Dear Virgie: How Do I Call People Out for Their Fatphobia/Healthism?
I love your work and think it is so relevant, so necessary. Thanks for all you do. I have been back reading your columns and blog so apologies if I missed where you discussed this, but when someone is making a fatphobic remark, is it okay to say, “you are being fattist?” As opposed to, say, addressing the classist or sexist or racist assumptions inherent in their remark.
I have also called people ableist, to which the person said “I have never even heard that term before and don’t even know what that means.” Face palm.
I would love to use your comment, “do you, as a white woman/man, feel you can say whatever you want to me?” But since I pass for white, I feel like I can’t even use that comment.
Basically, how can I continue to live life as a horrific and terrifying femme and hit people back appropriately like you? How can I better call out the triumvirate of fattism/ableism/healthism that people don’t even realize they have (to their detriment) internalized, when they don’t even know what those things mean?
Thank you so much for your kind words!
In short, yes, I think it is OK to say, “you are being fattist” or “you are being a fatphobe” when someone is making a fatphobic remark. Likewise, you can point out whatever underlying things may be implicit in their remark.
Here is my policy: show up as your authentic self in communication with others. Communicate with others in a way that honors where you are and nourishes you.
I think it’s important to recognize that our authentic self is sometimes in flux. What works right now might not work 5 minutes from now, or a year from now. That’s OK.
For example, two or three years ago, when I was at the height of my righteous fat rage, I popped off on a lot of people. Because that’s where I was at. I would meet aggression with aggression, especially when that aggression came from strangers on the train to downtown San Francisco, the fatphobe capital of America, it often feels like.
At the time, it felt like exactly what I needed and wanted to do. So I did it. A lot. If someone said something rude to me, or if I even suspected something dehumanizing was happening, I was very quick to place the fear of the unhinged fat lady into their hearts. I was proud that I not only defended my body, but also paid it forward: the next time this person saw a fat girl just minding her own business trying to be amazing in this world full of people and TV shows and internet trolls and billboards and dating apps who want to dull her shine, maybe they would think twice about saying some bigoted shit to her.
Nowadays, I’m just in a place emotionally where that doesn’t feel as authentic or nourishing to me. That doesn’t mean I never call people out. It just means that that isn’t my go-to self-care mechanism in the face of shameless fatphobia. I feel like I’m in a place right now where I need to save all my precious energy because I’m making a lot of life changes. I’m also in a place where I see fatphobia as other people’s problem. Not mine.
Let me stress to you: there is nothing morally superior about either of the approaches I’ve discussed! They are just different coping mechanisms for different points in my life, and I may return to call-out heavy accountability approaches.
I’d like to encourage you to check in about what you’re giving away as you make decisions about defending your body and the vulnerable bodies of others. It’s OK to be in survival mode, as long as you know that’s where you’re at. It’s OK to let someone know they’re being a fatphobe, but make sure to take care of yourself. Set limits about how much energy you’re going to give to any one person. If you personally feel like giving someone the healthism/racism/fatphobia 101 talk and that feels like it’s going to do something for you, then I encourage you to do it. I’d like to warn you against doing things in service to bigots, though.
When you’re a person in a vulnerable cultural position you’ve got to audit how much others get to have of you.
One helpful thing is to have a 1-minute script that you loosely prepare. You don’t have to memorize it, but it’s like an elevator pitch — you know what you want to cover. Preparing a script helps because you are pushed to distill what points you want to make, you don’t have to start from scratch every single time you have the convo (limiting emotional output = boundaries = good!), and it helps you limit the amount of time you spend with any given person. Have a couple go-to resources you recommend and then place the onus of bigotry on them — where it belongs.
Just practice doing what comes up for you. Practice spending less time trying to strategize about how to communicate and actually communicating. It’s a lot of anxiety-inducing work to do a lot of strategizing, and often that work gets relegated to femmes, fat people, women, POC, etc.
I hope this helps!
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help those who are ready to break up with diet culture, and started the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight.
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