Some Partially Formed Thoughts On Size and Disability

A conversation in the FWD comments and with other FWD contributors got me thinking. And the best way for me to think, sometimes, is to write about what I am thinking, hence, this post, which is being crossposted on FWD. And at Fat Lot of Good!

A commenter basically asked why size acceptance and disability activism are separate movements, and brought up the issue of ableism in the size acceptance movement. This is a question I’ve been asked a couple of times, so I responded with my blanket answer, which is that the two social movements are different things, with some intersections. There’s a lot of intersectionality between size acceptance and disability activism, but the two are different. Kind of like how feminism and disability activism are different. Again, many intersections, but different types of people and different types of end goals.

Being separate movements (with intersections) does not, of course, mean that members of either movement should be discriminating against each other, since they do have some common goals, and this is where the issue of ableism in size acceptance comes into play.

One of the cornerstones of the modern size acceptance movement is the repetition of the idea that being fat does not mean that you are unhealthy. That’s actually something I believe in. I want to divorce the idea of fat and unhealthy. The flip side of this, though, is that people who are fat and unhealthy are marginalized by the fat acceptance movement. And this is where the intersection with disability rights activism occurs.

Some people are fat and healthy. Other people are fat and unhealthy, for unrelated reasons. Other people are fat because they are unhealthy (hi, that’s me). And some people, yes, are unhealthy because they are fat. There. I said it.

I believe that all of the people in the above paragraph deserve to be treated like human beings. They deserve respect, they should not be shamed for their bodies, they should be given accommodations if they need them, they should not be treated as figures of horror, mockery, or fun. I would like to believe that everyone in the size acceptance movement thinks this way. That the movement is about acceptance of all people and all bodies, no matter how they came to be the way they are.

But. The problem is that, in some areas of the fat acceptance movement, there’s a good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy. Some people push the “good fatty” part of the dichotomy; fat isn’t unhealthy, we are the face of the obesity epidemic, etc. And they tend to sort of ignore the “bad fatties,” the fatties who are disabled (whether or not their disability is related to fat) and the fatties who are unhealthy. Because they don’t fit with the message of the movement.

Who’s a better face for a public campaign? An older woman who is a wheelchair user, or an able-bodied young woman?

This is a common problem with feminism, too. In the hurry to advance the movement, to try and accomplish something, people get left by the wayside. Not just left by the wayside, actually, but steamrollered and stuck in the closet. The bad fatties are that family¬† member no one likes who gets ignored at the end of the table or accidentally left out of social invitations. They don’t make the movement look good, or they don’t support the core messages of the movement, so they have to be excluded “for the greater good,” except that this concept is a load of bunkum.

There are people who want movements like size acceptance to be more inclusive. But it’s an uphill battle. Some people argue that it’s better to focus on small steps, like getting society to accept fat people, before introducing people to the idea that there are different kinds of fat people with different kinds of needs. I think that this is a mistake. It’s a mistake because it sets up exclusivity within a movement, and it’s a mistake because it values and prizes health/goodness above all else.

In short, people in the fat acceptance movement are falling into the same trap which perpetuates ableism in our society. It’s the trap that says being sick, for whatever reason, being disabled, for whatever reason, is objectively bad, and possibly your fault. This is the trap which is used to push people with disabilities out of the public discourse, because they raise uncomfortable issues. And because they make people uncomfortable.

The Fat Nutritionist, one of my personal heroes, wrote a great post about the fact that we have no obligation to be healthy. That post is as example of one of the ways in which we can start to deconstruct and break down this trap. We wouldn’t need a good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy if we accepted that some fat people are unhealthy or disabled, for whatever reason, and that’s ok. And that those people have some unique needs which need to be addressed, rather than being ignored in the desperate rush to make the movement media friendly.

So, are fat/size acceptance and disability rights activism the same thing?

No, they are not. But there are a lot of commonalities. Both are getting at the idea that all bodies need to be accepted by society, including those which don’t meet objective standards of health and beauty. Both are getting at the idea that policing identity, disability status, and health is not acceptable. Both endure opposition from people who think that fat or disability are somehow objectively bad and the fault of the person experiencing them. Both suffer from a good/bad dichotomy. Members of both movements face the “well, I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about those other fat/disabled people. You’re fine, it’s just those other ones that I have a problem with.”

Size acceptance needs to start addressing its ableism in a more meaningful way. It’s going to be difficult. I’ve fallen into the good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy myself, and probably will continue to do so despite my best efforts. Getting more disabled fatties involved in size acceptance would be a good way to start doing this. (Shapely Prose, for example, a major fat acceptance blog, could really use a columnist who identifies as fat and disabled, although Sweet Machine is a terrific ally for people with disabilities.)

Disability activism also needs to address its sizeism. Sizeism may not be as entrenched in the disability community as ableism is in the size acceptance movement, but it’s there. It sometimes manifests in very insidious ways, too; sadly, marginalized people sometimes marginalize others in an attempt to assert their right to exist. If we could recognize their right to exist, maybe they wouldn’t have to fight so viciously for it.

One of the best ways to start breaking down exclusiveness in these movements is to start stressing, when people talk about these issues, if you are identified with these movements, that people are talking about you. I am clinically obese (“but you don’t look fat”/”you can’t be fat, you’re not disgusting”). I am disabled (“but you don’t look disabled”). I am, in some terms, a bad fatty (“oh no, I’m talking about those other fat people, over there, those ones, not you”). That’s me that they are talking about. And every time I say that, I humanize the movement a little bit more. I get people thinking about things in a new way, because they identified me as on their side, as one of the “good” ones, and it’s time to start rejecting that thinking.