What happens when a fat acceptance activist decides to try to lose some weight? She might decide to do so in secret, and (should she succeed, even in the short term) look puzzled and surprised if she is asked if she’s lost weight. Or she might decide to go public. Going public is risky in at least two ways: first, she would know how low the probability was that she could lose any significant amount of weight and keep it off; second, she would know from being in the fat acceptance movement just how much anger we feel at the pressure to diet. She would know that she would be perceived as part of that pressure.
Hanne Blank’s fat activist credentials are *ahem* substantial. She is the editor of Zaftig: Well Rounded Erotica and the author of Big Big Love: A Sourcebook on Sex for People of Size and Those Who Love Them.
Now, she has launched her “reduced fat” blog, The Fickle Finger of Fat (link above).
So. This is a blog about fatness and agency, and specifically about fatness and my own personal agency in terms of my efforts to get healthier and, yes, less fat.
You’ll note that I’ve called it “a reduced-fat blog” in the subtitle above. That’s absolutely accurate. Part of this blog’s purpose is to let me have a dedicated space to talk about my efforts to reduce my fatness.
Let me state for the record that I have no intent of trying to become “thin,” whatever that is or would be for my particular body. (There’s at least a whole post in that issue alone, which I will save for another day.) But for a whole bunch of reasons (and there’s at least another whole post in this sentence too) all of which essentially boil down to “because I want the experience of living in this body to be a more subjectively rewarding one,” I’m interested in becoming a reduced-fat version of me.
Unsurprisingly, this has unleashed a lot of passion, a lot of pain, and a lot of examination, in the fat acceptance blogosphere. The thoughtful posts at The Rotund and Shapely Prose both have 85+ comments in their comment threads, which tells you how important this is to people.
Both bloggers, and most commenters, are kind to Hanne Blank personally, and support her right to do whatever she wants. At the same time, neither blogger sees her personal rights as the whole story. In the end, after much thought and care, The Rotund concludes: It’s a nasty, sticky issue. As people working for social justice, I think our instinct is to include as many people as possible, to bar no one from claiming membership in our community. I think this is a good urge. But I do think there are some lines in the sand. Weight loss as a goal is one of those lines. It doesn’t mean you can’t play with us and it doesn’t mean you are making a bad or wrong decision for you as an individual. It DOES mean that you are a member of a different team.
Kate at Shapely Prose comes down here: I do not believe you can truly be a fat acceptance activist and support dieting any more than you can be a liberal activist and support Bush. I believe the two are simply irreconcilable.. (emphasis in the original).
Full disclosure: I’ve met Hanne Blank, a little more than in passing, a lot less than enough to know each other. I’m a huge admirer of her writing, her work, and her stance in the world. And we have many friends in common. So maybe that’s coloring my reaction.
When I read the first post in The Fickle Finger, my first thought was, “Go you!” I appreciated the way that she distinguished losing some weight from becoming thin. I could see the two-edged sword of her discussion of “acceptance”:
I particularly think it’s important to talk about size acceptance and self acceptance in the context of agency. By “agency,” what I mean is a combination of control and initiative and autonomy, the ability to effect action, to be active rather than passive. Words like “acceptance” are troublesome to me because they imply that one has little choice about what it is that one is accepting. The phrase that always comes to mind, when I think about the word “acceptance,” you can’t do anything about it, you’re just going to have to accept it.
To which I say a resounding yuk.
Who wants to be in that position, the shut-up-and-take-it-because-it-doesn’t-get-any-better place? Not me. I think that as a woman in this culture, and specifically as a fat woman (to say nothing of as a political liberal/radical and a professional intellectual living in twenty-first century America), I’ve had quite enough of that for one lifetime, thanks, and I’m not interested in assuming the position for any more soul-crushing “acceptance” of the short end of the stick than I absolutely have to. That’s the unhealthy and un-fun kind of masochism, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
Probably there is no way Hanne Blank could have written about what she wants to do without pushing buttons, but this attack on one of our most widely used and most beloved phrases was like waving a red flag in front of a bunch of very fat and angry bulls. I feel the anger when I read that passage, and it comes out something like “How dare you say that my acceptance is passive?” (She tries to explain this argument in a later post and makes it worse. I won’t quote her here, but you can go look.)
Every time I read anything on either side of this issue, I feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable defending Hanne Blank’s right not only to do whatever she wants with her own body (which most people are not attacking) but to do it publicly and to retain her street cred while doing it. I feel uncomfortable siding with the smart and thoughtful folks who say that she has abandoned her people, because I can tell that she hasn’t. I hear myself in practically everything anyone says on the subject. I know the pain of realizing that someone I admire has decided to make a choice I struggle against the culture not to make, and I know that for other people that pain is a lot more intense than it is for me.
In the end, though, my unease comes down to a few things:
First, I’m worried for Hanne. All the work that I’ve done has made me more sure that weight loss is not a useful goal and almost always not an attainable goal, and I hate to see someone so strong and self-confident taking it on. I’m afraid it will hurt her physically, and I know damned well that the intense reaction in the fat community has to be hurting her emotionally. I so thoroughly value her presence in the world, and I don’t want either a failure to lose weight or a storm of public criticism to diminish her. (I think she’s more than strong enough to withstand either or both; at the same time, I’ve been around long enough to know that people get diminished–and get strengthened–by the most unpredictable things.)
Second, one specific characteristic of fat activism (which we share with transgender activists, but not many others) is the belief among activists that fat is not primarily a voluntary condition, constantly coming into conflict with the belief in the big world that it is primarily voluntary. Your skin color is issued at birth and no one expects you to have a choice about it. Your willingness to have an abortion is completely a matter of your own choice and no one claims it’s genetic. (Sexual orientation is so muddled in this context, with large groups on both sides making both claims, that it would require its own post.)
Third, fat activism certainly has a personal component, but by the nature of activism, it’s primarily about social justice. If you’re fat on the street and fat in the doctor’s office and fat ion your blog and fat on the airplanes, whatever you are doing in your own private life to change your size isn’t really going to affect how the world sees you. And if you open your mouth about being fat and deserving good treatment, you’re a fat activist. If you are defending people’s rights to chairs that fit, decent medical care, good sex, and a space in the world, you’re a fat activist. If Hanne suddenly became a person who weighed 110 (and we all know how likely that is, even if it was something she wants, which it is emphatically not), she could still be a fat activist, like Laurie, and Linda Bacon. If we demand that our activists fit a stronger set of criteria than that, we’re in danger of creating purity tests, and deciding who does and who doesn’t “deserve” to be an activist. Personally, I’d much rather be fighting the bariatric surgeons and the diet industry.
Another way to explain my position is this: you put your money where your mouth is, you defend your rights and everyone else’s, you take to the streets and the doctors’ offices, and the bookstore shelves and the internet. You do your homework and you learn what you need to learn and you teach what you have to teach. And if one day you wake up with aching knees and a tendency to fall, or with a longing in your heart for something, anything, that’s opposed to what you’ve been fighting for, you follow your heart. And you make it clear that it’s your heart, and that you still stand with all the people who are in the thick of it, and you love their truth while following yours. You love it (and them) enough to make your decisions public and take their pain. You’re an activist in my book.
I’d like to think, if the wind shifted, that I could try to take off some weight and still retain my activist status. (No, I don’t see that shift in my future. But life is a long time.) And I’d like to think I’d still have some allies among my allies.