The Power of Positive Loathing

Lynne Murray says:

“You cannot help those you loathe.”

This sentence has been kicking around in my head for several days. I found it in this thoughtful piece by K.C. Gibbons, at Big Blue Dot Y’all. Gibbons’ piece about her healing journey as a victim of domestic violence is riveting and deserves to be read in its entirety.

The sentence about loathing also provided the jumping off point for two other women’s thoughts (Kath, and Golda Poretsky, both quoted below) on how hatred can undermine compassion. I can’t resist adding my own thoughts.

Counselors involved in anti-domestic-violence work often say that hearing from victims is one of the most effective ways of reaching violent men in counseling. But clearly that method can have pitfalls. During her recovery period, Gibbons says:

I took a position as a co-facilitator of a court-ordered therapy group of male offenders. We talked a lot about the cycle of abuse and tried to move these men from their destructive patterns. I did this work with compassion for the better part of a year. And then, one night I looked around the room and realized I wanted all these men to just be gone. To disappear. Because I no longer believed a fundamental tenet of my (then) faith – that all people have a “divine spark” and are worthy of redemption. I quit the position and quit counseling all together. You cannot help those you loathe.

In case you are keeping score, I would offer Gibbons’ experience as a situation where loathing is appropriate and useful. In her case, loathing was nature’s way of getting past all the expectations of how we “should behave with compassion to everyone” and getting to the gut level truth that she needed to avoid perpetrators of violence in any setting.

Loathing (including self-loathing) interferes with offering help. When loathing enters into the equation, compassion and even common sense evaporate–to be replaced not by neutrality but by openly hostile language and action.

This is what inspired activist Kath (aka sleepydumpling) on Fat Heffalump.

When she read, “You cannot help those you loathe,” she says:

[S]omething went “click” in my head. All those weight loss surgeons, those “obesity” experts, the weight loss industry, bullying personal trainers, all those people who claim they want to “help” fat people… they loathe us. If it’s not us they loathe, it’s our fat. And by hating fat, and failing to see that our fatness is part of who we are – not a growth or some kind of removable shell, they are therefore by default loathing us.

Fighting fat
War on obesity
Fat busters/blasters
Eradicate fat
Fat is “killing” you
Obesity epidemic

These are just a few of the terms they use in the rhetoric of weight loss and anti-“obesity” campaigns. Everything is framed around sickness and disease, war, violence, anger. This is not the language of helping fat people, it’s the language of waging battle on them. And as Marilyn Wann says – you cannot have a war on fat without having a war on fat people. The two are not separate entities – our fat is part of us, part of our bodies, part of who we are. Bodies are not disposable shells made for modification , they are an integral part of the human being.

This is why so much damage is being done to fat people. Because of this loathing of fat. Instead of working with us to make our lives as full and as rich as they should be, society wages war on our bodies and therefore ourselves. In fact, more often than not, we are enlisted as soldiers in that war, in a kind of twisted friendly fire. It’s as though in the “war on obesity”, the people who are fat are considered “collateral damage”. Some of us will die, many of us will be physically scarred forever, almost all of us will have emotional and psychological trauma that we will never lose in the vain hope that they win the war. What it does to those who are on the front lines matters not to those waging war. We’re the cannon fodder. Those in power are safe back in the war room, viewing it as a series of strategical moves and sending forth more and more troops to get bloody on the ground.

Referring to Kath’s post, Golda Poretsky looks at a similar phenomenon when she considers why and how the culture of fat hatred damages children by attacking fat kids and their families, rather than working to nourish and nurture them.

First Lady Michelle Obama has stated that one of the goals of her “Let’s Move” campaign is to “eliminate this problem of childhood obesity in a generation.”

Imagine if she had said that one of her goals was to “eliminate childhood poverty and malnutrition in a generation.” Imagine if she made this much more pressing issue a priority.

Obesity is a “sexy” issue only because it’s easy.

It’s easy to vilify and stereotype people, including children, based upon how they look. It’s easy to stigmatize a group, say they’re bad, they have bad habits, they need to be changed, they need to look different.

Poverty is a much scarier problem and a much bigger, more endemic one.

Obesity is just a red herring. Vilifying obesity has become a way to ignore the reality of the suffering of millions of people.

It’s time to refocus on the real problems and real suffering of our nation’s children, whether they happen to be fat or not.

Kath’s and Golda’s posts reminded me of how in San Francisco, after many people’s homes literally disintegrated during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I saw a report at the time saying that donations poured in to help the traumatized survivors, but some who donated specified that they didn’t want their donations helping those who were homeless BEFORE the quake. These “premature homeless people” did not qualify for some donors’ compassion. Of course, the people handing out the money might very well have enough compassion to overlook the stated preferences of some donors.

The compassion button is so often pushed to solicit charitable contributions that some of us have learned to be cautious. We may not want to be conned or taken advantage of by thieves posing as charities. We may be wary of fueling someone’s drug or alcohol abuse with a handout.

We have learned well to avoid unconditionally compassionate behavior. The loathing we’re encouraged to feel toward “undeserving” groups (because we’ve been taught that they are undeserving) is one of the ways we put conditions on compassion.

Making fat people into an “undeserving group” allows all kinds of people to punish us “for our own good,” and to feel self-righteous while abusing us, exploiting us, and profiting from offering bogus remedies for our “problem.” The anti-obesity warriors are able to separate themselves from the fat people they supposedly serve and actually loathe.

But wait, there’s more!

As Ragen Chastain points out, we fat people are targets in a war we never started, all-too-frequently internalizing a view of ourselves as loathsome in a tragically unhelpful way.

I think the belief that you can have a war on obesity without creating a war, and subsequent casualties, out of fat people is at best naive and at worst intentionally obtuse. We cannot separate people from their bodies and any war on people’s fat becomes a war on fat people. Luckily the first step of the solution is pretty simple – end the war on obesity. Right now. Then we have all kinds of options to make public health about providing information, access, and options without actively contributing to stigma, low self-esteem, and poor body image.

Loathing is like a sharp knife we are being handed and told to stab ourselves. But a weapon used against us can be turned back and used against those who hate our fat bodies so much that they demand we them put under permanent siege, or even die if necessary in glorious struggle against our fat. I say that, like K.C. Gibbons, we are entitled to loathe people and organizations who are willing to kill us rather than keep looking at us.

The Power of Positive Loathing needs to be used judiciously, of course. Although it can be healthy to hate someone who’s trying to destroy us, it’s equally damaging to hold onto the hate. Just because our culture luxuriates in permission to hate and attack fat people like a dog’s permission to roll in road kill doesn’t mean that nurturing our own long-term loathing in return is a good thing.

Feel it, yes! Acknowledgw that it’s completely appropriate to loathe someone who is attacking us, yes. Let’s put the blame where it belong–not on our bodies but on those who hate them. Let’s reclaim and defend our embattled bodies against those who are trying to kill or maim us “for our own good.”

That said, we do not wish to damage our hearts with an extended embrace of hatred–even the justifiable loathing of those who so despise our bodies. The next step needs to be taking action against those who are attacking us.

Kath and Golda and I are all suggesting that kindness and supportive engagement would be so much more effective in improving fat people’s physical and emotional health and solving real problems such as access to nonjudgmental health care, shame-free spaces for physical activity, and unconditional emotional support. Ragen and I are suggesting how to use loathing in the war against the war on obesity.