What About Fat Voices? Our experience with fat invisibility - Part 3
Part-three of this three part series by Claudette Largess, Rachel Millner, and Sarah Thompson.
Our writing collaboration grew out of a conversation that we had together. As we discussed our experiences, we noticed a common thread that linked our experiences together. We were discussing the patterns we were seeing where fat people were being discussed, but that fat people weren’t actually included in these discussions. Noticing how this contributed and compounded the invisibility that often comes along with being in a larger body in our society, we decided to write about it together. When we shared what we had written with each other, it became obvious that it made more sense to separate them into a series.
Part one kicked off the series with Claudette Largess, MA, writing about her love for Julia Louis Dreyfus, Seinfeld, and her experience writing her dissertation on Fat Acceptance. The series continued with part two where Sarah Thompson wrote about her experience in Health at Every Size® professional spaces. Finally, the series wraps up with part 3 where Rachel Millner, PsyD., writes a letter to her friends and colleagues in larger bodies.
This is the last part in the series. Thank you for joining us!
To My Friends And Colleagues In Larger Bodies
By Rachel Millner, PsyD.
It always surprised me how much space my body could take up and how invisible I could feel.
I am fat. I am a fat activist. I am in graduate school getting my doctorate in psychology. During the orientation we are asked to make a list of five different parts of our identity and then cross two of them out and talk with our partners about how our life would be different if the two things we crossed out were no longer part of our identity. I include fat on my original list and cross it off. I tell my partner that everything about my life would be different if I wasn’t fat. I’m 21 and I’m not exactly sure what I mean by this, but I know that fat seems to be the thing that everyone sees about me and at the same time everything else feels invisible. I am grappling with how I can take up so much physical space and feel so invisible at the same time.
I apply for a job and go for the interview. The only chairs in the room are small folding chairs. I don’t have a choice of where to sit. It’s a group interview and if I don’t sit in one of the small folding chairs I’m going to be the only person standing in the room. I sit in the chair and can feel it’s not going to hold my weight. My legs are shaking by the end of the interview from balancing my weight so that the chair doesn’t break.
I’m in my graduate school classes, sizeism is mentioned once in the entire five years I’m a graduate student. Every single class is required to talk about marginalized identities and how whatever topic the class is focused on impacts those who are more marginalized or oppressed. Fat people are never mentioned except in the one class one time. I know from my lived experience that fat people are oppressed, and I began studying feminism and learning about the history of size oppression in college. Eating disorders are covered one day in my “abnormal psychology” class and never mentioned again. Even in my “psychology of women” class eating disorders were never mentioned and diet culture wasn’t talked about.
I am an introvert by nature and was even more introverted back then, but I was still a quiet activist. I remember asking the doctor not to weigh me and being argued with because they felt they needed to know my weight and I didn’t know at the time that I was allowed to completely refuse. I remember applying for a job as an adjunct professor and not getting it. I don’t know for sure that my weight had something to do with it, but I have a pretty good sense that it did. I got on a plane and was assigned a seat in which the arms didn’t lift and I couldn’t fit in the seat. I asked the flight attendant if I could change seats. As they were telling me that I couldn’t some kind person offered to switch with me and I was able to continue on the flight. At the start of every semester, I would worry what kind of desks would be in my classroom. They were often the chairs with the desks attached that I couldn’t fit into and I would have to sit on the floor or ask for another seat to be brought in.
As a graduate student, I knew about fat acceptance, intuitive eating, and that recommending weight loss was unethical. I knew that weight and health weren’t correlated. I also knew that I had been struggling with an eating disorder for many years. I had tried getting treatment when I was in college and when my weight went down while I was in the partial hospitalization program I was congratulated and given hugs by the staff. I knew this was harmful. When I started to spiral into anorexia and was losing weight in graduate school I knew it was harmful when my primary care doctor congratulated me on my weight loss but when I asked her not to she didn’t listen. When I was having headaches and went to the doctor and was told they were related to my weight and was put through invasive tests before they ruled out much less serious things because of the assumption that it was weight related, I knew they weren’t hearing me and I knew the tests were unnecessary but I couldn’t get my voice to be loud enough to overpower the weight bias coming my way.
It always surprised me how much space my body could take up and how invisible I could feel. Spiraling into anorexia, for me, meant that I ended up in an emaciated body. There was a very significant difference between my highest weight and my lowest weight and while I was journeying between the two the only feedback I got was positive congratulations. When I landed in an emaciated body people would often come up to me and ask how I got so thin. They wanted to know what I did. They sometimes would say I needed to eat or would ask what illness I had. The reaction to my emaciated body is what I sometimes hear described as “thin shaming.” It is always interesting to me when I hear people describe this concept of thin shaming because having lived in a fat body and lived in a very thin body, it is quite clear to me that thin shaming is not a thing. Even when someone is asking what’s wrong when you’re thin it’s with an air of actual concern not judgment or disgust, and the difference between one person making one comment and an entire (diet) culture that is built around trying to end the existence of bodies such as yours is significant.
Recovering from my various eating disorders landed me in a place where I have a great deal of body privilege and I’ve been living in this body for quite some time now. I’m a Health at Every Size(R) therapist, fat acceptance activist, advocate, and certified Body Trust(R) provider. I exist in a body that is significantly smaller than my body was at my highest weight and I am seen so much more. This is a pattern that I see occurring throughout our field in which even in a space that is supposed to be about HAES and fat activism, the voices of thinner people are centered. When I look around the field to the people who are most visible, it is a lot of thin white women looking back to me. I attended an eating disorder conference at my lowest weight in my anorexia and not one person looked at me funny, asked any questions, or wondered why I wasn’t eating. In fact, I felt like I fit right in. I attend several eating disorder conferences every year now and I see the harm that is being done to fat people at these conferences.
Weight stigma is not being named, or it is being named and then perpetuated. Weight loss is still talked about as a possible intervention for higher weight people. BMI is still viewed as a marker of health. Chairs are set close to each other with no room for people in larger bodies to move around the aisles. Eating disorder treatment centers are marketing programs that talk about “eating disorders and obesity” and discuss the “weight management” programs that they offer. At the most recent eating disorder conference I attended, one of the treatment centers was giving away BMI calculators that not only gave the BMI categories defined by the CDC, but also labeled severity of anorexia based on BMI as though we can tell the severity of someone’s eating disorder by the size of their body. Eating disorder conferences are not safe for fat people. The eating disorder field is not safe for fat people.
I give talks to both other professionals and community members on topics related to eating disorders, HAES, fat acceptance, diet culture, weight stigma, etc. I bring up topics that can be fairly controversial (although shouldn’t be) such as how weight is not a marker of health, how recommendations of weight loss are unethical, how we are doing harm as a field when the same programs that treat eating disorders offer “weight management,” and how we need to be centering those in larger bodies and not once in any of these talks has anyone tried to discredit me based on the size of my body and not once have I worried that they would. This is not the case for those in larger bodies. I have been in talks in which someone in a larger body is speaking and I hear the comments being made under the breath of the audience and I hear the more public statements that are made. I spend a lot of time in HAES professional spaces and see how those in larger bodies are silenced and then are left doing the emotional labor of educating those in smaller bodies. Those of us with body privilege need to stop assuming that we know what people in larger bodies are thinking or feeling or that we understand their experience. We need to listen to their experience and believe them.
We need to recognize that if the field is not safe for fat clinicians it is certainly not safe for fat clients. How can we help our clients navigate a biased and stigmatizing world if we can’t even figure out how to create a community of identified HAES providers without perpetuating some of the same biases and harm? Those of us in smaller bodies need to pledge to do better. We need to show up every day and take action to dismantle the weight bias that is present in our community. We need to be quiet and center those in larger bodies and we need to speak up and do the emotional labor so that people in larger bodies don’t have to. If we want the opinion, input, guidance, or consultation of those in larger bodies we need to ask and pay you for it.
We need to stop further marginalizing fat people by having the most visible people be those who are white and thin, and we need to stop talking as though thin shaming is equivalent to fat shaming. Perhaps most importantly, we need to do our own work. We can do it in therapy. We can do it in supervision. We can do it in consultation. We can do it through trainings and education. We can do it in all of these ways, but we need to do it. Until we do our own work we will continue to do harm, and for that there is no excuse. We certainly will not do it perfectly. We will make mistakes all the time, but we need to keep at it and keep doing it.
I recognize that as a person with body privilege writing this blog post, I am perpetuating the same dynamic I am seeking to address. My hope is that my past experience of living in a fat body can help contribute to the conversation around how we can start doing a better job centering those whose bodies are most marginalized. I know from my own experience that just living in a smaller body means all parts of you are more visible and your voice is more likely to be heard for no reason other than your body size, and that living in a larger body your body is often focused on as a problem to be solved and your voice often isn’t heard. Those of us with body privilege need to do the labor so those in larger bodies can be heard.