public figures

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An Open Letter to Rebecca Sparrow

Published June 21, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

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:

Fashionable

Or this:

Joyous

This:

As a Loved One

And almost never like this:

Active

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

“Bad Foods” – Control, Punishment and Singling out the Fat Folk

Published May 19, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I’ve been thinking about the number of very public “health experts” that have been advocating total elimination of certain foods or food groups from the diet, either from the diets of children, or from those of fat adults.

There have been plenty over the years, but we’re seeing a rash of them here in Australia at the moment.  The most recent of which was Dr Kerryn Phelps, via her Twitter account.  Dr Samantha Thomas opened up a conversation about it on her blog, The Discourse, over the weekend.

I have also seen it from Michelle Bridges, physical trainer with The Australian Biggest Loser, who talks of guilt over eating “one or two chips”, and decries the consumption of white bread, a sentiment echoed by “non profit organisation” Obesity Prevention Australia.  Not that long ago I heard nutritionist Rosemary Stanton on the radio criticising the companies who make packet cake mixes for having photographs of children on the box, because she believes it sends the message to children that it’s OK to eat cake.  Uh-huh, you read correctly.

There have been others as well.

I want to talk about this method of “healthy eating” that advocates the complete elimination of foods because they are considered “junk”.  Junk food seems to be a fairly fuzzy concept in a lot of these cases, and can mean anything from highly processed foods with lots of added artificial ingredients, to anything containing sugar or fat, anything purchased from take-away vendors (prepared, cooked and/or served for you) to any kind of “bad” foodstuffs of the moment – these days, mostly carbohydrates.

These total elimination methods of supposed healthy eating seem to always be aimed at either children or fat adults.  It is rare to seem them recommended for all of society to practice.

It deeply concerns me to see these kinds of diets advocated for children and fat people, for anyone really.

The first thing that disturbs me is how disordered a behaviour it seems.  The connotations of fear, guilt, sin, bad behaviour, evil etc are all methods I know I employed myself while deeply entrenched in an eating disorder.  The idea that certain foods should never be eaten because they are fattening really bothers me.  Of course there will always be things like allergies and intolerances that will mean someone is unable to eat certain foods, not to mention simple dislikes, but the idea that a foodstuff should never pass someone’s lips because it is bad/junk/unhealthy is worrying, and particularly in children where variety is often an issue, and growing bodies have much broader nutritional needs.

Not to mention that it is simply impractical in our lives today to be hyper vigilant and attempt to completely eliminate the foods considered junk from most people’s eating.  The people like Phelps/Bridges/Stanton et al are proposing that children/fat people never be allowed to eat any of these foods.  That is certainly what is implied at least.

I was thinking about our eating history as a culture (and I’m speaking very generally as a white western person, as that is my personal experience – and most likely that of Phelps/Bridges/Stanton etc) and the social implications of total elimination of these foods.  Are these supposed health experts suggesting that a) children and fat people should never eat and b) that they themselves never eat or feed/have fed their children, any of the following:

  • Birthday cake, wedding cake, Christmas cake, or any other celebratory cake.
  • If they are Christians – no fish and chips on Fridays.
  • No birthday parties for children.  Either home catered or those hosted by fast food restaurants.
  • No cakes, biscuits or sweets made by their Mum, Gran, or any other loving family member (none for lunch boxes, none for special occasions, none for visitors)
  • No teenage parties or hanging out.  No pizza, chips, lollies, soft drinks, burgers etc EVER.
  • No food at the cinema.  No choc tops or popcorn.
  • No chocolate, hot cross buns or marshmallows at Easter.
  • No school dances (soft drink usually, sometimes snacks like chips)
  • No pie or hot-dog at the football/cricket/other sporting event.
  • No convenience food (pre or partially-pre made, or frozen, or take-away) for busy times.

These are just a few that have popped into my mind as I write this.  So if these supposed health experts are advocating that parents of children and fat people eliminate these things from their diet, can they say they’ve practiced what they preached themselves?  Particularly those that pride themselves on being thin, or having thin children?  Did they eliminate those things from their children’s diet?  What about when they were children themselves – did their parents eliminate those things from their diet?  Or are they only proposing that other people, particularly fat people and the parents of fat children, operate under such a strict regime?

But what really bothers me about this approach to “healthy eating” is that it is so steeped in control and punishment.  Particularly when it is solely applied to children and fat adults.  There is a sense of belief that every single morsel consumed by children and fat people should be controlled, sanctioned or approved.  It’s someowhat understandable to want to apply this thinking to children, because it is perceived that left to their own devices, children don’t have the skills to make reasonable eating choices yet.  I would dispute this however, most kids, when TRULY left to their own devices, tend to balance choices out if given plenty of options.  But it is particularly insulting to fat people.  It infantilises us, reduces us to being incompetent in making our own decisions in eating and food.

Fat people are seen as so incapable of making responsible food/eating choices that someone needs to intervene.  That we require policing in our food choices.  It also has an element of punishment.  “You have let yourself get so fat, you don’t deserve treats like everyone else.”  That fat people are bad/naughty/sinful so they don’t deserve anything “good”.

This moralising of fatness and food suggests to me that fat adults do not have the right or indeed capability of making decisions as to what they eat.  It makes our bodies and our lives public – when they are indeed private.  What an adult eats or does with their body is their own business and nobody else’s.

All in all, I think it’s high time that supposed health experts like the aforementioned stopped meddling directly in people’s lives and started focusing on real health issues, like adequate and affordable fresh foods for ALL, not just those of higher incomes, as well as safe and encouraging environments for physical activity for ALL, not just those who have the money or who look thin enough to be seen being active in public without offending bigoted people’s eyes.

Perhaps if they focused on these issues, they might actually make some real difference in public health, instead of simply moralising other people’s bodies.

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.