On Fat Suits and Empathy

Simulations appear to be one of society’s ways of trying to generate sympathy and compassion among more privileged members of communities vis a vis their relationship with more marginalised groups. Thus you have the ‘blue eyes, brown eyes’ simulation used in civil rights education, disability simulations involving wearing clunky gloves or strange glasses, and exercises in wearing clumsy fat suits. People are required to engage in these ludicrous exercises for anywhere from an hour to a few days, all the while learning about ‘what it’s like for them,‘ often followed by a ‘meaningful reflection’ on the process in the form of a navelgazing essay about how much they learned during their experience.

They never write about what it was like to have blue eyes and be briefly relegated to the back of the classroom, or how it’s difficult to open a jar of pickles when your hands are encased in welding gloves, or how hard it is to take a whizz in a fat suit. They write about what it must be like to be Black (or to have been Black, because civil rights education often presents racial discrimination as a thing of the past), they write about what it’s like to be disabled, what it’s like to be fat.

Even though they haven’t actually had any of these experiences and can’t be said to have had them. They had a simulation, often a poor one at that, a vague attempt at distilling a complex lived experience into a few hours of existence, without a lifetime of experience. Black children are born Black. They grow up Black. They spend their lives with the awareness of Blackness, of experiencing a racist society, of knowing to their bones that they’re considered less than human. Fat people spend years enduring stigma, just as disabled people do.

These simulations imply that discrimination is about a physicality; if only we could mimic the physical experience, everyone would understand, get along, and be friends. They ignore the fact that discrimination is about deep-seated identities and experiences, and that it involves complex interlocking social structures that create generational and institutional oppression that people endure over time. It’s not as though you wake up fat one day. You feel your body shifting over time, and you feel the changing attitudes about you, and you hear the hurtful comments about how you used to be ‘pretty once.’

How is wearing a fat suit going to provide someone with an analagous experience? Here’s what people learn while wearing fat suits: fat suits are hot, sweaty, slippery, and uncomfortable. They chafe. They make it difficult to walk, use the bathroom, and perform tasks like eating and drinking. Is this what they think fatness is like? Being swaddled inside a giant layer of material that makes you struggle to do the most basic of things? Do they think fatness is about trying to cram yourself into a bathroom stall and wade through layers of fabric?

It’s not just about the physicality of being fat, but about the sociology of being fat. Fat embodiment is complex, and there’s a detailed social interaction between your body and the world around it. Is the lived experience of being in a fat body different than that of being in a thin body? Sure. My thin friends don’t worry about breaking furniture when they sit down, for the most part, for example. Are there fat triathletes, though? Fat dancers and yogis? Incredibly physically active fat people? Uh, yeah, and somehow they manage to overcome the terrible burden of being trapped inside a fat body to do what they want to do.

A static fat suit is not a fair approximation of what it’s like to be fat. It describes only what it’s like to wear a lot of chunky foam (or blowup material) and teeter around in it for a few hours or a day. It doesn’t say anything about the joy of movement in a fat body, about the cadence of a fat body, about the rhythms you develop in a fat body. It doesn’t say anything about the things that are sometimes not so great about being fat, either, like problems with yeast in fat folds or rashes from clothing that doesn’t fit right. It’s just some clothes.

Nor does wearing a fat suit offer insight into what it’s like to live in a society where you are loathed and hated because of your body. People seeing someone in a fat suit can tell it’s a fat suit, it’s not like these garments are subtle. You might attract comments or laughs, but it’s nothing compared to actually living in a fat body. If you walk down the street in a fat suit eating a doughnut, what people see is a person walking down the street in a fat suit eating a doughnut. Nothing more, nothing less. When I do that, when Marianne Kirby does that, it becomes a loaded act.

It’s not about the fucking fat suit: it’s about being fucking fat. It’s about daring to exist in public in a world that says your body is not acceptable, and you are not going to learn what’s that like by putting on the imagined trappings of someone else’s lived experience. It’s just insulting. The only way you’ll learn about it is to live it. Or to dare to actually talk to, listen to, and interact with the people living it, to find out from them what their lives are like. Do you think you’re ready to do that?