should be skinny – that in itself implies no kind of health. But biologically, there is no evolutionary or scientific reason basis for we should be so large. A full-figured body, like the curves of the goddess Venus, is one that looks healthy, child-bearing (I’m not implying all women should have children, but again, biological basis), and yet, at the same time, probably does’t have to deal with too many yeast infections between the folds and under the breasts either.

As I’ve said before, and many times before that, I am of the opinion that bodies are really, really, really individual things.

Is fat natural? Well, sure, insofar as being a non-synthetic product. All bodies have some fat on them. Is it natural for some bodies to be fatter than others? I would argue that, as a concept, diversity is absolutely natural. Thus I’d expect that body size, like any other broad statistical measurement, tends to exist on a bell curve – there will be an average, “middle” size around which most folk fall, and then at either end there will be progressively smaller numbers of folks who are “naturally” fatter or slimmer (if we wanted to remove the value-laden weight issue from it, think of the same idea, but in the context of body height). My problem with proposing a carefully-defined “natural body size” is that it suggests that there is a narrow field of naturalness and that anything outside of that spectrum is abnormal and in need of assimilation or repair.

I have a really hard time believing that this is so. Now, I don’t suppose to speak for fat people as a monolithic group, not least because fat people are not a monolithic group. Ultimately I can only speak from my own experience, as someone who’s lived in a body weighing around 300 lbs for many years. And my personal experience, for one, is that skin problems like the ones the reader above mentions are genetically common (I would even hazard to say unusually so) amongst some of my immediate (and, notably, not-fat) family members, and yet I’ve never had a problem with them myself. My personal experience is also that, insofar as actual movement and daily life is concerned, I do not feel that everyday activities are more difficult for me because I have a bunch of fat. As I move through my daily tasks, I feel, well, normal. My normal, admittedly, but it’s the only one I know. Of course, there are aspects of life in general that are less fat-friendly than others, but I’ve yet to find one that I could honestly blame on my fatness exclusively, rather than on the situation at hand.

Here’s an example. I do occasionally meet with chairs or theater seats (Bank of America Pavilion on Boston’s waterfront, I AM LOOKING AT YOU) that are terrifically uncomfortable, but in that situation it ain’t my fat that’s causing discomfort – it’s the placement of the arms on the too-narrow seat. Because I am perfectly capable of sitting in wide-enough chairs (hell, I do it all the time; in fact, I am doing it RIGHT NOW) without any discomfort, and therefore my fat in isolation does not cause any sitting-related frustration, I cannot logically blame the fat on my ass for any trouble I have with certain seats. It is, rather, a failure on the part of the chair to be wide enough to fit me. Seat size is not a natural phenomenon. If seats were harvested (or line-caught?) in the wild, I might understand folks making a vague connection between not fitting my ass in a certain chair and some Great Omniscient Natural Plan for human body size. But the reality is that seats are built by people, and usually built to the smallest specifications the majority of people will stand, since seats are typically something that are sold (think of a concert, or an airplane) and thus more seats equals more money. They’re not built to be comfortable to a broad array of bodies. They’re built to be efficient. Sizeable (ha) difference, that.

Though I’ve edited the email above, I’d also like to address something else the author mentioned, which was that she (I am assuming she based on the included name) eventually decided to improve her diet by cutting out junk food, and to get more exercise. I am all in favor! I passionately hate junk food. I ain’t judging folks who love it, so long as they don’t force it on me. Truly, I often get a little resentful of (and occasionally miffed at) my junk-food-loving husband (as he will attest) for buying nutrition-free crap at the grocery store, or asking if we can run by a fast-food chain to get him something disgusting to eat, but I make valiant efforts not to be judgmental about it (I frequently fail, but I do try). When I do join him in junk-food hell, I inevitably feel gruesome the next day, since that stuff just doesn’t agree with me. I am happiest, inside and out, when I’m preparing and consuming whole foods, primarily stuff that grows in sunshine (though I haven’t been a true vegetarian in years, I generally only eat meat a couple times a week) and so that’s the normal routine I keep to. Similarly, I absolutely require a certain minimum amount of daily physical activity to be my preferred cheerful self. Regular physical movement keeps my stress down, and makes me feel centered and whole, to risk getting a bit woo-woo about it, and so I work hard to squeeze in as much exercise as possible, even on my busiest days. Now, I shouldn’t feel compelled to do these things just to justify my fatness, and I don’t – nor should any fat person feel like they have to be extra active or extra food-snobbish to validate their being fat. I do them because I dig them and they contribute to my overall, internal sense of well-being. I couldn’t give less of a shit about whether my personal choices impress other folks.

I still weigh 300 pounds.

The nature argument is sort of a pointless one to me; essentially it’s just using a very old ideology of Western culture, one that equates nature with pureness and virtue and truth, to try to validate or invalidate fatness. I remember years back, when Kirstie Alley was doing Fat Actress, she made a comment in some magazine arguing that you don’t see fat animals in the natural world. The quote went something like: You never see a fat jaguar in the wild. The mental picture this comment supplies is kind of funny, true, but the overall basis is actually really wrong, and the idea that because jaguars in particular tend not to be fat means humans shouldn’t either… well, that lost me. There are lots of animals – elephants and hippos spring to mind, both of which will mightily kick your ass and/or kill you really, really dead if so inclined – that “naturally” incline toward shapes that visually evoke fatness, at least when compared with a jaguar. Was Alley’s point that humans should be more like jaguars than elephants? I don’t even know where to begin with how random and nonsensical the whole idea is. Humans are humans. Elephants are elephants. Jaguars are jaguars. Never the twain shall meet.

So is it “natural” for me to weigh 300 lbs? I have no fucking idea. Maybe if I hadn’t lost and regained (and lost and regained, and lost and regained) so much weight as a kid and teenager, I would weigh less now. Maybe if I hadn’t started dieting at nine years of age and possibly affected what would have become a normal adult metabolism, I would weigh less now. I have no way of knowing. And I can’t travel back in time (….yet) to find out whether doing things differently would have led to a different result. And even if I could, I don’t know that I would bother.

Because at the end of the day, I don’t really care if this is my natural state, or the state I was destined to have at birth, or the state I’ve created through childhood decisions and past disordered eating… or not. There may be folks out there who worry about whether they’re existing as nature intended; I am not one of them. This is my body, right now, and after years of battling with self-hatred and self-doubt, I am truly, wholeheartedly, happy and satisfied with it. For those who feel differently, I don’t dismiss or belittle your discomfort or worries – in fact I sincerely hope you can work that out in some manner that enables you to feel similarly happy and satisfied with yourself. I just don’t share your concerns.

If that’s unnatural, then que sera, sera. I am okay with it.

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