I am in my element, learning new things in a foreign land with people I have never met before. While attending a cultural studies conference in Chicago, I have chosen panels according to my interest rather than my expertise. Skipping the talks about art, medicine, and museums, I am listening to arguments about the politics of American comedy, the exploitation hidden within contemporary bicycle culture, the challenges of researching Klan robes, and the surprising links between mandated monogamous love and American national identity. I am also paying attention to the embodied performance of each speaker. Most impressive is the plaid-shirt-wearing man of size who sports long unkempt hair and glasses. After ambling slowly to the podium he begins to speak authoritatively in a thick southern accent, strategically using such words as kinfolk and cracker to analyze the racialization of poor rural whites in popular jokes, including Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck” schtick. All I can think is: Respect. This man knows exactly who he is and where he came from; he is comfortable in his own skin, using his intelligence for good rather than (capitalist) evil, even as he retains a sense of humility. Later on a young woman with a stutter makes a public presentation, sharing brilliant research while revealing her supposed weakness in a vulnerable way. Once again: Respect. This aspiring academic has chosen a profession in which public speaking is never taught but immediately expected and judged. She must have had to overcome childhood ridicule in order to create her now promising future. I am truly inspired.
These recent experiences have led me to think about my own hard-won authority and self-confidence, my own accomplishment of a certain kind of privilege: that is, the privilege to feel comfortable amidst the unknown. To a degree this position is linked with race, class, and (certainly in my case) education, but it is also earned through fearlessness. My first visit to Chicago was in high school, when a friend and I took a bus from London, Ontario, to Detroit and then flew to the windy city, staying at a seedy downtown YWCA to save our after-school job money while attending the famous jazz and blues fest. I was about 16 years old, but I was excited, not anxious about the trip. I remember chilling beer in the sink of our small hot room before heading out to hear B. B. King, Koko Taylor, and Buddy Guy on stage. I remember having sore feet while running to catch our flight home—what do silly teenage girls know about rush hour traffic delays?—banging on the airplane’s door to have it opened. And it was opened. At the time I did not realize that this embodied act would improve the quality of my life forever.
For the past few weeks, I have been thinking about respect and responsibility (both for one’s self and for others). Well, I have been thinking about a lot of things—way too many things—as I launch two new projects and return to one that is in progress. I am in an especially intense learning/reading phase, which literally raises my heart rate in excitement as I move files around, building new books out of seemingly unrelated conference papers and essays. I sometimes chastise myself: “Stop thinking and instead try to be funny or at least clever for your next blog post.” Argh. Sorry but that is just not where I am at these days. I am all about absorbing, synthesizing, listening, and observing. Every fucking thing in the world is fascinating to me. And no, I am not on mood-altering or mind-enhancing drugs. Maybe I should be?
In my futile efforts to focus on one thing at a time, I have finally decided to read and respond to a book called Fat: An Owner’s Manual (2012), written by Ragen Chastain. The author is an award winning dancer, and thus flexible, strong, and healthy in every measurable way (ie cholesterol levels and suchlike) except her BMI, for she weighs over 280 pounds and is far less than 6 feet tall. Chastain’s book falls firmly within the camp of fat empowerment, designed to bust myths, including the common assumption that fat people are lazy and eat junk food, while demanding respect for people of all size. According to the bold, lovely, and incredibly flexible author—check out her web site at http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com: People get to prioritize their own health. That means that they are allowed to drink like fish, jump out of helicopters wearing skis, be a cast member of Jackass, take stressful jobs, not get enough sleep, eat what they choose, be sedentary etc. at whatever weight they happen to be. Let’s not forget that there are people of various weights who have the same diet and exercise routine, and people of the same weight who have very different diet and exercise routines. Acting as if all fat people engage in unhealthy behaviors and are unhealthy, and all thin people engage in healthy habits and are healthy is not supported by the evidence. It is stereotyping and bigotry, pure and simple.
In place of body negativity, Chastain endorses its binary opposite—positivity, embracing a rather standard self-help ethos to proclaim: My name is Ragen Chastain and I am fat and happy. I love my life and I love my body. I eat to nourish my body a lot of the time, and sometimes I eat because I like orange sherbet. I went to the gym tonight for the pure joy of moving my body and I didn’t even consider weighing myself because I don’t care. If you don’t like my body and/or want to make unsolicited suggestions about how I should treat it, then may I suggest you practice the ancient art of looking in another direction while keeping your mouth shut. Sincerely, ~Ragen Chastain, Happy Fatty
First of all, I love this “fuck you if you don’t like me” attitude, and agree with the general thesis: stop judging fat and other people based on their appearance, and treat everyone politely, as you would like to be treated. That is commonsense and biblical at one and the same time. Who could disagree that fat hatred and stereotyping are bad things? Well apparently quite a few people do, and Chastain even gets death threats on a regular basis. WTF?
While wanting clearly to distinguish myself from haters—for I truly admire Chastain and her physical accomplishments—I have a hard time swallowing the neo-liberal basis of her claims, namely that health and the relationship that we “decide” to have with our bodies are simply matters of personal choice. The author likes referring to undergarments, as in “you are the boss of your underpants, and I am the boss of mine.” Now as a longtime activist for reproductive rights and justice, I can only agree with this political slogan, and I can see the strategy of its populist appeal: “to each his or her own.” Yet it is striking that Chastain’s repeated use of “underpants” to represent body, self, and lifestyle—by means of synecdoche, like when we refer to the crown instead of the King—portrays the human body as an intimate consumer item that is privately selected according to individual taste. For Chastain, the body is personal property that we manage or mismanage as we see fit. This is where she begins to lose my support.
The individualistic, consumer-based arguments that Chastain makes are historically and culturally specific; in fact, I think they could only be made by an American. As a non-American I do not agree that my choices are exclusively my own business for I feel a certain social responsibility, in terms of my body and many other issues. Does this mean that I am required to be fit and thin? That I conform to social dictates without question? Of course not. Instead, it means that I realize that my behaviour, my sense of self, and my understanding of body stem from specific cultural and historical bases, and that these matters have effects that extend well beyond the edges of my own skin. Although my position might be hard to explain to a neo-libertarian, I will try: I am not the be-all and end-all; the world was not made for me and it does not revolve around me. I exist within a complicated shifting ecosystem that is at once natural and cultural; I am shaped by it even as I press against and change it. I am not an individual with free will, a strictly historical and western idea that is arguably delusional. Nor am I a fundamentally rational being, always self-aware, and in control of “my self,” a concept that has been invented over time and is always changing. Within the conditions of my life, which I did indeed create to a certain extent, I have responsibilities: I strive to interact with others honestly, to be as self-reflective as possible, and continually to question my motives in ways that are critical and not always self-affirming. Sometimes I am amazing; sometimes I am not. I try to improve the lives of those around me. I try very hard not to take too much or to be a burden on the good will of others, and certainly not on the wonderful if flawed Canadian health care system that at least in theory strives to treat everyone the same way, regardless of class, race, size, ethnicity, sexual orientation or lack thereof. I did not produce this vision of “living well” from thin air, from my pre-existing existence; I slowly arrived at it through constant interaction with people, places, and things. “I” am multiple, fictional, fabulous, and damaged.
Telling fat-haters to mind their own business and shut the fuck up is well worth doing, but not much of a long term solution to the problem of bigotry. It may actually reinforce rather than undermine the status quo. Chastain proclaims: I try to avoid judging other people by their prioritization of their health, the path they choose to health, or their health outcomes. I think that in the end all we can really do is choose for us, demand respect for our choices, and let other people choose for them and respect their choices. … I wouldn’t choose a life of dieting. But I respect people’s right to choose it, just like I want my choice of Health at Every Size to be respected.
Now I am tempted to critique Chastain’s definition of “dieting,” which is rather narrow and at odds with historical practice—something I will explore further in an essay co-authored with the brilliant graduate student who drew my attention to Chastain’s book—but here I want to focus on the issues of responsibility and respect. Is it really the case that we are exclusively responsible for ourselves and not responsible for anyone else? That everyone knows exactly what they are doing and why? If a friend is making bad self-destructive decisions about health or relationships, should we intervene in a non-judgmental way to offer help? In some situations, do we not have a moral and ethical duty to intervene? I think so, though remarking on someone’s weight is likely not one of them, unless that person is suffering, in pain, or debilitated, as revealed by their own admission rather than our presumption. The problem is knowing when to intervene and what exactly are the limits of our responsibilities towards others. I am currently struggling with trying to figure out what I am morally and ethically obligated to do for the many people in my life.
Does everyone deserve respect? In my opinion, respect is earned. Some people impatiently demand respect, feeling cheated when it is not forthcoming. Others pursue their own paths and dreams, caring little about what others think of them. They often garner respect along with way. I am unfortunately occasionally in contact with a man who sexually harasses women who are in vulnerable positions, and then denies that he is doing anything wrong. I do not respect him; nor will I pretend to respect him. I will not turn away and mind my own business. To be fair, Chastain is not talking about ignoring oppression; she is in fact fighting fat oppression. But turning away from things that we don’t like instead of facing them is a poor, short-term solution. I prefer an ethics of respect (rather than a demand for it), one based on a recognition of difference and of others who are not entirely separate from you, even when you do not like them or approve of their “choices.” An ethics of respect would include caring for others and intervening in helpful ways; it would involve a continual “turning toward and looking” rather than a turning away. So please don’t mind your own business. Instead, be critically attentive to a broader world and its inhabitants in ways that will allow you to see differently.