Freedom of Speech Does Not Mean Freedom from Criticism*

Published March 27, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I think it’s time we made something very, very clear.

When someone speaks negatively about fat bodies, they are speaking about ALL fat bodies.  They are speaking about my fat body.  They are speaking about your fat body.  They are speaking about your Mum’s fat body.  They are speaking about your brother’s fat body.  They are speaking about all fat bodies.

While they may not be addressing you or I directly, our bodies are fat, and therefore are included when they speak of any fat bodies.

Because when someone speaks negatively about fat bodies, people hear that.  And they take it away with them, in their brains, that thing they heard.  When it is a public figure saying these things, LOTS of people hear it, because, well you know, it was said publicly by someone who has a wide audience.  So lots of people take those negative things that were said about fat people away with them, tucked away in their brains.

Then they see me come along, or someone like me, minding our own business.  Perhaps we’re walking down the street, or we’re sitting in a cafe having a cup of coffee and a scone with our friends.  Maybe we’re in the supermarket buying food.  Perhaps we’re riding my bicycle or going for an afternoon walk.  Or maybe we’re at the beach, having a swim in our togs.   Or at work/school/church/anywhere.  You know, just doing stuff that people do.

Here I am, an example of a fat person, with a big plastic light fitting on my head:

I know, it’s a bit blurry but it was taken on my iPhone.

So along I come, with my very fat body (see my fat arms up there?  And my double chins?  And all my other fat bits?  I have a fat bum too, but it’s in the chair and you can’t see it.) and the person who heard those negative words sees me, and seeing my fatness triggers the memory of those negative words about fat people in their brain.  And they remember how someone on the internet or the news said that snarky thing about fat bums (which is retweeted by several people, widening the audience even further), or how fat people are unhealthy, or how people are abusing their children by making them fat by feeding them junk, or that we’re smelly/lazy/gluttonous/unintelligent/etc and they apply that negative to me, because look at me, I’m very fat!  And Mia Freedman/John Birmingham/Tim Minchin/Michelle Obama/*insert public figure who makes negative fat comment here* says that they’re lazy/ugly/unhealthy/gluttonous/smelly/unintelligent etc, so they must be!  Otherwise, they wouldn’t say it publicly would they?

But yes they would.  And they do, whether it’s true or not, these people who are in the public eye seem to think that it’s acceptable to speak about fat bodies as if they are the authorities, even though most of them do not have fat bodies themselves, or if they have had a fat body in the past, they’ve been the statistical anomaly to be able to change that.  They speak about fat bodies generally, without knowing a single thing about my fat body, or your fat body, other than what they can see of it.

They tweet about #womensobesity (and delete those tweets later) without actually experience being fat themselves.  They post blogs criticising anyone who speaks against their fat stigmatising statements, as “glorifying obesity” (as if our posting about fat rights actually encourages people to go out and make themselves fat because they’re so impressed with our awesomeness) without thinking of the vitriolic fat hate that is spewed at any visible fat people as a consequence.  They make “jokes” implying having a fat bum is something bad, without considering that those of us who actually do have fat bums have to suffer the humiliation of others carrying that message on in a far more vicious manner (“Hey fat ass!!  Keep walking you fat cunt!”)

People read that.  Or they hear it.  And they believe it.  They swallow it without question, and carry it around with them, ready to be regurgitated the minute they see a fat person.  So when someone is talking about fat bodies in a negative way, it DOES affect me.  It IS about me.  As it affects anyone else with a fat body, in a whole host of different ways, all of them harmful.

Often, these public figures, and their supporters, suggest that it is not their fault that other people take their words and amplify them back at other fat people.  That they can’t control what other people do when they say things online.

This is not true.  It is your fault, you public figures who make negative comments about fat.  You can control what other people do with your words.  It’s very, very easy.  You can not say negative things about fat people in the first place.   Because you know, you have been told repeatedly, that it does harm.

The problem is, you are not listening.  You are not listening when actual fat people tell you that it is harmful.  You are not listening when actual fat people tell you that your words affect them.  You are not listening when actual fat people tell you that the things you say about them are inappropriate.

When you are not listening, and you are continuing with this behaviour, the problem lies with you, not the people who you refuse to listen to, the very people whom you are speaking about – fat people.  You cannot tell a marginalised person that “you don’t support their cause” as if this somehow puts an authoritative stamp on their cause as being over, invalid, done with.  You cannot just say “I don’t interpret it that way.” when you are called on how your words affect others, when you are not the person who is affected by what is being said.  You cannot repeatedly exhibit behaviours that a marginalised group object to and respond with “Leave me/them alone.”  This is the equivalent of a schoolyard bully saying “Stop picking on me.” after their victim takes a swing back at them.  You cannot tell a marginalised person who you have just stigmatised even further that they are “being too sensitive.”

You don’t get to set the parameters for what is an acceptable way to speak about a marginalised group, unless you are part of that group yourself.  Strangely enough, the most vocal of you in complaining about not being able to set the parameters, are so loaded down with privilege that you cannot for one moment think outside your own comfort zone.  That’s what working past your privilege is, getting out of the comfort zone and working out how you can make it better for those who do not have that privilege.

You are the one who has the power to stop people from speaking up about the inappropriateness of the things you are saying about fat people.  You, and only you have that power.  If you don’t want fat people to get “all up in arms and offended” by the things you say, then don’t say negative things about fat people.

It’s that simple.

*Title comes from this fabulous tweet.

20 comments on “Freedom of Speech Does Not Mean Freedom from Criticism*

  • Yes!!! Thank you for writing this – you are conveying such a very important & powerful message. I have copped so much verbal and emotional abuse, usually from complete strangers, for being obese and being out in public. It occurs at random and when I least expect it, e.g., being yelled at out of car windows while I’m pushing my son along in a pram on a sunny day, or pulling up behind a car that sports a bumper sticker “Fat chicks – shoot ’em, don’t root ’em”. Public figures need to be MUCH more responsible with the messages the convey, because they DO harm others. From a person who experiences it, there is no denying it.

    Well done, you awesome woman.

  • Kath. Thank you so much for writing this. I don’t really have any words except to say that some of us get it. And more and more of us are starting to get it each day. An we have people like you to thank for it. Four years ago I didn’t get it. AT ALL. Now I do. And I am really really glad that I was open enough to listen and hear a different take on this stuff. It has honestly changed my life.

    Oh and you forgot Will Anderson.😛

  • Yes, this!

    When people are saying: these kind of comments hurt me, they affect my life in tangible ways… there is no excuse not to listen. And you know what costs nothing? An apology. A simple ‘oh, I didn’t realise, thank you for pointing that out to me, I will avoid causing harm next time.’ That’s all. No biggie.

    (Wil Anderson would need more than that though. He’s beyond redemption when it comes to fat hate I fear! :-))

  • Great post & so true. And when you dare to call them on it, they are as likely as not to insist that they are spewing shit for your own good, so that you will ‘take yourself in hand’ & become miraculously thin, because, of course, ANYONE can be thin if s/he just wants to & is willing to overcome laziness/gluttony & show some self-control & make a real effort. Hey, just look at all those Weight Watchers’ success stories, some of whom have been a WW ‘success’ 5 or 6 times! They did it, so can you! Because, looking at fat people offends their delicate sensibilities, so how DARE we be fat at them! Excuse me, I have to go take a walk & be fat at people.

  • I seriously feel like you were at the fight I had with my roommate on Thurs. Almost everything I tried explaining to her, and failed at, were lost because of her saying she doesn’t see how I am taking it. It is so frustrating sometimes! Amazing post!

  • I don’t know why it never occurs to people that it’s a stone rarity for anyone to lose 33% or 50% or, gods help us, 75% of their body weight and keep it all off for good. And it’s rarer still for anyone to be able to do that without harming their physical or mental health in some other way.

    That fact alone ought to be giving people pause; if not being fat any more could really increase your income, get more people to like you, be treated with more respect, etc., why is it so uncommon? Do they really think they’re like, “The world hates me, but CHEEZBURGER, nom nom nom”? I got news for them. I had to give up the damn cheeseburgers (and other fast food) for good recently because of digestive problems; if I was that “addicted” to them, I’d still be jonesing for one, plotting how I could get just one more, etc. And I’m not.

  • Thanks for this post. It’s worth reminding people that Freedom of Speech is not freedom to bag people!

    Some of my favorites:

    You’re Being Hostile
    But That Happens To Me Too!
    You’re Being Overemotional
    You’re Just Oversensitive
    You Just Enjoy Being Offended
    Don’t You Have More Important Issues To Think About
    You’re Taking Things Too Personally
    Its only the Internet!
    But If It’s Okay For Marginalised People To Use Those Words, Why Can’t I?
    But You’re Different To The Others
    But It’s True! – NEW!
    Well I Know Another Person From Your Group Who Disagrees!

    And many more found at http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

  • Thanks for this post. And all your posts. I often lurk, but do not comment (or blog). I wish my mom had lived long enough to learn of FA, and to read some of these blogs. She passed away 2 months ago. She internalized these messages about her fat body being wrong and awful. She drank too much partly because she hated herself (I am sure it was not as simple as that, I am no psychiatrist, but I know from the time I was little she would always talk badly about her body, and when she drank she would often cry about her weight). She died as a result of the drinking; even on her deathbed, she was happy to have lost some weight. She lost weight because her damn liver was failing and she was dying. I cannot express what an otherwise wonderful, kind, and giving person my mom was. She was awesome, but she could never see it because she believed she had look a certain way. So please keep up the good work, it helps people like me. Alot.

  • Thank you all so much for your comments, support and encouragement. Sometimes I feel like I’m shouting in the dark and nobody is listening, particularly when I read pieces like Leslie Cannold’s yesterday.

    This is not a matter of Fat Acceptance activists not liking Mia Freedman or their ilk. It’s a matter of people speaking up when something someone says is fundamentally wrong and unacceptable. I don’t know if any of these people will listen, but if it gets through to ONE person just a little bit, it’s worth it.

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