The Right of Self Advocacy

Published July 13, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I’m going to talk about another recurring theme of the kind of comments we see on (and in) articles about fatness (whether they be in the mainstream media as “obesity” articles or  here in the fatosphere ), and that is the theme that fat people should not, or cannot advocate for themselves.  That somehow, by measure of our fatness, we render ourselves incapable of making decisions as an adult about our own lives.

There is a common sentiment that fat people need intervention in their lives.  Be it from those in the medical profession, our families and friends, or complete strangers, either on the internet or in public.  Entire conferences are held by medical professionals into “obesity interventions and prevention”, without any input from actual fat people.  Doctors prescribe restrictive diets, food substitutes, weight loss therapy and at the most extreme, surgical gastric mutilation, without any further investigation than measuring a patients BMI, which in itself is a flawed system of measurement.  Our friends, families and even colleagues feel it is acceptable to “let us know” that we are fat and that we should “do something about it”.  And strangers, be they on the street or online, feel free to advise us, without invitation, without knowing anything about us, and often despite our protests, on what we should be doing with our bodies and our lives.

This of course is presented to fat people as “concern for your health“, but what it really is, at it’s core, is the infantilisation of fat people and stripping of the basic adult right to make ones own decisions.

It reduces fat people to a child-like state of requiring management to function in the basics like eating and physical activity.  It says “You’re not capable of taking care of yourself, so we need to step in and do it for you.”  Usually, it is done without any consultation at all with the fat person in question, and even if the fat person does attempt to explain that they do not require management or intervention, they are often dismissed as being overly emotional or in denial.  No matter what argument a fat person presents to advocate for themselves, the response is dismissive and patronising.

The other main outcome of this kind of behaviour is the othering of fat people.  It reduces fat people to sub-normal beings, as less-than-human others, as though they are animals that require husbandry, a kind of domestic management.  It strips fat people of the fundamental human right to advocate for themselves and make their own life decisions.  This is the kind of personal reduction that we have seen with other marginalised people throughout history and in our current time.  It is the act of reducing fat people (and other marginalised people) as somehow less than the normative.

One of the first things I think we need to be focusing on as a movement is the basic right to advocate for ourselves as adults.  It’s not easy, I know all too well.  Even now I still have trouble standing up for myself, particularly to medical professionals and saying “This is not what I want.” or “That is not my experience.” or even “You are not listening to me.”  Even now, as I get more and more bolshy about my fat activism, I still find myself daunted in the face of the kind of dismissive responses we often get.  Mostly it is born of frustration for me, that even at almost 38 years of age, I am unable to be heard as the capable adult that I am while people only focus on my fatness, rather than the facts, my experiences and my own wishes.

That’s it really.  The problem does not lie with our communication of these things, but with other people hearing them.

But that said, I know I have to keep doing it.  I have to keep pushing, keep challenging, keep demanding.  Because, like any other human being, we have the right to advocate for ourselves as adults.

No matter what size our bodies are, no matter what status our health is.


22 comments on “The Right of Self Advocacy

  • “The problem does not lie with our communication of these things, but with other people hearing them.”

    That’s the trouble, isn’t it? In therapy we talk about how we can’t control others’ actions or beliefs, all we can control is our own set of beliefs and choices. But so much of the trouble we run into as fat people is because of others’ behaviors and judgment. And no matter how long or well we talk, or the citations we throw at them, we ultimately can’t control how they react, or even if they hear us well enough to react to what we’re truly saying, not what they just imagine we’re saying.

    I have no answer to this. I just wanted to say, yeah, you nailed it!

    • Thanks O.C.

      Time and time again I come back to the same point with people who argue about obesity-panic. “You’re not listening.”

      Until they actually do listen, and HEAR what we are saying, then we need to disregard them and push our way on anyway with those who do.

  • That’s a very good post, especially when you point out that trying to ‘manage’ people for their own good is part and parcel of oppression. It also tends to backfire in spectacular ways – look at the horrors that were created when people (who believed they were well meaning) attempted to ‘manage’ Aboriginal people. You’ve got some very insightful ideas here that deserve developing.

    • Thank you. It’s been that way time and time again with marginalised people throughout history. And in the long term… it never does any good. The quickest way to help people is to empower them.

  • Thanks for this. This is so true, and it touches on something that has been bothering me lately. The whole “They have good intentions” gambit.

    I am miles beyond putting up with people’s good intentions. If a loved one does not respond to your side of the story, or polite declines of offers for help, then they are no longer acting out of good intentions. They simply do not respect your boundaries.

    And there is no reason at all whatsoever for people to insult and demean others and still claim good intentions. Apparently the insults themselves are not enough. They must insult our intelligence too by claiming that telling us how embarrassing and unattractive we are is somehow done out of caring.

    • I feel quite the same way joanna. Whether someone’s intentions are good does not negate the damage they are doing with their behaviour. If someone says “Don’t do that, it harms me/us because…” the response is not “That wasn’t my intention.” The response is “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.”

  • Yes! Which is exactly why I joined Marilyn Wann for our Flesh Mob of the Obesity Prevention and treatment conference back on INDD. The bastards! The lady who said “Shame on you!” to us/me and my semi-nonsensical response…proudest of moments for me! And they were actually frightened by the sudden appearance of a group of fatties. Funny that…they have no problem what so ever dissecting and ridiculing us, but we have no say. More radical acts of defiance must happen and more outspoken fats must be heard before anyone will notice I’m afraid. ❤

    • That was a radical act, the INDD flesh mob. An incredibly radical act. Because those people were talking about your bodies, your lives, your experiences, yet they actively shut you out. How can that ever be the right thing to do?

      You did good!

  • Great point. I’ve noticed that on online debates these days, if anyone dares speak up on behalf of fat people – arguing that they’re not all lazy and greedy, that diets and surgery are ineffective and dangerous, that fat isn’t unhealthy, and that showing some empathy might be nice – always, always, someone will pipe up in response with ‘Excuses, excuses, you’re just saying that because you’re a fatty’. If it turns out to be a thin person (and it quite often is), the troll is bewildered and slinks away. Because of course, thin people aren’t supposed stick up for Teh Enemy. But if it does turn out to be a fat person, the troll will wade in there. Because of course, anything a fatty says is automatically invalid.

    O.C. and Joanna, you say some very wise things, and right there is why I’m sceptical of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is being pushed for a lot of mental health issues here in the UK these days for cost reasons.. Great if there is actually an issue with your own thinking. Lousy, though, if the issue is other people in your life who simply will not treat you appropriately no matter how you try to view the situation. Been there, done that, and in the absence of other people changing, you making yourself absent, i.e. getting the hell away from those people, is the only real solution. The difference is that when it’s a whole society wanting fat people to ‘absent’ themselves one way or another (and I’m not convinced some people really care how), it’s time to fight back.

    • Absolutely Emerald – it happens all the time. Fat people are “uppity” and “in denial” or “lazy” or “making excuses” when they try to advocate for themselves. But should a thin person speak up on their behalf, then suddenly the voice of opposition goes strangely quiet.

      Just an aside note – as someone who has benefited greatly from CBT, I can say it’s not always about there being an issue with your own thinking, but tools and skills to cope with other people’s bad behaviour and attitudes. My therapist and I work a lot on not owning other people’s shit basically. I guess it depends on the approach of the therapist.

  • Sadly, I suspect most of the people who need to hear this think “If you were capable of taking care of yourself, you wouldn’t be fat!” is an effective refutation.

    • Those who are anti-fat yes will think that yes. But I’m not here for them.

      But the people who mostly need to hear this are the people who have been forced into lives of misery because society hates their fat body. Those are the people I talk to. Those are the ones I devote my energy and time to, because they deserve better. And they deserve to know that they are allowed to walk with their heads held high no matter what all the haters say.

  • I agree with your post but would also say that for fat people to be treated like the adults they are they need to ensure they act like adults around the issues of health and weight. Going into a doctor’s and refusing to be weighed is in essence saying that there is something wrong with my weight and I am not going to have a discussion about it. It is better to be open and frank about how fat we are and engage with discussions about health research and issues.

    I know it can be hard, especially if you feel you aren’t being heard. Just my opinion.

    • Eclectica, it’s my body and no doctor should force me (or anyone else) to do anything with it that I do not wish to. One does not “surrender” one’s body over to others when they are fat. By saying that people who choose not to be weighed at the doctors do not “act like adults” you are doing EXACTLY what this blog post is highlighting – you’re suggesting we are not able to make an informed choice for ourselves in how we are treated by health professionals.

      And I find that highly offensive.

      There is nothing wrong with my weight, but I choose not to be weighed unless there is a legitimate reason because I do not want to be treated on the basis of my weight, but on the basis of my SYMPTOMS and I am open and frank about that with my doctor – who supports my decision wholeheartedly (I am lucky to have a doctor that does, they are rare). Other people choose not to be weighed because they find it triggering for emotions and behaviours that damage their health further than working around the issue would. Others might choose not to because of previous treatment from doctors who have discriminated against them for their weight. Or a myriad of other reasons.

      Again, it is their body, their choice, not anyone else’s and that does not make them “childish”.

      How fat someone is has no bearing on their weight unless it’s a very specific issue. There are very few of those issues, despite the mainstream views that EVERYTHING about health is connected to weight – it is not.

      Nobody HAS to have a discussion or examination about anything about their bodies with their doctor or anyone else… because it is THEIR body.

      I will warn you, you are very much on the borderline of violating my comments policy and I will remove you if you cross that line.

  • Sorry but the point I was trying to make is that for me the major part of fat acceptance was being able to see my weight objectively. It’s not a number to be ashamed of or frightened of. I used to live my life scared of finding out whether the scales would inform me that I was a good person because I was x or a bad person because I was y. Took me ages to work out that whatever the scales say it doesn’t mean anything about who I am as a person.
    As a fat woman who has gone through pregnancy I got used to asking, or being told, what effect my weight could have – sometimes for valid reasons, others on the basis of inconclusive research.
    I don’t mean to offend but I have worked hard to become accepting of my fat and I suppose I have developed rules about what that means for me: i won’t ignore my weight or not weigh myself, I won’t be ashamed to look at my image or reflection and I will engage in discussions about it with medical professionals or anyone else. That tends to freak people out when the fat person actually talks about being fat! If I can’t do those things then maybe I shouldn’t be fat (because I think for me it is a choice).

    • That’s your choice, but nobody else should feel shamed for not having the same choice as you. As I’ve said to you before, nobody’s experience is universal. Just because that works for you, doesn’t mean that it works for others.

      Just because someone chooses not to disclose their weight, does not mean they are ashamed or frightened of that measure. It may mean it is irrelevant to them, or none of anyone else’s business, or a myriad of other reasons. In my case, I know what I weigh (within a few kilos) and I’m quite comfortable with it, but unless dosage is dependent on my weight, then I choose not to be weighed. Because my weight has nothing to do with my health.

      We ALL work hard to become accepting of our fatness, but we all do it in our own personal way, and don’t need to be told to “act like adults” because we do not choose the same path as you or anyone else.

      Again, I cannot reiterate enough – your experience is not universal, and part of fat acceptance is knowing that it is never ok to use shaming language (and suggesting people should “act like adults” is shaming language) about choices and experiences that are different than yours.

    • Numbers on the scale can be triggering of past EDs for many fats.

      I also choose not to be weighed at the doctor on occasion as well Sometimes you just don’t want to hear a diatribe against your body when you just want to get a wart frozen off or something and go home.

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