the HAES files: Why I Don’t Care about Health

Cat Pausé in this blog post reflects upon her experiences and the conversations around health and fat stigma.

As a Fat Studies scholar and fat activist, the issue of health is forever looming around me. In the background; in the foreground; off in the wings; waiting to pounce. Much of my scholarship has focused on fat identity and how it is managed in social media; much of my activism has focused on securing equal rights protection for fat individuals. And yet, when speaking to the media about weight discrimination in the workplace, or submitting an academic manuscript to a humanities journal, it is almost a guarantee that a reviewer or reporter will ask questions about fatness and health. “What about their health?” they’ll query, as though it has any relevance on whether fat people should be paid the same as non-fat people for work of equal value. “But isn’t fat unhealthy”, they’ll ask, as though someone’s health status has any bearing on whether they deserve to have a Facebook or Tumblr account.

Questions around health are always present in my work on/for fatness. Because health is one of the few lenses through which we, as a society, are capable of viewing fatness.

I spent much of my doctorate degree waging yet another war against my body. Even though I had been fat my whole life, and had a sneaking suspicion that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I still went to war with my body regularly. I had all the tools – the scales, the points, the counting, the gym membership, the calendar on which I would check each day where I achieved at least 30 minutes of exercise. At the same time I was waging this latest battle, I was researching how very fat women constructed, maintained, and revised their weight identity. All of the women in my work had similar stories to my own; lifelong fatness, lifelong dieting; lives spent chasing that elusive fantasy of being thin. One of the women I interviewed was different from the rest; she wasn’t ashamed, wasn’t afraid, and didn’t believe that her weight was holding her back from anything, including health. At the end of our interview, she casually suggested I read Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth. It was my first exposure to work that was critical of obesity studies. And from there it began; like many scholars, I fell down this new rabbit hole and read everything I could.

Friend of Marilyn v2.2

When I began, I was most drawn to understanding how tenable the links between weight and health really were. I spent a great deal of time reading empirical studies that disproved that weight was a reliable predictor of health, or that permanent weight loss was possible, even while concluding that weight loss should still be pursued by those who fell outside the desirable range. (This was before Health at Every Size; before scholars like Bacon, Aphramor, and Burgard, began revolutionising understandings of health and illuminating that keeping the definition of health as thin as it was ensured that many people of all sizes were excluded). This science, that never seemed to be at the fore of people’s minds when they casually dismissed fat politics, seemed to me to be the answer.

If I could just convince enough people that being fat isn’t automatically unhealthy, then things would change! They wouldn’t make assumptions about people based on their body sizes. They wouldn’t judge a fat person for eating at McDonalds while they themselves consumed the same food themselves. They would acknowledge that fat people deserved the same rights and dignity as non-fat people! I set to work doing just that: I facilitated workshops for healthcare providers, I wrote about the relationship between weight and health, I shared evidence through social media.

In 2012, I agreed to do a segment for 20/20 in New Zealand. By this time, my understanding of health as a social construct and a social contract had developed. When the interviewer asked me whether I was healthy, I first spoke to the varying definitions of health. Who’s health? Who gets to define health?  Who is excluded from these definitions? Then I moved into speaking specifically about my personal health. Was I metabolically healthy? Yes. Did I engage in health seeking behaviours? Yes. Did my BMI fall within what was believed to be healthy range? No. I then went on to speak on whether it should matter – did my worth of being a person with dignity and respect depend on my health status? Most of my response was edited down, and I cringed when the Me on TV began talking about my health behaviours. In my earlier work as a fat activist, I was willing to speak about my health, and the relationship between weight and health as demonstrated in the literature as I understood it. I kept thinking, one more time for the camera, and things will change. (I probably don’t have to tell you that they never have).

fat studies

I no longer participate in this form of respectability politics, a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to explain the efforts made by black women to demonstrate they were good enough for white society to overlook their flaw of being black (and women). In fat activism, respectability politics is often expressed in the performance of the good fatty; the fat person who apologises for their body, who demonstrates their efforts to seek health despite their size, who performs their fatness in ways that are most tolerable for the fat hating world they live in.

As a scholar and an activist, I’ve come to recognise that any conversation about health and fatness will be centred on physical health, and the ways that fatness impedes the achievement of health. And while increasingly conversations will include acknowledgement of the role of environments on health acquisition (the dreaded obesogenic environment), rarely does the conversation include a consideration of the impact of fat stigma and hate on the health and well-being of fat people. And for me, that’s the only interest of health that lives on in my scholarship and activism.

I am incredibly fat; death fat, as we like to say in the Fatosphere. In this way, I may have learned earlier than others that engaging in respectability politics wasn’t going to get me anywhere. It doesn’t matter how much I exercise or am seen eating a salad, the world will perceive me as incredibly unhealthy and incredibly unworthy. It doesn’t matter what my health status is, everyone, including healthcare providers, will treat me like a ticking time bomb that will, one day, implode and double-stomachedly take down public health care systems.

Health is the latest form of respectability politics for fat people. And I want no part of it.

More details about the authors:

Cat Pausé (Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand)

‘You are enough’

Andrea La Marre in this blog post reflects upon her experiences of speaking in a community setting to a group of young people on the topic of bodies and body image. 

I go to a lot of conferences. This summer I did the grueling three-conference circuit including QMiP, ISCHP, and POWs. Over the course of nine days, I spoke to some brilliant academics about my work, and learned a lot. I love going to conferences; oddly, I’ve come to love public speaking.
As much as I love conferences, however, I have been trying to break away from speaking only or primarily in academic settings. My focus is turning to ways to speak to people who I might never otherwise interact with.

 

Like, say… a group of Girl Guide Pathfinders.

 

A few weeks ago, I delivered a talk about growing up in a body-obsessed world to a group of community members. I had no idea that the audience would be mostly teenage girls, but I couldn’t have chosen a better crowd. It suddenly no longer mattered that my methods were verging on post-qualitative; my deep dives into Deleuze during the course of my dissertation seemed inconsequential in the face of a call to speak on a different level.

 

While I’m fairly new to the world of escaping academic-speak, I’m sure many of you are well familiar with this flip. With the need to distill messages that we’ve spent years crafting into elegant turns of theoretical phrase into digestible morsels. Not to dumb things down, but to make sure that our messages land.

 

So, what does one say to a group of teenagers who are, at this precise moment, growing up in a world that makes sure that many bodies don’t, and will never, fit? In a society that is racist, classist, ableist, ageist, and still—somehow, still—sexist?

 

I tried to make the message about more than aesthetic ideals, because the feeling of not fitting runs so much deeper than that. We don’t dislike our bodies only because we don’t think they are beautiful—though we often don’t. We dislike our bodies because we are also told they are not doing enough; that they are wrong and unwelcome. We are simultaneously made to feel like not enough and too much in this world. We are told that we need to continually strive for productivity. If we fail in our pursuit, we are not worthy citizens.

 

These messages seep in, and of course they land on our bodies. The world wants big things from us, while it simultaneously wants to keep us small. Reconciling those tensions is challenging when living in a world that keeps the surface level interest in the aesthetic value of bodies, the struggle for voice and representation materialize corporeally.

 

It felt important to me to talk about how systemic oppressions, like racism, classism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism all impact how we feel about our bodies with this group in particular because conversations about bodies with teens too often remain stuck at the level of media literacy debunking the thin ideal. And while debunking the thin ideal—and, increasingly, the fit ideal—is a worthy endeavor, media literacy is not immunity. I tried to highlight how even when we know we should not be swayed by the pull of aesthetic ideals, we may still feel crummy about ourselves at times.

 

Normalizing this experience is not about accepting the status quo—far from it. It is about recognizing that this sense of being ill at ease in one’s body does not stem only from not being a supermodel, but also from living in a world that constantly demands perfection and productivity, gives some people more than others, and then tells us it is our fault if we don’t succeed.

 

During this talk, it didn’t matter how I had analyzed my data; the teens didn’t care about methodological rigour or sample sizes. They cared about stories, and ways to move forward. One of the most poignant questions I was asked echoed a question I ask my participants in each interview: if you could go back and tell yourself something when you were struggling, what would you say?

 

I found this question really hard to answer; after all, who’s to say I’d have listened to the dorky grad student standing up at the front of the room? I chose a simple answer, which is much harder to feel: “You are enough, exactly as you are. You are not measured by how productive you are, how thin you are, or how health conscious. You are enough.”

 

I chose this not because I believe in some Polyanna-esque version of complete body peace or think that we can realize a society untethered from productivity discourses tomorrow, but because I believe it’s important that we start by believing that we are, truly, enough (and not too much). I chose it because whether or not I would have believed it is irrelevant. I chose it because I hope that it resonates with the audience—now, or 10 years from now. And I hope it is enough.

Mattel’s new Barbies aren’t so good for their sweatshops makers

This is a cross post from here

So this week Matel announced its range of 33 new Barbie dolls. There’s a tall Barbie, a curvy Barbie and a little Barbie. Curvy Barbie has thicker thighs and a slightly protruding stomach. The 33 dolls also have 7 skin tones between them, including a dark skinned Black Barbie with natural hair. Progress? Not for the women making them.

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Image: Mattel/EPA

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