ableism

All posts in the ableism category

Fat Stigma, Healthism and Eating Disorders

Published May 23, 2013 by Fat Heffalump

A little housekeeping first – the zine is still trucking along nicely, thank you to those of you who have already submitted contributions, (I’ll be in touch soon if I haven’t already) and to those of you thinking of submitting something, please do!  I particularly need artwork, even just small pieces to fill in around articles and break up the text.

Trigger warning on what follows: discussion of eating disorders, prejudice against fat eating disorder sufferers and rampant healthism.

Photo by Isaac Brown for Stocky Bodies.

Photo by Isaac Brown for Stocky Bodies.

Now, on to the actual topic of this post!  As you know, on Tuesday night I was proud to present at the UQ Women’s Collective Diversity Week event.  One of my fellow speakers was a representative from the Eating Disorders Association Inc (EDA) and she spoke on what eating disorders are, who is most likely to be affected by them, and what methods of treatments there are.  We had some robust discussion during the Q&A portion of the event in response to audience questions.  I only wish we could have answered more audience questions, but alas, we ran out of time.

Since then, I have had a LOT of thoughts swirling around my head around eating disorders and how they relate to fat people.  As you would have seen in my last post, I have been an eating disorder sufferer for most of my life, however I was in my 30’s before I was finally officially diagnosed with EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), which technically means an eating disorder that for some reason does not fit under Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder (which has only this week been classified officially as an eating disorder).  In personal terms, for me it means that I have an eating disorder… but I’m fat, so I am excluded from being diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia, despite meeting almost all of the other criteria.  Yes, just being fat disqualifies you from having anorexia or bulimia regardless of your meeting all or most of the other criteria.

So it’s probably no surprise to any of you that I have issues with how the health care industry, most eating disorder support organisations and the general community of eating disorder sufferers treat fat people.  Particularly as it is mostly assumed that fat = binge eating disorder, which is nothing short of bullshit.  Can I put that in any plainer terms for anyone?  BULLSHIT.  Fat people are assumed to just be overeaters or binge eaters by way of being fat.  It is often believed that it is impossible for a fat person to have a restrictive or purging eating disorder, or to be involved in disordered exercise behaviours.  Even as much research (and anecdotal evidence/lived experience) there is out there showing how many fat people have engaged in these forms of disordered eating/activity, the medical profession and most eating disorder organisations still do not recognise it in fat people, and instead suggest that “denial” is one of our symptoms of what must be binge eating disorder.

What regularly happens to fat people who present with all of the markers of restrictive/purging/exercise mania is that we are told to “keep up the good work” instead of having our illnesses recognised.  Behaviours which are widely recognised as destructive, disordered behaviour in thin people, are considered a “positive lifestyle change” in fat people and actively encouraged.  It certainly was for many, many years through my suffering.

And it seems that hasn’t changed much.

So fat people are being failed by most eating disorder support organisations, the medical/health care industry and the general eating disorder community still.

The first question to the panel on Tuesday night was asking how we respond to the “But what about your health?!” demands.  As the fattest person in the room, it meant a lot to me to make it clear that my health, and in fact anyone’s individual health, is nobody’s business but their own.  That it’s not a subject up for discussion unless the person themselves wish it to be so.  You know, the “If it’s not your body, it’s not your business.” mantra.

The representative from EDA then added that she saw the situation differently, and while she started positively with stating that the same health messages should be given to all people, regardless of their body shape or size (which I agree with), it soon devolved into a lot of deeply healthist and fat stigmatising rhetoric about bell curves of mortality rates in body sizes, BMI, “obesity epidemic” and “weight risk factors”.  I was at pains to point out that as someone at one end of that “bell curve”, most of this rhetoric is deeply problematic as it has a risk of demonising and othering those of us who fall at either end of that bell curve.  It also implies that we require intervention into our health, and ignores the fact that “risk” in no way equals “certainty”.  It perpetuates an assumption that people at the ends of the bell curve are by default defective, rather than just the natural extremes of a diverse spectrum of body types.  It also perpetuates the assumption that very fat people or very thin people by default are inevitably going to suffer health issues and/or shorter lifespans that they are only statistically “at risk” for.  This is not an accurate assumption nor is it a helpful one.

I was grateful that it was also raised by someone in the audience (kudos to Amy if you’re reading this) that BMI is both an inaccurate and ineffectual measure of anything (other than ratio of weight to height) and that it is deeply triggering to not just fat people but also to eating disorder sufferers in general (which was many of the audience – since it was an eating disorders event).  BMI is often the stick that people with poor self esteem and body image, and eating disorders beat themselves over the head with.

Unfortunately, I have found healthist rhetoric like this is alarmingly common from eating disorder support organisations, and while they may be well intentioned, are causing the exclusion of many people based on body shape and size, as well as level of health.  The reality is, many eating disorder sufferers have other health issues or may be people with disabilities as well as those caused by or part of their eating disorders, and these already vulnerable people are often made to feel that they do not deserve compassionate treatment and support because they’re hearing the message that health is the most important factor in treatment and support.

We need to keep repeating the message that not only is health completely and utterly arbitrary, but it is not a moral obligation either.  Moralising health is a deeply ableist attitude.  We need to keep fighting for our personal agency in health care as well.  Yes, occasionally there are people who are genuinely unable to advocate for themselves, these are in the vast minority and most importantly, that cannot be determined by either their weight or their actual physical health.  I believe the ONLY way to assess the inability to self advocate is through thorough and compassionate psychological assessment.

As long as we as a culture continue to define wellbeing and human worth by weight and/or arbitrary health measures, we are engaging in both ableism and fat stigma, neither of which actually help people build better wellbeing.  And it’s not just fat people/people with disabilities who are affected by this.   The fear of fat and stigmatising, ableist messages about health trigger damaging behaviours in people of all sizes and levels of physical health/ability.  As long as people are afraid of being fat or place moral obligation on health, they will be engaging in damaging and indeed unhealthy behaviours to avoid being fat or unhealthy.  It is a vicious cycle of direct cause and effect that we have to break for any progress to be made, and that needs to start with the very organisations who are in place to help break disordered behaviours.

What we need an entire cultural change around health and weight and I believe that eating disorder support organisations and groups need to be at the front of this cultural change, not being dragged along by those of us on the margins.  They have a responsibility to make effort to include and support those of us who are most vulnerable to stigma and bigotry, not marginalise us further.

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Falsely Filling in the Story

Published January 19, 2013 by Fat Heffalump

Firstly I want to share the amazing work of Rachele aka The Nearsighted Owl with you.  Rachele has been doing a series of “shame loss” artworks, which I think are absolutely brilliant.  You can check them out on her blog, or you can find them on her Tumblr.  I want you to go and look at them on her sites, so I’m only going to share the one with you all now, because I want to talk about it.  It is this take on the crappy Special K ad:

Image courtesy of Rachele of The Nearsighted Owl

Image courtesy of Rachele of The Nearsighted Owl

Isn’t it fabulous?  I am loving that Rachele is creating lots of intersectional images of fat folk – people of colour, people with disibility, across gender and of varying shapes and sizes.  Some of them are naked, some are clothed, the variety so far has been great and I look forward to the others she comes up with – I really do hope she comes up with more!

The reason I’m singling out this piece is because of the horrific healthism and ableism that has come out of people responding to the artwork.  Most predominantly, that this fat woman “did it to herself” because she must have diabetes and has had a leg amputated because of it.  I know, can you believe just how fucked in the head the thinking is around the image of a fat woman with a prosthetic leg that they’ve invented a whole fucking scenario for her… from a drawing!

Let’s ignore the logic of the whole thing that she’s clearly a young woman and people who suffer amputation due to diabetes are almost always elderly and it takes many years of suffering from vascular issues before things get as drastic as amputation.  Not to mention that it’s a drawing, not a fucking photograph of an actual person.  Logic clearly doesn’t come into play with these people.

Let’s focus on the bullshit attitude that somehow because she is a fat woman she “did it to herself”.

Let’s imagine that the image is exactly the same, only she is thin. What scenario do you think these people would dream up for her prosthetic leg then?

Car accident?  Well let’s ask if the car accident was her fault?  Did she “do it to herself” then?

How about through some kind of extreme sport/thrill accident?  An accident base- jumping?  Mountain climbing?  Snowboarding?  Surfing in shark infested waters?  Would that come under “did it to herself”?

How about some of the cancers that are caused by lifestyle?  Did she sunbathe?  Smoke cigarettes?  Live somewhere near radioactive material?  Does that come under “did it to herself”?

I could go on.  But what I’m really getting at is that if this was a picture of a thin woman with a prosthetic leg, there would be no question of “she did it to herself” and the image would not be met with the disgust and dreamed-up diabetes amputation scenario that came with it as it is above.  There still would have no doubt been ableism, but the “fat chick did it to herself” people would have asked how a thin woman came to have a prosthetic leg, or assumed it was congenital, or some “tragic” circumstance

Only fat people get accused of “doing it to themselves” when it comes to disability or illness.  Fat people are never allowed to have tragic circumstances, accidents, congenital illnesses or any other reason for their disabilities, no, it’s assumed that we must be unhealthy and have “done it to ourselves”.  Even with NO information other than the person in the picture is fat and has a prosthetic leg, fat haters invent their own story for the person laying the “blame” on them.  As Amanda at Fat Body Politics says on her post Speaking Hypothetically:

Attacking a drawing, that doesn’t depict a real person, gives people who are blinded by their own prejudice an ability to try and remove their own responsibility that is connected to the harm their words cause. The issue really isn’t that they are reading a drawing of a person that was meant to be positive, but that they are trying to negate the reality that their words have been said about real people, with real bodies that live in reality. Their lives and body should never be used as a hypothetical situation.

But what REALLY pisses me is that regardless of body shape or size, what if it was a picture of someone who had an amputation because of diabetes? (Since thin people get diabetes too – ie, my paternal uncles)  It is disgustingly healthist and ableist to suggest that they “deserve” to be treated poorly.  Every single human being, regardless of level of health, physical ability, size or general quality of life, deserves to live their lives in peace and dignity, without being vilified and bullied because of their bodies.

I don’t care if someone is the fattest person on the planet and they cut their own leg off for kicks, they still deserve to live their lives in peace and dignity, and to see themselves represented and accommodated in society – fat, with a disability and any other identifying features – as valid human beings.

No More Hoops

Published January 6, 2013 by Fat Heffalump

Over the past few days there have been loads of pieces from awesome fat activists on fat and health, mostly in response to a couple of studies that reports that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive and that fat is not an instant death sentence.  It has been really heartening to see so many responses from fat activists that highlight how important access to health care is for fat people and the prejudice that fat people face both in the health care industry and because of the myth that fat automatically equals unhealthy.

However, I think we need to stop and reassess what we are doing here.  Yes, conflating weight with health has been a very pervasive myth that many people have used to justify fat hatred and addressing that is important.  But I don’t think that it is going to help fat people in the long run as much as we need it to.  Because no matter how many myths and stereotypes you bust, those who hate fat people are ALWAYS going to find a way to justify their disgusting attitudes.  Be it health, fitness, appearance, the cost of mittens in America… there will always be something used to justify fat hatred.

We need to let go of constantly trying to meet the bar set by fat haters.  If they say it’s because poor health, we spend our time proving that fat does not equal poor health.  If they say it is because we’re lazy, we spend all our time proving that we are not.  If they say it is because we are gluttonous, we spend our time policing and justifying our own choices for eating.  The list goes on and on.  No matter what myth or stereotype we respond to, there will always be another.

It is time we stopped looking to ourselves to be the ones to change to fight fat hatred.  It is time we started demanding that those who hate fat people are named and shamed for what they are – ignorant bigots who sincerely believe that some people are sub-human and do not deserve to live their lives in peace and dignity.  We, as fat people who are the victims of fat hatred have absolutely no obligation at all to modify our lives or our behaviours to suit those who hate us and to justify our existence.

You know who else believed that some people were not human?  Heard of untermensch?  How is it any different that some people believe that fat people are sub-human or inferior because of how they look and their bodies than it was believed that some people were sub-human/inferior because of their skin, hair or eye colour?  Is not the belief that thin people are superior evidence of the belief of a “master race”?  No decent, ethical human being would ever hold this belief.  Honestly, what kind of person would sincerely believe that they or others are somehow superior to other human beings?

That’s what bigotry is, the belief that there is some kind of hierarchy of human value based on those with power and privilege being higher up than those without.  It’s bullshit and we really need to stop buying into it – both externally AND internally.

Not to mention that every time we engage in the health argument, we are not only setting ourselves up to have to meet some kind of arbitrary requirement of health (which we owe NOBODY) but it’s also incredibly ableist.  What about fat people with disabilities or chronic illness?  What about anyone with disabilities or chronic illness?  How about someone in a coma or other incapacitated state?  Do they not get treated with respect and dignity simply because they’re “not healthy”?  How about those thin people when they inevitably get sick or injured?  Do they forfeit their right to dignity and respect at that moment?

Even if we buy into the whole thing that fat people “choose” to be fat (yeah right, like anyone would choose a life full of discrimination and hatred), that still does not justify the mentality that we are sub-human or somehow inferior to thin people.  Lots of people choose to do things that lower their life expectancy – for fuck’s sake merely driving a car statistically drops YEARS off your life, let alone all of the wild and extreme things human beings do to their bodies.  Just because someone smokes or skateboards or jumps out of perfectly good planes doesn’t mark them as lesser human beings, so why should it apply that way to fatness?  Because again, it’s not at all about health.  It’s not at all about life expectancy.  Fat hatred is simply about a fairly young (only about a hundred years) cultural stigmatisation of people based solely on their appearance, because someone, somewhere decided that money could be made by frightening people into trying to control their appearance.  All because someone saw money (and power, let’s not forget the intersectionality of the control of women in fat hatred) in getting people to buy products, diets, gadgets, pills and schemes to change their bodies, we now have a culture that marks fat people as sub-human.

No, this is about creating hoops for fat people to jump through so that we are not allowed to EVER live our lives with the freedom and dignity that is our right as is every human’s right.  And we must stop engaging with it.  We must stop believing that we have an obligation to prove our health, to prove our lives meet some kind of arbitrary standard placed on us to prevent us being marked as inferior.  Instead of arguing that fat people are not unhealthy/lazy/gluttonous/etc, we need to be repeating over and over and over that to label any human being as inferior based on their health, their appearance, their size, their choices in food or physical activity or any other arbitrary measure that is nobody’s business but their own is bigotry.  We need to be naming and shaming people who honestly believe that they have the right to label us as sub-human/inferior.  We need to be reclaiming our right to live our lives in our own bodies without interference or intervention from anyone.

But most of all we need to believe that of ourselves.  We need to be able to walk through this world that is rife with prejudice against us with our heads held high in the knowledge that we are not sub-human, we are not inferior, that we are as valuable and worthy as any other human being on the planet.

YOU are as valuable and worthy as any other human being on this planet.  Your life is yours.  Live it for you, not to prove that you’re not a stereotype.

It’s Over. No More Flogging the Dead Horse.

Published January 10, 2012 by Fat Heffalump

Well my lovelies, I’ve been hit by a whole plethora of trolls from some sad bodybuilding forum that feel to build themselves up, they have to tear other people down.  If any slip through overnight, my deepest apologies and I’ll clean them up as soon as possible.  They’re a pretty sad bunch, who seem to think they can hurt me or silence me somehow, but all they do is create an irritation factor (kind of like a rash) and give me fodder for Trollapalooza.  Many of them prove my point beautifully.

Anyway, that’s not why I’m here tonight.  I’m here tonight to let you know that there’s something you no longer have to do.  You don’t have to prove anything about your body or your health to anyone.  I want you to give yourself permission to completely stop justifying your body, your health, your fatness, your weight… anything to do with your body or health to ANYONE at all.

We do live in a culture that seems to encourage people to demand others justify their bodies, what they eat, how much (or how little) activity they do, their health, their weight – pretty much everything about their bodies.  Particularly women – so often our bodies are objectified and seen as public property, which people feel is acceptable to question and even physically handle without invitation.  Ask any woman who has been visibly pregnant how many people touch her belly, or ask personal questions about her health and the birth of her baby.

When you’re a highly visible fat woman, as we fat activists are, people are constantly demanding you justify your bodies and health.  They want you to PROVE you’re just as worthy as any other human being by divulging your eating and activity.  They demand proof that you’re not costing the taxpayer money/driving up health care costs.  They ask personal questions about your menstrual cycle, your skin, your strength, your joints, your heart, your blood pressure or blood sugar levels.  They demand you prove that you’re not in pain, that you can walk, that you can do the things you mention you do.  I get people demanding proof that I ride my bicycle, because you know, fat people can’t ride bicycles.

How the fuck is any of that anyone’s business but the person who owns the body in question?  I mean really!

Besides, how much ableism is tied up in all of that as well?  As if anyone is under any obligation to be illness free or fully able-bodied.

We spend so much time justifying our place on this earth by proving that fat people can be active, can be healthy, are contributing members of society and such.  I see blog post after blog post, tweet after tweet, facebook status after facebook status, you name it, pushing back against this constant demand of “Explain yourself, fatty!”

I’m afraid I’m not playing that game any more.  It’s not our job to educate people about fatness.  It’s not our job to justify our existence.  It’s not our job to prove that we are worthy of the basic, fundamental human right of dignity and respect, and the right to live our lives in peace without discrimination and stigmatisation.

We do not owe that to anyone.

We have more important shit to deal with in our lives.  What’s important in your life?  Is it proving that you’re a worthy, valuable member of society?  Or is it your family, your friends, your career, your hobbies, your passions, your pets, your time?

No more will I be answering to that call to “Explain yourself, fatty!”  It’s pretty much flogging a dead horse anyway – no matter what we tell these people who demand we explain ourselves, they’re not going to listen.  Not to mention that they only accuse us of hostility anyway – as though it’s ok for them to demand we justify our health and our bodies, but are offended when we tell them to mind their own damn business.

Instead I am here for YOU, my peers, my fellow fatties.  I am here to show you that you ARE valuable, you ARE worthy members of society.  I am here to show you that you CAN be happy, confident and fulfilled, without losing an ounce.

I am here to live my life visibly, so that there is a representation of an unapologetic fat woman somewhere in the world (there are in fact, lots of us!), and encourage you to live your lives.  Anyone who wants to hold you or I back from that can kiss my fat arse.

Cut the Snarky Fashion Judgement Crap

Published December 11, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

Sigh… I am working on a rather epic piece about awesome women with tattoos and candy hair, which I was going to post for you today, but something else has caught my attention and really got my dander up, so I need to talk about that first.

This article went around my tweet stream this morning when I first woke up.  It’s title is “Leggings Are Not Pants and Other Values for Your Kids” – and that’s like waving a red flag at a bull to me.

Ok, yep, there are some great values in the piece to pass on to your kids, on the issues of same sex marriage (even if it is called “gay marriage” in this piece, which is problematic in itself), refugees, drink driving, environmental issues and sun smarts.  Sure, those are fantastic things to teach your kids.  But claiming you’re a feminist and sitting your 5 year old down for “the talk” about how leggings are not pants?

For fuck’s sake, are we still doing this?

Look, I know, I should have learned by now not to expect better from Mia Freedman, but I keep hoping that she’s listening, that people around her are helping her open her mind.  I know it’s supposed to be a joke, ha ha, leggings are not pants is as important as the other issues, how funny.

Only it’s not funny.  It’s body policing.  It’s classist, ableist, judgemental bullshit wrapped up in a fluff piece for a highly visible online women’s magazine.

I’ve talked before about how what other people wear is nobody’s business but their own.  Yeah I know, sometimes we have to work around that a bit, when it’s in the workplace, someone else’s home or event, or for safety reasons.  That’s part of negotiating being a decent human being.  But when it comes to getting all snarky about what other random people are wearing as they go about their lives, it’s none of our damn business.

So what if someone is wearing pajama pants at the grocery store, or has leggings on with a short top, or wears thongs to the office.  That’s their choice and their business.  How does it affect us as people around them?  If it offends ones eyes, don’t look.  Look at someone else.  Nobody says you have to wear the same things as them, and do you know what?  They’re not wearing those pj’s or leggings for YOU.  They’re wearing them because they want to or need to.

However, that’s not the really offensive part.

What is ignored that people wear leggings (or a lot of other things really) for a whole lot more reasons than how they look.  Let’s think about it.

Classism:

Leggings are cheap.  You can pick them up from Best & Less for $10, less if they’re on sale.  If you have a very limited clothing budget, then leggings are going to be good value for money.

Leggings are often seen as “tarty” or “cheap”.  This is about slut shaming, policing women’s sexuality and how they clothe their own bodies.

Sizeism:

Leggings are one of the few items of clothing that can ALWAYS be found to fit all sized bodies.  If you have a limited range of clothing options because of your size, leggings may be the only option you have.

Leggings are stretchy and have lots of give to fit any body shape.  Short or long legs, high or low waisted, thick or thin legs, no matter what the shape or size of your legs, thighs, knees, feet, ankles etc – most people can get leggings to fit them.

Leggings are far more accommodating to weight changes.  Leggings are forgiving when someone has lost or gained weight and can be worn easier if they’re not quite the correct size.

Ableism:

Leggings are soft, stretchy fabric.  They’re gentle against skin (particularly if it is tender or sore) and generally breathe pretty well.

Leggings have no buttons, zippers, hooks, clasps, ties or any other fiddly bits.  They can be pulled on by someone with reduced mobility, arthritis, reduced motor skills or low energy, and don’t have to be fastened or adjusted once on.  Pull ’em up, pull ’em down.

Leggings also allow other people to dress someone with relative ease.  If someone needs assistance dressing, leggings can be a good no-fuss option.

Leggings are flexible to bodies.  If someone is in a wheelchair, on crutches or a scooter, or has a body shape outside the norm, or perhaps wears incontinence pants or other medical aids, leggings may fit those things better than pants made of heavier, more structured fabrics and designs.

~~@~~

These are just a few reasons that we cannot just put down blanket rules on other people’s clothing choices without thinking about the implications of this kind of judgement. When we see someone in our day who is wearing something that we don’t approve of, we have no idea why they are wearing them, and it’s not any of our business anyway.  And to call oneself a feminist while engaging in this kind of judgemental wardrobe snark is just bullshit.

Look, I will admit, there was a time that I used to buy into this sort of stuff too.  Mostly because I hated my own body and it was a twisted form of self policing, but we’ve been talking about this stuff for a long time and I get it now.  Ages ago I was challenged by some awesome people about my thinking about the whole leggings as pants (and a lot of other things about judging the clothes other people wear) and I came to realise that it was so pointless and kind of douchey of me to be doing it.  Not only did I cut the people around me some slack about what they wear, but I became a whole lot more adventurous and bold in what I wear.

So now I am a proud leggings as pants wearing radical fat feminist.

Leggings as Pants Ahoy!