liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
Rebecca Rabinowitz is one of my favourite fat activist bloggers; she's good in various places, mostly talking critically about children's books from a fat positive and generally anti-oppressive perspective. Her home base is [livejournal.com profile] diceytillerman, which she updates rarely but it's very much worth reading. She's not really a polemical writer; if you start from the belief that being fat is morally bad she's probably not going to convince you otherwise.

Anyway, I really like her latest piece about the relationship between fat activism and dieting. A lot of the time there's a perceived conflict between activists who want fat people to be treated better, and people who want to lose weight. I am never quite sure how to feel about that perception. So I found Rabinowitz's analysis really perceptive:
But know that when you talk about [weight loss dieting] you’re not talking only about yourself. You’re talking about the fat person near you and all the fat people who aren’t near you. You can’t help but. There is no neutral.


This could perhaps be a key to why taking a fat positive stance is seen as an attack on people who choose to diet: because there's no neutral, it's very hard to have any kind of conversation in which neither people who are happy with their current bodies nor people who want to be thinner than they currently are gets hurt. Which doesn't mean it's symmetrical of course; right now almost the whole of society is massively pro thinness and dieting and consequently anti-fat, so dieters being hurt by fat positive talk is not equivalent to fat people being hurt by the systematic fatphobic implications of what might have been meant as a purely personal statement about weight loss dieting. But that doesn't mean the hurt isn't real.

I possibly shouldn't need this disclaimer, but I completely do believe in people's right to alter their calorie balance in order to lose weight if they want to. The exact same politics which leads me to conclude that fat people have the right to eschew putting effort into weight loss also says that if people want to try to alter their body shape, that's a completely personal choice and I don't have any right to comment on it. And no, you don't need a medical "excuse", it's not a matter of "good" dieters who have been advised by doctors to lose weight or who have an underlying condition directly affected by weight, versus "bad" dieters who are only trying to improve their appearance or are influenced by advertising and propaganda. Just like fat activists reject the dichotomy between "good" fatties who have a diagnosed metabolic imbalance and can't help being fat even though they have really healthy lifestyles, versus "bad" fatties who put on weight due to eating too much and doing too little exercise, any reason to be thin or to try to get thinner is a valid reason, it's your body and your choice. Everybody else has just as much right as me to assess the available medical evidence and come to a different conclusion; if you think intentional weight loss is achievable and good for your health, you have a pretty good justification for that belief.

That still leaves me with a problem because people talking about how great it is to lose weight are contributing to a culture of aesthetic, moral, and cultural discomfort at fat people existing, and, well, I'm a fat person and I would quite like to continue existing. I know lots of my friends who choose to diet don't have a problem with me, just as I don't have a problem with them, I respect their choices. In fact one of the things I worry about is how to be actively supportive of dieting friends; there is no neutral cuts both ways, and my understanding of the evidence and political stance mean that I'm not very good at encouraging and celebrating weight loss.

I mean, I reckon diets don't work, but I'm assuming that the goal of a successful diet is that you alter your calorie balance for a defined period of time, lose weight, and then go back to eating a normal healthy diet and remain at that lower weight. Even that does happen for a small proportion of people, and some of them may indeed be healthier when they are thinner. But maybe that's not what people want; maybe people are totally happy to go on watching calories forever to maintain their weight, or maybe people are totally happy with short-term weight loss during stages of their life where they have time and energy for weight-loss focused diet and exercise, and regaining weight during phases when that isn't a priority. I mean, I sometimes put time and energy into learning languages or doing bits of open source stuff, and sometimes don't, and that's fine, even though my skills do atrophy during the phases I'm not doing those self-improvement things. That doesn't mean my attempts "don't work".

There's another problem with the generally accepted discourse around calories bad, weight loss good, which is perhaps more severe, though. Weight loss talk (and even more neutral tracking talk, sometimes, just measuring food intake and exercise levels and so on) actively harms people who are suffering from, or in recovery from eating disorders, and goodness knows there's a lot of those people around. I am perhaps more sensitive to the potential for triggering people with food, weight and body issues than other sorts of mental health, substance use or trauma stuff, because I just know far too many people with EDs personally. Even linking to [livejournal.com profile] diceytillerman I found really difficult to do sensitively; I always, as a matter of principle, describe the content of my links, but I am not at all sure if I found the right balance between making it clear what the referenced post was about and putting potentially triggery weight loss talk outside the cut. In theory, meta discussions like this which are about the ways that people talk about weight loss, and which are generally critical of the idea that fewer calories = better ought to be ok, but I know reality doesn't always work like that.

The thing is that weight loss talk isn't taboo in the slightest, it's completely culturally normal and pervasive. Even expected, in some social groups, it's an absolutely basic part of small-talk like talking about the weather, transport or sport. And it's not neutral, it's hurting fat people and potentially actually damaging people for whom thinness is a dangerous obsession (whether those individuals are physically fat or not). It would be a massive social faux pas for me to raise an objection to those sorts of discussions, though.

I seem to be in a controversial mood today; I did something I very rarely do and posted an overtly political update to Facebook, namely a ranty post about the fact that it's never appropriate to post explicit photos of the bodies of murder victims to social media in order to make a political point. And that's a lot more like direct criticism of people in my FB circles than I would normally ever allow myself. We'll see how that plays out.

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Date: 2014-11-19 01:31 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: French vintage postcard - a woman in feminised army uniform of the period (General de l'avenir)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
... That post is less logial than it thinks it is.

Mention the activity, not the calories, she advises. But it is *not possible* to mention exercise without people assuming that you either wish to become thin, or Officially Fit. Presumably, by her logic, it is not possible to mention exercise without feeding into fatphobia.

But fat people's right to exercise and talk about it is kinda a thing in the fatosphere, last I checked. So discourse circles in which talking about exercise does not imply required weight loss are in fact possible. I do not think much broader good would be gained by no one talking about exercise, ever, despite the fact that without careful control talking about exercise in unregulated social spaces tends to fatphobia.

But maybe that's not what people want; maybe people are totally happy to go on watching calories forever to maintain their weight, or maybe people are totally happy with short-term weight loss during stages of their life where they have time and energy for weight-loss focused diet and exercise, and regaining weight during phases when that isn't a priority. I mean, I sometimes put time and energy into learning languages or doing bits of open source stuff, and sometimes don't, and that's fine, even though my skills do atrophy during the phases I'm not doing those self-improvement things. That doesn't mean my attempts "don't work".


I am reminded of the internet shitstorm which blew up after Greta Christina (who had until then been fat and proud) began chronicling her weight loss attempts - because they were traumatic, and complicated, and affected her self-image as a butch woman and many other things worth blogging about. She did this because she had a choice between major knee surgery within a few years and potentially never doing Morris Dancing again, or dramatic weight loss to reduce the load on her bung knee.

I believe she does in fact have to count calories indefinitely (although not so drastically as at first) in order to delay knee surgery as long as possible. She recieved quite a lot of abuse from the fatosphere, despite the fact that she was clear this wasn't about being thin, or attractive. Her diet posts were an excellent primary source on why weight loss is hard and not for everyone, and she was clear about that. Nevertheless, she recieved an impressive amount of vitriol for betraying the fat team, plus a good deal of 'well OK but did you have to WRITE about it?' The response confirms diceytillerman's point that it's not possible to talk about weight loss without hurting at least some fat people, but I am not convinced that that is a *fault* (eg, in Greta's case, if she had said nothing on her blog, she would have been photographed in person and her new not-so-fat existence would have been equally hurtful).

It would be a massive social faux pas for me to raise an objection to those sorts of discussions, though.

Is it? I mean, a social faux pas, yes. But a *massive* one? There are tons of opinion pieces out there by now on how we need to Stop The Fat Talk (this turns up in the guff pages of the Sydney Morning Herald!). It is possible to shut people down and make them feel awkward and avoid starting the convo up again - although perhaps harder if you are yourself fat? Or there's the redirect option favoured by Captain Awkward ("I'm sooo fat!" > "cool nail polish!") which might work in tight social cirlces but not on the general public.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-20 08:18 am (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (Default)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
I rather think that a good deal of the criticism (at least, where the criticism was seperable from knee-jerk anger) Greta Christina recieved was based on logic very similar to diceytillerman's: vis, that it is not possible to write about your weight loss without adding to the discourse of 'weight loss is better' etc, regardless of what G.C. personally felt about it. She was accused of setting herself up as the Good Fattie, or if not of deliberately doing so, then of creating opportunities for people to judge other fat people. All of which... sort of make sense, except had she lost weight and *not* written about it, her existence as a formerly-fat person would still have fed into that narrative.

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Date: 2014-11-19 04:33 pm (UTC)
wildeabandon: photo of me with wavy hair and gold lipstick (Default)
From: [personal profile] wildeabandon
But it is *not possible* to mention exercise without people assuming that you either wish to become thin, or Officially Fit.

I'm not sure about this. I've noticed a lot more of my friends exercising regularly and talking about it over the last few years, and it's seemed much less about either weight-loss or getting seriously fit as it has been about the realisation that we're no longer 22, and a we need to do a bit more to avoid backache and keep our energy levels up.

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Date: 2014-11-19 01:45 pm (UTC)
rmc28: Rachel standing in front of the entrance to the London Eye pier (Default)
From: [personal profile] rmc28
In fact one of the things I worry about is how to be actively supportive of dieting friends; "there is no neutral" cuts both ways, and my understanding of the evidence and political stance mean that I'm not very good at encouraging and celebrating weight loss.

I really don't think you need to worry about your own personal lack of encouragement and celebration of your friends' weight loss. Because they will get it plenty from elsewhere, trust me.

I've been praised for weight loss without ever bringing it up myself; the changes in my body were visible and my colleagues assumed this was a reasonable topic for office small-talk. Ironically I then put most of that weight back on because [reasons - actually the reasons themselves don't matter] and no-one has commented on that, despite the changes being just as visible. I suppose pointing out weight gain is generally assumed to be 'rude' in the way that pointing out changes the other way is not.

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Date: 2014-11-19 05:57 pm (UTC)
khalinche: (Default)
From: [personal profile] khalinche
I had a flatmate from Sierra Leone a few years ago and she told me that for Krio people being larger is seen as preferable to the extent that small talk often goes, 'You're looking great - have you put on weight?' followed by the same kind of responses you get in the other direction here, ('Aw, no, I wish - been trying to put on a few pounds forever but it just won't stick'/'yes, now that you mention it, I'm half a stone up from last month and I couldn't be more pleased!')

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Date: 2014-11-20 02:33 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Ugh. Yes. My sweetie's elderly mother always, on seeing me, says, "You look great! Have you lost weight?" It's meant as a compliment but: no.

Actually last time, I replied, "Yes! Since the last time you saw me two months ago, I lost half a pound!" (Made that up.) And she got a croggled look.

In any event, I think liv's making the reasonable distinction between unsolicited "compliments" like that, that are fundamentally presumptuous and -- where I was raised, we were taught you do not ever comment on somebody's body, so where I'm from -- rude, and when somebody speaks of their own weight loss in a way which... presents it for praise. e.g. "I lost 15 pounds! I'm so pleased that I can fit into my graduation dress!"

This has me at a loss, too, I suspect (liv?) for the same reason: I really dislike it when someone speaks of weight loss as an assumed good, effectively projecting agreement with their weight-loss-is-a-good-thing value system on me, which: no. It puts me in a double-bind: on the one hand, I want to be validating that the things that matter to them thereby matter to me too and to congratulate them on doing something difficult that they chose for themselves; on the other, I don't like it assumed that I'm going to be in favor of weight loss.

I haven't figured out a way to communicate "I'm happy for you, but please don't put that on me like that."

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Date: 2014-11-19 02:08 pm (UTC)
merrythebard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] merrythebard
I really like this post, thank you. :-)

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Date: 2014-11-19 02:15 pm (UTC)
jae: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jae
I possibly shouldn't need this disclaimer, but I completely do believe in people's right to alter their calorie balance in order to lose weight if they want to.

This wording is a bit spurious. I mean, I completely do believe in people's "right" do do all SORTS of things I think they probably shouldn't ideally do, and I'm sure you do too. It sounds like what you actually believe is a step beyond "right".

As for the rest: I myself tend to be silent about both individuals' weight losses and gains and the idea of gaining and losing weight as a concept. Some of that has to do with what I know of the scientific evidence, some of that has to do with what I believe about the political nature of body size, and some of it has to do with my personality (in a nutshell: I'm an inherently crappy activist). But my silence doesn't mean that I believe all choices about how to handle such matters are as good as all other choices.

-J

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Date: 2014-11-19 03:10 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
To record the thoughts I already gave you on the phone, it seems like there's a difference, not that people should never decide they would like to lose weight, but that if they do, talking about it has a tendency to reinforce the cultural narrative that *everyone* should lose weight, so you shouldn't talk about it without being aware who's listening and who might be hurt, and without explicitly disclaiming that idea.

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Date: 2014-11-19 04:26 pm (UTC)
mathcathy: number ball (Default)
From: [personal profile] mathcathy
I haven't read this whole post yet, just to the quote -but want to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with it. If I, with parent and grandparent with Type 2 diabetes choose to attempt to lose the belly fat that puts me more at risk then this is in no way a statement about every other person with their own unique circumstances.

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Date: 2014-11-20 08:37 am (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (Default)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
Yes, that bothered me too. Liv's responses have leeway for context and personal friendships and so on, but diceytillerman's does not, and there are any number of medical reasons someone might need to lose weight *and therefore need to talk about it*. Or, in the context of public figures, not discussing it would be either deliberately deceptive (cf Greta Christina - *not* writing about her weight loss vis a vis knee trouble would have been worse as far as I can tell) or distinctly out of keeping with their style (cf Ferrett, a heart patient and foodie, who mentions, y'know, food restrictions to avoid having more heart surgery). If I were looking to Ferrett for reassurance tht life after heart surgery was OK and fun and I'd still enjoy food, and *no* mention of the fact that his daily diet has been adjusted was made... I would feel rather betrayed, and less likely to trust his advice on other matters.

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Date: 2014-11-19 04:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ghoti.livejournal.com
If you have upset someone with your FB post, it is going to be someone who assumes that they know exactly which of their acquaintance has lived through a genocide, or doesn't care about hurting them more.

AFAIC they can fuck off until they learn more respect.

That's even before we start on people who are maybe slightly less vulnerable but still likely to get hurt...

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Date: 2014-11-19 10:18 pm (UTC)
ephemera: (Belly dancer)
From: [personal profile] ephemera
It's good to know that I'm not the only person who finds the whole area of social interaction *realy complicated*. I'm much clearer in my own head how I think about my own fat body (and exercise, and heating for health and not weight loss) but adding the social dimension makes it *really* hard to figure out how to talk about the issues without hurting or upsetting someone.

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Date: 2014-11-20 02:40 am (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
. [I have read this post, find it interesting, may be cogitating upon it, but have determined I have nothing useful to contribute at this juncture.]

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Date: 2014-11-20 03:36 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
From: [personal profile] lilacsigil
I'm fat and I like exercising and it's really difficult to talk about it outside certain careful spaces. Also, it took me a long time to get to the point where I could have any enjoyment at all in my body, so it's a very fraught discussion for me in the first place.

It would be a massive social faux pas for me to raise an objection to those sorts of discussions, though.

I deliberately step right in to that faux pas again and again until people know not to bring up fatness, thinness or dieting around me because I will bore them to death on purpose. It's not a neutral topic and I refuse to participate. I also quietly steal and throw away gossip magazines with "FAT!" or "THIN!" covers from medical waiting rooms.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-20 09:57 am (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
I think this happens a huge amount, with all sorts off issues. Sometimes it feels like every expressed preference/life choice is somehow an implied criticism of everyone else's different preferences/choices.

I think that RIGHT NOW a lot of the ways people talk about their dieting choices contribute to an atmosphere of "if you don't diet you suck". But I don't think it has to be that way. I think it should be possible to say "I have chosen this thing" without even slightly implying "so therefore you should too". I think a lot of people do imply that, also I think so many people do so that many other people here it implied even if it's hard to see how because they expect it.

But it's not just "talking about my diet choices" that lead to these issues. Just *eating* in public is for many people almost the same. If you choose cake you are "saying" "diets suck"; if you choose salad you are "saying" "diets rock"... even if you just really wanted to eat that thing right at that moment.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-20 10:25 am (UTC)
wildeabandon: photo of me with wavy hair and gold lipstick (Default)
From: [personal profile] wildeabandon
Just *eating* in public is for many people almost the same.

I think this is a particularly gendered phenomenon. I mean, I know that in general fat politics is pretty gendered, but the inability to eat in public without people making assumptions about what it means is (ime) something that just doesn't happen to men.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-24 07:22 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] daharyn
I think the comments here take strong enough positions as to require, if not a trigger warning per se, some sort of disclaimer? That's not to say they aren't thoughtful--but as you've noted in your cut-tag, this stuff is quite fraught.

I was really interested to read your ideas on this topic, but I rather wish I hadn't read the comments. Your comments are usually so chewy, I thought it would be easy enough to read them, even in this case. Sadly, no.

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