By Lesley | November 22, 2010
Via the power of the Twitternets, Lauren of Pocket Rocket has pointed out a… well, a really very strange interview on Real Bodies Unite, a UK site advocating for body diversity in fashion. The subject is Vanessa Reece, a coach/consultant in the field of internet promotion and marketing. Evidently Reece also used to be fatter, and was a fatshion blogger at one time, though I have to plead ignorance of her credentials there, as I’ve only ever had glimpses of her in these circles on Twitter.
Over the course of the two-part interview, Reece expresses some strong opinions about fatness, fat fashion, and fat acceptance. Now, none of this would be distressing if Reece had restrained herself to speaking about her own life and choices, on which she is the undisputed expert. I am in favor of people finding happiness and fulfillment by whatever path they choose, so long as they support the rights of others to make their own decisions and don’t prescribe behaviors. But in an unexpected, apropos-of-nothing turn, Reece chooses to take vague aim at fat activism:
What advice can you offer to other men and women who want to make a change to their lifestyle but are struggling?
Look at the facts before you look at the plus-size community. I was very well known in that community for a long time and very few people within it offer advice on how to make changes should you wish to. I support the people that are brave enough to.
Be under no illusion! Some of the most well known people in that community either struggle with depression, inner self doubt and or health issues. If they tell you otherwise I’d wager they are in the grip of denial as I was or they’re just happy to stay in the gang. Hard facts hurt but addressing them may just extend your life span and comfort. It’s not about acceptance it’s about education. I’m sick of hearing the word acceptance being used as an excuse not to educate people on the facts.
I would say be brave. It’s easy to be ‘one of the gang’ but far harder to be the leader of your own destiny.
I’ll admit my hackles were raised mostly at the passive-aggressiveness of these statements, which seem intended as a warning against falling in with a dangerous “gang” of self-accepting fatasses. But what’s really troubling is Reece’s assertion that everyone’s experience insofar as dealing with depression, “inner self doubt” and/or “health issues” matches her own. This is essentially the opposite of good body activism, which should emphasize subjectivity and body autonomy over universal expectations and norms.
In part two, Reece adds:
Teens and twenty somethings are particularly easy to target if you sell them the right ‘dream’ which in this case is plus-size fashion and that ‘fat’ = strong, happy, comfortable etc.’ Until recently I drank that kool-aid up and I believed it. I woke up with new eyes and strong consideration of the facts and I can speak for myself without the need for a garment to do the talking for me.
To all those teens and 20 somethings who currently are overweight I would say, enjoy the fashion because it’s beautiful but don’t use it as justification to stay overweight forever. When the time is right for you, you’ll see that the majority of obese people really are not truly comfortable physically or mentally and those that are either in denial (and will hate you for pointing that out as I used to be when someone questioned my health and weight) or luckily have not yet suffered any health effects from their weight.
What we have here is a straw-man soiree. Who is “targeting” young people, and for what purpose? Whence are these messages that “‘fat’ = strong, happy, comfortable etc.’” being issued, and where are they receiving such wide exposure? None of that matters. What matters is THEY’RE DOING IT! AND WON’T ANYONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN? Reece’s comments here seem to paint a picture of a culture that is secretly run by dogma-enforcing fat acceptance operatives, in which obesity panic goes ignored — a world gone maaaaad! It certainly isn’t a world I am familiar with. Enjoy the beautiful fashion? I’d love to! Where the fuck is it?
When people make accusations of groupthink or a monolithic “gang” mentality amongst social justice activists, they are serving one purpose: to discredit the opinions and experiences of marginalized groups. When people call me out on something I’ve said that is problematic, it’s way easier for me to put them down as pushing some self-interested agenda, knee-jerk and zombie-like, than it is for me to actually stop, think, and consider that my experience may not be universal, and my opinions may be poorly informed. It’s difficult to admit that I don’t know everything in the world — it’s very difficult for me personally, as I am by nature an insufferable know-it-all — but it helps to realize that not knowing everything means I get to keep learning, and that makes my life far more interesting.
The intro paragraph to the first part of the interview makes brief mention of Reece’s movement from self-acceptance toward emphatically advocating weight loss and calls this shift “controversial” — but there’s nothing controversial about it. The idea that body acceptance is dangerous and wrong, and that weight loss is necessary and rewarding, is the prevailing ideology in the UK, as well as in the United States and pretty much all of Europe and lots and lots of other parts of the world too. That ain’t controversy — that’s right on trend. What makes this scenario strange is that this is an interview appearing on a site that purports to be campaigning for a diversity of bodies in fashion — an idea which IS controversial — and so many of Reece’s comments are extremely shaming, presumptuous, and just plain old offensive.
BE UNDER NO ILLUSION, folks: There is no universal bodily experience, no matter your size, no matter your circumstances, no matter what. We do not come off an assembly line, identical in composition and purpose. I believe Reece when she says she was a miserable huffin’-n-puffin’ fatty with eating habits that didn’t work for her, and so she felt compelled to change things. I totally believe her, and why wouldn’t I? I can’t know how she feels; I trust her with her body as I would have others trust me with mine. But her assertions that all fat people must be as miserable as she was (or is) strike a sour note. (They also, frankly, make me doubt her exposure to fat acceptance at all, because the FA blogosphere is filled with the stories of fatties who, for example, go to the gym regularly and cook nutritious meals at home, things Reece seems to believe no fat person does.)
It is okay to make choices for yourself, on your own terms. You have a right, always, to draw your own boundaries, and to have those boundaries respected. However, making sweeping generalizations about the allegedly-uniform experiences of ALL fat people reads like a sad effort at validating one’s own choices. A weight-loss advocate arguing that ALL fat people are depressed and ill (and those who claim otherwise are in “denial”) is actually no different than a fat-accepting person arguing that ALL fat people are perfectly healthy and happy, and any fat person who expresses a different experience is a liar. And you know what? You don’t need that validation — you don’t need to convince the whole world that everyone is just like you in order to justify yourself. If it is good for you, then that is enough.
There is power in making our choices and standing by them. Where Reece chooses to shame all bodies over a certain unnamed size, we must pair our personal convictions with a willingness to respect the bodily autonomy of people with different identities, perspectives, and circumstances if we are to have any hope of building a culture that truly reflects the breadth of human body diversity. In one of the quotes above, Reece counsels us to “be brave” and face the universal truth she proposes, as though losing weight were a radical departure from norms and expectations. The deeper implication being that body acceptance is a form of cowardice.
This, ultimately, was the point that offended me most. Whatever ill may be spoken of all of you, those who believe and doubt, those who ask questions and debate facts, those who strive to understand the feelings and positions of people who differ from you, those who still fight with disordered eating and eating disorders, those who struggle with accepting the person you are and with discovering the person you want to be, those who battle with daily visibility and grotesque harassment and well-meaning concern and the wish, understandable, forgivable, to just be “normal” — none of you want for bravery. Indeed, you are the bravest people I know.