Thinking through Thinness: Understanding Fatphobia as Oppression.

**Heads up: In the following post I talk about body shaming and fatphobia. I choose to use the word “fat” to describe people who are targeted by fatphobia because that it is the language I’ve learned from the fat politics experts and activists in my life. I believe in the importance of reclaiming a word like fat so that it can be used not only positively but also just as a way of describing the way that some bodies are. I won’t use the word “overweight” because it implies that there is a “normal” weight that a person can be “over” or “under” and I believe that it feeds into a discourse on “health” that functions to police bodies in harmful ways.

Most of us are aware that popular culture sets up unreasonable and generally unattainable standards for body size/image. Many of us know how harmful this can be and have very real experiences of negative relationships to our body as a result. However, there is a difference between the proliferation of ideal body image and the outright shaming of fat people. While these two things are undeniably connected (and are situated along a spectrum of sizeism), we often fail to acknowledge that many people who are harmed by body ideals can still occupy a relatively privileged position in relation to a system of sizeism that values thinness while shaming, dehumanizing, and silencing the experiences of fat people.

So what does this mean for those who are affected negatively by sizeism but might still have thin privilege? Trying to answer that question has led me to a lot of surfing the internet as well as to a complicated conversation with my roommate about our own relationships to our bodies and to fatphobia. For both my roommate and I, relating to our bodies positively has always been a struggle and that has often reflected negatively on our mental health. We’ve felt pressure from friends and family to look different; we’ve related to food and exercise in unhealthy ways, and we’ve carried long lasting guilt and shame that our bodies don’t look the way they should. However, both of us undeniably have thin privilege. To quote a blog called, “This is Thin Privilege, my roommate and I will

never be kicked off a plane for ‘not fitting into a seat’ … never be barred from adopting for having ‘too high’ of a BMI… will still be able to walk into nearly any mainstream clothing store and buy clothing that fits and flatters at affordable prices… will still live in a world made for [us].

Neither of us has ever walked into a doctor’s office only to have our concerns ignored in favour of being lectured about losing weight and we’ve never been harassed or approached on the street by a stranger offended by the shape of our bodies. These, and a thousand experiences like them, are manifestations of fatphobia that have never been part of our lived experiences.

Coming to this understanding was not easy because of the ways that fatphobia functions to erase thin privilege. Blogger Miss Mary Max explains that

Since most of us — fat, thin, and in between — struggle with anxiety about our weight and shape — we may find it more difficult to recognize that others perceive us as “thin” and that we receive certain treatment based on that assumption… Our poor body image — made possible for the fat and the skinny by fatphobia — works to disguise thin privilege as an oppressive system.  By convincing us that we aren’t thin (enough), and therefore cannot have thin privilege, the system tricks us into perpetuating oppression 

I may be negatively affected by sizeism because it causes me to relate negatively to my body but ignoring my own position and denying that sizeism privileges my body over others only works to silence experiences of those for whom fatphobia functions to police, shame, and oppress.

It is important to really understand the scope and depth of fatphobia because it is all around us. It manifests in online harassment campaigns like fat shaming week,” a Twitter stunt organized by the men’s rights group, Return of Kings, that speaks enormous volumes both to thin peoples’ sense of entitlement to comment on fat bodies as well as men’s sense of entitlement to comment on women’s bodies. Fatphobia is the overwhelming ignorance that led a woman to decide that publicly shaming kids based on her own reductive notions of “health” is some form of fucked up “public service” instead of an incredible violation of a child’s dignity and sense of self. Fatphobia is the power, hatred, and myth-making that allows doctors, employers, friends, coworkers, family, and popular culture to scrutinize, belittle, and criticize fat bodies. Fatphobia can be found in the many stories shared on the pages of blogs like “This is Thin Privilege.”

The thin privilege I experience everyday shields me from many manifestations of fatphobia. But the fact that I have been raised in a world that has wanted me to hate my body, change my body, and understand my body as never good enough implicates me deeply in systemic sizeism. The stratification of bodies into “good” and “bad” categories stands in direct opposition to our ability to love our bodies, no matter what size, shape, or form they come in.

Listening to the voices of fat politics experts and activists is essential to standing in solidarity with work that seeks to dismantle sizeism and end fatphobia, as is respecting the knowledge and authority of fat peoples’ stories and experiences. Blogs like “This is Thin Privilege” and organizations like Fat Panic!, It Gets Fatter!, and NOLOSE are incredible places to find resources and to learn more about fatphobia and thin privilege. So if fatphobia and thin privilege are new ideas to you- happy reading! And remember… 

(image courtesy of Fat Panic!)

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Men and Feminism: Reflections on My Experiences with Men’s Allyship

A couple years ago, when my older brother Ray wrote a blog post about sexism, I got one of my first tastes of how awesome it can be when men take a stand against sexism. Some of the most frustrating conversations I have ever had are those in which I’m told that feminism is only helpful for women and that men have nothing to gain from its theories, visions, and practices. Every time I have one of those conversations I regret not memorizing writer Chally Kacelnik’s wonderful quote,

“The thing is, it’s patriarchy that says men are stupid and monolithic and unchanging and incapable. It’s patriarchy that says that men have animalistic instincts and just can’t stop themselves from harassing and assaulting. It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more – are more than that.”

Since I don’t have that quote memorized, my explanations for why men need feminism are usually less-than-elegant and often coated in a heavy layer of exasperation. Considering that the people who think feminism is only for women are often the same people who tend to think passionate women trying to explain complicated ideas are angry and, consequently, irrational, I’ve always been glad when the men in my life have taken those opportunities to pipe up in agreement. Because, although it’s important to acknowledge that feminism is never perfect and has a long history of being both exclusionary and oppressive, I believe in working towards feminisms that can benefit us all (bell hooks wrote a book on this and if you haven’t read it you should. It’s called Feminism is for Everybody). When I’m trying to explain to you why I believe this, I am, contrary to popular belief, not trying to convert you to my scary, castrating, evil-doing, “femini-nazi” cult. Sorry for the misunderstanding, but I’m actually just trying to advocate for a world where people get to be people without having to try to fit into a system of binary identity boxes such as: “this is what a man is like” and “this is what a woman is like.”

While I like to talk about men and feminism because I find the topic to be interesting, the reality is that it’s not my responsibility to make feminism a warm and welcoming place for men. I do the work of exploring and engaging with feminism (which, by the way, never stops) because it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. However, I can’t do this work for anybody else. It took me a while to come to that conclusion and my brother’s blog post has become a big part of my own acknowledgment of the ways that men can and do take responsibility for anti-sexist and feminist work.

One of the things I appreciated about what Ray wrote in his post was that he didn’t position himself as a “hero” – a strong manly man speaking out against sexism because all the little ladies are in need of his rescuing. When people of a privileged group start talking about “saving” people of a relatively oppressed group, we find ourselves lost in the terrain of “saviour” narratives (see: the “white saviour complex” – Teju Cole’s commentary on Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign is an interesting place to start). The thing about saviour narratives is that they usually replicate the kind of oppression they purport to want to address by giving ultimate authority to a relatively privileged group. When the charity Invisible Children released the Kony 2012 video, it framed the people of Uganda and other Central African nations as needing American charity in a way that highlighted the opinions of the American founders of the charity while silencing the voices of local activists in Central Africa. Suddenly, the whole thing wasn’t about the lives of those in Central Africa who’d been affected by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the ego of the charity’s American founder and the American public’s desire to pat themselves on the back for being such benevolent “global citizens” (for the record, I’m referring to America here because Invisible Children is an American charity. I in no way mean to suggest that Canada and Canadians are not implicated in the same way in regards to saviour narratives). While no saviour narratives are the same, what saviour narratives have in common is that they take agency away from those who are actually directly affected and/or harmed by particular issues so as to reproduce privilege and oppression rather than alleviating it.

Ray could have invoked a saviour narrative to talk about why men ought to “save” women from sexist oppression and, as a consequence, felt rather pleased about himself and his noble sacrifice in the name of charity; however, he instead decided to do something a lot more complicated and a lot more brave by digging into what sexism means to him and why anti-sexist work is important in his own life. He explains,

“We still have a long way to go to free our society from sexism, and I think that it is still deeply and insidiously ingrained in our mannerisms far more so than many suspect. I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said, “A woman is not truly safe to wear pants in public until a man is safe to wear a dress in public”. I have made an effort on two separate occasions to wear a dress in public. Both times were successful and free of any particularly bad experiences, but it was extremely stressful. In addition, I don’t feel that I can safely do so in professional situations. Starting in September I will be interviewing potential research supervisors at U of T, and the one that I pick will have a major impact on my career. I feel that I can’t compromise these first-impression interviews by showing up in a dress. I think that this is a major problem in our society, and one that needs to one day be rectified. I hereby resolve that once I get tenure, I will show up to my office in dresses and skirts more often, but while my future still depends heavily on the impressions of other people, I don’t feel that I can do that in this day and age.”

It’s worth noting that Ray is white, cisgendered, straight, and able-bodied and, as a result, his experiences of moving through public space while dressed non-normatively are made safer and easier by his privilege. However, in the many discussions I’ve had with him about his experiences in dresses, I’ve appreciated Ray’s acknowledgement that there’s something about a man in a dress that people find incredibly troubling. As it happens, men in dresses do not fit nicely into the previously mentioned “this is what a man is like” and “this is what a woman is like” boxes. Additionally, it’s important to recognize the ways that patriarchy still devalues femininity to the extent that women wearing pants is nothing new but a man in a dress is either an offence to the gender binary or a laughable prank (referring, here, only to the act of wearing pants and dresses. I don’t mean to suggest that masculinely-presenting women don’t also struggle against the confines of binary understandings of gender). In so understanding his experiences of wearing a dress, Ray is acknowledging that sexism is a system that devalues both what is perceived to be feminine and what is perceived as non-normative. As a fairly masculinely-presenting man, this would seemingly make him impervious to the harms of sexism; however, he is cognizant of the ways that sexism affects his own life and limits his own ability to express himself. Therefore, Ray’s post is a call to understand men’s anti-sexist work as not only being in solidarity with those who sexism more fundamentally harms, but also as a means of bettering the lives of men themselves.

While Ray’s post is anti-sexist and while he advocates for an understanding that sexism harms everyone, he doesn’t directly reference feminism and its relationship to his thoughts on sexism. Consequently, as I was preparing to write this, I decided to ask him for his thoughts directly on feminism itself. This is what he said:

“I consider myself a feminist because sexism restrains all social behaviour regardless of gender. Certainly, women [and, I would add, folks with non-normative gender presentations] get a worse deal than men in most cases, but the effect on men is not zero, and it’s easier for some than for others. Almost all of our social interactions are restricted by gender roles… While there is some amount of public support these days for women to take on traditionally male roles, there is a widespread belief that men couldn’t possibly want to take on traditionally female roles. I believe in an egalitarian society where the well-being of the individual is paramount, and an element of well-being is the freedom to construct one’s own identity.”

Since living in a patriarchy teaches me that, as a woman, I should receive all personal validation from men, I try not to use these kinds of statements from the men in my life as affirmations regarding feminism. Validation that my own identified feminist path is the right path has to come from within myself. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t soak up every inch of warm-fuzzies it gives me to reflect on the thought and care Ray put into formulating the above statement out of his respect and understanding for what I do. That doesn’t mean I can’t gleefully brag to my friends about my dad reading bell hooks. Furthermore, it also doesn’t mean that acknowledging the men who are allies in my life can’t be an important part of igniting the hopefulness that fuels my feminism. Because I can’t help but believe bell hooks when she says, in Feminism is For Everybody, that “feminist politics aims to end domination to free us to be who we are – to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace” and I believe in fighting for the kinds of feminism in which that “we” can mean “everybody”.

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