Public Health Does Not Make Me Public Property

Published June 16, 2013 by sleepydumpling

If I had a dollar for every time someone emailed me with some form of “But.. but… HEALTH!!” message in response to my fat activism, I would be a very wealthy woman indeed.  I’ve heard it all when it comes to people trying to use health, either private or public, as a stick to beat fat people over the head with.  To me it just boils down to one thing… no matter what a person’s appearance, weight, shape, level of health or physical ability, every human being deserves to live their lives in dignity and peace, without fear of discrimination or vilification based on their appearance, size, shape, body or health/physical ability.

Of course, to the essentialists out there who want to claim that fat activists are somehow anti-health, the idea of EVERYBODY deserving the same rights regardless of their appearance or physical state-of-being gets them into a right lather of outrage.  There is this attitude that “public health” must somehow trump basic human rights for some kind of greater good.  Of course, this is borne of decade after decade of big pharma, the media and the “beauty” industry carefully constructing a culture that equates health with attractiveness and thinness, and manoevering those measures of health to unattainable levels that very, very few people in the world actually come close to meeting, ie thin, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gendered, affluent, etc.

Fat activism, even those of us who actively call out healthism, is not an anti-health message by any means.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  I believe that everyone, yes EVERYONE, deserves access to the same healthful resources.  Clean water.  Clean air.  Safe spaces to engage in physical activity that is enjoyable and inclusive.  Abundant, fresh, affordable, nutritious food.  Compassionate medical care.  Vaccinations against communicable diseases.  Fair pay and working conditions.  Comprehensive education for all.  Mental health care.  Accessible public spaces for all bodies.  Affordable housing.  Affordable and suitable clothing.  All of these things contribute to improving the general health and quality of life of all people.

What I do not support is the idea that public health renders some people’s bodies as public property.  Public health is important in our society, and I am all for universal health care (an imperfect version of which we are lucky to have in Australia).  I am all for public health ensuring that our water is clean, that everyone has access to the medication and treatment they need, that people are aware of the importance of vaccination, that all people are encouraged and enabled to get outside into a clean, safe environment and enjoy moving their bodies, that public funding goes into curing disease and providing those treatments to all human beings and so on.

What I do not support from public health is the marking of non-normative bodies as “diseased” or “defective”.  I do not support the removal of agency and self-advocacy from people with non-normative bodies.  I do not support intervention into our bodies and health by public health organisations.  I do not support the vilification of human beings based on their appearance.  I do not support public health being driven by the diet, beauty and pharmacy industries, or the mainstream media, all of which have financial gain to be made in the othering of people based on their appearance.  I do not support public health campaigns that mark some bodies as inferior, immoral or defective.  I do not support public health campaigns that encourage friends, family, schools or other groups to intervene in to other people’s health.  None of these things actually help improve individual health or quality of life, in fact they all impact both health and quality of life negatively.

Anything that renders human beings as vulnerable to any of the above is public shaming and public stigmatisation, not public health.

Part of living in a society is that we can all contribute to that society for the general betterment of all.  Some people will need different resources and levels of care to others, because like any other living species, human beings are diverse.  That does not make those people beholden to society in general to try to change themselves to meet the narrow band of “average” that is classed as “normal”.  Instead, the responsibility is on society as a whole to include all people, rather than just the lucky few that meet some ridiculous arbitrary standards.

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31 comments on “Public Health Does Not Make Me Public Property

  • May I add: I do not support doctors who do not look further than my weight and think my issues can only ever stem from that. Doctors should treat their patients individually – and not reduce them to statistics.

  • I’m with you Kath. I also have been involved in sometimes heated discussions concerning the ‘burden’ we fatties place on society and particularly the health system. I’ve often felt that I have to defend my right to access medical support. I have also ‘copped’ some atrocious attitudes from nursing staff at a public hospital in Perth. Very hard to fight when you are a vulnerable patient.

  • Well bloody said. What always gets me is that people who would go to the barricades for reproductive rights think it’s perfectly OK to call for the denial of the most basic of civil liberties – the right to bodily autonomy – of the fatties.

  • I really appreciate the strength and confidence by which you put forth your views. I have had a few negative experiences with the health system- particularly around the birth of my two children. When I was in labour with my daughter a nurse refused to let me have liquid because I was ‘obese’ and therefore most likely to have a caesarian, so “better for the doctor if I didn’t drink or eat”. Thankfully there was a change of shift and the next nurse saw how dehydrated I was, put me on a drip and I gave birth naturally (twice).
    I’m about 30 k overweight but very fit and healthy and it is very frustrating having these assumptions made about you by the medical profession who don’t seem to understand that correlation is not causation

  • Fantastic piece. I am tired of being told I cannot buy affordable clothes that fit because to sell those clothes would ‘normalise fatness’. I am tired of being bullied every time I go to see my doctor, when no physical problem I have has any link to my weight. I am tired of not fitting onto the doctors chart of ‘ideal weight’ without thought of my medical history, mental health, medication, lifestyle and genetic profile. I am tired of being told I am lying when I tell people how many hours a week I dance, how many miles I walk and my good diet.

    I am tired and I am putting my foot down.

    • Get into it Lissa. I loathe the whole “normalise fatness/glorify obesity” bullshit that people pull on us. Fat is normal for us. What would they rather, we ran around naked?

  • It hasn’t jack to do with health, as you of course know already. Even if the target fat person is in perfect health, has perfect readings straight down the line for all the things that doctors consider important, then it becomes “but, but…VAGUE FUTURE HEALTH THREAT!” Because the concern trolls aren’t willing to admit that what they really want is for everyone to look like a manikin in a fashion photo shoot. So they try to make it about “health.”

  • Everyone else is already saying it so much better than I could, but I just have to say this… It always seems like scapegoating to me; Getting everyone to focus on the awful fatties instead of real issues. If tomorrow all the fat people in the world were suddenly thin, the world would not suddenly be healthy. There would just be some very upset diet companies and a few scrambles for governments to find new things for people to focus on.

    • That’s pretty much it Riley. It’s still acceptable to denigrate fat people and lay the blame for all of society’s ills at our feet, so people do. And don’t worry, the diet companies would just move the goalposts, like they have time and time again to make sure that someone, anyone out there is feeling inadequate enough to give them their money.

  • Excellent. I happen to have a high bmi, one that says I am obese. I’m a little overweight, muscular & fit, not obese. I once worked for an insurance broker who gave me lower insurance premiums to speak with a health coach every week due to my BMI, nothing else all of my other numbers were good. While she was a nice lady, I found the experience degrading sometimes. I exercise regularly & eat right most of the time. I was gaining weight on a popular diet program. I had classic hypothyroidism symptoms but she wasn’t a doctor so neither of us had a clue – until I went to the doctor for something unrelated but he noticed my health issue. God bless him, he wasn’t concerned about my weight but my fatigue & depression. I really wish our society would figure out that people of all sizes & shapes are human beings with feelings who DESERVE to be treated with dignity. I have a friend who is into body building who has posted the nicest articles about body image. She’s also finishing up a degree in the health care field. Why can’t all health & fitness types be like my doctor & my friend? The world would be a better place if the health care industry was more into care & less into judgement.

    • Cheryl Anne it would be awesome if those in the health and fitness industries would “get it” and realise that they’d be doing everyone a whole lot more good if they were respectful and caring regardless of appearance. Nobody is made healthier by hate, stigma and disrespect.

  • When I hear people make this argument, I always think of that family that was broken up in England because the children were fat–after they endured some ridiculous period of having people in the house watching them eat. It’s been, what, a year and a half? I wonder whether the children have become socially acceptably thin in their “better” foster homes and whether the money spent paying people to stare at them while they ate could have, I dunno, fed some starving people somewhere.

  • As a Canadian with a similar public health system, I totally hear you and back up what you’re saying here 100%!

  • I so agree with everything everyone has said! This idea that being fat is immoral and just about the worst thing a person can be is pervasive! I am so tired of smart people, especially women, ruining their lives trying to reach some ideal that is just about impossible. That is not what I call healthy living! We are brainwashed from birth to be obedient to this quest for perfection and if we aren’t, well then there is something wrong with us morally and socially. ENOUGH!

    • Marcia I firmly believe that diet culture was created to subjugate women when birth control became widely available. Suddenly women couldn’t be controlled by getting them pregnant, so they had to come up with something new to keep us anxious and focused on pleasing others, instead of standing up for our rights and living our lives.

  • I worked as an intern with an elementary school teacher who told his (yes, HIS!!) class that it didn’t matter what a person looked like. When we had teams for games in Phys. Ed, any child that ridiculed another on the basis of physical appearance would be sitting on the sidelines. He pointed out that some of the thinnest people are sometimes the unhealthiest. It doesn’t matter the size of the person, everyone gets to play. I would have loved to have had a teacher like that in elementary school. Health is important, and one of my biggest pet peeves is that the fitness “industry” seems to cater to people who already fit the mold. Example: swimming is fantastic exercise – especially for bigger people – but go look for a plus size swimsuit… and then get up the nerve to go to the pool… it’s too much for a person like me who even as a teenager, had a young child point out to my friend “Did you know your friend is fat?” To her credit, my friend ignored the kid. I believe everyone should have access to health and fitness facilities without fear of ridicule. Everyone, even skinny people, should strive for a healthy body – and that might mean gaining some weight for some people.

    • Pam, it boggles my brain that people find it SO HARD to understand that creating a positive, welcoming environment for ALL people encourages them to engage in the activities. Like why is that so hard to understand? If only there were more teachers in the world like the one you were lucky enough to have.

    • Sorry but no. It’s just more healthist and ableist rhetoric that throws some of us under the bus in the name of “fat acceptance”. If people are going to respond to fat stigma, they have to include ALL fat people, not just the ones that meet some arbitrary measure of “healthy”.

      • I didn’t think of that. I’m very new to all this. Thank you for setting me straight. Bless.

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