Thoughts on the state of the fat community

close-up of gold mirrored "fat" necklace
(Note: in this piece, I refer to the movement in question mainly as fat acceptance, or FA, since that’s how I first came to know it. Other people may prefer to call it size acceptance, fat justice, fat activism, etc. Like most movements, it’s more a series of overlapping movements than one cohesive community, which I think is a good thing.)

I recently read a piece on XOJane titled, Why I’m Over The Size Acceptance Movement or Hey, SA, What Have You Done For Me Lately? Like many XOJane pieces, it’s scattered and confusingly written (and could have benefited greatly from the hand of a skilled editor). It’s especially confusing that the author, Cary Webb, calls for more 201-level discussions within the fat acceptance movement, yet doesn’t seem to grasp some of the 101-level basics of the movement: like the fact that discussions about considering weight loss surgery support fat-negative narratives, and therefore don’t belong in FA spaces. People who want to talk about weight loss can go literally anywhere else on the internet–or in the world–and have those discussions supported, but those of us who want a break from hearing about it have only a few spaces where we can do so. It’s the height of entitlement to demand that such spaces include weight loss talk.

Webb brings up important issues like racism, healthism, poverty, and ableism in the same sentence as wanting to be allowed to say that “there is such a thing as clothes that fat people shouldn’t wear”–umm, what? Policing what other fat people wear is neither FA 201 nor 101–it’s just more of the same oppressive shit we get from the rest of the world. And like weight loss talk, it has no place in our movement.

Even though I have some major issues with the piece, I’m glad that it has sparked discussion across multiple FA spaces about the state of the movement. Here are a few of my thoughts, in no particular order: Continue reading

Stop making life hard for retail workers in the name of activism. Seriously, just stop.

I keep reading about forms of activism that involve going into a store and making a mess–from “occupying” Abercrombie & Fitch to spelling out pro-choice messages with craft supplies in Hobby Lobby to reorganizing clothes to put larger sizes at the front of the racks.

I can understand the subversive intent behind these actions–for example, as someone who’s always had to dig out my size from the back of racks and the bottom of stacks, the thought of putting larger sizes front and center appeals to me immensely. I love the idea of being able to walk into a store and see my size at the front, if only briefly.

But I think that when we engage in activism, we need to ask: who is harmed by our actions? Are we actually targeting those in power, or those at the bottom–like the poorly-paid, erratically-scheduled, benefits-denied, mostly female retail workforce? Are we punching up or punching down?

Time and time again, women with retail experience have come into these threads and pointed out that such actions are not only ineffective, but also harm women who are already vulnerable. They’ve told stories about times when they were blamed for their customers’ mess–yelled at, forced to work unpaid overtime to clean up.

Time and time again, they’ve made it clear that such activism not only never reaches the people with the power to make changes, but also directly harms those at the bottom of the ladder. Time and time again, the “activists” ignore them and continue insisting that their actions are subversive.

I’m not here for that kind of “activism.” I’m not here for activism that doesn’t ask, “Who am I helping? Who could I be harming?” I’m not here for activism that conflates poorly-paid salespeople with the multinational corporations they work for. I’m not here for activism that repeatedly ignores the voices of poor and working-class women and women of color.

I’m here for thoughtful activism, activism that does its best to punch up rather than down.

 

If you are neutral in situations of injustice…you might just be busy and exhausted.

two buckets full of sunflowers at farmers market

I see this quote going around a lot: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu

And I see a lot of similar sentiments in online activist circles: that idea that everyone needs to speak out about [insert issue here], or else they’re complicit in harming people. The implication that you’re bad or shameful if you don’t post about a specific issue on Facebook (especially if you–gasp!–post outfit pictures or other fluff instead), attend a specific rally, etc.

On one hand, yes. Silence protects oppressors. Speaking out is important and necessary. And there are some silences that are particularly egregious: like the huge numbers of white Americans posting about Robin Williams and the ice bucket challenge while completely ignoring Ferguson.

But at the same time, I feel like just keeping up with all the injustice in the world–let alone actually doing anything about it–would be multiple full-time jobs. It would be near impossible for any one person to speak out about every injustice that deserves to be exposed. And in general, it’s a good idea to take the time to do research before speaking up about something, or else you run the risk of buying into an oppressor’s narrative and standing up for the wrong side. (“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X) So even being able to speak out thoughtfully about any given issue requires a certain amount of time and energy.

And having that time and energy is, well, something that often comes along with privilege. Which is not to say that marginalized people don’t participate in activism–obviously, they do. But privilege makes it easier. If, say, you’re a single parent working multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet, you probably don’t have a lot of time to attend protests or even share articles on social media. And that doesn’t make you a bad person.

Even if you’re middle-class or rich, and privileged in a lot of other ways, your personal life–family, friends, raising kids, dealing with physical or mental health issues, caring for ill or aging family members, advancing your career (or finding a career or even just a job), finding outlets for creative expression, volunteering, trying to eat well and get enough exercise and sleep, making some time for relaxation and fun–can take up most of your time and energy, and that doesn’t mean you’re self-centered or pro-oppression.

There’s a really, really fine line between encouraging people to stand up for justice and shaming people for having lives.

I’m not comfortable with condemning the vast majority of people as oppressors because they’re busy caring for themselves and their loved ones.

And I’m afraid that saying “You must take action about [insert issue here] now! Or else you’re a bad person!” runs the risk of alienating people who do care about that issue and just haven’t had the time or energy to take it on yet. It sets up a standard of “you have to be the best, most informed, quickest-acting activist, or else you shouldn’t even bother.”

I want to run around shouting from the rooftops about what’s happening in Ferguson and Gaza. And I hope that as many people as possible join me. But I’m aware that I have more time and energy for protest than many–not to mention that I currently work in a location that makes attending rallies really convenient–and I’m not going to judge other people for living their lives the best they can.

A reminder to activists (or anyone paying attention to the world right now)

It’s ok to have fun. It’s ok to take a break from bearing witness when your heart can’t take all the injustice and violence any more. It’s ok to enjoy “frivolous” things.

It’s important to recognize that not everyone has the privilege of being able to step back–but it’s also ok to step back when you need to, and return to the work when you are ready. There will always be more work to do.

Climate disaster is not a white, middle-class issue: on narratives and the need to build bridges

I’m somewhere in here. (source: 350MA Facebook page)

Last night, I attended a last-minute vigil protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, inspired by the State Department’s release of a report that green-lighted it.

It was heartening to be part of such a large crowd assembled at such short notice–there were over 200 people gathered in Harvard Square alone, and it was one of multiple events in the Boston area. It felt good to sing and chant and hold signs, to make our unequivocal “NO!” to climate destruction heard. It was heartening to feel the warmth of community, of spirited resistance, on a snowy day.

And yet. I looked around at all the white, middle-class, crunchy/hippie/folkie faces and thought, “We’re never going to succeed if we can only appeal to people like ourselves.”

We can only save the world if we can build bridges, if we can build a movement that resonates with people from all walks of life.  Climate disaster is not an issue that affects only canvas-bag-toting, organic-food-eating, voluntary-simplicity-loving liberals–we’re all in this together, and we need to face it together.

(A few caveats: I’m aware that Boston doesn’t represent the international climate movement, so what I’m saying may or may not apply on a larger scale. Also, I’m aware that it’s somewhat hypocritical of me to criticize the whiteness of local climate activism when the fat-positive events I’ve held have also been mostly white. I know it’s a problem, and I am working to change it.) Continue reading

The complexity of hope

Last night one of my favorite writers, Sarah Kendzior, posted a series of tweets that started with the statement, “I do not know what is more damaging to young people in this economy: fear, or hope.”  I Storified some of the conversation here; my feelings are complicated.

There are so many different kinds of hope.

There’s the kind that keeps people passive, the kind Kendzior is talking about: the kind that says “maybe someday I’ll get a good job, so I’ll keep my head down, accept my exploitation, not criticize the system.” (Which is in its own way a survival strategy, and there’s a fine line between analyzing it at the societal level and looking down on the people who use it.)

But there’s also the kind of hope that keeps people alive and engaged, the kind that wards off paralyzing despair: the kind that says, “I’m going to keep putting one foot in front of the other, because there’s a chance things will get better someday.” The kind that has seen the alternative, and isn’t willing to fall down that hole.

There’s the kind that goes hand-in-hand with compassion and resistance. The kind that says, “I believe the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. I know in my bones that we can make a difference, even if the odds are against us. I believe in the power of love, of community, of connection. We will rise up.”

There’s nothing inherently naive or passive about hope.

Hope isn’t necessarily dependent on fantasies of an external savior. It isn’t mutually exclusive with thinking critically, facing fear, and acting for justice.

Hope is just one tool in the human emotional/philosophical toolbox.

For some people it’s useful, even necessary.

Other people find that it holds them back–that they can only act effectively when they feel, deep down, that there’s nothing left to lose. That they need something more concrete than hope, more grounded in the present.

Both–all–reactions are ok.

It’s ok to feel however you feel.

What matters is how you act.

Hold onto whatever you need to.

Let go of whatever you need to.

Just keep your fire burning–whether that means fighting, surviving, or something in between.

It’s complicated: climate justice and the nonprofit industrial complex

A few days ago, this statement from Peaceful Uprising was making the rounds on my Facebook feed, and my friends were posting celebratory comments about the climate justice organization’s transition from a traditional non-profit model to a more democratic volunteer-based one.

My first thought was, “But, but–jobs!” In this post-employment economy, I hate to see any full-time job be replaced with contingent or volunteer work–even though I know that switching from a professional-based structure to a collective one can help bring marginalized voices to the forefront.

I know there are so many problems with the non-profit industrial complex, but I also like the idea of paying people to organize, because it frees up the time and energy they wouldn’t have if they were also working to make ends meet. And organizing is a skill, which deserves compensation just as much as any other.

Then I came across these tweets from Sasha Costanza-Chock, which crystallized what I’d been mulling over. He wrote them in the context of the immigrant rights movement, but they apply equally well to climate justice or any other movement:

Continue reading