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Fat People Must Become a Priority to the Left

Fat folks carry the weight of the work in these spaces while our bodies and material realities are continually othered and written off.

I am a communist. More specifically, I am an ecosocialist. And while I do not currently identify as a Pan-Africanist, I have organized, now, for five years with an African-centered politic. I have developed my ecosocialist analysis from the likes of Julius Nyerere and many others. Though I do not identify as a feminist, I have organized, now, for five years with a Black Queer Feminist politic. I have developed this politic from the likes of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, and many others. I am prefacing this essay with this background information about who I am because even though this precise essay is about anti-fatness in “left leaning” spaces, I know that people will read this as an attack on communism or feminism rather than a commentary on the pervasiveness of anti-fatness. That is how fat people, our bodies, and our politic is always engaged. Our critiques, no matter the validity, are not engaged in good faith, but rather under the premise that we are unaware and uninvolved.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the medical industrial complex (MIC) and the health industry worked in conjunction with the governments of the west and our media to express deep worry for the state of fat people in the western world. They referred to it as the “obesity epidemic.” From that moment forward, the public’s perception of fat people was warped—and, in many ways, justified and affirmed—by fear mongering headlines, medical and pharmaceutical officials who antagonized their fat patients, a billion dollar diet industry built off of the fear of fatness, and a government that pushed a wide-range of “health initiatives” in schools across America.

As with all other systems of domination that go unrecognized and unchecked, anti-fatness was worked into the social fabric of the world—especially and particularly, the western world—and this translated into left spaces, too. Where many feminist spaces would exclude fat women and their narratives from feminist thought, fat women created the body positive movement. And generally in progressive or radical movements, fat people and our plight didn’t become a mainstream political talking point until the late 1960s, when fat people decided to respond to a war waged with the intent to kill us by building the Fat Acceptance Movement. Today, we sit in spaces where the only way people can conceptualize our bodies is by naming capitalism as the only reason for the fat body’s existence; or thinking that the only justifiable reason for one to be fat is because of poverty.

What makes this especially hurtful, and possibly even a bit more harmful, is that these spaces—communist and feminist spaces—are supposed to be organizing and fighting on the behalf of the laborer and disenfranchised; they are supposed to have a material analysis on structural oppression and the various ways in which it manifests in the lives of marginalized people. Yet, fat folks remain the butt of jokes in these spaces or are simply an afterthought. And if we’re a thought at all, when planning for conferences or protests that are intended to be inclusive, we are forced to almost convince people in these spaces that anti-fat oppression is a very real mode of domination. In many cases, we carry the weight of the work in these spaces while our bodies and material realities are continually othered and written off.

Related: THERE IS NO LIBERATION FOR ALL BODIES WITHOUT THE LIBERATION OF FAT BLACK WOMEN AND FEMMES

Generally, there is no in-depth analysis in these left spaces around fatness and health. However, through work written by J. Eric Oliver, Roxane Gay, Sabrina Strings and others, we learn that our obsession with “obesity” and being “overweight” is less about health—as there is little to no science that shows ‘obesity’ is an actual killer disease—and is more about cultural and systemic anti-fatness which the diet and medical industrial complexes and media industries profit off of. Just like with the “war on drugs” and the “crack epidemic,” which many of the organizers in these spaces know about and understand, major institutions (including our government) made up or falsified evidence about the effects of fatness/’obesity’ as a way to criminalize, dehumanize, and profit off of fat people (J. Eric Oliver, “Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America’s Obesity Epidemic”, 2005); especially and particularly fat Black folks. If you can understand just how harmful science has been for other marginalized groups, and how much the government has lied to propagandize the public, you can understand exactly how much the “obesity epidemic” is not real.

In feminist spaces, fat women and all non-cisgender heterosexual men who choose to simply exist freely in our bodies are met with an overwhelming amount of benevolent anti-fatness. Especially in online spaces. The body positive movement was initially started by fat women who used their bodies as a mode of resistance against discriminatory language and policies. It eventually became co-opted by thin white women who reduce fat oppression to insecurities with one’s body. So when fat folks post pictures of ourselves online, we’re met with language that removes the radicalism of using our bodies to resist dominating structures; language like, “wow, you’re so confident!” or “yes to this body positivity!” I would actually much rather people not respond to fat people’s pictures at all than to make a spectacle of them. Not every fat person posting a picture—of their body or not—is “confident” or doing it for “bodyposi” reasons. In fact, many do it because online spaces are where they feel safest or as an intentional act of resistance. Further, thin people performing their appreciation for a fat body in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t for any other body is othering. When thin/gym-bodied people post pictures of themselves and their bodies, they aren’t getting remarks about confidence; they are being told how attractive and sexually desirable they are. Where thin people are humanized and made to feel beautiful, fat folks are placed in a zoo and asked to perform. The benevolent anti-fatness in this is actually more insulting than having our bodies openly berated.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. Thin feminists and communists can choose to read work by fat scholars and other organizers. While fat studies is a fairly new academic area, there is tons of work out there to be engaged. They can choose to be deeply committed to learning just how much the medical industrial complex, the diet industrial complex, media industries, government, and desirability politics all work in tandem to sustain and maintain a system in which many fat people have died and none of us were intended to survive. If the laborer is their concern, they can learn about how fat folks are disproportionately denied jobs and are unemployed. If the woman is their concern, they can learn about how fat women earn even less than thin women. Whatever they do, if they are committed to our collective liberation, fat people have to become a much bigger priority on the left.

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Da’Shaun Harrison is a nonbinary abolitionist and organizer in Atlanta, GA. They write and speak publicly on race, sexuality, gender, class, religion, disabilities, fatness, and the intersection at which they all meet. Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book, “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness,” which is expected to be published in July 2021. Their portfolio and other work can be found on their site: dashaunharrison.com.

Comments
  • Excellent essay. I have long witnessed how hard it is for a size acceptance advocate to get taken seriously by those in other liberal movements. My favorite example of this is that when NAAFA held an event in NYC in the mid-1970’s, we specifically invited Ms Magazine to cover it. The editor, Gloria Steinem, sent their bookkeeper over to participate. She told us she was not a writer and was the ONLY Ms. staffer who was fat. She guessed that that was why she was sent, but afterward, she was never asked about what she experienced at the event, or to write anything about it. Years later we gradually became aware of Ms. Steinem’s fear of fat, and her own eating disorder. And Ms. became known among some writers, astonishingly, as the last place you should submit any writing on fat and feminism.

    Sep 5, 2020
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