Posted by Pattie on 2/25/2003 05:15:00 AM


I chose my words carefully on the question of other people losing weight. I said "When someone loses weight, it saddens me, but it is their business and I don't hate it or them."

One of the responses to this statement was the defence was "I think it's like red hair. I don't want it on me, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it on someone else." 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'm sure fatness can be and is regarded like hair colour. Many see the question of weight loss as something people change at will and for pure aestetic reasons. This is an acceptable cultural understanding of fatness. But after years of attempts and screwing up my health through those attempts, I have come to the conclusion that while a certain amount of change in body weight is possible and sustainable, it is a rare thing when someone can go against their body type successfully. It requires a lot of technology, a lot of commitment and a lot of vigilence. Even with those things present, I wonder if it can be successful for very long.

I believe this is true whether you are thin or fat. At my aquatherapy is a woman who is recovering from a broken hip. She has tried to gain weight all her life and can't do it. She takes supplement shakes and eats vast amounts of calories and yet she remains thin. Her doctor told her that her thinnness contributed to her broken bones. She and I connected on an emotional level because she is so tired of hearing how great thinness is. She lives with some of the consequences of having her body type and she tires of people telling her how envious they are of her thinness. "I just want to learn to accept my body as it is," she told me. I understand.

Like my choice of Starbucks, any preference seems simple and personal on the surface. However, no matter what the intention of the person, intentional weight loss and diet talk carry with them a whole lot of cultural baggage. I feel sad every time I see black women trying to look as white as they can because I know that it signals that whiteness is preferred. They often talk about it and feel about it other terms, but the ways in which "white" is marked as "better" in American society still informs the interpretation of their actions.

"Thin" is marked as "better" and "getting thinner" is marked as an honourable activity. That is why so many places exist where people can say "I'm on a diet" or "I lost weight." If this were a value-neutral activity, then people wouldn't brag about it or compliment others on its accomplishment.

To really appreciate the beauty of a fat person is not to declare simply that some of your friends are fat or that you don't discriminate against fatness or that you look past the fatness to the "real person." Insert the word "black" for "fat" in that last statement and you will see what I mean. In the 1960s when the slogan "black is beautiful" was coined to assert the aestethic was political. Black people trying to look whiter by straightening their hair, having their noses fixed and finding ways to lighten their skin was more than a fashion statement. It was a betrayal of their own bodies, their own histories and their own cultural identities. (By the way, if you think these radical procedures didn't exist and weren't available to black people, I recommend two books on "passing" -- the last chapter of Lawrence Otis Graham's Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class and Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall's The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans.)

So let me say it clear. Fat is beautiful. The technologies that exist to change fat are instruments of the fat hatred politics. The individual decision to lose weight may be experienced as just that, an individual decision. When I said I don't hate the decision or the person who made it, I meant it. I have made such a decision many times in my life. I know the surge of will-power, the feeling of control, the self-doubt, the fear of failure, the determination to succeed. I know that the intention is one of making myself "better" or "healthier" or "cared for." But now that I know more about bodies and politics and culture, I feel sad when I see or hear this declaration in public spaces because I know that despite whatever the intentions, this decision is just one more micro level move that helps create a culture that says fat is undesirable.

So let me say it again: Fat is beautiful. If someone can learn to believe that (and I believe they can because all aestethics is learned to a great extent), then they can open their minds to a lot of things that remain hidden under fat hatred.