A reader writes:
Obesity may not compare to sexual orientation, but that doesn’t mean it’s equivalent to short stature, ugly noses, acne, etc. Our society doesn’t blame people for being short, having an ugly nose or acne. In contrast, conventional wisdom is that obesity can be remedied and that tolerating it in oneself is a character defect.
Scientists are investigating the interaction between genetics and the environment (e.g., whether endocrine disrupters or something else in the chemical soup we live in causes obesity in genetically susceptible individuals). If this research pans out, it may explain why obesity has dramatically increased in recent decades in some countries and not others. Those who believe the issue is primarily calories taken in versus calories burned should check out these articles from the NYTimes here and here. The origins of obesity are complex, and it may be impossible for even the most motivated, conscientious people to maintain a normal weight.
There is a lot of overlap between the queer/feminist community and the fat acceptance community, and I think there are good reasons for that. I think that embracing being fat as a woman can be empowering in how it can be an act of willfully denying societal expectations of attractiveness and therefore gaining a profound sense of ownership over one’s body. I have a pet theory that lesbians and fat women are offensive to some people for the same reasons – neither group is showing much care for the sexual impulses of straight men.
As an on-and-off-again fat chick with diabetic, obese parents, I am sympathetic to the FA message that basically equates with “Our Bodies, Ourselves”- though for myself I don’t think that I can be “healthy at any size”. But I have some real issues with how this all gets mixed up with sexuality. A male friend who’s “out” once talked wistfully about how he wished his straight-sized girlfriend had a bigger ass, and I frankly don’t see how that’s any different than the more typical straight dude who probably wishes his girlfriend were skinnier; it’s still a man imprinting his sexual desires onto a woman’s body. A couple things that make me particularly skeptical about this FAG-BLT suggestion:
1) The FA movement as a sexual orientation seems to be mostly centered on straight men liking fat women. Even that first post from Anna Mollow specifically calls out the fat lovers as male. Sure, there must be women who prefer fat – certainly of women who love fat woman – but who’s really out there saying that fat men are sexy, too? This really seems to be an aspect of male sexuality, and like most things straight, the personification of sex is the naked woman. The one-sidedness of the movement makes it suspect, in my eyes.
2) Someone can ask or prefer their lover to lose weight (we like what we like, right?). This is unremarkable, because society tells us that slender bodies are more attractive. FA guys might ask or prefer their lover to gain weight (and feederism seems active in this community). What is the functional difference between preferring one over the other? It’s really hard for some people to lose weight; it’s really hard for others to gain it; but let’s ignore for a moment what it’s possible for the individual to achieve – no one could ever ask someone to change their gender!
While I agree that fatness is a result of both genetics and ongoing lifestyle choices, whether you become fat and stay fatcan depend in part on socioeconomic status as well (a point which Anna Mollow’s piece addresses briefly but was not emphasized in your posts). Not everyone has access to the same kinds of lifestyle choices as middle- to upper-class fatpeople do. Personally, I find that reader advice that fat people just need to “work harder” and “do what you have to do” might be very applicable to someone like me–i.e., a slightly overweight upper-middle-class woman with time and money to go running in the park, pay for a personal trainer, cook healthy dinners and buy quinoa or kale salads for lunch, if I want to–but a shade too glib when you consider the circumstances of the overweight in lower-income communities. Not everyone is lucky enough to work only one job, and not everyone has the time to run 20 miles a week.
The limited sphere of choices for the lower-income overweight looks even worse when you consider that a good number of urban, low-income areas are stacked with fast-food restaurants. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the New York-run hospitals with McDonald’s on the premises are all located in high-immigrant, high-minority areas.) When I graduated from college in Manhattan six years ago, I moved in an almost perfectly horizontal line across the island, from the Upper West Side to East Harlem. In the span of ten avenues, my food choices changed dramatically–I went from having access to vegetarian restaurants, organic grocery stores, salad bars and weekly farmer’s markets to being surrounded by McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts as my nearest options. I got a gym membership to offset the effects of “2 Big Macs for $3” Tuesdays and “Buy One Get One Free” deals at Baskin Robbins, but my location definitely affected my eating habits and opened my eyes to the correlation between weight and class. The fast food was just so (1) cheap, (2) high in caloric content, which gives you a good amount of energy for the low price you’re paying, and (3) conveniently located all over the neighborhood.
Of course, I don’t agree with Mollow’s stance that we should celebrate fat people of all colors instead of trying to reduce obesity in lower-income minority communities. Again, it’s all about finding the happy medium between that extreme and the equally simplistic view that fat people who stay fat just don’t want it enough. Your readers aren’t wrong to point out that there are things you can do to not be as fat, but we also need to acknowledge that it’s harder for some populations to make the meaningful and long-lasting lifestyle choices they advocate. Maybe we should have a little more empathy in addition to providing support, encouragement and education for the overweight.