I am fat.
Which means that I care a lot about how fat people are treated and what it means to be fat. But I don’t talk about it very much because I get so irritated by the online fat acceptance narratives. You’ve probably heard of some of them, the biggest one being, that you can have ‘health at any size.’ I don’t have a problem with the concept behind so many discussions on fat acceptance. I agree that you can have health at any size, body shaming is disgusting and harmful, and ‘concern trolling’ fat people (I’m just worried about you!) is being a condescending asshole at worst and very problematic at best.
But how so many of these critiques actually play out in the real world among fat acceptance folks…they bother me. One critique in particular.
But let me back up. In the past few months, I became aware of two things. The first is that after living my whole life thinking I was lazy, and thus fat (and in so much pain because I was lazy and thus fat), it turns out I have an autoimmune illness. In other words, my body is attacking itself. And because I’ve gone undiagnosed for so long, my body has been attacking itself for decades, leaving me very ill. It is this illness that has made me ‘lazy’ or: exhausted from living in a constant state of flare up and my body falling apart.
The second thing I became aware of is about sugar and the effects that sugar can have on the body. I came across this article, and then I started checking out books and researching other authors–and it all just sort of came together for me.
Sugar pushes the body into a state of inflammation. My autoimmune illness is exacerbated by chronic inflammation. And then to make things even worse, highly processed foods are filled with sugar that increases inflammation. I’ve been poor most of my life–my diet reflected that.
Finding out about how sugar and highly processed food interact with autoimmune illness (makes it way worse), brought up a lot of feelings in me. I’ve spent so long punishing myself. Self-medicating through flare ups by abusing myself, calling myself lazy, worthless, disgusting. Nobody ever told me that ‘self-medicating’ could be violent. In the justice communities I run with ‘self-medicating’ is taking your health into your own hands, learning about herbs to deal with stress, exercising to deal with depression, etc. It never crossed my mind that me treating myself the way I did was abuse or that it was what I did to function daily. To force myself up when I just couldn’t go anymore. It never occurred to me that self-abuse could be a way to survive.
So I talked a bit about what I was learning on twitter. And I realize that twitter isn’t often the best place to talk about stuff–but I didn’t really feel up to taking on an essay yet. And the response was largely positive. But eventually as my tweets started making their way out of my own circle–a handful of responses began trickling in. The kind from the fat acceptance crowd that makes me so angry. The kind where your own life experiences and theorizing about your fat body are taken as an ‘attack’ on their fat bodies, where you saying ‘acceptance’ isn’t enough, must mean that you’re actually filled with internalized self hatred rather than filled with a fierce desire to be visible in world that would rather see you dead.
For so many of us, our fat cannot be separated from our race, our class, our gender or sexuality. I accept my body at any size and I want a world that will accept me at any size. But at the same time, I am fat because of my race, because of my class. Because of my chronic illness.
Chicana scholars, Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel have long talked about the phenomenon of Mexican people having healthy body weight and no diabetes or heart issues when they live in Mexico eating traditional Mexican diets. And then they move to the US and they start eating highly processed food, or food that passes as Mexican in the United States; Deep fried food that’s saturated with high fat sour cream, heavy cheese and lots of meat. That’s when all those healthy Mexicans become obese. When all the food related illness take hold and don’t let go. And that’s when all the 45 Fans get pissed. Fat Mexicans choosing to be fat take resources that belong to Americans. Fat Mexican anchor babies stealing what belongs to real Americans. Fat Mexican bodies are a threat to US national security.
You cannot separate the fatness of a Mexican body from the Mexicanness. And you cannot accept the fatness without understanding that the fatness is an act of violence against Mexican bodies. Fatness speaks to an active violence perpetrated against Mexican bodies by an unhealthy violent food system intent intent on profit over health on every single level. It speaks to 500 years of colonization. It speaks to criminalization. Cheap sugar, starvation.
It speaks to something that has been done to our bodies, collectively. And if the fat acceptance movement can’t find a way to except these complicated truths about the bodies of so many fat people, then it’s not a theory worth even holding onto.
One of the most compelling things I learned about how sugar affects our bodies is what happens to obese mothers and their starving children. The kids who are starving or food insecure are obviously food insecure. They are what we expect food insecure people to look like. They are thin, listless, their eyes are sunk their skulls.
Obese mothers, on the other hand, have people look at them like with all the shame and nastiness that we are used to looking at fat people with. Overweight mothers who have starving children are understood as selfish, out of control, lazy, disgusting. But these mothers are starving as well. They’re eating highly processed cheap food that they can afford or that they get through food pantries. The sugar makes their body hoard fat, even while it saves absolutely nothing nutritious. And it leaves them ravenous once the placeholder in their bellies moves out.
They’re starving. But we’ve never understood fatness to be starving. And culturally we’d rather understand mothers as selfish slobs than with compassion. We depend on having mother’s to blame for all the social ills out there so we never have to fund fixing those social ills.
I read about skinny children/fat mothers and I thought of my Mexican childhood and how hungry I always was. I thought of my Mexican teens and how much I loved the flour tortillas made fresh daily by adults. I had no idea that flour tortillas (made from cheap highly processed white flour) replaced the more nutritious corn tortillas my grandparents ate, their grandparents ate. I thought about my life as a Mexican mother. Not eating so my children could eat, eating off the dollar menu because it was the only thing I’d eat that day and I needed to feel full. I continued the traditions of my family, my culture. I bought flour tortillas because they were the cheapest. I ate processed foods because they were affordable. Food made ‘traditional’ through poverty.
I’ve hated myself from the time I understood the supposed link between ‘individual choice’ and ‘fatness.’ But now I look back and I understand what was going on. I was literally starving. I couldn’t stop eating because my body never got what it needed. Filling up your stomach isn’t the same thing as nourishing your body. Me being fat is the way violence enacted against me played out. The violence of starvation.
I need so much more to understand this violence than a lens of acceptance. Acceptance is the color blind way of explaining something we don’t really want to or think we don’t need to talk about. But really, there’s only a few groups of people that honestly don’t need to talk about it. It just so happens that those groups are given the biggest platforms to speak.
I want to talk about it. I want to talk about why I was the fat starving mother, and I want to talk about why I was abusing myself so I could live.
I don’t need fat acceptance.
I need a radical love which allows me to re-claim my body from a capitalistic system intent on destroying it by any means necessary. I need a radical way of loving my body even when I don’t accept it. I need a radical way of understanding what has happened to me, whether it’s the violence of poverty, criminalization or starvation.
Reclaiming my body will look a lot different than self acceptance. It may start with self acceptance it may even end with self acceptance. But self acceptance isn’t all of it. When something has been done to our bodies, we have the right to question it. And we have the right to love our bodies, but not accept the violence that’s been done to them. And I don’t accept that violence. I don’t.
I am reminded of a rallying call during the Detroit water crisis; it’s not your fault but it is your fight. This makes more sense to me, feels like the right way to begin understanding my body. It’s not my fault but it is my fight. My body belongs to me. And I will fight for it.
Nonye EzeakaMay 7, 2018
Your writing is the epitome of everything I want my writing to be one day. Expert craftsmanship oozing with heartfelt honesty. Keep it up. Keep being who you are.