I had the pleasure of gaining access to the Third Annual Fat Activism Conference, a digital sharing of knowledge and empowerment. The first day was a short introduction to a very long weekend that was jam-packed with a diverse group of speakers. Kicking off the Friday evening was Dianne Bondy talking about Mindfulness, Body Equity, and Radical Self-Acceptance. As a fan of yoga and not just the asana practice but also mindfulness and self-reflection practices, I loved how Dianne talked about how much of the yoga community has also begun to embrace body acceptance. She described how yoga can actually help you learn to love your body by focusing on what it can do instead of how it looks. Her support of social media as an activist tool reminds me a lot of some of the things I’ve said about #SelfiesForSelfLove. I loved her critical analysis of the term body positivity, recognizing how often it is co-opted and used to sell us something, which is of course, very problematic. She also talked about how body positivity and fat acceptance are not always the same thing and how the latter is responsible for the current movement. Dianne addressed the concepts of thin privilege and fat phobia and addressed people’s defensiveness around these conversations. She talked indirectly about how size is a human rights issue and how people of size actually face real barriers, including to accessing health care, employment, and travel.
You may have heard of Alysse Dalessandro because she is the fashion designer behind the brand Ready to Stare. Alysse talked about the power of fashion to make a difference in the lives of people, that while it is fun it is also serious. It is serious because the impact of not having access to fashion does oppress visibly fat women and men. She’s often asked why she chooses to focus on plus sizes, a “niche market”, and she replies with the facts. “We are the majority. Sixty-seven percent of the women in the US are between sizes fourteen and thirty- four. The plus size fashion market represents seventeen billion in buying and eighteen billion if you include junior plus.” We are clearly worthy of attention, but as Alysse describes, these brands don’t even love our money more than they hate us for being fat and happy. Much of this comes from their own self-hatred and investment in diet culture. They believe they need to be thin to be happy and so the fact that you are fat and still happy causes them some cognitive dissonance that is easiest to deny by pretending that you aren’t truly happy. I loved Alysse’s perspective on how the current fashion industry is based on what is flattering instead of what a person loves, and how that makes room for criticizing one’s fashion choices. Unfortunately, the impact of criticizing others is often increased self-criticism and reduced body love. So maybe next time you criticize a person’s style choices, ask yourself how that decision ultimately impacts you? But also ask yourself why you care about what another person is wearing? Why are you so invested?
I loved how this conference was digital, offered pay what you can options, and provided both recordings and transcripts from each session. I also want to applaud their written and practiced commitment to diversity and inclusion, as well as their openness to receiving feedback on any changes they should make for future years. Day Two kicked off with commentary about badass athletes who also happen to be fat. I love this messaging because it really busts the idea that fat people cannot be healthy. Followed up by Caleb Luna who was described as super-fat, brown, and femme. They discussed the impact of colonialism on bodies and how it relates to fatness and racialization. He discussed and linked to a study that found BMI may actually be racist and flawed. It seems that the way BMI measurements are categorized results in an over-representation of Black women and men in the obese category, especially when compared to Asian or Hispanic bodies. This difference is a result of bone and muscle size that can vary between races. Difference itself is not a problem but when one is given privilege over another because of a system like BMI measurements, it is very problematic. Of course, this is because the original scale was entirely based on white cisgender male bodies. This is also a great example of why science still shows a bias that is backed up by both colonialism and the patriarchy. Caleb’s entire speak was incredibly intersectional and addressed so many layers, including capitalism, classism, poverty, strange clothing sizes, and racism.
Gloria Lucas, the founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride, talked about how she felt that she couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder because her experience as a woman of colour was never presented in the media. The public image of someone with an eating disorder is white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight, and extremely thin. To be honest, and hopefully not to distract from the experience of women of colour, I can relate to this as a person who never really looked “that unhealthy” or “that anorexic”. The point is that representation matters and that when we fail to show diverse images of people with a disorder we do a great disservice to those of us who are left out. Gloria “describes eating disorders as eating problems, not just disorders because eating issues are not only caused by biochemical or psychological reasons but are sane reactions to insane social injustices.” My formal education is as a feminist counsellor and our general philosophy is directly in line with this quote, we believe that many of the behaviours women are pathologized for, by the mainstream psychiatry industry, are actually normal reactions to either current or historical abuses and traumas. In other words, it makes sense that survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner violence develop anxiety and depression. Gloria goes on to express the connection between colonialism, racism, and eating disorders so clearly; “we have embodied the pain from our ancestors and we have little to no healing and because of colonialism, we experience contemporary microaggressions, institutionalized racism, and direct acts of violence for not being part of the dominant class. Eating disorders have become our way to cope. We use food to disappear. We use food to feel some sense of control and power in our lives, to stop feeling numb, to escape, to vent, release, and inflict pain. Eating disorders are our scream for help.”
Cat Pausé spoke about Being Fat In The Workplace, which is a topic I have previously tried to tackle on this blog. I’ve written about issues of diet talk in the workplace and how it can be particularly toxic if that workplace claims to be supportive of social justice and based in the feminist anti-oppression movement. So it was lovely to hear from Cat with a similar take on a weight discrimination in employment and how it should be seen as a human rights issue with all the protections that would afford us. Cat also addressed the fact that women are particularly vulnerable to discrimination during the hiring process and during wage negotiations if they are visibly fat. While size has little to no impact on cisgender men, this barrier is heightened for women of colour. This ties in nicely with the conversation hosted by Stef Maruch about Fat People Creating Alternatives to Healthism. It is critical that we move away from conversations that promote the good or healthy fatty over the unfit or unhealthy fatty because of the dichotomy that type of labelling creates. We need to remember that all people are worthy regardless of how much they exercise or what food choices they make. Many people look at me and assume I am a good or healthy fat woman, but I probably don’t qualify. Do you think I am less worthy now that you know that? If so, why? Am I not still a human being? I absolutely love this quote from Courtney Marshall, a personal trainer, who covered the topic of Fat Activism at the Gym, “Finally, it’s also about holding space for non-exercisers. I always want to honor those folks who don’t want to participate in organized or individual fitness. I think again that’s such an important part of fat activism in the gym is thinking about the idea that we are under no moral obligation to exercise.” Thanks for making space for us, Courtney and other allies!
As someone who is currently on the search for a new family doctor, I could really relate to Jennifer Nicole Herman’s seminar on Building Fat Patient Power While Accessing Healthcare. My expectation of a doctor is both that they respect my eating disorder triggers and not requiring my weight unless it is medically necessary or ever mentioning weight loss or diet to me unless it is truly medically relevant. Given that my anxiety was at its peak during my eating disorder, when I was thin, I can’t imagine how any of my current medical concerns are related to my size. If for some reason they do need to know my exact weight, I ask they not reveal that number to me. However, I have had some really unfortunate reactions to these requests. Ultimately, it is about consent and respect. We consent to be treated for the issues we are presenting, not that we accept their unsolicited advice on any topic simply because they are a doctor. We demand that we be respected as human beings, regardless of our size. We know that weight has nothing to do with our health and by speaking out we help spread that message. As Jennifer states, making our needs clear and not settling for any less is part of fat activism. Ideally, this activism should occur while you are well and not while you are in crisis and in need of assistance. Doing this upfront will make your next visit when you may be unwell, much easier to navigate. In fact, as Jennifer points out, by being stressed out about the scenarios that can occur during a medical appointment we reduce our own mental wellness and our ability to retain the information we are being presented with. The more we speak out as activists, the more space we will carve out for other fat bodied individuals seeking medical care.
I have decided to publish this post part way through day two but will continue to update my post, and add more photos, until the end of the weekend-long conference. I will try to cover each speaker but I may end up focusing on those presentations I most enjoyed. I do wish there was a discussion around fat sexuality, so perhaps I could offer to contribute that perspective next time this conference is hosted. I’ve chosen this wardrobe on purpose because, yes, I am fat, happy, and sexy. That in and of itself is revolutionary. I hope you will visit again if you come before this note is removed. Thank you!