What the Heck Is Fat Activism Anyway?
Queer fat activist Stacy Bias gives us the (not so) skinny on the social justice movement.
Outside fat activist circles themselves, the phrase Fat Activism can sometimes get a lukewarm reception. Fat is a complex word—both intellectually and emotionally—for fat and thin folks alike. It comes pre-loaded with all sorts of prescribed meanings and assumptions that one has to fight through in order to actually hear the message that follows it. So why do Fat Activists use the word Fat?
Mainly - Fat is truly the only objective descriptor out there. Fat is exactly that: Fat. It's something one has, a cell type. Everyone has fat cells. Some have more. Some have less. The idea that having more or less fat automatically means something about who a person is in the world only exists because, somewhere along the line, some of us decided it should be that way and the majority of folks went along with it. Just like we decided that green means go and red means stop, and that the word for tree is tree, society functions on an unspoken set of social agreements that masquerade as common sense. They do this so effectively that most of the time, we don't even think to imagine that there's another way we could feel about things. But there is!
Any word other than Fat that's used to describe fatness usually only succeeds in giving the existing socially constructed meaning more power. For example: Overweight: This statement infers that there is a 'normal' weight, and that any weight above that is too much. Another example: Plus Size. This infers that there, again, is a standard size
and that any size above it is excessive. Obese is a medicalizing term that strips people of their complex humanity. We decided somewhere along the line that fat was a bad thing. That gives us the power to decide differently in the future. And the language we choose to start that process with is of vital importance.
Now, what is Fat Activism?
Fat activism is multiple. It's an umbrella term for a movement that contains a multitude of voices and myriad, sometimes even conflicting goals. There is no single spokesperson, voice or goal of fat activism because fat is an intersectional issue. This means that fatness
intersects all other forms of oppression - racism, ableism, classism, sexism, homophobia just to name a few. This means that the progress of fat activism is tied in with other social justice movements and that each movement is accountable to the next for the ways in which our work is done so that none are harmed or left out by the work of others. That said, it's fairly safe to assume that most fat activists, somewhere in their work, are striving toward an end to discrimination based on size. This means equal access to medical care, an end to social stigma, economic marginalization, and job discrimination. The routes by which that work is undertaken vary wildly.
But isn't being fat unhealthy?
Fitness and fatness are not mutually exclusive. You can be healthy and fat, just like you can be thin and unhealthy. But that's beside the point. The point isn't whether fat people can be healthy, or whether fat activism is encouraging people to be unhealthy. The point is -- why is health the supreme measure of someone's worth in the first place? Lots of people aren't healthy for reasons both beyond and within their control, and in neither case does that mean that they don't deserve full and equal lives. Bodily autonomy is paramount. No one's body is beholden to anyone else and everyone deserves equal treatment under the law.
Is there a difference between Fat Activism and Body Image Activism?
Yes, absolutely. First, we're not blind. We all know that no one really looks like the models we see in magazines. So let's get rid of the idea that we need to educate one another about the reality of our bodies. We all know that bodies are inherently diverse, asymmetrical, wonky, and beautiful things. We know that the people we see in the media live a primarily body-focused life that many of us could not or would not choose and are airbrushed beyond recognition. That said, even our best critical thinking doesn't necessarily render us totally immune to messages around us.
So, we're not all gullible robots, but we're also not superhuman. This means for some of us, our daily lives can look a lot like waffling between our feminist self-love dictates and socially reinforced dieting mentality. In either case, it can come with a lot of shame --
either shame for not loving yourself enough or shame for not reaching an unrealistic ideal. And all of this basically puts the onus on us as individuals to fix how we feel rather than fight the systemic problems and social institutions that are creating this conundrum in the first place. It's been a brilliant strategy so far, but I know we're smarter than that.
Fat Activism absolutely wants you to feel good in your body, but it's mostly concerned with making sure your body gets what it needs independent of how you or anyone else feels about it.
What does Fat Activism Look Like?
It looks like lots of things! It looks like putting together a dance party in an accessible venue where all bodies can be comfortable, it looks like organizing a clothing exchange so people can trade clothing in an environment that is warm and encouraging rather than buying new things, it looks like forming a committee and taking on local government to add size as a protected class against discrimination alongside gender, sexuality and ability, it looks like acknowledging fellow fatties on the street, it looks stuffing flyers in diet books, it looks like speaking up when someone says something terrible about
fat people in front of you, it looks like interrupting sizeist practices in your workplace, going with a fat friend to the doctor as an ally against discrimination, it looks like wearing tank tops and showing your arm flab, or working to accept yourself even when you don't feel comfortable doing that. It looks like being, being seen, and seeing others as undeniably full-bodied, well-rounded, complex and worthwhile human beings regardless of size, gender identity, ability, ethnicity, class, age, or sexual orientation.