Capitalism, patriarchy, and other reasons I’m fat: revisiting fatness as choice

Neoliberal capitalism is obsessed with choice: the illusion of it, anyway. Same with patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, settler colonialism—they all sustain themselves in part by making our oppression our job. We internalize the rules so we can flog ourselves for breaking them, over and over again. We proclaim, loudly, that we deserve what we get, that we are oppressed because we choose it, and we must only wish away or ignore structural burdens in order to experience freedom. We fight other oppressed folks who dare to name our oppressors as entities outside ourselves. The ways our oppressions internalize themselves are often so insidious that the ideas our brains produce in their thrall can appear revolutionary, at least to us, at our current level of awareness. (See Kanye thinking a white supremacist chestnut is the key to black liberation.)

I’ve been thinking about why I’m fat, lately.

In the past, I declared that I was fat by choice. It was important to me, then, to grasp at what few shreds of individual agency I could. I needed to feel like my existence as a fat person was a rebellion in the sense that I could quit any time, and not doing so was a middle finger to society. At any point, if I just paid a little more attention to my body, if I was just a little less frivolous with my food groups, I could leave the abundance of fatness behind. I just choose not to, right?

(I see them, now. Ghostly relics of internalized fatmisia: my insistent proclamations that I had a choice in the matter of being fat. Relics adorned in the garb of an illusory agency, a complicity in my own destruction that was difficult to resist when I was deep in my feelings about having had little say over the trajectory of my life.)

For some oppressions I live with, the origin lines are relatively linear to me. Ask me why I’m Black and I will tell you a story of chattel slavery, a colonial project undertaken as the greatest wealth redistribution project in human history, and a category created to distinguish humanity from property; ask me why I’m femme and I will tell you of babies carelessly assigned a gender based on a glance at external sex organs, a patriarchal society’s desperate efforts to contain femininity, and my own journey reconciling my internal experience of womanhood with my apparent gender.

My fatness, though, reaches from all directions. Ask me why I’m fat and I will tell you about patriarchy, his tyrant son, rape culture, and the wrath their mortal instruments inflicted on my young psyche. Ask me why I’m fat and I will tell you about ableism and the forced drugging of psychodivergent adolescents. Ask me why I’m fat and I will tell you about capitalism, its capricious devastation of our food environments, and its sorting of humanity into useful and useless. Ask me why I’m fat and I will tell you, again, about the razing of a continent through enslavement and colonialism. There are so many reasons, and I realize, now, that all of them are outside my control.

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I had a 23andMe health and ancestry test gifted to me a while back by a friend. Last week, I got the results, and part of my health analysis stated that I was likely to be average weight. After I stopped grumbling about Whose average?, I started thinking about the course of events that tipped the scales of probability in favor of fatness. Not in a wistful, if-only-this-hadn’t-happened way, honestly. Just musing on the fact that my body, as reviled as it is, is basically a monument to the success of capitalism (and white supremacy, and settler colonialism). Like, look what having food accessible abundantly (to a few) and insisting we prioritize productivity over well-being to increase wealth (for a few) can do for a body. Or, look what tormenting brown folks whose bodies crave taking up just a little more space than your narrow white selves are comfortable with into yo-yo dieting in order to fit a white supremacist ideal can do for a body.

(Basically, y’all should be worshipping fat folks as gods of the fucking free market, patron saints of capitalism. Something other than pretending we don’t exist, or actively working to ensure we can’t.)

I know that genes aren’t destiny. I also know that I am what society made me. It is vital, then, to me, to find and name origin lines, because I do not believe in a fat liberation that does not also seek the dismantling of the structures that created my fatness.

But. But.

I’m not looking for reasons why I’m fat so that I can make it so less fat people exist. Despite my belief that our current food environments are designed to maximize profit rather than human happiness, and despite my belief that our ever-diminishing access to guaranteed shelter, abundant leisure time, and safe outdoor space is making our bodies and minds sick, I also believe that humanity contains a diverse array of naturally-occurring, joyfully normal body types, sizes, and shapes. I also believe that good health looks different for everyone, and is not a moral obligation.

(Especially when we’re in no danger of extinction from any “obesity epidemic”, but we are damn sure in danger of extinction from capitalism and white supremacist imperialism.)

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I read a HuffPost article that really resonated with this desire I’ve been cultivating, to have the origin lines of my fatness identified (“Everything you know about obesity is wrong”, September 19, 2018). In it, the author, Michael Hobbes, prints the words of actual fat people, their stories of medical discrimination, inaccessibility, and wage theft. He also touches on the impossibility of losing weight and the paradox of individual choice in a society that works against you. I felt seen, affirmed: we know it’s not your fault, in article form. And I felt angry, because in that article are so many injustices. So many of my fellow fat folk pouring out their experiences, maybe hoping for understanding from their oppressors, maybe hoping to inspire their kin.

(I channeled that anger into wearing a crop top to pick up my parking permit at school, hoping my belly fat would disgust someone so much they’d say something and I might bring the full force of my rage to bear upon them.)

Of course Hobbes is saying things that fat acceptance activists have been saying for ages; diets don’t work, fat stigma kills. He’s just acting as a thin interpreter. And as Margitte points out in her incisive rebuttal (Everything you know about ‘obesity’ is still wrong, September 24, 2018), he’s still approaching fatness as a problem that needs to be eliminated. He is still linking fatness with health. Margitte, in response, implores us to stop searching for the cause of fatness and instead work towards liberation via building a society designed for all body sizes and shapes.

But when I read her words, I felt myself chafing against the idea. Why? I had to think about it, sit with it, make sure it wasn’t another relic of internalized fatmisia. And then I discerned my problem. It wasn’t the idea of working towards liberation, but the idea that I had to stop being concerned with the cause of my fatness. Because, like I said, I can’t see a true fat liberation existing in a framework where fatness is not a choice, and as long as patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism are still standing, my fatness will never, can never, truly be my choice.

Even my current level of health is not my choice. I think one reason Hobbes’ article resonated with me is that I have a deep longing to be healthier than I am, but I’m up against structural obstacles that make obtaining the health I want difficult. It sounds like liberation to my ears for society to remodel itself so that eating foods that don’t trigger my IBS or fibromyalgia flares is easier, so that I can get the free time and access to exercise I need to soothe my crazy mind and achy body.

But Margitte is right in the sense that a society remodeled in this way would be remodeling itself in a fatmisic image. It would be remodeling itself to achieve the erasure of fatness under the guise of improving health, because we have not accounted for the root of our hatred of fatness. And when the remodeling project did not succeed, society would again turn its wrath towards us and demand we account for why we’re still fat unhealthy, because in a fatmisic society fatness can never be healthy. And our subjugation is not dictated solely by our socially constructed health status.

(Fat folks are expansive, billowing. It takes many tethers to tie us down.)

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Is it paradoxical that I still feel some sense of choice to my fatness now, having firmly outlined my lack of such? Let’s see: I choose to love myself even when I don’t. I choose to rage against my creators. I choose to exist in this body, every day, even if that choice is only made by inertia. But no, I don’t choose to be fat any more than I choose to be Black, queer, femme, or crazy. These are all categories created to divide humanity into those who hold power and those who do not. I find joy in the family I’ve discovered through the sharing and celebration of these identities, but I can’t deny their nature, their intended, oppressive purpose. And my fatness strikes at the core of all of them, connecting them, nourishing them with its decadence. I could not exist as any one of these things without my fat.

(Like so many beautiful things in life, fatness is multifaceted.)

I want us to create a fat liberation movement that strikes at the core of our intersecting identities and nourishes other liberation movements. I want us to acknowledge and honor where we came from, acknowledge that we share the same root system with others who are oppressed by white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. We all have different origin stories for our fatness. We have all been shaped round in part by the societies we live in. Our bountiful, glorious abundance deserves an acknowledgement of receipt, a tracing of origin points. Not so we can follow them back to their heart to destroy the adipose beast that birthed our kind, but so we can dismantle the structures that prevent our fatness from truly being a choice.

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  1. Everything You Know About 'Obesity' is Still Wrong - September 27, 2018

    […] Edit, 9/27/2018: Please check out this brilliant piece from Tasha Fierce. […]

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