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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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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