Who’s Afraid of Fat Bodies? Stamp Collecting and the Threat of Fat Activism

Lately, the body positivity movement has been making some cool steps forward in fat activism and the visibility of fat bodies in the media. It’s showing up more and more. Refinery29 is running their 67% project, based on the fact that plus-size women make up 67% of the population and resolving to show plus-size women in 67% of their advertisements (at least for this week). Lane Bryant’s #ThisBody campaign asks us to celebrate our bodies in their various shapes and forms. The Fatkini is in.

I’m into all of this. I’m also noticing how much vitriol is directed online at all of these movements. “No one wants to see that” combines with “You’re glorifying obesity!” and some pointed comments about the health of all these women, since of course we’re all very concerned about the health of strangers all the time. As a fat woman, these comments are not new. I’m really familiar with internet trolling and the fact that my visible fat body is threatening. I have a pretty solid theory about why.

Let’s treat losing weight as a hobby. Weird, right? But it’s got a lot of similarities with a hobby. If you want to do it, you have to make time for it, and that means choosing this hobby over a number of other possible hobbies you might have. Depending on how devoted you are to this hobby, you’re going to think about it a lot, and it’s going to determine some of the choices you make in life. To be clear, I’m not talking about exercise or eating right: those are activities with their own (numerous, beneficial) goals. I’m talking about the process of actively trying to lose weight.

So instead of weight loss, let’s use the language of stamp collecting, another hobby. Imagine that you collect stamps. You don’t particularly like collecting stamps. Privately, you think it’s a waste of time, and you’d rather put more time into other hobbies. Despite your reservations, though, you keep at it, because you know that stamp collectors are more morally upstanding than people who don’t collect stamps. In fact, it’s not just a hobby: it’s the right thing to do. People who don’t collect stamps are slackers, and by collecting stamps, you are better than they are.

No one said this to you outright, however: you just internalized it. You know this because all the people represented in the media as desirable, they’re all stamp collectors. Stamp collectors are featured on the cover of magazines, and even if the article isn’t talking about stamp collecting itself, they’re pictured with their stamp collections so you know what kind of people they are.

There’s a lot of social pressure to collect stamps. When you started stamp collecting, you were praised by everyone around you, more than when you had any of the other major accomplishments in your life, like graduating school or getting a promotion at work. It’s the first thing people comment on about you: “That’s a great stamp collection!” they say.

You know that you spend more time collecting stamps than other people. Some people, you’ve noticed, are just given stamps. It’s easy for them! But for you, it takes a lot of time and energy. It’s hard to resent it, though, since it makes other people so happy, and by extension, that makes you happy. Plus, the more time you’re spending on it, the more people seem to treat you like a worthwhile person.

Then, though, you notice that there’s a growing movement of people who don’t collect stamps. They assert that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and they’d rather spend their time in other ways. They say that focusing on collecting stamps might actually make people obsessive, and it’s overall unhealthy to put such a focus on one small aspect of life. These people seem really happy with their decisions. They don’t accept the idea that they’re morally less upstanding than stamp collectors.

These people are a threat to you.

They threaten you because you don’t really like stamp collecting, but you’ve always done it because that’s what you thought you were supposed to do. If they’re right, then you’ve wasted a significant portion of your life doing something you dislike in order to please other people, and you’ve gotten very little benefit out of it yourself. If they’re right, then you’ve been focusing on the wrong things, and that’s scary. It’s much easier to decry this perspective as wrong.

This is how people treat visibly fat bodies. If you’ve learned to prioritize thinness and weight loss, and you’ve made a number of sacrifices throughout your life with this priority in mind, then it’s a challenge to admit your priorities are mislaid. It’s easier to yell at fat activists for “promoting unhealthy lifestyles” or “glorifying obesity” than it is to accept that you are making choices you don’t like to please people who don’t care about you. If they’re right, and being fat isn’t a big deal, then why have you been spending so much of your life trying not to be fat? What might you have accomplished if you weren’t devoting so much time to becoming smaller than you are?

A growing body of evidence supports the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement’s assertions that bodies come in all sizes and people can be healthy without losing weight. This is a threatening perspective if your sense of self worth comes from pride in how much weight you’ve lost. If you define yourself by your weight loss – or stamp collection – and someone tells you this metric is irrelevant to your value as a person, your entire sense of self has to shift accordingly. Such shifts are frightening, angering, challenging.

Fat activism threatens the status quo. It’s not about health; it’s never been about health. “Health” is a shortcut for moral judgment. You’re not worried about my health; you’re worried that I might be right, and you’ve devoted your life to collecting stamps when you hate collecting stamps.

I’m not dissing eating right and exercising. We should all be trying to eat good foods and move our bodies. But those activities are not always going to lead to weight loss, and that doesn’t make them worthless.

I’m not collecting stamps anymore, and maybe you shouldn’t, either.

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