Yesterday I wrote about Linda Bacon’s fantastic talk on Health At Every Size (HAES), but a couple more things have occurred to me in the meantime that seemed worth sharing. Check out the original post if you haven’t already; Bacon and HAES are both truly fascinating. I’ll warn you ahead of time, though: this post will be long.
A commenter pointed out to me the implicit association test (IAT), which “tests for conscious and unconscious preferences people hold on many different topics, such as race, gender and work, and fat/thin, etc.” A lot of people are shocked that when they take this test, they discover they have an unconscious bias against, say, people of color. “I’m not racist!” they might think. And while they might be right that they don’t consciously hold prejudiced opinions about racial minorities, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other “racist” forces at work in their lives. Most everyone has unconscious preferences about race, gender, weight, and so on, and we’re often the unwitting instruments of social structures that privilege certain groups over others.
Obviously, one of the scariest things about all this is that we simply aren’t aware that these things are going on. It’s easy to think of US women’s suffrage in 1919 as the endpoint (or close to it) of the fight for women’s rights, as the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s as the endpoint for the fight for racial equality. Without downplaying the greatness of these accomplishments, though, they are decisively not the end of the road. Huge amounts of prejudice and discrimination of all sorts continue to exist in the United States and elsewhere, and we cannot let specific social justice accomplishments obscure the bigger picture. Those who believe we live in a post-racial society would do well to read John Edgar Wideman’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, and those who doubt the existence of weight discrimination or don’t recognize it as such would do well to reexamine the issue.
This, of course, leads to my next point. You might be reading this and thinking, “Sure, we have a long ways to go on race and gender and all that. But fat people? Come on – that’s just not the same thing.” Many would doubt that weight is an appropriate category when it comes to civil rights and social justice. I think a lot of this resistance comes from the fact that weight doesn’t seem as naturalized as these other categories: race and gender and so on seem like things you’re born with, whereas how fat you are seems to derive from your choices. This is tricky, though. Categories like race and gender aren’t as stable or natural as they first seem, and we often don’t have nearly as much control over our weight as we think. The fact is, if we discriminate against fat – and we do – it’s a civil rights and social justice issue. Period.
Dr. Bacon really drove this point home for me when she was discussing the banal topic of terminology. She generally rejects the words “overweight” and “obese,” seeing them as pathologizing and problematic, opting instead to reclaim the word “fat,” as a descriptive, value-neutral word. She compared this reclaiming to the LGBT community’s reclaiming of the word “queer.” This comparison really emphasized that these are comparable (not to say the same) issues. And various social justice issues intersect. Body image issues are often more significant for women than men, and, as Bacon pointed out, weight, health, and socioeconomic status are highly interconnected issues. Gender, race, class, weight: you can’t separate these. Problems that apply to one category often apply to all, and you really have to recognize this in your approach to dealing with these problems.
The last thing I wanted to draw attention to is how the politics of weight aren’t just an issue for fat people – they’re an issue for everyone. One of Dr. Bacon’s best points in her lecture is that when the medical community puts an undue focus on weight as central to health, fat people are stigmatized and scapegoated, whereas thin people are given the benefit of the doubt, often at the expense of their own health. Just because they’re skinny, their healthcare providers may overlook actual health problems they have. In other words, while the current health paradigm hurts the overweight specifically, it hurts everyone in the end. We can see a similar thing happening in other areas, too. Take, for instance, gender. The greatest victims of gender inequalities are women and the LGBT community, but at the same time heterosexual males are often forced into restrictive and violent gender roles as well. This isn’t to downplay the privilege that men enjoy but simply to point out that, to greater and lesser degrees, injustices hurt everyone.
So if you’re a skinny white guy like me, don’t ignore these issues. They matter to you, too.