On ‘Taking Care of Your Body’ and Value Judgments

One sentiment I often encounter about fat people is that we do not ‘take care of’ our bodies. Because fat, on its own, is viewed as a sign that we don’t care for our bodies; people assume they can read everything about us from our appearance, before we even open our mouths. This is particularly true of fat women, whom many people seem to think are suspect in some way because of their fatness. People see a fat woman in the media and think how sad it is that she can’t take care of herself.

There are a number of layers embedded in these kinds of attitudes. The first is that there is a specific rubric for ‘taking care of yourself’ that includes thinness, and that people are obligated to ‘take care of themselves.’ You see this also with the fat and health connection, where people believe that fat is unhealthy, and being unhealthy is bad, ergo fat people are bad. The idea that health is a social contract and an obligation is something I have discussed before, so I trust we don’t need to go over it again, suffice to say that, actually, like other things involving your own life and your own body, health is a personal matter, and is not anyone’s business, let alone an obligation you must fulfill to be part of society.

So, ‘taking care of yourself.’ Means that you are thin. ‘Fit,’ people will say, because ‘fitness’ is important. ‘Fitness’ means thinness, not necessarily a specific level of physical ability, strength, coordination, skill. ‘Fit’ is the thing people use in personal ads as a euphemism for ‘not fat.’ The idea of ‘caring for yourself’ being about being healthy/thin ties into the concept of health as obligation, but it goes a bit deeper, because it is also rooted in ideas about attractiveness and sexual appeal.

If you have a body, particularly a female body, you must keep it in sexually attractive condition. This is what is implied by ‘taking care of yourself.’ If your body repulses people, they cannot objectify you in a sexual way, and this is not a nice thing to do to people. So, you must be ‘fit.’ Thin. You must ‘take care of yourself’ to make sure your body is available for consumption. Is visually pleasing. Is, perhaps, physically pleasing for people who fetishise smaller bodies and want to have sex with you.

(Note that ‘preferring’ people who are ‘fit’ is never treated as a fetish, while being sexually attracted to particularly thin or fat people is a ‘fetish’ and it makes you socially suspect. Liking people of a particular size most of society considers attractive is ‘normal’ and thus is not a fetish, even though I’d argue that the behaviours of people interested in this area of the weight spectrum are pretty fetishistic, from seeking out images of the shape and size they like to only wanting sexual activity with people of that size, and so forth. But I digress.)

People tell me I do not ‘take care of myself.’ And they are, technically, right. I work too hard and too much. I strain my wrists and arms and I, like many writers, will probably develop a repetitive stress injury, could in fact injure myself so badly that I will not be able to continue to work. I can already see the warning signs in the stiffness of my fingers in the morning, the way sometimes I wake up with my hands balled and cannot uncurl them, the dull ache that lives between my elbows and wrists all the time, that twinge I get sometimes at the end of a long night of work. I don’t look after my mental health very well; I continue to expose myself to things that endanger me and make me ill. I don’t rest. I don’t know how to rest. I would agree that I don’t take care of myself.

But you don’t know any of these things by looking at me. You can’t see late nights of work and emotional fatigue when you see my fat body. What you see are rolls and curves and lumps and muffintops and whatever else you see, and you think that means you know that I don’t take care of myself. Because my body does not meet a social standard, it’s icky and gross[1. Someone once told me that ou was asked whether I was attending an event where there would be nudity, because this person didn’t want to be there if that was the case. This person, thankfully, was asked to consider the event invitation rescinded, along with the friendship. Alas, not all my friends are this awesome. I’m sure this was not the only time.]. So I don’t ‘take care of myself’ and people can look down their noses at me and feel snobby, and lecture me on my diet and exercise habits.

They don’t care about my health. They don’t care whether I am happy, whether I enjoy my body, whether I like moving and living in my body. They care that they don’t like looking at me and wish that my body would go away, would shrink, would dwindle away so that it will no longer offend their eyes. This is what people mean when they ask me if I’m ‘taking care of myself,’ when they give me a sidelong glance while I eat a doughnut, when they scrutinise me if I start to wheeze on a hike, because of course, I must be wheezing because I am fat and out of shape, not because I have asthma.

‘Take care of yourself,’ they say, gesturing at my body.

‘Fuck you,’ I think.