What About Fat Voices? Our experience with fat invisibility in a 3-part series
This is an introduction to a three-part series by Claudette Largess, Rachel Millner, and I.
Our writing 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 kicks 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 continues with part two where Sarah Thompson writes about her experience in the Health at Every Size® professional spaces. Finally, the series will wrap up with part 3 where Rachel Millner, PsyD., writes a letter to her friends and colleagues in larger bodies.
Today will be first part in the series, then the second and third parts will be released over the following two Wednesdays. We hope you join us!
Emotional Fat Labor for those Who Fear Fat
By Claudette Largess, MA
There’s an interesting and painful phenomenon I’m trying to sort through lately.
I love Julia Louis Dreyfus. Even if I go back and cringe at elements of fatphobia in them now, Seinfeld and New Adventures of Old Christine were shows I enjoyed immensely. True to popular entertainment perpetuating fatphobia, only more painful, was an episode I saw recently of Comedians in Cars with Dreyfus. This web series shows Jerry Seinfeld picking up comedians in different cars that represent to him some aspect of their personality or his relationship to his guests, and going for coffee. This episode showed a sweet relationship between two friends, where Seinfeld picked Dreyfus up in a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 because she’s the “James Bond of comedy”. What brought me out of their mutual reverie for one another was a regret Dreyfus shared with Seinfeld.
Dreyfus admitted to Seinfeld that an idea she vetoed for her character would have in fact been a funny storyline. She described herself being “big as a house” during her pregnancy when he pitched that they should have her character Elaine get fat in the show. Immediately, Dreyfus recalled, she just started crying uncontrollably. That was the end of Elaine's “funny storyline” of getting fat. Yet, 20 or more years later, she feels it was a real missed comedic opportunity not to have used her pregnancy weight as funny fat material.
It’s “funny” now, I presume, because after her pregnancy she gained no more weight than before and was thus no longer read by society as fat. She’s starred in many roles thereafter as a thin character. Fat anxieties may be present, but she was never hired to play a fat character and not seen by the greater culture as such. She capitalizes on thinness, as so many others do. So, the missed opportunity was contributing to an overly saturated market of fat shame.
From my viewing, the real missed opportunity is in dismissing the fear and loathing of being perceived as fat and how immediately dreadful that felt to be called fat. So much so that tears sprang to her eyes. Even before thoughts could explain the commodity her body could have been in promoting more dehumanizing comedy toward fat people, she was so distraught with the perception others would have that she was really fat-as opposed to pregnant or maybe in a fat suit. Being thin again means having distance from that fatness to not have to live in that painful place of being misperceived based on her body size by whatever heinous fat jokes could take away her humanity in one punchline. Indeed, all fat people’s humanity is stripped away.
And, looking at Newman’s character, I’m not sure how the dignity of a fat Elaine would have been seen. While Newman’s character was mostly adversarial toward Jerry in Seinfeld- Newman’s fat body wasn’t a neutral element to his character. From comments regarding his “girth” and the focus on a few episodes of the large quantity of food he could eat, as the only fat character, Newman held all representation of fatness as the villain. I’m fat and the last thing I want is more fictional characters that could aid in diminishing my worth as a person. I hear fat fears all the time. From strangers conversing on the street, to strangers talking to me in public, to many facets of my personal life. For some reason, I am someone safe to talk to, because I must get the terribleness of being fat and for my “bodily sin” (high heaps of sarcasm there), I must be all too happy to hear and hold the anxieties of others’ fat fearing struggles. Somehow this elucidated for me how thin people are the architects in fat people’s narratives, and even beyond the realm of popular media sitcoms.
There’s an interesting and painful phenomenon I’m trying to sort through lately. It’s the ways in which spaces and conversations for and about fat people, or working against fatphobia, are privileging thin people’s experiences. I’m working through the literature review of my dissertation on Fat Acceptance, with the hopes of interviewing people who identify as fat and are working toward or are fat accepting. Part of what I describe to people who ask about my project is that I’m looking for people who not only identify themselves as fat and are not trying to change their body size through diet, lifestyle change, pills, surgeries, and accept their size (or are working toward acceptance). Basically, I want to center fat voices in my research; explore the experiences beyond shame that speak to the beauty and resilience of that which we don’t see in popular media.
Within the last year, I’ve found so much support for this idea. A group of people have offered to be interviewed. I always feel so honored people would be willing to share their experiences with me. And, for me, the unexpected happened. A handful of people interested in being interviewed were people who weren’t fat. This group of people have told me the weight they’ve lost and how hard it was to be fat. Kindly, I try to again state the research is for fat people, like currently fat people. As if I hadn’t said anything at all, the response I get is how they’d love to be interviewed. To avoid medical stigmatization of fat, I will not measure or weigh or request proof of fatness. People who say they are fat and state they aren’t in the active process of trying to change or modify their body are criterion.
A small group of people, I find I start to hold their fat anxieties and fear. Listening as they detail the painful aspects of how they *were* fat. This is key, as they acknowledge being thin now. Complementing how important my work is, I thank them. Always I’m thankful for support. Lately, though, I’m wondering what I’m thanking them for and trying to sort through the reasons my claim to make space for fat people isn’t translating for some thin people.
At first, I thought it was just that one person; there’s always the first person that alerts to patterns. This person approached me about their journey coming to terms with fat acceptance, weight lost, and maybe the permission for others to be fat, but definitely not for this person to be so. Then more people approached me. I started to wonder about other places and spaces that privileged thin voices surround fat topics. I came across the Comedians in Cars episode, and saw again fat fear dictating literal sitcom storylines.
So, what is my “fat-worth” to others? Because, it would seem, my self-worth is predicated on my size. So, is my fat-worth only useful or worthy of acceptance of others when holding them up or above me? I start to realize that I’m positioning thin voices over my own and then, in turn, being dismissed during discussions about body size. I only become accepted/acceptable when I’m holding thin people’s fears of being or having been in a fat body.
Why is it so hard to take up space? Physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, space, space, SPACE! I have noticed discomfort when fat people take up space. Like, it isn’t ours unless some emotional, intellectual, physical labor of some such is freely (without pay and without mention) offered to others’ anxieties. Why do I need to de-center my voice in discourses about fat people and spaces purporting to center fat voices to be “doing the work” of fat liberation?
I’m expected to give space and voice to those thinner than me. Hold their feelings above my own. Be ignored as they claim loudly their hurt feelings for being treated like I am treated every day. It seems as if it’s okay to accept my fatness, as long as I’m quiet and focusing the dialogue on other people-thin people. And, yet, I have many privileges as a white cis femme, and despite being fat, my unearned advantages are apparent versus the limited accessibility to medical care, clothes, seats, travel, and stigma Super Fat people face.
Is my fat worth contingent on thin voices having a place to be thin and fearing of fat? Am I beholden to offer empathy and validation because I’m so emotionally searching for those who don’t outwardly spew fat hate?
I notice thin people don’t have to identify as thin but I do as fat to set the tone that fat is okay. Or I’m either expected to perform shame for my fat body or never perform shame, but never be a nuanced human being like… anyone else. Now thin people have to code their struggle to me as once fat so that once again their voices are privileged over fat people who are currently oppressed. I need to be invisible again, I need to hold your tender heart at the expense of my own. De-center marginalized fat voices, to again, make space, all the space for you to talk about how you feel about having been fat before. I need to disappear. Take the least amount of physical space and now I realized, have always known, emotional space so it can be all yours and I can show how fat people aren’t a threat. But it’s not me that’s the threat, it’s my fat. And I can be accepted despite my fat… not including.
So hard to describe because like most things unintentionally complicated and born of years of conditioning, I wonder is it real to question my ignored worth? Who’s hurt by my claim to be heard? People of color (POC), Superfat, and especially Superfat POC. Those with less privilege than my own. But, really, who’s uncomfortable? Thin white people. Dreyfus who instantly realizes the truth of how difficult it is to be in a fat body regrets the social capital involved in not making money off her fat body in the name of humor (also is a pregnant body which may or may not be considered “fat” fat?). Fat people like myself are okay as long as we don’t make too many demands and listen to the experience thin people have around body shame.