On “Vomit Stix!” and being offended.

By | January 3, 2011

Back in the early aughts, when I was still entertaining my aspirations to academia, I used to do campus talks and lectures on fat politics.* At least I’d try. Before I  learned classroom-management skills, things would get sidetracked, rapidly and dramatically. The usual culprit? A skinny girl either suffering from or in recovery for an eating disorder.

Now don’t fret! I am not dissing skinny girls with eating disorders. I have a great many of you as readers and I am constantly humbled and pleased that you glean something of value from what I write here. But my conundrum in this particular circumstance was that I was not giving a talk on eating disorders — I was giving a talk on fat. Though they can be related, these subjects are distinct and separate, especially in an academic context. So when I’d get halfway through my talk about fatness (and the lack thereof) in popular media, and someone in the room would raise her hand and start disclosing about her ED, I’d get a little deer-in-the-headlights about it. How do I redirect this conversation without dismissing this woman’s experience, and her desire to share it? That is important, and good! We should talk about eating disorders and body image issues freely and without shame! I wanted to support the ED folks without allowing that subject to dominate the discussion, which was supposed to be about fat.

Eventually I learned the technique of redirecting without dismissing. I even figured out how to acknowledge that, while your eating disorder is a valid subject, being fat is a seriously different animal from being not-fat but having an ED. As is being fat and having an ED at the same time. The experience of feeling fat, and hating your body, may share aspects in common with actually being fat. But being fat brings with it a whole bunch of other baggage that a non-fat person really can’t get. It’s one thing to look in the mirror and see yourself as a huge and hideous monster. It’s another thing to fear going out to eat because you’re not sure if you’ll fit in the booth with your friends. Both are tragic. But they are different.

Last week, Joy Nash posted another of her series of weight-loss miracles, this one entitled “Vomit Stix!”, which you can watch embedded above. Unfortunately, Joy’s received a few comments from folks who took offense and read the video as making fun of eating disorders. Joy is now apparently considering taking the video down. (In the event that it’s gone by the time you read this post, in it, Joy enthusiastically promotes “natural” weight loss via purging using a fake product called “Vomit Stix”, which one uses to induce vomiting.)

I know from personal experience that satire can be a bit of a bitch to nail down — there’s a very fine line between incisive and rude. And I’m not about to dismiss the hurt feelings of those who were offended by giving out vague advice to “lighten up” or tips on the untwisting of panties, which is how the backlash comments seem to be running. This is not only dismissive but totally unhelpful. On the brighter side, Joy herself has responded:

My intention was definitely not to offend or hurt anyone suffering from an eating disorder. I was attempting to satirize the cavalier way that the weight loss industry will push disturbing and harmful “products” under the guise of promoting health.

So there’s our authorial intent clearly stated, for what it’s worth. I’d agree that the most important point this video makes is that many behaviors seen as damaging and dangerous in thin people are outright encouraged in fat people. The specific example above is purging, but the sentiment is the same for many disordered eating patterns. Fat people are often supported in hating their bodies, in starving themselves, in engaging in unsafe exercise and in seeking out weight loss by any means necessary. A thin person who does these things is considered mentally ill. A fat person who does these things is redeemed by them. This is why our culture has no concept of a fat person who also has an eating disorder. If you’re fat, it’s not an ED — it’s a lifestyle change.

The video is funny, but in the sad way that satire often is. It’s funny, while reminding us of the ugliness in diet culture. More to the point, Joy’s video is not really about bulimia so much as it is about the incredibly muddy messages we receive about the proper care and feeding of our various bodies. I am not offended by it, though I am not equipped to make the sweeping judgment that it isn’t offensive. Obviously, it’s offended some folks, so the potential to be offensive is there. The thing is, I am not a person who believes potentially-offensive things should be hidden to spare folks from having to deal with them. An image, a video, an offhand comment can be truly abhorrent, but if it inspires a fruitful conversation about why it offends, then it’s done some good. This is how we learn things. Joy’s videos shouldn’t exist just to make us all feel happy about ourselves — they should feed the continuing cultural discussion about bodies, and eating, and weight.

Do you disagree? That’s cool. We don’t have to see it the same way. You’re allowed to be offended. You’re allowed to be upset. And I’m allowed to be analytical. And we should both talk about our reactions, respectfully and productively, with one another, because these things are swept under the rug enough already.

Back in my lecturing days, I worked hard to encourage the skinny girls with eating disorders to feel connected to fat politics — to recognize that our cultural obsession with fatness and bodily control is, in part, why their EDs exist. This is a subject that affects everyone with a body, no exceptions. By focusing with laser-like precision on our own individual experience — be that experience one of bulimia, or one of being death fat, or one of being “naturally” thin — we lose sight of the complexity of the topic. Joy’s video is not just about bulimia; this blog is not just about fat. Rather, we are all having a vast, prolonged, challenging conversation about bodies, one that strives to represent reality and diversity instead of ideology. It’s a hard thing, but we don’t always have to agree, so long as we keep talking. That conversation is far more valuable than uniform agreement.

* For the record, I really miss doing these talks and lectures. They were challenging and difficult and uncomfortable and a generally awesome time. Unfortunately, once I fell out of academia — and lost my brainy cred! — I assumed I could no longer do them. In retrospect, this was pretty short-sighted.


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