“I do not owe you health”: Fat Movements Rethinking Equality by Giorgia Cristiani
Artwork by Linden Jackson, @lrl_jackson_art
Body positive movements have come a long way. Major brands such as Michael Kors, ASOS, H&M, and more, have been opening up to diversity, and we can now see a variety of body shapes, sizes, and colors being represented in ad campaigns and fashion shows.
Sure, this is far from being the norm yet, and most brands are still ignoring the issue of representation; but something is definitely stirring in the big pot of the fashion industry, one that has been traditionally the opposite of inclusive.
While some enthusiastically support the change, many others, however, remain critical of plus size women, hiding behind the concern of sending an unhealthy message by showcasing fat bodies. The association between being fat and being unhealthy has been studied from different angles, and many would argue that it has been undeniably proven.
The thing is…So what?
This provocative question is posed more and more often by fat right activists, and a shifting from a scientific to a cultural dimension of fatness seems to be in order. What does that mean?
Well, to begin with, the issue does not mainly concern the scientific claims regarding fat and health risks. That body of literature exists, presenting us with numbers which can and should being questioned (and many activists are in fact doing so), simply by virtue of the fact that not all fat bodies are unhealthy, and not all healthy bodies are not fat. (Take HAES for example.) However, this shift goes beyond that.
With that being said, let’s accept for a second that fat bodies can be more susceptible to health issues, and let’s push it even further. Let’s pretend to believe in the notion that fills the mainstream sources of information, which is, fat bodies are universally unhealthy. This is where the “so what?” comes into play.
The idea behind the traditional reasoning that shames fat individuals is that health should always be our goal. This means that all those who are not healthy, or who do not manifest any effort towards gaining or maintaining health, are seen as undeserving of basic respect. This not only happens to fat individuals: people who drink, smoke, use drugs, are also victim of societal bias. However, not only some unhealthy tendencies tend to be more acceptable than others in our society (drinking alcohol at social events is normal, for example), but the question of visibility also plays a major role. A drug user might be able to hide his habit, at least to some extent. But if you are fat, there is no way of concealing it, and many will see your body as the visible mark of your supposedly unhealthy eating habits and perceived lack of exercise . Moreover, those who cannot aspire to good health (because of chronic health issues, disabilities, etc) remain cut off from the discourse, and perceived as “others” who are somewhat defective, and treated with pity in the “best-case scenario”, or even considered undeserving to live, in the worst.
In this climate, activists are radically questioning the notion of health as the pinnacle of humanity. The necessity of rethinking the binary notions of thinness as healthy versus fat as unhealthy is still there and it has not been erased; however, the focus is shifting to a notion of equality that does not factor in one’s health.
As poet Rachel Wiley explains in her poem The Fat Joke: “I do not owe you health, perceived or otherwise, to receive basic respect”. While we might think that health is important and worthy of pursuing, we must accept that not everybody is equally concerned with being healthy, nor has the means to be, and this do not make anybody undeserving of care or respect.
As well, hiding behind “health concerns” to shame an entire community of people is undeniably patronizing. Many daily habits of most people have proved to be unhealthy: from flossing to drinking coffee, from sitting too long toexercising too much. Yet not many go around lecturing people who enjoy caffeine, or who work in an office all day. On the contrary, most tend to admire those who dedicate their life to fitness, and we are all prone to make jokes regarding the amount of coffee we need to fully wake up on any given Monday morning.
The fat acceptance movement is not trying to promote any unhealthy behavior. What they are doing is affirming their right to live freely in the public sphere, to be respected and represented, and to unapologetically appreciate and love their bodies without having to feel bad for it. As well, the companies who have been embracing a more inclusive policy for their ads are not suddenly “promoting obesity”. They are simply representing all their potential customers in their campaigns, instead of exclusively casting (and cater to) the normative thin white woman.
It is great if you are healthy and want to promote a healthy lifestyle, regardless of your weight or physical appearance. Just don’t use health as the key factor to determine the worth of others. All people should be treated with respect, it is as simple as that.