Dear Virgie: Respectability Politics in the Body Positive Movement
Why do you think there is so much of a focus on respectability politics in the body-positive movement? It seems like a lot of political energy is being spent on being nice, sexy, in a relationship with a thin partner (in a visible way) or healthy. I also spend a lot of political energy being pissed about it. Do you have any advice on learning how to manage all this?
HOLY SHIT. Yes. YES!
So, first of all, I want to say that I am going to try to address this question while holding myself accountable and seeing myself within your critique. Even as someone who feels super committed to an unapologetically fat and anti-assimilationist politic, I feel a ton of pressure to be nice or sexy or visibly in a relationship with a thin person.
But, yeah, as you seem to know, all of this boils down to upholding all the nasty shit that we’re trying to escape in the first place:
Racism: The idea that adhering to a performance of whiteness is really important. It’s important to recognize that “whiteness” isn’t just a color thing; it’s also about the performance of success that focuses on the accumulation of capital (upheld highly in western culture and used as a way to bolster white supremacy by denying the racist mechanisms that have generated white people’s success at the expense of others), recognizing the ways that whiteness is inscribed onto thin people (thin bodies are constructed as “compliant” and “superior” bodies, the way white bodies are) and also recognizing the way that kindness is racially prescribed (with a premium placed on politeness or niceness over accountability or political support).
Sexism: The expectation that woman or femme-led movements are never threatening. Expecting women and femmes to be kind all the time has a name: misogyny. A lot of times, due to internalized notions of inferiority, the gender policing is done by other women/femmes on behalf of patriarchy.
Healthism: The fight to be seen as the “good fatty” is so real! This is a performance based in fat inferiority and the desire to appease and appeal to the dominant group, whose bigotry should be called out, not accommodated and reproduced.
And, yah, even fatphobia itself is visible in the body poz movement: the drive to exclusively date or be seen as romantically attached to thin people is the drive toward violence against ourselves (my friend Kendal just taught me about this). When we purposely seek out thin partners or we put effort into showing the outside world our relationship with a thin partner, we are only drilling our own sense of dehumanization deeper into ourselves (and, unfortunately, often we are drilling this sense of dehumanization into other fat babes who BTW don’t need a thin person to prove they’re a total badass).
In short: respectability politics permeates the body-positivity movement for many reasons, and for some of us in the movement who have spent our entire lives being told we’re inferior, it is SUPER HARD to let go of the normy things that we have always been taught to want.
The problem, of course, remains that as we double down on the pursuit of normcore markers of success, we only get deeper into our own dehumanization.
Despite all this, I have hope! I think there is a growing number of woke fat babes who GET IT and who are visible practitioners of integration and anti-assimilation. As much as it can be hurtful or aggravating or messy to witness people in your community doing respectability politics, I think it’s helpful to be grounded about the reality that folks are working shit out, and that respectability politics is a manifestation of suffering and getting caught up in the dehumanization we’ve been taught.
So yeah, respectability is some bullshit that isn’t cute. So it’s totally normal to have feelings! You’re trying to do this super hard thing, and then you see other people getting accolades within community for doing stuff that strengthens all these awful systems. It’s rad that you have this critical perspective, actually, but sometimes perspective is a challenging gift.
I think the self-care response for the person who’s witnessing it and having feelings is to be patient with your feels and also “compassionately detach” from the person/people who’s doing the thing, especially if you guys aren’t close. Divest energy and time from the people who don’t nourish you.
I hope this helps!
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on body image and fat discrimination. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help women break up with diet culture. Find her online at www.virgietovar.com.