Posted by Pattie on 3/10/2006 06:03:00 AM

Top 10 Things I'm Tired of Discussing:

Number 2-- The importance of fat people who are fit.

Let me start by saying that I'm proud to call Jennifer Portnik a friend and I admire her to no end for standing up to Jazzercise and walking away a winner. I admire Kelly Bliss as well and the wonderful ways she's encouraged fat people to enjoy their bodies. I love to read about fat cheerleaders and fat burlesque, fat marches and fat "yay-ins." I love that there are some fat people out there who are just being themselves and who assert the space to be themselves.

I also love the fat people who are visible at the Wal-mart on the electric scooters. I love fat people who use their walking poles and get out for a stroll. I love fat travelers who demand a space on the beach to simply be. I love fat people who fight for a seat on the airplane. I love fat people who demand a comfortable seat at the theatre, the doctor's office or the classroom.

You see, I think that any visible fat person is a good thing because we are told to make ourselves as invisible as possible. Our place is not the limelight. It is the shadows.

But for some reason, which I haven't quite fathomed yet, it seems necessary in every fat acceptance forum of which I've been a member, to spend endless hours pointing out that fat people can be fit too. Then when the inevitable comment that we can't all be fit comes up, we have long discussions that essentially boil down to the desire to create a poster child of the fittest among us so that we can dispell the notions about fat people being lazy and unhealthy.

This desire to assert the fat people can be fit is a waste of time and it basically lets the bigots set the agenda.

First, neither “fat” nor “fit” is a fixed category. I prefer to think of both in terms of a spectrum, but even that might be too linear. Using the word “fit” like it means something definite is misleading and it is a game that those who vilify fatness use. Even the word is bothersome -- I mean, doesn't "fit" imply a sense of acceptability that "unfit" doesn't deserve? The word "unfit" is a quintessential characteristic of stigma, as stigma is the cultural belief that some people are less than human.

Second, being fit is not something that happens once in a life time. Hell, I think I can feel healthy and unhealthy in the same day (wake up feeling good and able to move freely – fatigue and environment lead to feeling bad and overwhelmed by the end of the day).

Third, fat is equally problemmatic. BMI is a false mesaurement that basically offers little information (other than the person can multiply two numbers). Fat is often an epithet rather than a description. Even someone with 3% body fat (another false precision) has fat on their bodies and could possibly be called "fat and fit" by some sense of the phrase. People with no body fat aren't "fit" -- generally, they die.

Finally, concentrating on who is fat and fit is a game that leads us to the central question I've been harping on in this series: Are we going to worry about the behavior of the stigmatized or of the bigot? If we want to change fat stigma, we must confront the bigot not present a better version of the stigmatized for their judgement. It is their behavior that creates the stigma, not ours.

Visible fat people will help confront the stigma. Being "out there" is a way to normalize our bodies in the culture. Consider the difference before and after the passage of the ADA. I am old enough to remember that seeing people in wheelchairs was a rare event before access was available. Now it is so natural that I often don't notice for more than a brief second. Is this because there are a higher percentage of people needing a wheelchair? NO. This is because the removal of structural barriers made it possible for people using wheelchairs to go places that they could not go before. They are more visible now. With that visibility comes acceptance as a norm. Now there are billboards in Phoenix selling housing that shows kids playing. One of the kids is in a wheelchair. Seeing this billboard doesn't make me want to dig into my pocket and contribute to a charity for sick kids. Instead, it makes me feel kind of warm and fuzzy because a diverse set of kids are playing together.

I'm all for visibility, but I don't think it should be a prerequisite that only the fit should be visible. People come in various shapes, sizes, colors and abilities. Fat people come in various shapes, sizes, colors and abilities because fat people are human. If we are fighting for justice, then we should be fighting for the end of stigma, not a new way to measure acceptability.

But even more important, I think that our agenda should be about how to break down barriers for fat people to be visible rather than discussing fitness. We need to be pushing for universal design. We need to be pushing for anti-discrimination laws and inclusion policies in our organizations. We need to be pushing for better representation in advertising and media productions. Endlessly parading examples of how fat people can be fit just ensures that the discussion in popular discourse is always about the fat person.

Fat people and their habits are not the problem we should be solving. Bigotry is the problem.