Intersections: Age and Fat/Race and Gender

Debbie says:

Ampersand is making a point about intersectionality, referring to the areas in which so many of us cross from one marginalized group into another. The article he quotes from is here.

Trans people of color are finding that they have an extremely different relationship to gender transition than white people. London Dexter Ward, an LAPD cop who transitioned in 2004, sums it up this way: a white person who transitions to a male body “just became a man.” By contrast, he says, “I became a Black man. I became the enemy.”

As you would expect, because I’m white and female, my own experience with intersectionality is far more benign, and yet it also speaks to the experiences in this article.

Over the last few years, without having lost one of my 275 or so pounds, in some contexts I’ve stopped being fat … because my hair has gotten gray enough to make me look old. I notice this most on public transit–people who five years ago would have glared at me for seeking out a seat (because I was fat) now get up for me (because I’m old). People who would have really minded sitting next to me, even though the BART seats are plenty big enough for two people my size not to touch each others’ hips (because I was fat) now sit down blithely next to me (because I’m old). People who showed clear disdain for me if I was using the escalator instead of the stairs, or holding on to a railing (because I was fat) now show sympathy and patience (because I’m old). In those contexts, age trumps fat, and being old replaces being fat.

In the doctor’s office, however, I’m still fat. In a cafe or restaurant where all the chairs have arms, I’m fat. On an airplane, I’m still more fat than old, though that one might be changing.

If a black woman transitions to being male, she stays black and becomes male. In some contexts, I’ve stayed fat and also become old, but in others I’ve ceased to be fat, because I’m old. I’m just starting to think about other examples of intersectionality and how they work; watch this space for more pondering.

7 thoughts on “Intersections: Age and Fat/Race and Gender

  1. This is similar to something I thought a lot about when my body became simultaneously more socially acceptable (because I lost a lot of weight) and less socially acceptable (because of being diabetic). This involved going from a visible marginality to a largely invisible one.

    Another thing that factors in here is history — most people would describe me as overweight, but having been much fatter, I have a different perspective on my weight than I would if I’d been this weight my entire adult life. If I’d always been this weight, I’d probably be trying to lose weight.

  2. I’m really very interested in this – but very very cautious. There’s something about ‘intersectionality’ that reminds me of those comments we’ve all heard… “Next you’ll be wanting to see a TV show with a black disabled lesbian woman in it!”

    In no way am I arguing with anything anyone above has said, and I’m throwing an idea into the ring to be torn to pieces if that’s what it deserves… but I’m worried that the more we discuss the different ways in which different groups and sub-groups of people suffer devaluation/discrimination (etc), the more we lose sight of the fact that devaluation is devaluation is all one thing.

    Devaluation (I don’t have a better word – discrimination? exclusion? disempowerment? power-difference?) works the same across every society and every level of society – what changes is who’s got more power and who has less – who has more advantage at the expense of who. I’m not sure that we gain all that much by learning about the exact details of how that devaluation is expressed for any one group (although it’s fascinating).

    What I mean is… it’s good to know that devaluation means that people don’t get better jobs, so don’t have as much money, so can’t support their children to get better jobs, so they don’t have as much money, so they can’t support their children… But this (and the many many other effects of devaluation) work the same across all groups. Knowing the specific workings of not-getting-a-job for each of the specific groupings and sub-groupings doesn’t help very much and can distract us from more important work.

    For instance, I want people to be thinking about where they are on the social status scale – and recognising that they have power/advantage over those below them, as well as being disadvantaged by those above them (I hope you understand that I use above/below in a social-status sense only). Where that takes me is to a richer picture of how the world works – where we recognise that we’re all part of keeping it that way (for instance we can’t ignore the disadvantage that a disadvantaged resident of the USA/UK is causing for the even more disadvantaged people working in slave-labour conditions in a poorer country to make their cheap clothes).

    If we divide and sub-divide the discussion of devaluation we get more and more separate in our conversations. I’ve seen people who do absolutely excellent work around society and disability be utterly unaware of some of the workings of sexism (and have conversations that add to female disempowerment). How can that be!!??

    And, maybe one of the most interesting conversations involves looking the other way along the social status scale – looking upwards to see who’s at the top and what advantage is keeping them there, instead of looking down and asking what disadvantage is keeping them there. We can easily forget to do that when we sub-divide our work.

    BUT, all of that said, thanks for another interesting post. Your comments about ‘age’ trumps ‘fat’ are brilliant – and I want to think more about the effects of moving groups – perhaps what’s really interesting will be to think about this in general terms rather than to get involved in the specifics of any particular combination of group crossing.

  3. Janet, yes.

    littlem, thanks!!

    RW, very thought-provoking. I agree with a lot of what you say, and I really appreciate the thoughtful response.

    In my language, you’re talking about the dangers of “identity politics,” where we form what we want based on what group(s) we identify with. I believe that identity politics is very much a two-edged sword–there are ways in which it is crucial to political existence, let alone political analysis, and at the same time, it has dangers, some of which you outline above.

    I think we gain an enormous amount by learning the details of how devaluation works for different groups, because 1) to work with each other we have to know what it’s like for one another, and 2) it’s honestly different, and importantly different, from one group to the next. It’s different to be black than to be female; it’s different to be underclass than to be fat. And the differences are important.

    In fact, it’s your point: we can’t understand that we have power/advantage (I would say “privilege” or “rank”) over those below us if we don’t understand who is below us, and understand something about what that’s like.

    To me, that’s one of the attractions of “intersectionality,” although I wish it wasn’t such a clunky word. It’s a concept that reminds us that you can be disabled and female, or Arab-American and impoverished, or black and queer. And that there are things to be learned and gained from the intersections. That’s part (for me) of what makes a richer picture.

    One last thing: I absolutely don’t believe that it’s easy to forget to look up. It can be easy to forget that the people who are one-up don’t have a magical right to that position, but all of us in one-down situations pretty much have to pay attention to who’s above us and what they expect from us–it’s a matter of survival.

    Thanks for the kind words, and right back at you! I really appreciate your time, thought, and care.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I really appreciated what you said.

    Disempowerment is rooted in who you are in the culture. I’ve worked hard for much of my life to understand who people are, and we are a composite of our histories. Acting both politically and personally (and certainly the personal is political) has meant learning and understanding as much as I can about our differences. It’s often much easier to understand how we are the same, so paying attention to how we are different really matters.

    I believe in collaboration as a strategy for change and that means working successfully with people who are coming from different places on issues of race, ability, size, gender, class, etc. It’s often been really difficult work, and the more understanding I’ve had of where folks come from, the more effective I’ve become as an activist, as a person, and as a portrait artist. And I’m always learning more.

  5. Dear Debbie,

    I’m finishing a book for Routledge, and I would like your permission to use the whole entry in my book . Best wishes, Elzbieta Oleksy

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