The awesome power of no.

By | May 23, 2011

A photo of me, a fat white lady, standing outside next to a tree. I'm wearing a short black dress with small flowers on it, a black cardigan, black leggings, pink ballet-tie flats, and a dark green messenger bag. Also glasses. Also, I am smiling.

This is me. I say no a lot, usually with a cheery smile.

Whenever I write things elsewhere that are critical of bodily norms, and especially about weight, there are always certain Bingo-friendly responses. The most common one is a sort of exasperated, heaving insistence that I—or anyone else—“just” lose weight. Don’t talk about things, for heaven’s sake! Don’t criticize the popular cultural messages about bodies and health! Don’t question the widespread assumptions and expect rational proofs beyond “but everyone just knows it’s bad to be fat!” Just do it! Just lose weight, and be done with it!

These people may as well be mumbling “Conform… conform…” in a zombie-esque drone for all the good it does. This is the pressure to assimilate, that I should keep quiet and swallow like everyone else. Why do you have to question everything? Why does it always have to be a battle with you? Why are you so hostile? These are the social obstacles that every social justice activist must learn to navigate, no matter their particular area of investment. Arguably, the folks who throw up these blocks do not get why a person wouldn’t just go along with expectations and norms; they can’t understand why someone would rather be a wrench in the works and not another useful cog.

The hell of it is, even if I were to cease being fat, I would not stop criticizing the cultural assumptions about bodies and weight. I would simply do so as a smaller person. And I’d do it as a smaller person for the same exact reasons I do it as a fatter person.

I criticize our body culture because these assumptions and expectations are bad for everyone. It’s not simply a matter of fat people having a rough time of it, even though they do, and even though it is wrong that fat people are often harassed, humiliated, and ostracized, and that this ill treatment is socially encouraged. Our cultural expectations of normative bodies, and our stringent beauty standards, and our compulsory and universalizing ideas about health—these forces hurt everyone, no matter their size, no matter if they are slender, or average, or very very fat.

These forces–which affect everyone but target lady-identified folks in particular—do not make us healthier, or better-looking, or more happy. Instead they breed self-loathing, dissatisfaction, and a constant feeling of inferiority. I can illustrate the damage they do with one obvious example: how many people do you know who are 100% happy with their bodies and their overall appearance? Some of y’all are fortunate to travel in circles in which you can say with confidence that most of the folks you know feel this way, but for the wider population, the overwhelming majority do not.

Do you reckon this is just a huge coincidence?

The pressure to always be thin, beautiful, and healthy makes us miserable. It doesn’t make us happy, or comfortable, or confident, or safe. It keeps us hungry (literally and figuratively) and sad, certain only that we are never virtuous enough to measure up to those cultural expectations, and that we never will be.

The only people I know—myself included—who are happy with their bodies are the ones who have dropped out of the assimilation races. I’m not suggesting that doing so means you’re no longer affected by these pressures; as noted above, everyone is affected by them. But setting our own boundaries and expectations enables us to define ourselves, and to resist being defined by external cultural forces for the convenience of those who would use us and our bodies as cautionary tales, or as whipping posts, or as scapegoats.

And it all starts when we say no. We can say no. When someone instructs us to lose weight, to shave, to straighten our hair, to get “in shape”, to wear makeup, to wear less makeup, to dress appropriately, to dress more stylishly, no not that stylishly, to stop standing out, to stop making noise, to stop being so damn large, to stop making excuses, to stop fighting, to just get along, to just do what we tell you, to just buy into this commercial weight-loss plan, to just take these pills, to just have this cosmetic surgery, to just follow instructions, to just know that we’re doing this for your own good, to never walk alone, to never walk alone in that outfit, to never draw attention, because no one wants to see that, because no one wants to see your body, because no one wants to see you.

You can tell them no, and refuse to say more on the subject. No is always an option. It’s a small word, a difficult word, a word that speaks volumes in a single syllable, and one that gets easier to say the more you do it. It’s part of your arsenal, whether you realize it or not, and it’s a powerful weapon.

You can say no.

You don’t have to explain it.

You don’t have to apologize for it.

You can just

say

no.


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