Wednesday, 2 September 2009

My Philosophy, which is mine

Dinosaurs were thin at one end, thick in the middle... oh, wait.

My philosophy of FA is a little more sophisticated than Ann Elk's theory of dinosaurs, but I'm afraid it may not be a lot better thought out. I have been trying to write a good post on it for several days now, and am finding it a lot harder than I expected. It is indeed a tricky subject.

I have one key idea, and that is that there are three entirely separate dimensions of Fat Acceptance.

1. Human Rights and Dignity
Nobody should be discriminated against, or mocked and jeered at, no matter what the size, shape or colour of their body.

2. Questioning the Common Wisdom
The media is out there telling us that we should all be thin. So is a lot of the medical establishment. Are they actually right? Quite possibly not.

3. Making Personal Choices
What are we to do? To diet, or not to diet? How do we think about ourselves? How do we exercise, eat and dress ourselves in the very real world that we have to deal with right now?

The first point is pretty uncontroversial, you'd think. But sadly, no. While pointing and laughing at someone with a missing limb, or denying them a job that they're perfectly capable of doing seems unacceptable, there's a lot of people who would try. Just look at Cerrie Burnell. And gender discrimination and racial discrimination are very far from dead. The world is a much less civil place than many of us would like it to be.

Fat people are the big butt of jokes. (Haha, see what I did there?) Hundreds of comedians such as Mikey Robbins, Magda Szubanski, and Dawn French have made a successful schtick of laughing at their own bodies. And it's hard not to seem humourless if you complain about it. We may think it's cruel and wrong to laugh at people for things they can't help, but being fat is seen as a choice. So it doesn't count. A recent article in US Newsweek discusses how being overweight is seen as a moral failing. So, you made your bed, you lie in it? We can mock fat like a Darwin award, because it's self inflicted? OK, maybe, sort of... but what if it isn't?

This brings us to the second point, where things get immediately a step more difficult. What is actually true? Is there really an obesity crisis, with genuine health dangers to much of the population? Or is it a lot of media hype? Is being fat really bad for you, or is it not exercising that's the problem, or something else? Is BMI a useful measure? Do any weight-loss diets work? Is weight genetic and does everybody have a set point? Does yo-yo dieting cause obesity? All of these things are scientific questions, and can be investigated for truth or falsity.

It's not as easy as that sounds, though. Humans are sociologically, psychologically and metabolically complex, and the research rarely gives simple answers. There are trends and tendencies and correlations and confounding factors to work through. And the evidence is in technical journals, and can be pretty hard for a lay person to pick up. Then it's also heavily obfuscated by sloppy and over-dramatic reporting in the popular press. Not to mention the massive money-driven quackery of the weight loss industry pushing the miracle diet/drug du jour, or the One True Program that will help you to finally lose weight for just ten easy payments, all major credit cards accepted...

But here's a crucial point. None of the answers have any bearing on the first issue. IF being fat is dangerous, and IF being fat is a choice - even then, fat people deserve basic human respect. Other people make other dangerous choices - they do extreme sports, or ride motorcycles, smoke tobacco, or work as firefighters. Perhaps the fat person has chosen to put their efforts elsewhere, into great art or caring for others, or finding a cure for AIDS. Or is too busy doing two jobs to keep their family in food and shelter. It's not up to us to dictate what other people's priorities in life should be.

But the third point is where is gets really, really difficult. Because this is where it gets most personal and intimate. There's a complex tension here, and one that most feminist women will already be familiar with. On the one hand, we assert the right to do what we want with our own bodies. Yes means yes and no means no, however we dress, wherever we go. Keep your laws off my body. On the other hand, we agree that social pressures towards particular standards of femininity are oppressive. To live up to them takes time, effort and money, and can be physically and mentally damaging.

Should we take a bold stand and refuse to wear makeup, pantyhose and high heels? Shall we refuse to shave and wax and trim, and never ever go on diets? Shall we ban all the gossip, fashion and "women's" magazines, and most of Hollywood from our houses? Should we fling our metaphorical bras in the freedom trashcan? And should we exert our own social pressures on others to join us, and tut disapprovingly at those who don't?

Sometimes, yes. There are cases where "STOP! Don't do that!" is the right message to send. Don't kill yourself, don't starve yourself, don't cut yourself, don't gorge and purge yourself, don't hate yourself. With lesser injuries, I think that promoting the idea that "you don't have to" is much better than crying "you mustn't". We all have to make our own compromises, and since our life circumstances and personalities vary, so do our choices.

This is where I tend to part ways with some of the fat acceptance bloggers. I mean, some of them even proudly admit to wearing high heels! The fools, don't they know how much damage they are doing to their bodies?!? Yes, OK, very funny, I won't quit the day job. But not so funny is the other side of the coin, where attempting to lose weight is framed as self-destructive, self-hating behaviour, that makes you a traitor to the cause. Nuh-uh. Like the dangerous shoes, if you want to make that choice, it's up to you.

I would like to conclude by posting a large piece of Greta Christina's open letter to the fat-positive movement. She is a fantastically good writer, and says things so much better than I could. Greta has kindly given me permission to do this, but I would urge you to read the full piece and the two articles  that preceded it: The Fat-Positive Diet, and The Fat-Positive Skeptic. Greta's work is the inspiration for me to launch this blog. Thank you, Greta!

Here is the manifesto she wants to see.
Dear Fat-Positive Movement:
Here is a fat-positive manifesto I could live with.

Feet_on_scaleWe need to make major changes in how our society views weight, fatness, and fat people. Our society has an excessively narrow definition of what constitutes an acceptable body type, and it's a definition that is unattainable for the overwhelming majority of people. People can be healthy, happy, and attractive at a variety of sizes; the standard medical definition of a healthy weight range is almost certainly too narrow, and some evidence suggests that it may be too low. Furthermore, many popular weight loss programs are grossly unhealthy, both physically and psychologically, and are aimed, not at maintaining good health, but at an almost certainly fruitless attempt to attain the cultural ideal of beauty. And many people who try to lose weight have no earthly medical reason for doing so.

Shallow halWe demand that people be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their size. We demand an end to job discrimination based on size. We oppose the moral outrage that is commonly aimed at fat people, and the persistent media representations of fat people as objects of disgust and ridicule. And we demand an end to medical discrimination based on size: we expect doctors to treat fat people with respect; to discuss weight loss with fat people as one option among many instead of the one course of action that must be pursued before any other; and to treat non- weight- related conditions equivalently for all patients, without regard to size.

Weight loss is both very difficult and very uncommon, especially in the long term. And we don't yet know why it's so difficult, or why a few people are able to do it while most people are not. We therefore think it's completely valid for a fat person to decide that weight loss isn't where they want to put their time and energy. Many of the health risks associated with being fat diminish significantly when people eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise -- even if they don't lose weight. We therefore encourage fat people to be as healthy as they can be: to eat healthy diets and get regular vigorous exercise, even if they don't lose weight doing so. And we encourage people who do choose to lose weight to do so in a healthy, sustainable way.

RugbyWe understand that there are health risks associated with being fat. There are health risks associated with many things -- things we have control over, such as playing rugby; things we have no control over, such as carrying the breast cancer gene; and things we have limited control over to differing degrees, such as where we live. We think it is reasonable for people to decide for themselves whether they are willing to live with these risks, or whether they want to take action to reduce those risks -- whether that's by quitting rugby, having a pre-emptive mastectomy, moving, or losing weight. Both fatness and weight loss can involve health risks and loss of quality of life, and each individual must determine for themselves their own cost/benefit analysis of those risks and that quality. No person can decide that for another.

Fast food nationWe do understand that fatness is a health concern -- and we think it should be treated as such, as a public health issue and not as a moral failing or a character flaw. We support social and political changes in the way our society is structured around food and exercise -- changes that will improve the health of people of all sizes. We support bike lanes, cities and neighborhoods designed to be walked in, farmers' markets, accuracy in food labeling, laws prohibiting wild and unsubstantiated claims in the advertising of weight-loss products, yada yada yada. We passionately support healthy eating and exercise programs for children, since fatness in children can cause even more long-term harm than it does in adults... and is easier to address as well, at an age when set points and eating/exercise habits are more malleable. And we oppose the American food-industrial complex's use of psychological manipulation to sell excessive amounts of unhealthy, highly- processed, non- nutritious food, and their prioritization of profit over all other concerns.

Science it works bitchesFinally: We want to base our movement on the best understanding of reality we can get. We encourage people of all sizes to base their cost/ benefit decisions about food, exercise, and weight, not on wishful thinking, but on a realistic assessment of the best hard data currently available. We support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into why people come in different sizes, and why sizes vary not only from person to person but from culture to culture. We support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into maintaining and improving people's health at the size that they are. And we also support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into safe, sane, effective weight loss for people who choose to pursue it. Our bodies, our right to decide.

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