Be Your Own Expert

Published June 1, 2012 by Fat Heffalump

You know what really shits me?

Every time I see an “opinion” piece on “obesity”, weight discrimination and stigma, weight and health or any other subject relating to fatness, it is almost always authored by someone who is not fat.  And more alarmingly, quite often authored by someone who has no expertise or experience in the fields of fat, health or stigma/discrimination.

Many of you will remember the piece written by Phil the Marketing Dude on The Hoopla a few months ago – an article published on a mainstream online magazine giving an opinion on weight and fat stigma by someone who works in marketing.  Someone who has no connection to fat studies or health studies or medicine and isn’t even fat himself, published as though he has the right to broadcast his opinion on a subject that he has absolutely no connection to.

I saw another one this week in The Conversation – another online journal, this one touting themselves as having “Academic rigour, journalistic flair” by a lecturer in politics of all things (no, I’m not going to link it, it’s the biggest pile of steaming crap I’ve ever read – plus it’s accompanied by a hateful photograph, ) giving his opinion about discrimination against fat people.  Of course, he starts by saying that he doesn’t believe that fat people should be stigmatised, and then goes on to do just that and to encourage other people to do it as well.

Over and over again, people who have absolutely no connection to weight or health get to spew their opinions in highly public forums, without regard to how their words affect the real lives of fat people.  It seems the only thing that makes one an authority on fatness in many publications is to be not-fat, and be vocal about it.  Or sometimes they will publish someone who was “successful” in weight loss, without examining just how long that “success” has been achieved (usually less than 2 years) or how that person’s life/resources or body may be at an advantage to those of long term fat people.

Even if it’s a positive bent to fatness – many publications will publish the opinions of thin people far before they will actually talk to fat people about their experiences, their history and their realities.  Not-fat authors are also more likely to be given a sympathetic/empathetic ear over those of us who are actually fat.  More often than not, fat people who speak up about stigmatisation and discrimination are accused of being angry, aggressive or too demanding.  As though if we just were “nice enough” we’d deserve to be treated like human beings.

This is why when mainstream media approach me for my input, I jump at the chance, even though I know the piece won’t be perfectly fat-positive, and is likely to contain the opinions of aforementioned “experts”.  Because so rarely do actual fat people, who live in fat bodies and face the realities of being fat in a society that openly loathes fatness actually get to be seen or heard.   Not to mention that when we are seen, we are portrayed as sad, lonely, depressed, dirty, lazy, gluttonous, smelly etc – almost always objects of ridicule.  For someone to open a magazine and click on a link and see a fat person who is happy and confident, and who is articulating the realities that fat people experience – it is a radical discovery.  I remember that it wasn’t too many years ago that I myself was completely blown away by a photograph of Kelli Jean Drinkwater being fat, powerful and confident.  It wasn’t that long ago that I was discovering writers like Lesley Kinzel, Bri King, Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby.

I think we need to call out publications that use people who have no connection or expertise to fatness for opinion pieces on fat.  We need to contact their editors, leave comments and ask questions as to why they’re publishing pieces by people who have no qualification to speak on the subject.  We need to keep telling our own stories and sharing our own experiences.  It’s bloody hard work – as well as having to find the time to do it, one has to have the sanity points to deal with those who think they know your body, your life better than you do, and those who believe that simply by measure of your body, they have the right to treat you as less than human.

That said, I don’t believe it has to be as political or even as wordy as the method I choose, which I think a lot of people assume that fat activism must be.  Being a fat person who lives their lives to the full is a radical, radical act in a culture that so openly loathes us.  Being a visible fat person – be it through fat fashion, art, prose and poetry, hobbies and sport, or generally just getting out there and enjoying life – your job, your family, your friends, etc.  If you can be a proud fat person living your life and sharing it online or anywhere else, without ever mentioning the more political side of fat activism.  When someone who has long believed that they are worthless because they have a fat body sees a picture of a fab fatty in a cute outfit, or a proud fatty talking about the job she loves, or her family, or a fatty having fun at the pool, in a dance class, at the park with her kids… their world is opened up to a whole new possibility.  It shows a completely different paradigm to the mainstream presentation of life as a fat person.

You are the expert on your life.  WE are the experts on life as fat people.

So get out there I say.  Live your life.  Have fun.  Love those in your life who are special to you.  Dress in ways that make you feel good.  Document your life – blog about your passions/share your photos/make videos/be artistic.

But most of all, in whatever way you can, tell your story.  YOU tell it – don’t let a fat loathing society tell it for you.

36 comments on “Be Your Own Expert

  • My act of Fat activism today? Baking a birthday cake and delivering it to the restaurant owner a couple blocks away. She told me and Mr. Twistie a couple years ago that nobody ever bakes her a birthday cake, so Mr. Twistie asked what flavor she would like me to make for her. I’ve got him trained, you see. It’s now a Pavlovian response on his part to someone mentioning a birthday to offer my services as baker. This is the third time in a row I’m baking a birthday cake for this lovely and fabulous woman who feeds me the rest of the year.

    So yes, in a few hours people will see a fat, happy lady in a great hat walking down the street with a lemon ginger pound cake, which she will deliver to an awesome in betweenie lady. And then we will sit down in her restaurant and eat a slice together in front of God and everybody.

    And we will enjoy the living hell out of it.

    After all, that’s the most radical thing we could possibly do.

      • Combining the words ‘dessert’ and ‘radical’ is one of my favorite things to do.

        And I would never think of apologizing for one of my cakes. They are delicious and have excellent texture, too. Then again, I have no reason to apologize for my size, either. It fits me just fine.

        Oh, to have the opportunity to feed cake to a bunch of fabulous, radical fatties in public!

        Hmmmm… I may have to arrange just such an event.

  • You know, I wrote a freakin’ dissertation on the medical studies surrounding fat along with fat and social justice, and I’ve watched people give a thin person’s opinion on things fat more credence than my hard earned knowledge. gggggrrrrrrr!

    At the same time, I keep speaking out, I keep speaking up. And more people are listening these days. We are changing the world one reader at a time.

    You do great work, Kath. Thanks for being so fabulously visible!

  • Hi. This is actually in regards to the picture a couple years back of the lady sitting in the chair at Burger King. I HAD to let you know that what you were saying was actually spot on. The Burger King she was at was one that I have been to many times and recognized right away. It’s in the little food court at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. That’s the Army hospital in Germany. I had both of my kids at that hospital and was furious when I saw that picture. She is more likely than not a soldiers wife at the hospital for any number of reasons. All I could think of was all the times I had to sit down and my husband ordered for me. If she needed a chair it probably meant that her husband couldn’t be there to let her sit while he ordered her food. Anyway, I don’t know if this helps any since it was so long ago. But I just stumbled upon the picture again and had to tell SOMEBODY.

  • I read this post on the train on my way to a performance with my playback theatre group. On stage my fat body is a fully functional instrument to tell other peoples stories. I like to think that in itself is a kind of fat activism. Now I’m even more inspired to keep on doing that and to share more of it with the world online.

  • In my offline life I don’t tend to be able to do a whole lot of activism. I try speaking out against the snide comments that hit all to often but to keep the peace and not be known as “the oversensitive one” (which I will admit here I probably am for good reasons but I try to hide that in day to day life) and so I end up biting my tongue about things. Online though I find that it gives me opportunities to spread the message of Fat/Size acceptance without feeling like I am pushing it down peoples throats, preaching at them, or harassing them. One of the main things is by posting up well written articles, blog posts, and such on Facebook with a little comment about how they relate to me personally. Then I try to speak up against hatred that I see in other posts or comments, if it is a person I know doesn’t mean to be a jerk I try to do it nicely but then there have been times on plus size clothing FB pages where the hatred and awfulness is just horrible and I will admit I can get pretty forceful, but I just hate seeing people been torn apart for how they look in the clothing the store sells.

    Lately the activism that has kept me most occupied is my Fat/Size Acceptance Pinterest board I love adding new posts, quotes, or pictures to it that spread the FA message and I get a happy smile when I see those get re-pinned and shared by others. I work hard to make that a safe place for people to look at and read and so I have had to confront a lot of bigoted and just plain rude people leaving comments, and while sometimes it annoys me I feel glad that that is a little thing I can do since I am not good at standing up for myself and my activism offline or in regards to myself personally. Dealing with the online issues are making me more bold in my offline life, it is taking baby steps, but it is happening.

    • I know where you are coming from Scattered Marbles. It’s bloody hard standing up in “real life” with people up in your face about stuff. But just by getting out there and living your life, being you, doing the things you love – that is powerful activism too.

  • Kath; I have just retired after 22 years of teaching high school. I have prided myself on “not judging a book by its cover” when students enter my classroom. It does not matter what the cover has on it, it matters what is inside. If only the media attention to obesity could be doing the same thing. I also was very open with my students that I was married, had two wonderful accomplished daughters, traveled the world, had a previous successful career in business and had done all of this while I was a fat person.

  • I was wearing Natalie’s “Fat” necklace recently. A fat woman asked me why I was wearing it. She said “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful.” I told her I am fat, and I am beautiful. She thought for a minute, and then said, “That’s something I need to learn, that I can be fat and beautiful.” Changing the world, one fat person at a time. 🙂

    • It’s not really about agreement… it’s about the right to advocate for ourselves. Yes, allies are always welcome, but they should never speak FOR us. The role of an ally (of any kind, not just those with thin privilege) is to bear witness to the experiences of marginalised people, not try to rescue/fix/speak for them. Just as it’s not my role as a white woman to rescue/fix/speak for women of colour, it is my responsibility with my privilege to let them speak, and bear witness to their experiences.

      • But this blog post of yours isn’t about ‘bearing witness to’ a fat person’s experiences (which still sounds to me like a euphemistic way of saying ‘agreeing with you’). Your very first paragraph states:

        “Every time I see an “opinion” piece on “obesity”, weight discrimination and stigma, weight and health OR ANY OTHER SUBJECT RELATING TO FATNESS, it is almost always authored by someone who is not fat.”

        My emphasis. You weren’t talking about slim people talking about what it’s like to be fat. You were talking about slim people holding and voicing any opinion on any matter related to fat.

        On Phil the Marketing Dude, you wrote:

        “Someone who has no connection to fat studies or health studies or medicine and isn’t even fat himself, [is] published as though he has the right to broadcast his opinion on a subject that he has absolutely no connection to.”

        Of course he has that right. That’s what free speech is – a man who is not overweight can speak about the issue of weight, as can you, as can I, as can an anorexic, as can anyone. And Wendy Harmer, as editor of the Hoopla, is perfectly free to decide who gets a platform in her magazine. The same way you are perfectly free to decide who gets to speak in this publication of yours. This is what free speech and free press are. It’s the whole concept behind the Enlightenment movement. If something’s true, it’s true regardless of who is saying it, or their physical characteristics.

        Phil the Marketing Dude never pretended to be speaking for the experiences of fat people – in fact, the whole point of his article was that he hadn’t realised what a hornet’s nest the issue is and how much rides on it. Your response to his article puzzles me to this day. I thought you’d have been thrilled that you’d got someone to realise how emotive the issue is and why. Instead, you told Harmer that you didn’t care what he’d learned from your account of your experiences or what he thought, which leads me to wonder what the purpose of writing your article was in the first place.

        And the other article you refused to link to (I found it pretty easily) wasn’t about speaking for fat people’s experiences either. It was about why fat people face the issues that they do, and why the author believes that the problem is insurmountable. You may disagree. Brilliant. Say so. But if all you’ve got against him is that he’s not fat, well, it doesn’t look good on stage.

        In effect, this blog post is you telling slim people they’ve got no right to speak on ‘any subject relating to fatness” and then wondering why your message is so hard to get across.

        I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, da da da da.

        • You really don’t get it. Yes, I am telling thin people that they have no right to speak on subjects relating to fatness. That’s absolutely spot on. Just as a white person, I have no right to speak on subjects relating to being a person of colour, or as a straight, cis-gendered person I have no right to speak on subjects relating to being a LGBT person.

          It shouldn’t be a difficult concept to understand – this is not about “free speech” – this is about marginalised people being allowed to speak for THEMSELVES, not have people who have NO concept at all of what it is like to live in their realities spout their “opinion” on their bodies, their race, their gender, their sexuality.

          Phil the Marketing Dude, and the dude in The Conversation have absolutely no professional connection to health, fat bodies or other weight topics. So no, they do not have the right to have their “opinions” published on the subject, because they are not authorities on the subject.

          My message is “hard to get across” because people tell me I am not allowed to talk about my own experiences, but thin people are.

          So if you’re not fat, and you have an opinion on fatness, keep it to your damn self.

          • “So if you’re not fat, and you have an opinion on fatness, keep it to your damn self.”

            As a former fatty, can I express my opinion on fat – or does my normal BMI give me “thin privilege” and therefore invalidate my own life experiences?

            • No, you can talk about YOUR life experiences Susan, just not those of people you have privilege over. You have to realise that your experiences are not universal, and yes, you have privilege (no need for quotation marks, it is not an alleged condition, thin privilege actually exists) over those of us who are fat.

        • NOSPAM, regarding the Conversation article, the guy who wrote it has no expertise about fatness and fat stigma, and seemed to develop his hypothesis about why fat stigma exists without doing any research! It’s as ludicrous as if he had written an article about the Higgs boson (he’s not a science writer, and he’s not a physicist). Since I’m not familiar with The Conversation, I randomly clicked on a bunch of editorials to see if it’s common for them to publish articles by people who have no expertise on the topic. It doesn’t appear to be. Here’s some examples:

          Article about transit of venus written by an astrobiologist:

          Article about home birth written by a professor of midwifery:

          Article about epidemic myths written by a Global Health fellow and a Health Law and Human Rights consultant:

          So why have they also published an article about Fat Stigma that is written by a lecturer in politics? According to his CV, his research is related to economics and politics–not cultural studies, fat studies, or history. He had ONE reference in the whole article. Perhaps he doesn’t realize how much time and effort various scholars have invested in their attempts to understand fat stigma. If he did, then surely he’d be embarrassed by his attempt to explain it.

  • Hi Kath, I am new to fat acceptance, but I have been reading all of your blog posts over the past few weeks, as well as Linda Bacon’s “Health at Every Size,” and I have also been skimming some scholarly articles to try and get an idea of how fat stigma originated.

    I’ve been thinking about this specific post. It also strikes me as odd that someone with no expertise on the subject, and/or personal experience of being fat, would be able to publish an opinion on fatness. In comparison, I’ve seldom found articles about how to treat stuttering or interact with a stutterer that weren’t written by a stutterer (or someone close to a stutterer), or someone who studies speech. (I know the comparison is awkward, especially since stuttering is an actual pathology, but it was the first thing I thought of because I’m a stutterer.) I think the difference is, the general public doesn’t care about stuttering, and don’t feel like they have any connection with it. In contrast I think many thin people imagine that they (a) work tirelessly to avoid becoming fat, or (b) will be fat in the future (“I eat whatever I want and never exercise…I’m thin now, but I know it will catch up with me!”) In other words, these thin commentators might imagine that everyone is a potential fat person, and thus publicly commenting on fatness is fair game.

    Maybe we could clarify with these writers (and their publishers) that when they write on the topic of fatness without having any expertise or personal connection, they are embarrassing themselves. For example, I read the post that you referred to on the Conversation website, and it reads as if the writer (a) was on a diet and feeling virtuous and (b) read something (his sole reference!) about “the ideal of the sociable citizen,” and had a “Eureka…this is why fat stigma exists!” moment. Since there are actual scholars who spend a lot of time studying fatness and the history of fat stigma, he should realize that his attempt to write on the topic makes him look silly. It’s as embarrassing as if he had written an opinion piece about the Higgs boson’s place in the Standard Model.

    • Welcome A Elizabeth! And I admire you for seeking out that article – one should be spared such a steaming pile of crap like that!

      You know, these people don’t think they’re embarrassing. They genuinely think that they have more authority on the subject than a fat person. And the publishers can’t even see that it’s ridiculous to have someone who has absolutely no connection or actual authority on fatness, health or anything remotely related published with an “opinion” on this stuff. No matter how many times we call them out for how stupid this whole thing is, they label us “angry fatties” or dismiss us as “too emotional”.

      I think that the best we can do is keep telling our stories in any space we can get. If we can’t get it in the mainstream, we need to do it wherever we can.

      • Well, I just left a lengthy comment on that Conversation article. I’m guessing you don’t want a link to my comment posted here, so I’ll summarize:

        I basically wrote that it would be nice to read something about fat stigma that was written by an actual expert in the field. I also briefly described the development of the dieting culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how it ties with racism, immigration, and the eugenics movement. I then briefly introduced the physiology of fat storage and appetite (setpoints, thermogenesis), and attempted to show that thin people who don’t obsess about what they eat and feel perpetually hungry possess no more “dieting virtue”/”body-control virtue” than a fat person who has decided not to suffer. I then suggested that once the public disassociates “dieting virtue” from thinness, most people will decide that “dieting-virtue” isn’t really very virtuous at all, and does much more harm than good. I closed by saying that if anyone wanted to read something on fatness that was written by an actual expert, they should try Amy Farrell’s introduction to fat studies that is on her university’s website (“Fat Studies”, as well as Linda Bacon’s “Health at Every Size” for a discussion of the physiology of fat storage and appetite.

        Given the age of that editoral, probably no one will read my comment or care, but I felt compelled to throw that info out there!

        • Oh…and also, I wrote that once the association between “dieting virtue” and thinness crumbles, I think fat stigma will erode, ALONG with the idea that dieting or controlling one’s weight is virtuous.

          • …AND I clarified that I was NOT an expert in the field (right before I referred people to the experts).

        • Excellent ninja commenting A Elizabeth! I just gave up on it really, I didn’t have the sanity points to spare. Well done for taking up the pen (well, keyboard.)

          BTW: I just read Amy Farrell’s book – how brilliant is it? Gave me so much to chew on and think about.

  • Ok I had to sink NoSpam with the blog equivalent of cement shoes – they left a comment longer than this post that was all “Blah blah censorship, blah blah UR DOIN AKTIVSM RONG, blah blah freedom of speech, blah blah not a hater, blah blah you ruin it for everyone Kath coz U R DUM… then I got bored and stopped reading. It seems they’re happy to sock puppet under a bunch of different names, so that’s the plug pulled on that particular little troll.

    Besides, it’s nothing we haven’t all heard before, and I’ll spare you that my lovely fat lionesses (and fat lions, if you’re out there!)

    Look, it’s not a hard concept. If you don’t experience something yourself, or you have no formal expertise in it (say, an academic career or professional experience – IN FAT STUDIES or the arena of WEIGHT/HEALTH – not a marketing exec or a political lecturer), then you don’t get to speak for fat people. You don’t get to say what their experiences and realities are. You don’t get to tell them how to live their lives. You don’t get to decide whether they should be treated with a modicum of human respect and dignity. You don’t get to label fat people as anything, because you have no authority on them or their lives. Nada, zip, niente, none.

    And let me just say, a fat person has right of way over a thin academic or professional when talking about the marginalisation of fat people. Yes, we do. Because we live it, 24 x 7. Thin academic/professional people only study it.

    That’s not censorship, nor is it a violation of “freedom of speech”. Nobody has ultimate “freedom of speech” – despite many thinking they do and bellowing about it the minute they are given the clear message that they don’t get to speak on behalf of others. We (in Australia, the UK and US – I can’t speak for the rest of the world) legally have freedom of speech over government and corporations. But when it comes to any other speech – sorry, but freedom of speech is not some kind of law or moral code. Marginalised people have every right to say “You don’t get to speak on this topic.” Only people flaunting their privilege spout rubbish about censorship and “freedom of speech”.

    Really, if you don’t like it, tough. Stop reading my blog. Nobody is forcing you to. This is not your space. Continue on with your ignorance somewhere else.

    But if you want to a) understand how to treat other human beings with their basic civil right to dignity and respect and b) want to know how YOU as a fat person actually HAVE that right, then this is the place for you.

    Now, we’ve all wasted enough time trying to make ignorant people who have absolutely no intention of allowing fat people to live their lives unimpeded understand. Let’s not waste any more on them.

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