Over the past few days I have been following the comments and commenting on this piece – Gwyneth Paltrow’s Fat Shaming and America’s Binging Epidemic – over at RachelRabbitWhite.com, and my feelings towards this issue have finally come to a head. So I’m setting my smut aside for a moment in favour of furthering the discussion. I’m not Gwyneth Paltrow and I don’t live in America, but I am overweight, so I think I’m well qualified to comment on this topic. Rabbit’s piece is very level-headed and doesn’t come to any irrational or insensitive conclusions, instead leaving the topic open to discussion.
As a result it wasn’t until Rabbit directed us to this piece by Lindy West on Slog, and Dan Savage’s response – both of which I have actually read before, but clearly in a more passive state – that I decided I needed to write something. And, in fact, what is fueling my current drive more than either of those pieces are the comments below them.
My first thought? What the fuck is wrong with people?
How can we live in a World where people are bravely confronting and dealing with issues like AIDS and paedophilia and poverty and cancer and religious oppression, and not be allowed to comment on obesity? I can even think of quite a few comedians who tackle – rather brilliantly – all of the former issues, but only a handful who dare touch the topic of overweight people. How can we enjoy the Secret Policeman’s Ball every fucking year and still think we’re not allowed to talk about being fat? Oh, unless you’re fat of course; then you can whine and be indignant and angry as much as you like. But heaven forfend a slim person ever mention being overweight.
Being called fat is not necessarily an insult; sometimes it’s just a fact. Of course it makes me angry when people use each other’s weight to insult one another, but it makes me angry when people use almost anything to insult one another. If you are overweight, having the fact that you’re fat stated as a truth is not offensive, so why do so many take it has an insult? Well, because it reminds you of a truth about yourself which you are trying to ignore. And fine; you know what? If you want to spend your life pretending then good luck to you, but you have no right to be angry with anyone for seeing and speaking what is true. And if they speak ignorantly? If what they say is offensive because it’s unfounded and thoughtless, then fuck it. Since when did you need the approval of people who don’t even know what they’re talking about?
In response to Lindy and Dan’s articles: first of all, I am leaning towards siding with Dan because he approaches it with concern for health, not image. But, having heard him talk about obesity on the Savage Lovecast I personally think it’s a topic he should avoid, or at least avoid projecting his own thoughts onto. It clearly makes him uncomfortable, and I think that effects his ability to give good advice; however, as I say, he does have health at the forefront of his mind when he comments on the issue, so that is already a good starting point. Lindy’s piece is brave, there’s no denying that. But it’s not brave because she’s fat, – and it wouldn’t have been brave if I’d posted it – it’s brave because she clearly has a lot of hang-ups about her body. However, I have to raise issue with this sentence, referring to people finding her body ‘disgusting’, and her lifelong desire to change her weight: “There is not a fat person on earth who hasn’t lived this way.” Excuse me? When did being fat give you the right to speak for every overweight person on the planet? I’ve never lived that way.
So, for the record, here’s what I – me, young London-born, overweight sex writer, Harper Eliot – think about the obesity epidemic and fatness in general:
Whether it be food, or nicotine, or alcohol, or soft drinks, or cocaine, or whatever it is, we all have the right to put whatever we want into our bodies. We can enjoy and indulge our desires, but if we do, we have to take on the responsibility of what that does to us. (There also comes a point at which other people – the people who love us – have every right to intervene and show us what they see; and we rely on them because so many of us do not have a clear picture of ourselves.)
The truth is that being overweight, in many cases, is a health risk. It’s not always, but it often is. Same goes for being underweight. We need to stop pissing our time away dealing with morale and self-acceptance, and focus on looking at health.
How can I say that? How can I throw mental and emotional health out the window like that? Well, because I believe that in around 85% of obesity cases, the person has the ability and the willpower to change the way they live their lives. There are cases of people who need help, or have medical conditions and I am not trying to lessen the severity of those cases; people struggling with eating disorders should have access to as much support and help as they need. But the vast (pun intended) majority of us would go a long way by just getting up off our asses and eating some salad. If you’re really that unhappy with yourself, do something about it.
I have never had any problems with my body; I’ve had problems with people who had problems with my body, but personally, me and my skin are very happy together. Probably because I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the way I look; I tend to be too busy writing or reading or talking to people or cooking or listening to music. And when I was nineteen and my Mum suggested I lose a bit of weight, just for the sake of any possible impending heart risks I might be taking on, I wasn’t offended. I was grateful. I joined Weight Watchers, lost a few pounds and got on with my life. And when a good friend from school suggested I lose weight to help push forward the climb to my career – I was then aiming to be an opera singer, and no, they are not all fat; it would be hard to be overweight and sing like that whilst acting – I was really pleased that someone wasn’t skirting the issue, and that he just told me the truth.
Nowadays I try to eat healthily, but I’m not on a constant diet, and I do let my brother persuade me to make chocolate muffins every now and then. It’s when I find myself a little breathless climbing the eight flights of stairs it takes to get to work that I take action against my weight; it’s when I become flushed chasing my little brother and sister around the garden that I know I ought to lay off the pasta for a week or two. Because those are health issues, and personally, I care about my health. (Although, having said it’s a health issue, I can’t deny that every now and then, I do diet and push myself that little bit closer to fitting into the gorgeous Monsoon dress I bought on sale last year.)
But here’s the root of what I believe: If you are aware of all the health risks inherent in whatever it is you do to your body, you STILL have a right to do it. Every time you get into a car, or drink a beer, or go skiing, or have sex, you take on some risk; you just have to decide if the risk is worth the pleasure. We are free individuals and when it comes to ourselves, we can do whatever the hell we want.
But for fuck’s sake, please have the courage and decency to own what you’re doing. And know that just like it’s your right to do it, it’s other people’s right to say it.