Myths, Stereotypes, Condescension and Dominance

One of my major, though heretofore unstated, goals in creating and maintaining this blog is the dissolution of stereotypes. I post pictures of myself, not out of narcissism, but because mainstream media almost never provide images of regular fat women going about their regular unexceptional business. I post pictures of cats and flowers and knitting and cooking because so many people think of radical feminists/separatists as haggard, humorless women who never enjoy anything, dressed in fatigues and living in a bunker somewhere plotting revolution 24/7, and I want you to see me as a whole person who tries to appreciate the sweetness of life as much as anybody. I posted pictures of Amy through the ages to remind those who might otherwise think of me as a cardboard cutout that I had a childhood, which formed me, just like yours formed you, and that I still walk around with the scars and baggage visited upon the particular child that I was.

I don’t write what I write because I want sympathy; I’m proud of the person that I’ve become through surviving what I’ve survived, and I’m proud of my awareness that my experiences are a cakewalk in comparison to what some women suffer. I’m also not writing because I want other women to feel bad, or because I expect them to do much of anything about the obstacles I face as a fat woman in this culture. But some aspects of discussions of thin privilege are quite frustrating, particularly the assertions by some that they don’t “do anything” to be thin, and therefore thin privilege doesn’t exist. These are, by the way, some of the same folks who would, with good reason, pass a large litter of loudly mewling kittens should I declare that I don’t “do anything” to be white, and therefore white privilege is a myth, or it doesn’t operate the way they say it does, or people of color shouldn’t talk about it because it makes white people feel guilty, or whatever the ultimate argument was.

Likewise, some of the same people would probably not take too kindly to the suggestion that I work hard for my white privilege, and therefore the objection of people of color to my unearned share of the goodies is just sour grapes, because if they worked hard enough, they could have white privilege too.

Here’s the thing. By saying thin people have thin privilege, all I’m saying is that their lives are easier in certain ways because mine is harder. I know thin privilege is complicated and confounded by things like racism and sexism and classism and ageism and ableism. But you know what? White privilege is complicated and confounded by all those things too. That is, white women, fat women, lesbians, old women, teen women, do not have and have never had the same structural power and control, the same access to autonomy and dominance that white men have. This is not to say that white women’s lives aren’t often far easier than the lives of women of color–they are. This is not to say that women of color don’t face barriers and obstacles that white women do not face–they do. But understanding the complex intersection of oppressions begins with understanding and acknowledging how privilege and power work, not with pointing fingers at people who have privileges you don’t while trying to duck the three fingers pointing back at you.

By writing what I write, I mean to point out the way in which the common everyday myths, stereotypes, and prejudices most people believe about body size, about what body size means, are wrong. They’re wrong in the moral sense of being unjust, and they’re wrong in the factual sense of being incorrect descriptions of reality. For example, it is incorrect to assume that fat women don’t “work hard” at conforming to thin norms. We almost universally have spent many years in that pursuit. Very few of us abandon those practices to become anti-dieting fat activists, so when you look at a fat woman, it’s safe to assume she eats less than you, rather than more–because she is always dieting, trying to force her body into a size and shape others say it should have. Despite the assertion that thin women “work hard” to have the bodies they do, the reality–demonstrated by fat women’s cumulative years of failed dieting–is that any individual’s body size range is mainly genetically determined. “Hard work” might keep you 10-20 pounds smaller than you’d otherwise be, but it’s not going to make someone like me–or you–into a supermodel. Therefore, the fact that thin people are treated differently–better–in many ways than fat people, the fact that thin people have access to economic and social opportunities that fat people don’t, is an unearned entitlement, otherwise known as privilege. This fallacy, that thin people are thin because they work at it, and therefore they deserve better than those who don’t, is exactly analogous to (classist, imperialist) arguments by conservative wealthy people that poor people are poor because they are lazy, and if they only worked hard, they’d be rich too.

To use another example: I posted another picture of me and my beloved bike because I was recently reminded that most folks assume fat people don’t exercise. I would have thought that all my posts about digging holes would have laid that one to rest, at least in my case. Not so apparently, because a recent email I received reads in part:

“I know that getting older, even 40ish, will make that weight hurt you…You have to raise you[r] metabolism to get your heart (it’s a muscle remember?) beating faster, so it becomes stronger, just like athletes have to keep pushing the line, to increase their stamina and muscle, we need to do that for our job of life. Twice daily 15 min sessions, to the point where you are easily puffing, done even stepping in place with music on, and your arms swinging, will spike your metabolism, and exercise your heart and lungs. You need to, for life.”

The person who sent this to me is a feminist, and undoubtedly had good intentions. Nevertheless, this is a perfect example of the kind of thing fat women are subjected to incessantly. It is assumed that we do not exercise, and what’s more, that, since we’re fat, we don’t know anything about exercise. If we did, we’d do it, and then we’d be thin, right? Now I don’t know about previous generations, but women my age and younger have been browbeaten with the information in the above paragraph a thousand times since junior high school gym class. The fact is, my body size is not a result of my missing out on the current what-passes-for-wisdom about exercise, and following these ridiculous, condescending, inane, one-size-fits-all instructions will not make me thin.

Similarly, several people sent me recipes in response to a post on meat even though I explicitly asked them not to. Again, I have no doubt that the motivations were kindness and generosity. What they’re missing, however, is the awareness that, as a fat child grown into a fat woman, I have been told what to eat every day for my entire life. I didn’t expect anyone to spontaneously realize that food advice, to fat women, is an exercise in thin privilege that we are weary of; I made my desires as clear and explicit as I could, and they were still ignored. In this culture, women, but especially fat women, are not allowed to make our own decisions about food. Dietary advice–mostly alarmist and bogus–is trumpeted from every newspaper and magazine article, every television commercial, every medical professional, and many of our co-workers and acquaintances. Our body size is interpreted as evidence that we do not have the ability to make good choices because, again, if we knew the right things to eat, we’d eat them, and then we wouldn’t be fat, right? The privilege of dietary self-determination–respect for our wishes to make our own decisions based on our own criteria–is consistently denied to fat women, even by our own, even when we do our level best to claim it.

Fact is, giving unsolicited advice is an attempt to exercise dominance. Think about it. You don’t tell your boss what he ought to eat or wear, or how often he ought to exercise; in fact, you’re probably reluctant telling him how he ought to do anything at all, even if you do know better, even if he is a genuine horse’s ass. If you’ve once made the mistake of attempting to “help” him (not counting the ways you’re supposed to help him, of course, including covering his ass and servicing his ego), you’ve undoubtedly received a good smackdown for your assumption of peerage. Course he probably doesn’t hesitate to tell you how to do your job better, even if he doesn’t know jack shit about what he pays you to do. Advice, aka “helping,” only moves one direction in hierarchies–down. And when someone explicitly says, “Please don’t try to help me out with this,” what on earth except your belief that you know better makes you think your special super unique advice will be welcome?

If you don’t believe thin privilege exists, if you’d like to deny all the ways it acts to deprive fat women of opportunity, dignity, and self-esteem, well, you can do that. Part of having privilege is being able to ignore such things with impunity–you know, the headache you don’t know that you don’t have, as ani difranco says. And I don’t for one minute kid myself that other women are the primary creators, enforcers, or beneficiaries of fascist beauty standards and the existing classist and erroneous ideas about fat and health. In other words, thin women are not my enemy. But if you want to be my friend, you need to start thinking about what the exercise of thin privilege has meant in my life and why I might be sensitive about it; you need to root out, and stop relying on, internalized mainstream assumptions about my dietary and exercise habits; and you need to listen to me when I tell you to lose the superior attitude convincing you that you’re qualified to advise me on matters about which I am perfectly capable of informing my own damn self.

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