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.


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