I Wonder/Cultivating Compassion
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Today, I have the honor of introducing our latest blogger: Jean Braithwaite. I made the executive decision to add Jean to our blogging ranks after we were reunited on Facebook nearly 15 years after she taught my favorite Creative Writing class at Mizzou. Jean has written a fat memoir and after today’s post I’m sure you’ll find my judgment is spot on.
Lots of people in the Fatosphere have already written to rebut or scold Linda Kelsey, so there’s no point in my doing that one more time. I want to take a slightly different angle. In today’s post on Never Diet Again UK, my hero Angela Meadows wonders about the average person’s reaction to Kelsey’s Daily Mail editorial last week. If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of the screed already, where Kelsey figures that three fat girls ahead of her in line are “obviously unconcerned” about their size — because look, they’re laughing and chatting! They’re wearing shorts at the airport! Furthermore, Kelsey just knows “most fatties” are “doing nothing substantial to reduce” and while she has “sympathy for those with genuine metabolic conditions,” she just knows that “the majority of today’s fatties” aren’t in that category, they’re “simply too greedy, ill-disciplined and or ignorant” to stay thin, like she does.
Angela, I wonder too. When those of us in the Health at Every Size® (HAES) and Fat Acceptance (FA) communities read stuff like this, we see it as hate-mongering. Meanwhile, our haters — folks who are actually aware of HAES and FA and are manning the battle stations to defend civilization against us — well, presumably they’re cheering and doing a happy dance. But how might Kelsey’s op-ed strike an ordinary reader, brought up in a weight-loss culture, trained by the media to fear “obesity” like the plague, and barely aware (if at all) of any countervailing scientific opinion about dieting and fat? Will such readers notice Kelsey’s glaring logical errors? If they’re fat, and have ever worn shorts in the heat or smiled in public, they might. Or if they’re fat and have ever tried to lose weight — ha ha, does she really think that’s a minority of all fatties? Ha ha — excuse me while I get a grip [wipes eyes]. Okay, I’m back. Will the ordinary reader notice the similarity between a phrase like “genuine metabolic conditions” and “legitimate rape,” both of which imply that there are a whole, big bunch of false claims out there, a whole culture of whining victimhood that tries to shift the blame away from the disadvantaged person (where defenders of the status quo would prefer for it to stay)?
Actually, it’s not statistically likely, but I hope that by sheer chance Kelsey’s dopey mind-reading attempt happened to get it right about those particular three girls. I hope for the sake of their health that they’re not chronic dieters and that they don’t feel ashamed of their fat bodies. I hope they know that anyone of any size can guard their well-being and pursue health, irrespective of weight. I wonder what they themselves would think if they read Kelsey’s piece? Would they recognize themselves? Would they (Ugh! Horrible!) concede that she was right about their lack of self-discipline? I picture myself as a teenager back in the 70s, reading a column like Kelsey’s, then redoubling my efforts to starve myself and thereby set myself up for an even bigger biological rebound inflicting even more damage to my eroding self-confidence.
That’s not all I wonder. I wonder about Kelsey too; how her mind works. Let’s make some charitable assumptions. Let’s say that she isn’t just trying to beef up the thin privilege she clearly enjoys by further vilifying the already marginalized. Let’s say that she actually does want the world to be a better, healthier place, but just happens to have some wrong information here and there. That happens to the best of us. If we want to be really charitable, we might even spare a little pity for someone who evidently has so much of her self-esteem tied up in her slenderness. After all, Kelsey received the same fat-phobic, pro-weight-loss cultural indoctrination that all of us did, and we know how hard it was to get free from that. Presumably, she thinks that sound empirical evidence exists proving fat is always unhealthy. Why wouldn’t she? We’ve been told so. Presumably, she’s also at least vaguely aware of evidence that complicates the otherwise-very-satisfying idea that a fat body must always be the wages of gluttony, sloth, or both (because thermodynamics!), or she wouldn’t include that sympathetic proviso about “metabolic conditions.” Now, what I want to know is this: how does she get from there to the confident assertion that the gluttony/sloth/both analysis is still the correct one for “the majority of today’s fatties”? Does she think that empirical evidence exists for that proposition too? Or at that point, does she just stop caring about evidence and go straight into evangelical-faith mode?
I’m genuinely curious what happens in the minds of fat-haters who believe empirical science is on their side. When they enter into some kind of double-think in their relationship to evidence and logic, do they know that it’s happening? Kelsey believes in the existence of at least a few fatties in this world who have something going on with their metabolisms and therefore aren’t just glutton/sloth/both. Why she feels certain there can only be a few is still a mystery, but in any case, unless she thinks she can diagnose metabolic conditions by sight, she still can’t know which fatties are which. How did Kelsey decide that the three girls grossing her out at the airport were definitely not going to be sorted into the tolerable category? Do people with metabolic conditions never wear shorts, never go on holidays, never laugh? Standing at the airport, shouldn’t Kelsey’s reasoning have gone something more like, “Well, I figure there is a 95% chance that these girls deserve my contempt and a 5% chance that they deserve my sympathy” — or whatever she thinks the percentages are. How do you get from there to a certainty that contempt is justified? How do you do it? This isn’t just a rhetorical question. I really wonder.