Partial Allies and Crabby Friends
Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss.
So I’ve had a Health at Every Size® (HAES) philosophy ever since I read Shadow on a Tightrope in December 1983 — which is before that term even existed as such. Later, much later, I wrote my own book, FAT: The Story of My Life with My Body, narrating my experiences of trying to manipulate my body size prior to 1983 (with all the terrible things that does to one’s mind and body), and then the decades after that in which I was living in harmony with my fat body, exercising and eating well. Of course, the fact that I had extremely healthy habits didn’t save me from other people’s misunderstanding and condescension, but it was still worth it, by far. No other relationship matters as much as the one you have with your body/self.
Here I’m glossing over a thing which if I mentioned it might complicate the picture slightly. I was fat my whole grownup life, but then something weird happened. Forgive me, I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet on this blog. I will, though. Give me a little more time.
But anyway, I wrote FAT to promote a vision. The thesis of FAT is this: weight loss is a terrible idea based on a mistaken notion of how fat works biologically. The weight loss ideal causes harm. Weight loss should not be attempted nor recommended. People who promote weight loss are participating in a vast machine of oppression and suffering, even though the majority of them, perhaps, have benign intentions.
I try to avoid getting in a snit with people who have good intentions, but — alas — I don’t always succeed. It still chaps my buns when people misread FAT, co-opting it somehow into their preexisting fat-phobic worldview. And this even includes people who loved the book, fans who can’t wait to meet me and shake my hand and compliment my writing and then say “So what do you think is the best way to lose weight?”
It’s easiest to understand and be gentle when my misreader is an individual fat person who has internalized the shaming messages of our social discourse, somebody who’s just trying to cope with their own life. After all, these are the people I intended to help by writing the book. And, in fact, it’s partly because I didn’t want to scare off such readers that FAT is just a little bit cagey about its thesis, especially at the beginning. I mean, I wanted to be clear, but I didn’t want to be off-puttingly militant right up front, either.
Strategy, allies, persuasion, compromise … how far do we go to meet people halfway, coaxing them from wherever they’re starting from to full-throttle commitment to HAES principles? I’ve watched with great interest the debate on the HAES Facebook page about whether it’s a good idea for HAES-minded folk to sign the Obesity Action Coalition’s petition against fat-shaming apps. On the face of it, that might seem like a solid HAES action to support, but since the OAC is actually an astroturf organization of “obesity epidemic” profiteers, most of us don’t want to be their bedfellows. (You can get a quick briefing on the matter from Ragen’s blog.)
I don’t doubt that the average OAC member is well-intentioned too, but I have a lot less patience for misguided people who are actually major players in the “obesity” discourse and benefiting from the status quo. It was, however, a pleasure to see how gently and pleasantly people disagreed with the few HAES dissenters who want to engage with the OAC on their petition. That doesn’t always happen. People get crabby over ideological differences with even dear friends. In some ways it’s almost easier to have a falling out with somebody who shares a lot of your convictions than somebody who shares few of them. Because why are they being so blind and stubborn? Why don’t they fight on the side of the angels, with you, as they have sometimes done in the past, instead of goofily blundering into opposition, hurting a cause they ought to support?
Once upon a time I signed a petition to get sodas out of the public schools, even though one of the things it said on that petition was “to combat childhood obesity.” It just about killed me, and I still cringe about it sometimes, more than a decade later, but in fact I do think for a variety of reasons it’s better not to have public schools shilling for soda companies, so that time I cuddled up to the anti-obesity crusaders. I don’t think I’d do it again, though, now that I have even a modest reputation in HAES circles. Yet I’m still deeply suspicious of soda purveyors!
When and how to accept a partial ally is something I struggle with often. Let me pose you a middle case between the hegemonic OAC and the relatively-disempowered weight-loss book fan. Some years ago a mutual acquaintance hooked me up with a graduate student who was interested in Fat Studies. I recommended readings for her, read drafts of her thesis project, and appeared with her twice on conference panels. I wrote her several recommendation letters and it wasn’t hard to praise her strengths: eager to challenge herself, dedicated, reads widely and deeply, passionate about fairness.
Even though there were times when I felt the student — I’ll call her Alice — wasn’t totally getting how thoroughly skeptical most Fat Studies scholars are about the premises of weight-loss discourse, I thought maybe it was just a matter of longer exposure. But I was wrong. Years passed, Alice graduated and took a faculty position. I saw her socially and I tried to keep my jaw off my chest as she described to me the techniques by which she had lost some weight and was trying to get her husband to do the same. But that’s not all!
Recently Alice invited me to join her on a Fat Studies panel at an ethics-in-medicine conference. I looked into it and found that a diet doctor had also been booked for the panel. (The conference organizer has a taste for drama.) Via email, I and another invited panel member objected to including the doctor, CC’ing Alice. Alice hit reply all: “He should speak. It wouldn’t be fair to silence him.” She anticipated, correctly, that I would feel affronted by her direct contradiction on this point, and she tried to mollify me in a private email, saying that she subscribed to “most of the tenets” of Fat Studies, that she thought it was very wrong to discriminate against people based on how much space they take up, but a doctor has every right to help people who want to lose weight, and she personally supported every single person in their decisions, no matter whether they wanted to lose weight or to gain weight.
It would take a whole ’nother column, at least, to explain everything I think is confused in the reasoning behind Alice’s emails. I didn’t try then and I won’t bother now. I still really like Alice as a person, and I think it would be both inappropriate and also probably futile to try to school her. She’s her own person and gets to come to her own conclusions, wrong though I consider them. I don’t like it that she represents herself as a Fat Studies scholar, but, well … it’s not like the term is trademarked. That’s it for the panels, though. Never again will I put myself in the position of letting an audience think Alice and I represent more or less the same viewpoint.
Am I too intransigent? Should I be prepared to go along with Alice to whatever extent we really are fellow travelers? She’d probably estimate our percentage of agreement higher than I would, but in any case she’s still closer to an HAES philosophy than a random person plucked off of the street. Couldn’t I choose to see this glass as 30% full (or whatever), and cherish that as progress, better than nothing? Maybe I could, maybe I even should. But I’m not going to. I decline this alliance.