On Fat and Spectra

One of the great things about claiming a marginalised identity is the creation of solidarity; suddenly, you have a community of people who are like you. Who share your lived experiences. With whom you can rant in the corner of the coffeehouse or in email when people are doing horrible, horrible things. Yet, one consequence of claiming umbrella identities can be a collapsing of identities beneath that umbrella, a lack of recognition of the fact that people living under that umbrella may, in fact, have very different lived experiences, and may navigate their identities very, very differently.

Fatness is not just an identity: It is a spectral one. As with so many other identities, like disability, or being transgender.

The fat spectrum encompasses a huge number of people who may identify as smallfats, inbetweenies, deathfats, or anything between. These individualised identities illustrate that fatness is not a monolith. It is not universal. Simply being fat does not mean you have a handle on all fat experiences; you may not know what it is like, for example, to need a seatbelt extender. You may be able to buy clothing off the rack on a regular basis because stores usually carry your size. You may never have experienced the humiliation and misery of being trapped in a lawn chair. You may not share intersections like disability, or race, that other fat people experience, that cause them to experience their fatness and their lives in different ways.

Fat acceptance, size acceptance, movements to create justice for everyone living in a fat body, include everyone under that umbrella of fatness. Many of these movements are also working towards liberation for people who are not fat, too; the conversations about what it is like to have your body become an object of discussion and revulsion also contribute to discussions about what it is like to experience life as a person who is much smaller than people of medium build, for example. Discussions about body positivity can be affirming for people of medium build who may struggle with things they do not like about their bodies, who sometimes feel uncomfortable in their skin. The no diet and anti diet movements don’t just benefit fat people.

But this does not mean that all fat spaces should or must include all fats, and there is a great deal of resistance to the creation of safe spaces aimed at particular kinds of fat experiences. Most of this opposition primarily surrounds spaces occupied by larger fats and deathfats, people who have a very different lived experience from inbetweenies, from smaller fats. People who need a space where they can share experiences and ideas and identities with people who are like them.

This is not about who is more or less oppressed; oppression is not a zero sum game, there is enough going around for everyone, unfortunately. But it is possible for experiences of oppression to be different, and for people to share an identity, but to experience it in different ways. Sometimes, you need to be around people who specifically share not just your identity, but your lived experience. As a disabled person, I love hanging out with fellow crips, but sometimes I want, specifically, to be with crips who have lives like mine, who share my experiences, who know that experiences of disability are not universal. Just as I do not expect to be welcome in a space dedicated to crips who do not share my disabilities; I do not belong in a safe space for wheelchair users, for example.

This is also not about being ‘fat enough.’ Fat acceptance is not a carnival, you do not have to be this fat to ride. But there are some spaces in the fat acceptance community that need to be explicitly dedicated to people with specific subsets of fat experience. How do I know this? Because people are creating those spaces, they are asking for them, they are talking about them. When a group of people says that they need a space, I tend to listen to them, because I assume that they know their own needs. I, as an outsider in that group, as someone who has never been a larger fat, who is not one now, could not presume to know what the needs of that group might be.

It’s my job to support their needs. Not to tear them down, not to claim they don’t need them. The response to ‘I need a space where I feel safer,’ to ‘there are some aspects of some conversations that I experience as oppressive and need a space to address those in’ should never be ‘no you don’t.’ I do not understand what is so threatening about acknowledging that lived experiences can be radically different. That even people who share similarities and an umbrella identity may experience them differently, may think about them in different ways.

May need a space where they do not have to accommodate everyone at all times. Not everyone is welcome in all spaces; many people seem to be able to grasp this, and can claim understanding when a marginalised group expresses a need for privacy to have personal discussions that may be charged, and complex, and even dangerous. Somehow, though, the idea that even within a marginalised group, experiences can be different, is too much? Too threatening? Too intense? I confess that the logic here escapes me, simply because it seems entirely natural to me that groups split into subgroups and that solidarity sometimes is about leaving people alone to have some privacy.

It is never your place to intrude into a space where you are not welcome. And people are not excluding you from a space because they don’t like you or want to say mean things about you. They are excluding you from a space because they need some breathing room, a place to have discussions they can’t have in public or mixed company. A place where they can, perhaps, develop ideas and thoughts that they will take back to the rest of the community, created in an environment where they have time and space for critical thinking and discussion.