On “feeling fat” and the multiple truths of fat experience

Jenny Trout recently wrote about “feeling fat” vs. actually being fat in the context of reactions to Meghan Trainor’s song “All About That Bass.” Her main point is that, although body image is a problem for many women of all sizes, our conversations about body politics need to center the experiences of fat people–especially those on the larger end of the spectrum–who face regular discrimination for their size. She makes the important point that:

While average-sized women are concerned with not “feeling” fat, fat women are facing challenges that affect their lives far beyond damage to their self-perception. Plus-size clothing stores Lane Bryant and Torrid only sell clothing up to a size 28, at prices prohibitively expensive for low-income women. Buying clothing in a physical store is, if not impossible, then highly unlikely, for women who exceed the “plus-size” category.

Our health is at risk, too, and not just from the obesity-related illnesses we’re warned about; we’re faced with bias from the medical community that puts our health, and potentially our lives, at risk. Obese people face rising weight-based discrimination in the workplace, women especially.

I agree 1,000%. This is a big part of why I also felt uncomfortable with “All About That Bass” being held up as the body-positive anthem of the summer. Fat activism is a civil rights issue, and as its ideas have spread, they’ve often been watered-down to “inspiring” pictures of size 8-ish celebs and platitudes about loving your body (as long as it’s not too fat). We need to keep bringing the conversation back to the realities of being fat in a fat-phobic culture: workplace discrimination, medical bias, street harassment, lack of available clothing, lack of properly-sized chairs and medical equipment, discrimination in adoption proceedings, policing of children’s appetites–in extreme cases, even taking them away from their parents simply because they’re fat–and the ubiquitous messaging that our bodies are a disease to be eradicated at all costs.

At the same time, I think it’s important to keep in mind that fatness is a social construction, and that it’s constructed differently in different places, cultures, subcultures, and industries–which means that fat people’s experiences with weight discrimination and stigma aren’t always perfectly linear.

At the society-wide level, yes, larger people experience worse fat-phobia. But there are some contexts in which smaller fats, in-betweenies, and even Meghan Trainor-sized people also people experience tangible consequences of fat-phobia that go beyond body image concerns. For example, a size-14 woman trying to break into the acting, singing, or modeling industries probably faces much more workplace discrimination than I ever have at a size 22, because those fields set such rigid standards for women’s appearances.

As another example, I’ve read blogs by women far smaller than I am–some of whom I wouldn’t even consider fat–who have faced far more fat stigma, discrimination, and harassment than I ever have. In some cases, they live or have lived in other countries, particularly Asian countries where the population is thinner than in here in the West; in some cases, they live here and have just had different life experiences than I have.

My activism needs to be big enough to hold these two truths: that larger fat people usually experience worse stigma and should have their voices centered, and that fat stigma is context-dependent and sometimes has very real negative consequences even for smaller fats, whose experiences should not be erased.

I also have a much more minor quibble with the idea that “fat is not a feeling,” or that it’s impossible to “feel fat,” which I’ve seen spread like wildfire around the fat-o-sphere. Yes, the experiences of women who merely think they’re fat are very different from those of women whom society considers fat. Yes, it’s not ok to use “fat” as a shorthand for “out of shape” or “having a bad body image day” or “eating all the cake.”

But, as a friend of mine once pointed out when I posted one of those “fat is not a feeling” articles, it’s entirely possible to feel relatively fat in certain situations, in the same way that people sometimes feel relatively tall or short. She said that she feels short when she’s trying to reach something high up, although she is generally considered tall; likewise, she feels fat when she’s trying to squeeze through a narrow space or zip up pants that are too tight, although she is generally considered thin. As an average-height person who feels tall and short in equal measure, I know exactly what she means. It’s a type of “feeling fat” that’s based on relative size in a specific situation, not moral judgment or stereotypes.

I don’t know if this morally-neutral usage of “feeling fat” will ever catch on, because fat is still such a loaded word for most people. But it’s a real thing, and I always want to put it with an asterisk next to all the “fat is not a feeling!” rants that I otherwise agree with.

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2 thoughts on “On “feeling fat” and the multiple truths of fat experience

  1. I love that you say “fat is not a feeling”. I always thought that there was something wrong that I didn’t feel fat….I just felt like me. The same me that was a size 4 and is now a size 18. I don’t realize that I am not a size 4 until someone reminds me that I’m not…..or if I go shopping and have to try on shapeless clothes in a bad mirror. I would be pretty happy if I could live in a world without reminders.

  2. Pingback: One last year in review post: my 10 favorite write-y posts of 2014 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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