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When the Truth Doesn't Fit: On Fat, Choice, and Silence
Over the last few months, I have been trying to write about being fat. Writing personally about fat demands a fairly ruthless examination of humiliating experiences I have tried to forget and of many truths that I took to be self-evident but that have turned out to be sacred cows on shaky legs. Writing about fat is deeply dislocating; it is changing me, forcing me toward terrifying risks, in the world as well as on paper. I go for weeks sometimes without even looking at the draft as it stands, never mind actually working on it.
This feeling of being silenced comes from within, from openly confronting incidents and feelings I have never seriously looked at before. Partly, though, it comes from without, from trying to discuss what has become in recent years a very hot issue. Mine are the fears of every woman who ever stuck her head above ground in a political firefight, compounded by a reluctance to criticize the premises or tactics of a young movement whose objectives I thoroughly agree with. I have felt silenced by the fat liberation movement not because any supporter of it ever told me directly to shut up but because some of its theories, presented so authoritatively, have not only contradicted but denied my experience.
Repeatedly over the years, feminist theories have been developed before women's incredibly diverse experiences have been adequately explored. Priorities have been set without, in many cases, even cursory familiarity with many of our lives. Naturally enough, these theories exclude and hold little relevance for those whose experiences were not incorporated from the beginning. Over and over again, forums for the discussion of various issues have been established, and terms defined, by those who yell first, loudest, and longest. Writing about fat has meant acknowledging my complicity in the silence, sometimes as one who generalized too soon, and sometimes as one who, out of fear, let herself be passed over.
Some introduction: I am 32, a lesbian, a feminist (one who has no intention of abandoning the term), a New England WASP of upper/upper-middle-class background now living in Washington, D.C., a writer, a feminist-bookstore worker, a walker, a bread baker. From age 15 until within the last year, I weighed 200 pounds and up and stood a little over 5'4". I bought my clothes in fat women's shops and got hassled just about every time I went out. I knew that pausing to read menus in restaurant windows or walking down the street eating an ice cream cone was "asking for trouble." I did it anyway, and very slowly I have learned to transform humiliation into rage.
As a child I was acceptably chubby, healthy, physically active. Neither pediatrician nor parents urged or forced me to go on a diet. No one in the family ever made a big deal about weight, their own or anyone else's. So in my mid-teens when I started bingeing regularly on candy bars and other sweets, it had just about nothing to do with starvation or malnutrition. I binged to literally weigh myself down, to make myself too sick and lethargic to go out or do anything. Years later, I sometimes used marijuana and alcohol in similar ways, to cushion myself in social situations, to damp my naturally high energy levels, and to dull my intelligence and writing ability. I learned relatively recently that bingeing-and-purging is common enough to have a name (bulimarexia). Sometimes I wanted to vomit after a sugar binge because my stomach felt stuffed and I felt ill, but I've never been able to make myself throw up.
In the last year, I've lost about 40 pounds, not by "dieting" (by which I mean counting calories, weighing portions, denying oneself the foods one likes, feeling hungry all the time, buying diet books, pills, and products, and literally watching one's weight on a scale), but by not eating bags of cookies and quarts of ice cream (for instance) at a time. Now I weigh about 170. Most women in fat liberation would not define me as fat or include me in fat-women-only events, and this I well understand, having weighed over 200 pounds and now weighing less. I can now wear "ladies" sizes in clothes. I spent this past summer in cutoffs and gym shorts. I still hear "hey, overweight!" and "lardy, lardy, lardy" when I walk or bicycle around the city, but it happens rarely now, not every time I go out.
In another, longer essay, tentatively titled "Losing Weight,"[*] I am exploring why I lost weight when I did, and, by extension, why I got fat, why at that particular time, and how being fat affected my subsequent life. I am struggling to identify the complicated ways in which fat served my purposes in adolescence and adulthood. There is no question in my mind that without the fat liberation movement, I would not be writing about fat. I wonder if I even would have acknowledged that being fat has been a decisive aspect of my life.
Yet when I first discovered fat liberation literature, I felt so betrayed. I expected so much but found so many of my experiences dismissed as truisms, stereotypes, and self-delusions. For me, fat is tied up with the avoidance of sex and intimacy. I did spontaneously lose weight during my first "serious" lesbian affair; the weight loss didn't last and neither did the relationship, but I was told either that it didn't happen that way or that, if it did, I shouldn't say so because it would be reinforcing stereotypes of fat people. For me, being fat is connected to how much I eat: I got fat by regularly bingeing on sweets, and I lost weight when I no longer did so.
Most of all, I was outraged to read things like "A fat person who loses weight is no more a real slim person than a white person who gets a suntan is a real black person." Apart from a seriously flawed analogy (white persons who get suntans do not intend to be taken for black persons; blackness involves more than skin color), this assertion implies that fatness is always inborn, like sex.[†] I know women who have lost weight by improving their nutritional habits, increasing their amount of exercise, falling in love, or getting out of miserable living or working situations. I also know women who have gained weight in each of these circumstances. I know women who lose interest in food when they are depressed. I also know woman who when depressed can think of almost nothing else.
Fat hatred forces most of us to keep ourselves unnaturally thin, to ruin our health trying to get thin, or to loathe ourselves because we aren't thin. This society rewards thinness and, more to the point, it punishes fatness terribly. Who would voluntarily subject herself to the treatment accorded fat women in the U.S. and other western cultures? Many women destroy their health and torture their bodies to avoid that ostracism. At the same time, being fat in a fat-hating society has enabled some of us, including me, to avoid some otherwise compelling familial and social expectations.
Perhaps each of us does have a genetically determined "natural" weight. Perhaps, for that matter, each of us has a genetically determined sexual orientation. Each of us also lives in an all-pervasive culture that encourages or demands certain things while it discourages or prohibits others. The result is that the "natural," if it exists at all, is all but impossible to determine, whether it be for weight, sexuality, gender characteristics, or something else.
Depending on who we are and where we come from, we are subjected to varying pressures; we respond even to similar pressures in very different , often contradictory, ways. Thus, as feminists committed to encouraging women to speak, we should think twice before using scientific studies as ammunition, the way lawyers use case references and fundamentalist christians use the bible. These experts are generally more interested in scoring points than in exploring the complexity of female experience, so they riddle their arguments with cryptic chapter-and-verse citations to make their positions look definitive, inevitable, and not-to-be-disputed. "Objective" research can't measure anything as anarchic as choice, so the researchers prefer to pretend that it doesn't exist.
Feminism, on the other hand, sprawls. It does not tie into the neat packages that scientists and traditional theorists like so much. Almost any generalization that we make turns out in short order to require qualifications, exceptions, and dangling ends -- and sometimes wholesale revisions. Fat liberation has taken so-called "obesity science" and turned it on its head by posing questions that the discipline could neither formulate for itself nor answer. Yet some women are attempting to take certain agreeable medical findings as inclusive and therefore definitive. Those of us who don't fit (sound familiar?) are torn between silence ourselves and dismissing fat liberation altogether.
This matter of choice has long consequences for our politics and ethics. Many gay men, for example, are happy with "evidence" that "proves" that they were born that way or they were fixed by the age of six. These gay men, who are often white, middle-to-upper class, and upwardly mobile, want their rights, no more. They want to assimilate into existing hierarchies. They have the best chance of doing this if they can persuade those who control access to those hierarchies that "we are just like you," except of course that we sleep with men and we can't help that anyway.
"We can't help it," say the boys. In recent years, the girls have been saying it more and more too. We can't help being gay or straight, top or bottom, butch or femme, fat or thin. Some women seem to think that if they know your race, class, sexual habits, weight, and age, they can divine all your attitudes and predict all your future actions. Hell, are we "pro-choice" only when the matter under consideration is the right to safe abortion?? Are we reacting so strongly against the individualist pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps protestant ethic that we look for any loophole that will enable us to evade responsibility for what we say and do?
Over the years I've listened to women (including myself) say, among other things, that they "can't help" whom they're attracted to, "can't help" staying in emotionally or physically abusive relationships, "can't help" missing this or that meeting, and (the very worst of all) "can't help" how they feel. Until I was in college I hated tomatoes, but I always said that I was "allergic" to them. "Allergic" was much harder to argue with than "I don't like." It sounded official. It put the issue beyond my control.
Whether a woman chooses on some level to get fat or stay fat, or whether it's somehow determined for her, is really beside the point. The essential issue is that body size and appearance -- like sexuality, gender, and race -- should not adversely influence a person's ability to find competent and compassionate medical treatment, respect on the street and in the lesbian community, a decent job, clothing that fits comfortably, friends and lovers, or anything else. A demand for rights and respect that is based on "we can't help it" may do quite well for otherwise privileged gay men; for feminist women it is short-sighted. Radical feminism isn't about getting equal rights just for those who can and will act/pass for male, straight, white, middle class, christian, or thin.
Like other liberation movements, radical feminism rejects whatever forms of predestination are currently in fashion. Women have demolished so many myths, models, and roles that an exhaustive list is impossible. In the past, confronted with women saying "we can't help it," we have not been inclined to sympathy. Sometimes we were so full of our own potential that we did not recognize the very real barriers that many of us face, not only those directly imposed by the "isms" of U.S. society but also the more subtle ones, the defense mechanisms that have enabled us to survive and at the same time have made it hard to deal honestly with each other, to be both trusting and trustworthy.
In LesCon 4, Jane Meyerding asks an essential question: "How do we balance the truth of one woman's observation against the conflicting truth of another woman's experience?" Related to this question is another: How do we speak our own truths in such a way that another woman will not be scared to speak hers? As individuals and as a movement, we seem to be having a lot of trouble here. Each time I reread a draft of this essay, I found a high-handed generalization or two, an unnecessary bit of flashy wordplay that was better calculated to ridicule than to inform or discuss. What have we done so far? Often we have split into factions of like-thinking women, thereby guaranteeing ourselves a certain amount of comfort and security but depriving ourselves of the challenge of diversity.
We also tend to deny one truth or another, whichever causes us the most discomfort. In writing about fat, I've finally come up against my own disturbing tendency to dismiss women with whom I disagree by saying, "She doesn't know what she's talking about," or "She only thinks that because she's (married, a rape survivor, from a middle-class background, working for the government, etc.)." This is especially embarrassing because like most, if not all, fat lesbians, I've been subjected often enough to such crap as "You'd like men more (read: men would like you more) if you weren't fat; i.e., you're only a lesbian because you're fat."
In an age when political dissidents are locked up in mental institutions and christian fundamentalists try to "deprogram" lesbians, this kind of simplistic thinking is plainly dangerous. Sooner or later, we have to trust ourselves and each other in the recounting and interpreting of our own experiences -- even though each of us, no matter how insightful and honest, has sometimes not gone far enough. This is hard work we're doing. We tend to get complacent when we get to a comfortable place. Three years ago I would have said that I knew myself inside and out and was scrupulously honest in my writing. Right now I can say that three years ago I had barely begun to acknowledge even to myself the humiliations I have experienced as a fat woman, or the uses that fat has served in my life.
All these issues are incredibly difficult, and we haven't been discussing them for very long. It's too soon to be making authoritative generalizations. In fact, when it comes to theory, feminists don't get the comfort of speaking in absolutes -- not now, and maybe not ever. Our generalizations must be tentative, open to new information, flexible enough to develop in response to new voices. The temptation to control the forum by speaking first, loudest, and longest isn't going to disappear; many of us have had long educations in win/lose, either/or thinking, and some of us also have highly developed speaking and writing skills that we can use, if we choose, to bully and silence others -- often without meaning to do so.
Truly, as Meyerding wrote, "silence is no solution." When a woman feels silenced, either from within or from without, something is wrong. In her "Defense of Big Words," also in LesCon 4, Rebecca Gordon observed, "When someone feels stupid, she hates the things that make her feel that way." Absolutely -- and when someone feels silenced, the situation is the same. Those of us who criticize young, controversial, or beleaguered groups that we basically support will continue to wonder if we aren't doing more harm than good. When we get into heated debates about sensitive questions, we'll wonder if it's okay to "wash dirty laundry in public." We are going to spend a lot of time feeling threatened, confused, and off-balance, because the field is wide open and no one individual, group, or idea is clearly in charge.
I consider myself a conscientious supporter of the fat liberation movement, and one with a strong personal commitment to ending fat oppression. But in the long run, no matter what the short-term advantages, it does not serve any of us well to adopt theories that deny some of our lives, or to keep replacing one indivisible orthodoxy with another.
Published in Lesbian Contradiction, Winter 1983–84. Typos corrected, punctuation tweaked, but that's it.
[*] I think this was what grew into the first "Esse Quam Videri: To Be Rather Than to Seem," a hundred-page autobiographical essay that I completed in 1984, before I left Washington. (Note added 24 January 2011.)
[†] This quotation came from an article published in 1977. In the new fat liberation anthology Shadow on a Tightrope (edited by Lisa Schoenfielder and Barb Wieser, published by Aunt Lute Publishing Co., $8.95), there is a wonderful openness to the variety of our experiences around fat and fat oppression. As far as I can tell, general lesbian and feminist consciousness about fat issues still stinks, though it's probably better now than it was in 1977. Celebrating diversity before an audience that is still full of resistance is a visionary, courageous, and essential thing to do.