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Dear Virgie: 5 Ways to Deal with Microaggressions as a Fat Person
Can we discuss microaggressions in the form of looks and other non-verbal indications of fat phobia? I am asking particularly in regards to the VBO, which I tend to rock in leggings. I love leggings, they are comfy and fun, and they make me feel good, but judging from the once-overs and “cutting eyes” I get from certain co-workers who can’t keep their eyes off of my VBO (Visible Belly Outline), I get a sense of disapproval. This has happened particularly with a few people in authority, a VP and a professor. I know all about micro-looks from the days of having FFF boobs, which I had reduced due to back pain, but now the looks have gone to my belly. I know I should not care, but it is so disappointing to me when people don’t think someone like me would notice, or seem to care that undue focus on one’s body is uncomfortable, or are they passively aggressively attempting to convey their disapproval? I know this is not me being paranoid because I always do a reality check with myself before I allow it to be an issue. How do I handle my disappointment in people when I know they are covert fat shamers? I even think the one prof in question singled me out in class and conveyed covert hostility which caused a brush fire effect where the students in the seminar kinda sorta ganged up on me as I tried to represent the lone feminist viewpoint ( I live in a rural area where people tend to be small minded.) Any thoughts or ideas would be greatly appreciated.
Yes, let’s discuss microaggressions.
But first let’s exhale a deep sigh in the name of surviving the unfortunate realities of fatphobia. I can’t tell you how many times microaggressions have pooped on my party.
Ok one sec before I get into it. I want to bring people who have never heard of a microaggression into the fold (if that’s you, girl, where have you been?!/welcome!). According to the Googz:
“The term ‘microaggression’ was used by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.'”
In this article, I’ll be taking some liberties with this definition and applying it to Miss VBO’s experience using a fatphobia lens. So, here are my thoughts:
- Even if it’s unintentional, you still have the right to have feelings about it
You are allowed to care when people are being assholes. It’s not your job to completely emotionally detach from a hurtful or angering situation. You can if you want, but you have not failed if you actually react to something upsetting. Modulating our reactions is WORK, and you’ve got enough on your agenda.
This is always what trips me up about accountability and the way it favors the privileged.
Like, yeah, I get it: you’ve never had to think about what it’s like not being able to fit in a seat / get side eye because you’re wearing shorts / be immediately discounted because you’re fat, and so, of course, this is not part of your worldview. BUT in the same way, that we can all recognize that some micro-aggressive acts are not intentional, it is essential that we not expect the person experiencing the microaggression to simply absorb it gracefully.
I would argue it’s just as important to recognize that some fatphobia is unintentional, as it is to recognize that people who are experiencing unintentional fatphobia get to have feelings about it. So, just remember that it’s totally ok to be hurt/pissed/filled with rage.
- Don’t give away your power
Acting from power simply means that you react to microaggressions in a way that serves and honors you in that moment. Sometimes when I experience microaggressions, I am able to take a step back, recognize how unfortunate it is that we all live in a fat-hating culture, and walk away from the experience unscathed.
Sometimes when I experience microaggressions I need to surrender to the sadness or anger, I’m feeling and just bathe in it for as long as I need to.
Acting from power means that no matter how I feel compelled to react, I am being authentic and recognizing that I am not powerless in the face of this thing. Even if it hurts me. Even if I can’t control it. This experience can be part of who I am now and who I am becoming.
- “Paranoia” of fatphobia is part of having experienced legit oppression = it’s technically not paranoia
The thing about actual paranoia is that it requires a lack of evidence. The evidence of fatphobia is EVERYwhere. So, whether you’re giving yourself reality checks or not, I think it’s important to recognize that hypervigilance is a common experience of oppressed people.
One of the things people truly misunderstand about the experience of stigma is the totality of it. Most people only think of fat stigma as the explicit moments of interpersonal hostility, like being called a name or being fired because of your weight. But the reality of stigma is that it’s more than just those moments – it’s all the moments you’re waiting for that experience of fat shaming to happen again. Because life has taught you that it will happen again almost certainly.
Once you’ve experienced discrimination enough times you begin to anticipate it. This anticipation or hyper-vigilance is not “paranoia,” it’s a very natural response to observable data.
Our culture is obsessed with telling oppressed people that it’s in all in our heads. Well, that’s called gaslighting, and it’s a tool that’s been used to make women and people of color feel crazy since, like, the inception of white supremacist heteropatriarchy.
It’s totally NOT ok for other people to refer to your legitimate vigilance as “paranoid” behavior. The truth is that stigma is a holistic experience that puts us on guard because we have come to learn that assholery can happen at literally any moment.
- The agenda of a microaggressor is not your concern
I’m someone who finds power in analyzing things. And it sounds like maybe you are too, VBO. When it comes to the specific reasons why someone is performing a microaggressive act, I think your energy is better spent not trying to parse through it. Whether they are doing it unconsciously or doing it with the agenda to convey disappointment, it’s still fucked up no matter how you slice it. You don’t need to get caught up in calculating all this. It’s just MORE work for you, and you don’t need more work.
- When you’re ready, feed your brain a new thought!
Here’s an exercise that has helped me deal with microaggressions in a way that serves me. I used to engage every single time someone did something problematic. That was important at the time, but also extremely exhausting. I came to realize that I didn’t have to engage with every problematic behavior I encountered. I hit my personal point of diminishing return. So I decided to try something else.
First, take a second to take charge of the thoughts: “thoughts, I get that you’re in there, you’re important, but I don’t have to listen to you right now.” Then feed your brain a new thought: such as, “bigotry is tres passe, microaggressions are totally not my fault or my problem, and I wish people would just get with the program on the inevitable VBO takeover thing.”
The first dozen times it’s a challenge because you’re changing the way your brain deals with stressful situations, but it gets easier with practice.
Hope this helps!
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.