AN E-DISCUSSION WITH ANGEL
I'm so glad you took the time to write. You have been my muse this week (or, at least, your question has been my muse) as I sort through some important stuff. I am grateful for a chance to dialogue with you about it directly. I'm going to write below in response to your text in [a different colour] to distinguish between your text and mine.
BTW, with your permission, I'd like to reprint this e-mail in my blog. I think it is an important exchange and if you are kewl with me doing that, I think it would be a good thing to share it with others. If you'd rather not, I will respect that. Please just let me know one way or another. Thanks
Hi, I just seem to be following you all over the 'Net, don't I? I can't post on your blog, I'm not sure why, so I decided to write an e-mail, instead.
Sorry about that -- I'm coming to the conclusion that [my comments program] is not the best comments program. It is often down.
I understand where you're coming from when you say, "If you change the words "red hair" to "dark skin" and if that dark skin were something she was trying to lighten, then the sentence would take on a whole new meaning. It is in that meaning you can find my sadness." I have to say, I am black (mixed really, but whatever, right?), and although I've never tried to whiten my skin (I love love love my complexion), I have straightened my hair. Again, not because I think that it's ugly, because I don't. Because I also like having straight hair. It's a big change from curly curly curly to stick-straight, and sometimes it amuses me to have straight hair for a week. That's it. No self-hatred. Just one more adjustment to the way I look.
I understand the desire to experiment and be creative with way we look. I have dyed my hair every colour imaginable and I get it curled regularly (I have naturally straight, thick, coarse hair). The question I am addressing is to what extent does changing hair, skin, facial and body characteristics represent a form of passing. Most of these activities do not. I don't believe that your weight loss attempts or your straightening of your hair are attempts on your part to pass for something you are not. I believe you when you say that your intentions are about beauty and health. However, even if you were motivated by the desire to "pass" I would not blame you. Passing says more about the power relations between white and black or between thin and fat or between heterosexuals and homosexuals than it does about any one person. My point is that I believe that trying to change one's body through losing weight is more akin to trying to change one's skin colour or facial shape than it is simply a fashion statement about hair. I'm posing the question, "what if we are doing something that is against our nature (or genetics or physiology)?" Dieting makes this difficult because there is some evidence that the act of dieting actually contributes to weight gain in that many people gain back more than they lose after a diet. So am I as big as I am now because I was "meant" to be that way or am I as big as I am now because 14 years ago I took diet pills and screwed up my body in some way? I will never know. Actually, I should qualify that, I will never know unless the current line of research about fatness changes. No one studies fat bodies. They study the "disease of obesity" and that slants the findings immediately.
Another part to that argument is skin lightening is dangerous. Period, the end. Those chemicals suck. There is *no way* to lighten your skin without damaging something. I mean, really, what you're doing is reaching into your skin cells and changing the pigmentation in each and every one of them. That takes some heavy-duty chemicals. Losing weight is not *necessarily* unhealthy.
It is not necessarily healthy either. No one knows right now. In a 1992 report by the national institutes of health on weight loss and weight loss methods, the following statement was made:
"Although there seems to be little doubt that overweight individuals have increased risk for morbidity and mortality, it does not immediately follow that weight loss reduces that increased risk." (SEE http://consensus.nih.gov/ta/010/010_statement.htm - 3_What_Ar)
You see it might be true that there is a correlation between fatness and certain diseases. This connection may or may not be causal. But even if you can demonstrate that the cause exists, very little has been done to demonstrate that the weight loss fixes the problem. The assumption is often made in these studies that if fatness is associated with the disease, then weight loss will reduce the risk. That assumption is rarely tested. I've attached an e-mail I received earlier today regarding the correlation of height with prostate cancer. Nowhere in this article does it suggest that height reduction will reduce the risk of prostate cancer. The fact that such a suggestion about height would be ridiculous and a similar suggestion about weight would be acceptable, and maybe even mandatory, is a social fact, not a medical or biological one. As Paul said on Big Fat Blog, this is a grey area. I merely point out that the statement "weight loss can improve health" is just as grey and has just as many problems as "weight loss never improves health." The current cultural context of research stands in the way of knowing.
Dieting, starvation, vomiting, yes. But that's not the only way to do it.
But many "good" diets end up in weight gain and loss of health as well. Let me pose a question: if a person eats healthfully and exercises regularly and doesn't lose weight, have they failed? If the purpose of the behaviour change was to improve health, then I would suggest that the person would not feel like a failure. If the purpose of the behaviour change was to lose weight, then I would suggest that in spite of their improved health, the person will feel like a failure and will redouble efforts to produce weight loss. It is at that point that many people turn to the unhealthy behaviours. So my thought is why make weight loss part of the equation at all. If eating healthfully and exercising regularly lead to weight loss, it will do so whether that is the specific goal or not. This is why I have my doubts about any effort to lose weight. However, I came to this point in my own life after many, many attempts (both "good" and "bad") to lose weight. Each attempt was sincere and not motivated by hatred of fat people at all. After years of trying, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that because of the culture we live in, each and every effort I made was informed by fat hatred. I hope you can understand the difference. This is the sociologist in me coming out. There is the micro-level decision and the macro level context. On the micro-level, the decision to lose weight can be made for a multitude of reasons and certainly these reasons are personal and should not be judged by others. But the macro-level is a different story. On the macro-level we are bombarded constantly with the message that we should be thinner. On the macro-level we are told by "experts" that our health is in danger if we are fat. On the macro-level we are encouraged to hate ourselves and morally judge ourselves and others if we are fat or are not attempting to get thinner. Thus, fat hatred exists and is evoked when the decision to lose weight occurs no matter what the intention of the dieter. It isn't about our intentions; it is about how the action is read by the greater society. We don't have a lot of control over that message other than to challenge it outright.
One last point: I don't think this matters one way or another, to be honest, (except maybe to cause fat acceptance people to discount me--I hope you won't), but for the sake of my argument I'll say it--I'm not fat. I'm not skinny, but I'm not fat either. I have a slim bone structure, and I've never been fat in my life, so being thin isn't going against my body type. I look at my friend Sarah, and she is a little ball: she's short and round, and even if she did lose weight (which she has no intention of doing), she would still be short with the same kind of body. Trying to be slim for her is going against her body type. It's not the same for me.
First, let me say that I believe that size or fat acceptance is good for all women and I believe in it, in part, because I think the pressures women face (and increasingly men) to be something they are not in order to be acceptable in our culture is detrimental to the person. As Jennifer mentioned on big fat blog, women who spend inordinate amounts of time trying to change their bodies are women who are too preoccupied to do the really great stuff that women do. So not only do I not wish to discount you, I welcome the discussion with you. Visual discrimination and oppression hurts everyone and I am happy when I see someone think about these issues no matter what their size.
I agree re: body types and trying to be slim. I think that this is why the illusion of control over weight exists. I find it interesting that many people report their weight with a single number. I don't know about you, but I actually weigh a range of weights depending upon the time of day and my activity level of late and so forth. That range is about 15 pounds. It was a smaller range when I was thinner, but the range has always existed. Modest weight gains and losses are probably natural fluctuations that can be influenced by behaviour. It is the attempt to lose large amounts of weight that lead to particular problems. However, the rhetoric around weight loss is that if you can lose 20 pounds, you can lose 50 or 100 pounds in the exact same way. My experience with my body and the experiences I’ve heard from other women who have attempted to lose weight is that the first few pounds are fairly easy to manipulate, but we hit a wall of sorts when we attempt more than 20 or 30 pounds. I am guessing that the range is different for men and women. I am also guessing that smaller women who have smaller weight loss goals will experience weight loss differently than women who attempt to lose large amounts of weight. This accounts for some of the feelings that bigger people are not trying hard enough. Btw, it is even possible to change our height and other physical features in small amounts without damaging ourselves. (I honestly don't know about skin lightening.) So this weight fluctuation and small changes theory of mine makes some sense, I think. (No one has studied this or, at least, I haven't found a study that differentiates between small weight losses and large weight losses.)
I hear you saying "I understand that *your* losing weight may not be fat hatred", but I also hear you saying, "But I think it probably is."
What I am trying to say is that every effort to lose weight cannot help but be connected to the general fat hatred in North American culture. This is not a moral judgement of any one person, but an observation of the culture. It is about power and who gets to interpret behaviour and the meaning of behaviour. Going on a diet contributes to the general consensus that dieting is good for everyone and that is why I am sad when others talk about losing weight. I know that somewhere, someone is going to use the behaviour to continue fat hatred. I really mean it when I say that no one particular weight loss effort is the problem. The problem is the general discourse around weight loss.
Comparing it to race really only makes me feel more strongly about my point. I've been told I'm trying to "be white" "look white", that I'm an "Oreo" lots of times in my life, and it's not true. I can straighten my hair and not want to be white. I can speak proper English without wanting to be white. I can lose weight without disdaining those who can't, won't, don't want to.
I have lived in predominately African American neighbourhoods a good part of my adult life in New Orleans, Tampa and Gainesville, Florida. They were usually working class neighbourhoods. I felt comfortable in most of those places. However, I was keenly aware of the fact that while I had black friends, acquaintances and neighbours, we could never fully escape the background of white and black power relations. Sure, we forgot about race relations in given moments and we shared feelings and experiences as people rather than as races, but invariably something came along to remind us that there were differences in our experiences. Sometimes we cried together and other times we felt very uncomfortable. I do believe that you can lose weight without disdaining those who can't, won't, don't want to. I just believe that your weight loss will carry some cultural baggage with it no matter what you intend. As I said in my blog entry this morning, the words to talk about this don't really exist. When you try to say "I want to lose fat, but I don't really hate fat" and when I try to say "when you try to lose fat it evokes fat hatred" we are both limited by the culturally informed word "fat" and "weight loss." In our culture, fat is something you want to lose, would lose if you could and happy to lose if you do. (I mean the generic "you" not the angel "you".) In the fat acceptance culture, we are limited by this language. So when we say "fat-hatred," do we mean personal hatred, cultural hatred? Are we making value judgements? Are we making social analysis? Fat is such a personal and moral question in our society that talking about it carries with it those overtones. When is said "weight loss = fat hatred, IMHO and I don't see any way around it." I was thinking about it in cultural terms. I did not think about it in personal terms and I ended up offending some people like you that I did not intend to offend. But how can I say that weight loss is about fat loss and fat loss in our culture evokes fat hatred? Can I say so without conveying a moral overtone? I'm stuck with either being quiet or offending people I didn't mean to offend. I'm sure you are not an Oreo, but the Oreo "type" exists nonetheless and the question will come up in public discourse about race and class relations. It doesn't point to anyone's fault, it points to flaws in the culture. Only marking those flaws and discussing them will work to change them.
I think this will be the last time I speak about this particular point, but I would like to hear your response. I've spoken to other people about it, and the general consensus is, "Maybe it's not fat hatred for *you*...but it probably is." I hope to change that to, "You say it's not fat hatred, and I believe you, and I believe you can be wholly into fat acceptance nevertheless."
I have no problem with that. I can type the following with total sincerity: you say it's not fat hatred, and I believe you, and I believe you can wholly into fat acceptance nevertheless.
In fact, I believe you think this is an important issue because you took the time to write about it both at BFB and in this e-mail. You were respectful of me, and my experience, and seem to have no desire to convince me to lose weight whatsoever. So I would say there is ample proof that you are wholly into fat acceptance.
I've committed to writing about this at length this week. Afterwards, I, too, am going to put it down for a while. It is exhausting stuff to think about. But again, I thank you for your original question. I am learning a lot about myself and feeling stronger as a result.
AN E-DISCUSSION WITH ANGEL