We need to talk about how social and economic structures impact health.

lake in the woods

Within the fat acceptance and HAES movements, there has been a growing realization that health is much more complicated than personal diet and exercise choices–that we can’t talk seriously about health without talking about the social and economic barriers that affect it on both the personal and public levels. I’m really glad that we’re talking about these structural forces, and I’d love to see more in-depth discussions, both within and outside of our communities.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially after a wonderful hike I went on last weekend. I just feel so in my element when I’m in the woods, and I get a great workout without consciously trying. There’s something so peaceful, so natural about being surrounded by trees, coming across everything from tiny frogs to wildflowers and heart-shaped leaves. There’s magic in the woods, the kind that doesn’t go away when you grow up.

Coming home from a simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing hike, I couldn’t help but think, contrary to conventional wisdom, how little of my health is actually within my control. Yes, healthy habits are still our best shot at improving and maintaining health. Yes, there are certainly things I can do differently, and I’m working on them. But there are so many structural limits that impact my health, and I imagine how they could be different:

– If working about 20 hours/week were standard, I could work mornings and then hike most afternoons. Or, during the winter, snowshoe or cross-country ski. I live in the city and don’t have a car (and don’t want one)–but if there were high-speed, frequent, reliable trains from the city to the woods, I could easily get out into nature on a regular basis, or even live out there and commute into the city. This would make it a lot easier to engage in the types of exercise that feel easy and natural for me, and I have a feeling I’d feel better all-around if I were getting a higher dose of Vitamin Nature. Continue reading

What I wish I could tell food justice advocates

Sometimes I wish I could make everyone in the food justice movement read these fat acceptance 101 resources (or any fat acceptance resources).

I’m so sick of reading article after article, interview after interview, holding my breath for the inevitable reference to “obesity.”

The latest one is Feministing’s interview with Saru Jayaraman, the founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United and a leader of campaigns to establish a living wage, paid sick days, and freedom from sexual harassment for restaurant workers.

She talks about the importance of sustainable labor practices as well as sustainably-grown foods; about the high poverty levels among restaurant workers, especially women and people of color; about the vulnerability to sexual harassment that comes from dependence on tips to make a living; and about the need to organize both in person and online for better wages and working conditions.  I couldn’t agree more….until I got to this part:

The reason for the fact that you have the largest and fastest growing industry in American proliferating the absolute lowest paying jobs is the power of the National Restaurant Association, which we call the Other NRA. They really are, we like to say that they kill more people annual that [sic] the Rifle Association because of obesity.

I just wish I could take Jayaraman aside and tell her:

“Obesity” is not a disease.

It’s just a ratio of height to weight. It was never intended to be used as a measure of individuals’ health, and it doesn’t tell you anything about how healthy a person is.

“Obesity” doesn’t kill people. Fat stigma does.

Restaurants don’t make fat people fat. Fat people have always existed, and always will. There are thin people who eat out regularly, and fat people who hardly ever eat out.

Fat bodies are not a symptom of corporate irresponsibility or unjust food systems. Fat bodies just are, and we’re sick of being used as pawns for pretty much every social justice cause under the sun.

Internalized fat-phobia within fat-pos spaces = the worst.

I’ve been reading through the responses to the “What it’s like to be a fat woman” questions, and they’re really interesting. I hope that some men and non-binary people answer the questions as well, because I would love to read a broader range of experiences.

But one of them had a line that made me stop dead in my tracks:

Being a mother now myself this is a tricky one. I want my child(ren) to grow up the happiest way they can and so the truth is I don’t want my daughter to grow up fat. I don’t think that she is genetically wired that way and I’m going to try to ensure she doesn’t develop the weird relationship with food or body image that I did. 

I don’t even know where to begin with my rage at this one. It’s so, so frustrating and painful to come across attitudes like this while reading supposedly fat-positive blogs.

You can’t tell by looking at someone, especially a small child, how they’re “genetically wired.” Some fat kids grow up to be thin. Some thin kids grow up to be fat. Puberty does some weird shit to people’s bodies. The interactions of genetics and environment are complicated, and thinking that because your kid is thin now, they’re meant to be thin forever, is only going to hold them to an impossible standard.

Fat doesn’t mean unhappy. Fat doesn’t mean having a weird relationship with food or body image. Believe me, plenty of thin women have that too.

I can understand why someone who’s dealt with fat stigma wouldn’t want their children to face the same stigma. But the problem isn’t the child’s body–the problem is the stigma itself. Saying you hope your daughter doesn’t grow up to be fat contributes to that very stigma: to the idea that fat is inherently a bad thing, something to be avoided, something less than ideal, something that needs an excuse (like “genetics”) to be acceptable.

It’s like a gay person saying “I hope my kid doesn’t grow up to be gay” rather than “I hope that by the time my kid grows up, no matter what their sexual orientation turns out to be, society has become much more accepting of queer people.” (Which is not to say that fatphobia and homophobia are the same–they definitely operate in different ways, and many people deal with the intersection of both–but I think the basic analogy works. In each case, a parent who hopes that their child does not develop the same marginalized identity they themselves have is contributing to the stigma against that identity.)

If you don’t want your kids to face fat stigma, then fight the stigma itself.

Make it clear–through both words and actions–that all bodies are good bodies. That’s there’s no wrong way to have a body, period.

Anything less is bullshit.

What being a fat woman is really like

My glamorous fat life: hanging out on a farm after going to the beach for my birthday last summer

Through this post from Bethany, I found out about a surprisingly fat-positive interview that was recently published in Cosmo (!). Bethany and a bunch of other bloggers decided to answer the same questions, so here are my answers! You can find a roundup of all the participating bloggers here at Charlotte’s blog.

How do you feel when other women around you complain about feeling/being fat?

Luckily, this doesn’t happen to me often–and when it does, it usually involves friends writing about their body image struggles in their own online spaces, which I could choose to stop following if I wanted to.  I feel simultaneously frustrated–because fat is not a bad thing, and I’m usually bigger than the person doing the complaining!–and understanding, because the pull of weight loss culture is so strong, and I remember what it was like to be utterly convinced that I needed to be thin to be attractive and healthy.

How has your body image changed since high school? College?

SO MUCH. In middle school and high school, I hated my body–even though I also enjoyed dressing up, and never had much desire to hide behind baggy or plain clothing. I remember stepping on the scale at the doctor’s office when I was 17, and seeing it hit 201–and that felt like the worst thing ever. In my mind, 200 lbs was hideous, far beyond the realm of normal people, and crossing that line made me officially, terribly, disgustingly fat (which seems funny now, because I weigh about 240 and am much happier with my body!).

I spent most of college dieting on and off before I came across Shapely Prose through the feminist blog-o-sphere, and my mind was blown. It took some time to truly accept everything I was learning, but when I did, it made such a difference. I still have bad body-image days occasionally, but for the most part, I’m happy with how I look. When I was younger, I never could have imagined that!

Have you tried dieting? What happened?

I started dieting fairly late, compared to the experiences of most fat women I know. In eighth grade, I went through a phase where I did ten minutes of crunches a day in hopes of shrinking my stomach–but I didn’t start seriously dieting until senior year of high school, and then I was doing it “for my health.” I never did anything really drastic, but obsessing over the calories in everything and going to the gym constantly just wasn’t sustainable for very long.

In college, I kept falling off the wagon and then starting again, yo-yo-ing up and down within a range of 40 or so pounds–until I learned about fat acceptance and stopped altogether. My weight settled about about 180 then, although a few years later I ended up gaining weight for unrelated reasons, and who knows if that was partly affected by the way dieting can change people’s metabolisms?

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Friday links, 7/26/13

Erin tries out BeauCoo, a body-positive outfit-sharing app, and finds it promising but problematic in many ways.
-I love the kids’ clothing in this Etsy shop! They even have a TARDIS skirt and a tuxedo dress.
-A new Tumblr dedicated to alt-fatshion: Plus Size Goth.
This dog is so stylish!
-I so wish this sharkini came in plus sizes.
-Somebody, please, buy this size XXL skull lace dress with red trim so I can enjoy it vicariously.
-Canadian readers, check out Lucy Clothing!
-Kriss, a Swedish brand that goes up to size 2XL, now has an online shop that ships worldwide! It’s expensive, but they have some really cute stuff.
-Karyn takes down fashion “rules.”
-Another recent find: the Bargain Catalog Outlet, which has super-cheap clothes from various plus size catalogs.
Adventures in summer style with Harvey Guillen.

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If only we could take vacations from fat shaming…

I had a great time in New York. But unfortunately, fat stigma shows up everywhere.

Fuck you very much, New York City. Fuck you very much.

On a related note, the NYC subway turnstiles are tiny. Which is a problem not only for some fat people, but for some disabled people and people with strollers or luggage as well. Without luggage, I fit through them fine, although without much room to spare. With a suitcase and a backpack? Not so much.

The stations had a gate for disabled people, but it had to be opened by a station attendant.

Boston does it so much better. We have relatively wide gates instead of turnstiles. And at each station, there’s one extra-wide gate for disabled people and anyone else who needs it. You don’t have to ask anyone to open it–you just tap your card and go through.

I grumble about the T as much as the next Bostonian, but this is one thing it gets right. I hope that New York, and other cities, follow our example to make their subway systems more easily accessible.

The same old hypocrisy

Why am I not surprised that Seventeen is teaming up with the Biggest Loser?

Seventeen and its ilk–as well as their grown-up relatives like Cosmo and Glamour–make millions talking out of both sides of their mouth.

That they regularly spout body-acceptance platitudes while promoting fat stigma is a feature, not a bug, of their business model.

They’ve done it for as long as I can remember, and I doubt it will change: there’s too much money to be made from selling insecurity to teenage girls while placating them with the occasional nod to body acceptance.

If Seventeen truly believed in the “love your body” crap it claims to espouse?

It would probably stop existing, because it would no longer be profitable.

*insert rant about the relationship between capitalism and fat-hatred here*

My body is not heartbreaking: more fun with microaggressions

I’m exceedingly lucky in that I haven’t dealt with much in-person fat hatred since…well, middle school. I’ve never gotten cat-called by a stranger, and the people in my life are considerate enough that even if they’re pro-weight loss (which many of them are), they respect that I’m happy with my body.

Almost every post I read on This Is Thin Privilege makes me think, “Holy shit! People are TERRIBLE toward fatties, and it’s sheer luck that I haven’t dealt with stuff like this.”

And even still. Even still, I come across digs at fat people everywhere.

Almost every book I read–even my beloved Deep Economy–has some mention of the OMGBESITY!!1! epidemic (if it’s non-fiction), or a negative portrayal of a fat character (if it’s fiction or memoir).

And the internet? Forget about it. If I explore pretty much any topic outside of fat acceptance, there’s always a mention of how awful fat bodies are, regardless of how irrelevant that is to the subject at hand.

For example, I’m a Facebook fan of a couple of travel writers who call themselves Married With Luggage. Because hey, travel writing is interesting. I like to read about other people’s adventures, and fantasize about going on my own adventures someday.

And then I saw they had posted an article about how, between the two of them, they lost 70 pounds while travelling abroad. Of course, they prefaced the link with one of the most cliche stereotypes about fat people: “You may not want to read this if you’re having donuts for breakfast.”

I am so, so sick of people assuming that fat people eat donuts all the time.

Even worse, in one of their comments, they said:

As I pointed out in the article, there are plenty of overweight people around the world (and it’s increasing). But overall, [here in the US] we’re still the biggest, which is heartbreaking when we have the wealth and options to be healthy.

Leaving aside that fact that many, many people in the US don’t have the wealth and options to be healthy, this statement is still wrong–and painful to read–on so many levels.

There are people–seemingly reasonable, decent people–who think the existence of bodies like mine is heartbreaking. Who think that my life must be a tragedy because I wear above a size 14.  Who refuse to believe that health comes in more than one size. And who refuse to understand that not everyone prioritizes health in the same ways, or at all.

My body is not heartbreaking.

The stories I read every day about fat hatred, stigma, and discrimination are heartbreaking. The stories of fat people getting sick or dying because doctors ignored their health problems and blamed them all on their size are heartbreaking. The stories of fat people who are denied the right to adopt children, or have even had their children taken away from them due to their size, are heartbreaking. The extremely common stories of men, women, and children suffering from eating disorders are heartbreaking.

My body, itself, is not heartbreaking. I am 5’5″, about 235 or 240 pounds (not sure exactly, as I haven’t weighed myself in a while). I usually wear between a size 18 and 22 (US). I’m gainfully employed, although currently in a temporary job. I’ve been dating my wonderful boyfriend for over a year, and I’m happier with him than I’d ever imagined I could be. I have an amazing circle of friends, with whom I attend parties and have adventures all over town. Just last night, I went on an experimental exploring trip with a few of them, and ended up climbing a playground rope structure while blindfolded! (Don’t worry, we were safe: I had a non-blindfolded friend giving me very good directions, and I only got about 5 feet up.)

I volunteer with an organization that takes inner-city kids into nature. I dance and do yoga, and enjoy hiking, swimming, and kayaking every now and then. Sometimes I exercise less when I’m busy or stressed out or have a weird work schedule. But I come back to it eventually because I like joyful movement. Same with food: I tend to eat too much sugar when I’m tired or stressed out. But I also love vegetables–there’s nothing like Brussels sprouts roasted with garlic, olive oil, and sea salt. I eat shit-tons of quinoa. In the summer, I’m all about tomatoes from the farmers’ market, and big bowls of berries garnished with mint leaves. I’m more likely to eat a bowl of Raisin Bran for breakfast than a donut, considering I don’t even like donuts that much.

But even if I were single, unemployed, less social, didn’t enjoy exercise, and/or actually ate donuts for breakfast every day? My body still wouldn’t be a tragedy.

My body would still be me. Whole, complex, imperfect–but in no way heartbreaking.