High standards and high hopes.

By | May 3, 2011

The Hanged Man tarot card: a man hangs upside by one foot from a tree.  For more information: http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/learn/meanings/hangedman.shtmlThere is a terrible man out there in the world who has recently made some terrible observations about whether the parents of fat children can possibly love them: he argues no, that no parent who allows their child to become fat could love that child, as their love should somehow serve as a barrier to all the imperfections of the parents’ own lives, their own food issues, their own family backgrounds, their socioeconomic status, their level of education, their access to quality healthcare. Love, he argues, should conquer all in the face of obesity, and if obesity wins, then the culprit is a lack of sufficient love.

I’m not naming the terrible man nor his terrible organization nor the space in which he has made his terrible assertions. I call him terrible because here he is behaving terribly, although I admit he is probably a complex individual, as we all are, prone to cruelty and ignorance and to kindness and intelligence in equal measures, often unpredictably. It may just be that the subject of fat brings out his darker impulses, as it does in many people. I persistently believe that those who are most vicious in attacks against fat people only wreak their havoc out of a misplaced sense of doing good, and being too wrapped up in their own perspectives to hear the experiences of the people whom they’re trying to save, cannot understand why anyone would ever disagree with what seems, to them, to make perfect sense. Of course parents who allow or enable their children to become fat must not love them, thinks the terrible man, because why would you blight someone who love with such an unbearable existence? You’d only do so much for someone you hated.

I have to believe that these people make their fat-people-hatin’ assertions out of misplaced good intentions, because I have to believe that these people are complicated individuals, each with their own motivations and histories, each with a story that brought them to the life they have today. I acknowledge them as people, imperfect though they are, because we all need a little forgiveness sometimes.

I acknowledge them as people even when they fail to do as much for me.


One of my most obvious imperfections is that I’m fat. This particular imperfection is one with which we are culturally obsessed, and so it gets more attention than my other imperfections, like my dreadful handwriting, or my impatience, or my inability to make comfortable small talk at parties. These are petty annoyances, but my fattery is more than imperfection: it is a primary failure of my humanity. Being fat means I am presumed not to have the same human characteristics as everyone else; lacking these characteristics makes me less likely to be recognized as a full-fledged person with all the basic rights thereof. Dehumanization has long been a handy tool for justifying the oppression and marginalization of unpopular groups. I still have it pretty okay, all things considered. No one has forced me into slavery; no one has forced me into an asylum; no one has forced me to undergo medical experiments against my will. And while I am grateful for these small mercies, I am not grateful enough to quietly accept the othering forces that do push my way.

It is well known that stigma does not work as a deterrent against fatness. If it did, with our wildly increasing environment of obesity stigma over the past several years, there should have come a marked decrease in the incidence of fat people. It hasn’t happened, which suggests that not only does stigma not work, but that there are probably a number of contributing factors beyond individual behavior. Culturally, we have well and truly succeeded at making life in a fat body incredibly unpleasant on a day to day basis, from humiliating fat people for requiring certain physical accommodations, to tacitly encouraging the policing of fat bodies by harassment and even assault. These things are morally acceptable, because we are fighting a War On Obesity, and how can we have a war without both physical and emotional violence? What kind of war doesn’t rely on these things to create a desired result?

I’d argue that the result sought is not improved health across populations; it’s not a better quality of life. Fatness does not uniformly affect health nor quality of life; just because it does for some does not mean it does for all, and those people who do have problems relating to their size are not compelled to change themselves simply because a majority voice tells them to. No, this war on obesity is a movement to erase the bodies of as many fat people as possible, and to threaten and terrify those that remain into living invisibly in their shame.

A social shift to improve the health and quality of life of the human population would look very different. For one, we would have universal and free healthcare. We would have equal access to a wide variety of food choices across all social and economic spheres, and we would respect the rights of folks to make their own intuitive decisions about what and how much they eat. We’d value the opportunity to engage in enjoyable activities according to our unique physical abilities, and would have sufficient time and space to do so. Essentially, such a social movement would create a culture unrecognizable to us today.

Sadly, the movement against obesity isn’t a movement for anything. It is a movement rooted in a desire to inflict shame and to make those who escape derision feel superior. It is, in its purest sense, a movement of bullying. The fact is, none of us is without flaws. We all have moments of weakness. We all give in to temptation. Some of us, the unlucky outsiders, are assigned the responsibility for these transgressions; some of us get tagged as wearing the proof of our excess, and not just our own, but as representative of all of the over-consumption that embarrasses us as a social group. Fat people are three-dimensional reminders of our greatest cultural and social fears. Our bodies represent everyone’s lack of self-restraint. Our bodies are living cautionary tales. Beware.

All of this cultural weight, assigned to one basic physical difference, one deviance from the accepted norm, one bodily imperfection! Fat people are people in the same way thin people are people, and in the same way average-weight people are people, and in the same way people of color are people and disabled people are people and transgender people are people and poor people are people. We are all imperfect humans, and even those who fly closer to the sun than the rest of us down here in the imperfect mire, they have their imperfections too. Imperfection is the natural order of things; to fight it is like trying to keep that sun from rising. I am not one to demand that everyone accept their imperfections—some of us need our aspirational motivations too much— but I think it’s reasonable to suggest we refrain from actively stigmatizing them.

Every once in awhile, I try something different: I try forgiving the imperfections of the people around me. From the woman witlessly clogging up the self-checkout line at the supermarket, to the colleague who loses an important document, to the kid who accidentally dumps his soda on my shoes—I try practicing forgiveness of their foibles and imperfections. I don’t do it with the expectation that I’ll get something in return. I do it to see what it feels like, to live in a world where we are occasionally easy on each other; to imagine how it would be to not live on my guard, to expect forgiveness for my own imperfections from others.

We can’t always control culture, we radicals and outsiders, even as we subvert it, but we can experiment, and we can model the behavior we’d like to see. I can be a harpy and a gadfly tomorrow: today, I’ll be kind, and I’ll remind folks that even marginalized people can be more human than those closest to perfection.


25 Comments

Ruth on May 3, 2011 at 1:11 pm.

“Every once in awhile, I try something different: I try forgiving the imperfections of the people around me. From the woman witlessly clogging up the self-checkout line at the supermarket, to the colleague who loses an important document, to the kid who accidentally dumps his soda on my shoes—I try practicing forgiveness of their foibles and imperfections. I don’t do it with the expectation that I’ll get something in return. I do it to see what it feels like, to live in a world where we are occasionally easy on each other; to imagine how it would be to not live on my guard, to expect forgiveness for my own imperfections from others.”
THIS. So beautiful and true. I’ve noticed that forgiving and accepting others enables me to be more forgiving and accepting of myself.

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gidget commando on May 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm.

Yup. Perfect.

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Emily on May 6, 2011 at 3:23 pm.

What Ruth said. And what Lesley said in the the article. I spent so much of my life being so mad at so many people, situations etc. At some point (maybe around 25 or so) i started to realize that if i just tell myself “they’re not good or bad they’re mostly just people”, I feel so much better. It doesn’t change what they think necessarily but I feel so much better. So i’ve said it before and i’ll say it again, thanks Lesley (and commenters).

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Gabrielle on May 3, 2011 at 1:13 pm.

Brilliant post! Forgiveness is rare and valuable – but free to give. Thanks for the reminder.

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M on May 3, 2011 at 1:42 pm.

I hope someone is telling this man what ideas like that can do to the relationship between parents and children. Without getting all me-me-me about it, my parents were told a number of times that they were bad parents for “letting” me be fat as a child, and their fear of that led them to take measures that set me up for a lifetime of disordered eating and made it a long, difficult road back to a smooth and loving family life. It’s terrible to think of that happening to other children and other families. I wish we were all reading Ellyn Satter’s lovely, sensible work about how parents can work with their children around food instead.

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kbryna on May 3, 2011 at 1:49 pm.

Fantastic. “Bodies are living cautionary tales” – Love this.

Reading YA novels about cheerleaders (it’s part of my job), I’m struck by how the girls are represented as eating: chili cheese fries, pizza, M&Ms, chocolate, doritos, potato chips, cheeseburgers….All “junk” foods, in the parlance of our times, but without recriminations. In a book with a Fat protagonist, these foods would be marked as bad, we’d react to them differently, we’d see them as signs of weakness, unhappiness, gross-ness. I see a skinny girl buying a huge whipped-cream drink at starbucks and I see a Fat girl buying the same, and I have two different reactions, to the same drink, the same decision about what/how/when to consume.
It’s terrible, and so insidious, the way this fat/food policing embeds itself in our minds. I have been trying, consciously, mindfully, to notice my own policing thoughts and cut them off.

It really is all about simple human kindness and acceptance.

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clownremover on May 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm.

I love how, upon reading this, I was guided gently through Grumpypants Cockpunch mode to an almost zen-like plateau of acceptance and agape. Kudos.

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Christine on May 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm.

Lesley, I’m sorry such a terrible person believes such terrible things, but thank you as always for your lovely words and the reminder of forgiveness. Forgiveness for myself and of others. (That and for the pictures of belugas on your tumblr the other day, not only did I need the reminder – now, especially now- to forgive and to hope for forgiveness, but holy cow I needed to be reminded of the awesomeness of the beluga whales. love love love.)

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Ivan on May 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm.

the most difficult part of FA for me wasn’t internalizing the acceptance. It was and continues to be accepting that the awful things that people believe about me because I am fat only have the power over me that I allow. I have spent my entire life being emotionally suffocated by my reactions to the stgma and hatred directed at me. Coming to peace with the fact that I am always going to be loathed by a society that supports hatred of people with bodies like mine, makes my thought life a little easier. It is a process. But I m getting better at it.

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buttercup on May 3, 2011 at 9:29 pm.

I’m working hard on that myself, Ivan. It’s not easy, is it?

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Sereena on May 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm.

Really awesome and thought provoking post Lesley. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and I must confess, I feel genuine pity for the anti-fat preachers. Thank you.

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Dusta on May 3, 2011 at 4:46 pm.

I started getting fat age 7 and my Grandmother told me. She loved me dearly yet she told me my stomach was too big. I moved and ate like a child yet for some reason I was much bigger than my peers. For the first time I felt ashamed of myself. I didn’t like going to my Grandmother’s house anymore and I used to throw away photos of myself. I have recently been going through my old childhood photos (the ones that survived) and I see a fat child glowing with health. I now love this gap-toothed grinning fat child. I wish I could have loved myself then.

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clownremover on May 3, 2011 at 6:20 pm.

Btw: Hope your kitty get well soon.

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BuffPuff on May 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm.

You are a considerably nicer and way more charitable person than I could ever hope to be. A true text book Christian, regardless of spiritual beliefs or lack of them, and which this non-practising secular Jew and lifelong loather of organised religion means as a compliment.

Alas I lack the compassion and emotional wherewithal to forgive those who make the lives of fat people so damned unpleasant, and have immense difficulty believing obesity crusaders have anything other than their own interests at heart. (And, from where I’m standing, it looks as though those interests mainly consist of defending their god given right to moralise, blame and generally put the boot in). I get that they’re only human, imperfect, complex and all the rest of it – not least since they feel the need to dehumanise, exert control over and ignore the personal boundaries of total strangers. But I hurt too much to do anything other than mirror the disdain and disrespect they so obviously feel for me.

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Lesley on May 4, 2011 at 7:10 am.

And mirroring that has equal value! Mirroring that disdain demonstrates our right to our space and to defend ourselves! I do that most of the time myself, but occasionally I try the above, as a reminder that we’re at least CAPABLE of forgiveness, even when we don’t choose to practice it.

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Mulberry on May 6, 2011 at 1:10 am.

Buffpuff, I have to agree with you. Forgiving others does not make me feel better; often I am ashamed of having done so or frustrated because my forgiveness did not come from a position of strength. Whereas, I am more likely to feel good about forgiving some hateful people if I think of them as ants not worth the stepping on.
By the way, I am talking about times when I’ve been the recipient of major hatefulness. If I am treated with respect or even neutrality, I will respond with respect.
I disagree with (or perhaps misunderstand) the tenet that people only have the power over me that I allow. That always seemed like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for abusive, manipulative people.
By the way, the “terrible man” sounds like a spiritual descendant of Bruno Bettelheim, who had this idea that autism was caused by “refrigerator mothers”.

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BuffPuff on May 3, 2011 at 6:24 pm.

P.S. Gosh, yes – I hope Oberon is doing okay. He’s a beautiful boy and I wish him better.

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Bee on May 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm.

Oh it made me wince to read that line about fat as imperfection and also resulted in this moment of lovely confusion where I was like, “Wait what? Fat is cool and subversive and thoughtful and prone to wearing bright colors, what’s more appealing than that?” I would wager this comes entirely from being extremely selective in the media I consume and taking in well written fat acceptance blogs regularly, my norm has shifted enormously (for which I am enormously grateful). I’m not trying to minimize what it is to be fat in this culture, by any means.

Excellent piece as always.

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Lesley on May 4, 2011 at 7:13 am.

That is AWESOME indeed! It’s marvelous to create an environment in which this idea is so surprising & unfamiliar!

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thirtiesgirl on May 4, 2011 at 1:42 am.

While I’m amazed at and chagrined by your ability to forgive and see the very awful man as a flawed human being who makes his heinous points out of a misguided sense of trying to do good, rather than a desire to continue to shame and ostracize, I’m troubled by one thing you’ve written here: that your fat body is imperfect.

You’ve written in this very blog that fat IS; it’s neither good, nor bad; it simply is. Which I took to mean that having a fat body simply means having a fat body. It’s neither good or bad; it just is. So I’m confused about why you’d describe your body as imperfect, since imperfection seems to imply ‘badness.’ Your tone doesn’t seem to be tongue-in-cheek in that portion of your post, and doesn’t seem to indicate that you’re writing from the perspective of society at large, which does tend to view all fat people as ‘imperfect.’ …Then again, it’s often nigh on impossible to ascertain someone’s ‘tone’ or intentions from something they’ve written online. So I’m confused about your intent in describing your body as ‘imperfect.’ It seems like you’re not being forgiving enough of yourself.

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Lesley on May 4, 2011 at 6:59 am.

Yep, I meant imperfect according to cultural standards, but I also think that imperfection is not itself good or bad, as I note later on—it’s natural. Just like not all bodies will be physically “perfect” insofar as meeting expectations of appearance, nor are all bodies, fat or otherwise, perfectly healthy or perfectly mobile or perfectly predictable. And that, also, is natural, as variety is natural, and therefore worthy of forgiveness.

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Lesley on May 4, 2011 at 7:02 am.

Also, on a personal level, as a perfectionist, it is both positive and healthy for me to practice embracing my lack of perfectness—I associate the ideas in this post with my writing on beauty, and not being beautiful, an idea which itself embodies a type of perfection. For me, an important part of loving, valuing, and caring for my body is understanding that it will never be perfect, and yet demanding that it deserves respect and dignity regardless.

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Erina on May 4, 2011 at 7:14 am.

Once again, another intelligent and beautiful post. I try to practice forgiveness. However, I must admit it is hard for me to forgive the parents and the town that allow this fat-shaming campaign — “Childhood Obesity Ads Rely On Fat-Shaming” http://bit.ly/mgyEn5

Have you seen them yet? I would love see a post about them.

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kbryna on May 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm.

Doesn’t it make just as much sense to say that there is no such thing as a perfect body? That since we’re all imperfect we are all perfect? Hardly an original thought, I know, but it does the work of norm-busting. In some ways I think this is why it’s important to see those magazine specials of STARS WITHOUT THEIR MAKEUP!!!! Because we, culturally, are being sold the idea that there ARE perfect bodies, and if we just do XYZ, *we* can have that body too! When, in fact, many of those images of “perfection” that we’re sold are carefully constructed, packaged, airbrushed, made-up, photoshopped, etc.

On the *positive* billboard front, I am pleased to see the billboard on a major road in my city for larger-sized MRI machines. Slogan is something about only being squeezed by the people you love, and shows a hugging parent and kid, I think. I keep being reminded, by this billboard, of the critiques of medical anti-fat, including inadequately-sized MRI machines – and I’m happy that 1) the medical system advertising has taken steps to provide larger machines and 2) the ad for it has no fat-shaming language at all.

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Roxarita on May 9, 2011 at 1:13 am.

Has stigma ever worked as a deterrent for anything?

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