Dear Rebecca Sparrow,
I’ve decided to write to you tonight because I feel like you’ve been listening during our conversation on Twitter. Which makes you a rarity among the many high profile writers, journalists, bloggers and other personalities that many of us have tried to talk to about the subject of fat stigma over the years. Usually we get the “But you’re not healthy!!” door slammed in our faces when we try to talk to someone who has written about the subject of fat and health/body image publicly.
But tonight on Twitter, I think you were listening. This is a very good thing.
I have also opted to write an open letter to you, for two reasons really. Firstly it goes to anyone who is willing to listen to the perspective of an actual fat person about fat stigma, and secondly, it’s an opportunity to reach out to other fat people who may be feeling like the world is being very hard on them, but don’t necessarily have the confidence or even the right words to talk about it themselves.
So, let’s get to it. My name is Kath and we were born the same year. I live in (and dearly love) Brisbane. I am a fat diabetic (Type 2, the “bad” kind). As a fat diabetic, I am the example used when the mainstream media talks about the “Obesity Epidemic”. (Cue dramatic sound effect here.) You probably wouldn’t recognise me if you saw me, because most people are used to seeing me being represented like this:
Yup, I’m usually represented by someone in ill fitted-trackies with most or all of their head cut off. You can see more examples here.
Rarely am I seen represented like this:
And almost never like this:
When people talk about fatness, they always default to poor health, and negative connotations, like ugly, lazy, greedy, selfish, dirty, slobby and such. They don’t talk about fat people, particularly not fat people with diabetes, like they are human beings with lives, loved ones, jobs, hobbies, passions and feelings.
This is fat stigma. When the media, bloggers, public figures, and even popular culture portray fat people as nothing more than lumps of fat to be eradicated, an epidemic to be “cured”, and use the term fat to mean all of those negative descriptors, rather than just being a person with more adipose tissue on their bodies, they stigmatise the actual human beings who are fat. They demonise us as less than human, or as a cautionary tale as to what will happen to you if you’re “bad”. They place moral value on health and thinness, which stigmatises those of us who have illness or disability, and/or who have fat bodies.
The impact of that is a culture that treats fat people, and especially fat people with illness or disability, as sub-human. In the past month alone, I have been sent death threats on my blog because I talked about being a fat woman with diabetes, I have been photographed on the street or other public places by a complete strangers (at least four times that I know of), had a well dressed woman of about 45 call me a “fat cunt” as she passed me on a train platform, been spat at by a man passing me on the street and had rubbish thrown at me from a car.
These things don’t happen because there are lots of bad, horrible people in Brisbane. These things happen because every day people are told over and over and over that people like me are an “obesity epidemic” that must be “cured” for the good of the human race, and that fat is a dirty word that you should not say in front of children lest it give them an eating disorder. Because it is bred in our society that fat is the worst thing you can possibly be, so therefore it’s ok to behave horribly to fat people. Because “You’re not healthy!” has become the equivalent to “You are a worthless person!”
The thing is, health is never a guaranteed thing in life. Every human being, at some point in their life will face illness, and almost all, bar being taken by a horrible sudden accident at the prime of their lives, will be disabled at some point, if nothing else in old age. Besides, you cannot eat yourself to diabetes. The only concrete deciding factor for diabetes (and most other diseases blamed on fatness) is genetics. There is no shame in being unhealthy, because health is so subjective and personal, that what is healthy for one person, is unhealthy for the next. Not to mention that every human being, even those who are fat and/or have illness/disability, deserves respect, dignity and the peace to live their lives without stigmatisation.
This is the basic premise of the Health at Every Size movement, spearheaded by Linda Bacon PhD, which I very much encourage all people to take the time to have a look at. The concept that every human being has the right to live their life to the best of their ability, given the circumstances of their lives.
As I mentioned earlier, we are the same age. I ask you to consider what your life might be like today, if you had spent the years from the onset of puberty through to now living in a body like mine, having experiences like mine with the media and other public commentary referring to the primary descriptor of your body as the worst thing you could possibly be. What kind of person would you be if you were subjected on an almost daily basis the abuse from strangers I mentioned above? Do you think you could describe yourself as robust and happy, as I describe myself? Do you feel you could live your life positively and with strong self esteem? I am loaning you my shoes to walk a mile in (but not those boots above, I like them too much to loan to anyone!)
So what it comes to is this. Please do not have pity on me or other fat people, that’s not what we need. We don’t need people to feel sorry for us “poor fatties”. What we need is for people like yourself, who have a public profile and the unique opportunity to comment and be heard on the topic of body image, health and self esteem, to make a difference.
You have the power to make a whole lot of difference to a lot of people’s lives. When you talk to your children, and most importantly when you talk publicly, about bodies and health, you can choose to go along with the cultural majority that conflate health with morality, and use fatness as a “This is what will happen to you if you’re bad and eat too many lollies/chips/ice-cream.” and use me, and people like me, as a cautionary tale. Or you can think about the impact of your public words and what you teach your children on the lives of people who have jobs, families, lovers, hobbies, worries, dreams and most importantly feelings, and perhaps teach children that human beings come in all different shapes and sizes, that health is something that we look after as best we can within the circumstances of our lives, and that all human beings have the right to live their lives with out stigmatisation on the basis of their bodies and/or health.
I thank you kindly for taking the time to read this and to listen to the perspective of a person who actually lives in a fat body with a health issue.
Yours most sincerely
Kath aka Fat Heffalump