Take the Cake: Why Fat Liberation Isn’t About Whether Fat People Are Healthy

image credit: Virgie Tovar via Instagram

“But what about health?” is a familiar refrain to anyone who’s attempted to have a serious conversation about fat activism or body justice. At a recent event I did with author and fat studies scholar Katie LeBesco in New York, Katie pointed out that refusing to engage with the topic of health at all was a position of privilege. Agree. Fat people – like all people – have chronic illnesses, pain, need for treatment, and the right to quality medical care. Her statement reminded me of conversations I witnessed when I was new to fat activism in 2010 and 2011. Many fat people are denied proper medical care because of anti-fat discrimination. So we would share the names of fat positive medical care practitioners (now you can do this on apps like Ample) and some people in the fat movement even pursued training in alternative medicine and massage specifically to be in service to fat people whose health needs weren’t being met or whose health was considered unimportant unless they lost weight first.

This issue is nuanced.

However, I think it’s important not to allow the demand for fat rights to be reduced to a referendum on the health of fat people.

I also think it’s important to change the way we think about what health is in order to take this conversation from one about an individual pursuit of certain outcomes to one about a cultural shift in how we treat all stigmatized people.

To begin with, I generally find the health question to serve as a derailment mechanism. I’m talking about human rights and every person’s right to a life free from bigotry and discrimination –  primarily a social issue - and the person who brings up health often wants to wrench the conversation back into personal responsibility – an individual issue – in order to rationalize bigotry. Having a conversation about the individual without having a conversation about the culture in which that person exists is, I think, incomplete.

During the New York event, Katie also asked me what my response to the “but what about health” question. This is what I said:

In mainstream culture, health is something we always consider as measurable and quantifiable – a one size fits all way of figuring out whether some people have succeeded and some have failed at meeting a standard. The purpose of having these measurable outcomes is layered. There’s a practical purpose: it helps medical care providers decipher whether some people are in distress and need to be treated. However, it also serves a social purpose - to decipher the compliant people from the "non-compliant" people because our culture literally cannot function without hierarchy.

 

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Capitalism, white supremacy and heteronormativity would stop working if we accepted that there is no one, singular way to measure happiness or wellness or goodness or beauty. The fear is that we would become unruly and ungovernable if we accepted that human diversity is normal and wonderful and that happiness is never achieved through an expectation of homogeneity. The vocabulary of health is a vocabulary of rationalization for what is clearly a deeply troubled culture. I think health is a bootstrapping language that seeks to render a cultural problem into an individual problem.

If we truly, truly wanted health as a nation we would see the decision to end militarization, we would see initiatives to end homelesness, we would see true moves toward closing prisons, we would see campaigns to end discrimination (which we know causes long term health damage to stigmatized people), we would see earnest efforts toward getting everyone clean water and nutritious food even if it means profit loss, we would see public health money encouraging people to prioritize joyful movement, we would have universal healthcare, we would have measures in place to protect individuals from corporate greed. We would see these as national priorities. I don't see any of this. And I simply don’t believe that the people who are allegedly so concerned about my health care about any of this either.

I see health rhetoric as a means to blame individuals, and I honestly also see it as anti-scientific. The data I have seen is pretty clear on the fact that health is something we need to think about as a collective responsibility, that humans thrive when they feel safe and loved and that discrimination kills people. So I don't believe “what about health?” is a genuine or legitimate question meant to promote human wellness and I refuse to recognize it as such. This culture takes safety in quantifiable data but the truth is human life is mysterious and magical, and bodies are mysterious and magical. What humans need in order to thrive cannot be entirely summed up in an excel spreadsheet.

I see the path to fat justice as one paved through the assertion of and insistence upon fat people’s full humanity and our right to a life free from discrimination — not our health status.


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Comments

Well - while I can agree on most statements made in this article by Tovar, I cannot ignore (and the fatphobes for sure will not either) the fact that Tovar is building a strawman with this argument, which I dare to sum down basically to "as long as the 'system' does not care for our all well being/health how can it be demanded from us as individuals". While I agree on this idea basically, it is based on the premise that we all assume those 2 factors are (ethically) intertwined. But we do not assume that in general. While we for sure can assume that the state/government/"the system" has responsibilities, we also do assume that we, as individuals have, too ! But the *relevant* question here is, can we demand them from each other as a moral obligation ? Are we obligated to do the best we can for our health (whatever that is!) ? the general opinion would say : no. And for good reasons. So why do we single out one group of people -fat ones - and demand it from them ? This question shows, that we face a massive contradiction in doing so. I wish she had elaborated on that.

I'm a health care provider , member of the US miltary, social liberal, and fiscal conservative. As a mixed race female who has live in several different countries and has been exposed to different cultures and religions, I truly believe in acceptance of people for who they are and not discriminating. But as a health care provider and fiscal conservative I feel that Tovar is wanting everyone else to change and the government to take care of us but she is not willing to change herself. People do not need to be rail thin and exercise all the time. It is OK to be a little overweight but people DO need to take some personal responsibility. If someone is a little overweight and does not have any health problems, then great. But the unhealthy overweight people put a financial burden on the country. Yes, it helps the medical field and drug companies create wealth and keeps us employed but it is an added expense to everyone. Insulin, diabetes medications, blood pressure medications, etc and the necessity for more doctor visits causes our health insurance premiums and deductibles to go up every year. Just to be clear I'm not blaming this all on overweight people this just happens to be an example in response to this post. Many other people choose to do things that put their health and well-being at risk. But people have a choice and a way to improve their health and refuse to do so just so they don't have to change their lifestyle, but they want us to change and accept them for their choices which puts a financial burden on us. I believe that everyone needs to have affordable healthcare but that will never happen in our country because of the insurance companies and drug companies, etc have too much money and power in our government. Socialized medicine may be an answer but it has it's pros and cons. My point is why should I pay more in taxes or health insurance premiums when I make sure I stay healthy and only visit the doctor once or twice a year for regular check-ups and physicals. I feel smokers should pay a higher premium because continuing to smoke is a choice they make. I used to smoke and quit several years ago, so I know it's not easy but it is doable. I have seen several patients who are diagnosed with type II diabetes change their lifestyle, lose weight, and get off of the medications and continue to be happy, and in many cases are happier than they were before. Food is addictive and it's not easy to quit or change what you eat. Many people will need therapy because they eat to drown out other problems in their life, just like drug or alcohol addicts. Addiction is a disease that needs to be treated and noone should be looked down upon because they have this disease. They need acceptance and positive reassurance even more than others. So, what I'm trying to say is I agree overweight people should not be discriminated against, but they need to take some personal responsibility when their choices and lifestyle affect others (mainly financially). Don't expect everyone to accommodate your choice without you at least attempting to get help or choose a healthier lifestyle. I feel for the person next to me on the plane who is embarrassed that they need the seat belt extender. I see their pain as they avert their eyes from me and others, but at the same time I shouldn't have to huddle up on one side of my seat because they are taking up extra room. I have compassion for overweight people but don't expect the world to change for you if you are not willing to change for the world. Living in the world means compromising every day. Don't expect companies to spend extra money to accommodate you by increasing seating sizes, wider doorways, etc. All that extra expense is passed onto everyone! I'm sure I'll get many comments on how insensitive I am. I'm not, I'm an empath and feel other's pain but that also means I look at myself to see if my actions/choices affect others negatively and I'm willing to change myself if I do.

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