I stood stunned at the edge of the football field. Our touch football game had ended and I'd had a brief conversation with a woman who made a significant living off her public reputation as a feminist and LGBT activist. I didn't know her well. We'd had brief conversations in the past, but had never so much as shared a cup of coffee. So I had been surprised when, as we prepared to go our separate ways, she called me back.
"I know this is none of my business, but...."
I braced myself. I knew what was coming next. You see, I've been fat my whole life. My first experiences of bullying as a child were around weight. Since then I haven't gone a day without being aware of the fact that I'm heavy. So, when she recited those magical words that everyone thinks excuses what comes out of their mouth next (I know this is none of my business, but...), I knew it was going to be about my weight.
Now, I'm not going to detail my medical history here because, frankly, it's no one's business. And besides, there would just be the argument from some that fat people use medical issues as an excuse. Those people will say fat people just need to "diet and exercise." And then there are the people who will talk about personal obesity using the rhetoric of a "public health crisis." There has always been plenty of objectification of fat people as either lazy moral failures, walking medical cases, or piteous lesser-thans.
I'm used to that. When I was looking for a position as a pastor I had an experience where a congregation was heavily vetting me. We had great phone conversations and seemed like an ideal fit. And then they met me. The chair of the committee made sure to mention several times that she was a Weight Watchers leader. I received a rejection letter several days later. I could tell ten more stories like this off the top of my head, and I'm sure other fat people could do the same.
But then there is another whole level of rhetoric. The rhetoric of full-blown, undisguised size-phobia.
Recently Maura Kelly, a columnist for Marie Claire, wrote a column detailing her disgust with a new show called Mike and Molly. Full disclosure, I've never been a reader of Marie Claire or any similar magazine and I've never seen Mike and Molly. But the outcry about Kelly's article has been too great to ignore for those of us who are fat. Here's an excerpt from "Should 'Fatties' Get a Room":
So anyway, yes, I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other... because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room -- just like I'd find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine (sic) addict slumping in a chair.
Suddenly I'm not only fat (or, in Kelly's language, a "fattie") but I'm "gross" and the moral equivalent of a heroin addict. Kelly's analysis is one part junior high mean girl and one part pop psychologist. (And, just for fun, read Kelly's whole article and insert "gay" into every "fat." Sound familiar?)
But, as much as Kelly's words disgust me, they don't personally affect me as much as the very real size-phobia I've witnessed in the LGBTQ community. I'm always amazed that a community that values diversity and respect for others can be so judgmental, occasionally to the point of being bullying, when it comes to weight. Even in the bear community there is a growing, increasingly bitter, separation of "muscle bears" from the "lesser," heavier bears.
Which is tragic. Because, if there's one thing LGBTQ pride should promote it's the idea that we can love ourselves and feel value in ourselves, just as we are. That's the ideal, but it's not the reality.
So, as I walked away from the football field last month, advice on how I should try Weight Watchers ringing in my ears (because, really, I'd never heard of them before), I left with that old familiar feeling of shame. As I met friends for lunch, I beat myself up for wanting a hamburger more than a salad. As I walked the streets of Provincetown, a place where I have always felt good about just being myself, I suddenly felt like everyone was looking me and just seeing a fat person. As I caught up with old friends, I wondered if they saw me or they just saw my weight.
Then I realized how absolutely messed up that was. Here I was, in the middle of maybe the most gay-friendly mile in America, hating myself. And, really, I've spent enough of my life hating myself. I came out because I chose not to hate myself anymore. And I'm not going to hate myself because someone at a football game feels the need to project their fat-phobia on me.
One of the things I've always loved about both feminist and LGBT activism is that both understand that liberation does not come in isolation. As a young activist I learned that racism, anti-Semitism and ageism were now my fights too. Bigotry against any group affects every group.
The same is true around issues of size acceptance. If the LGBTQ community continues to tolerate sizeism in our life together, our community is the less for it. If we continue to tell brothers and sisters that they are somehow less worthy because they are heavy, we lose part of our witness to equality. And if we continue to buy into manufactured standards of what is attractive or acceptable or right, we open ourselves up to criticism on other levels as well.
There are some great activists doing work around size acceptance in our community. One group composed of such activists is NoLose, which hosts conferences and other programs around fat acceptance in the lesbian and trans communities. Other grassroots groups are doing similar activism. I believe our community will be better for their work. But there's still a lot of work to do. As I walked away from the football field on that day, that was all too clear to me.