An Unglamorous Response to Jess Weiner
Full-disclosure: fat acceptance, social justice, and loving myself saved my life. Which might explain why Jess Weiner’s Glamour article, entitled “Loving Myself Nearly Killed Me” — and arguing that unequivocally accepting her body somehow put it at risk — made me want to throw a tantrum of epic proportion.
The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement exists, in large part, to battle the perspective that fatness is automatically pathological, that it’s an “epidemic” killing our kids one corn-chip at a time. It’s a complex argument that works to separate eating choices from body type — and body type from health. Unfortunately, in a culture of soundbytes and 5 minute TV spots, that complex argument often devolves into “fat is healthy!” and “skinny is bad!” It’s a misrepresentation of what the movement actually is, and means, and includes — but it’s often the best we get from mainstream media.
It would be fantastic, of course, to be able to say that bodies are complex and the relationship between weight and health is not something we fully understand — or that bodies and weights can mean different things in different cases. But the “fatness kills” narrative does not make room for complexity. It does not qualify through caveats. And so we’re compelled, time and again, not to qualify either — for fear of losing ground in the fight.
I’m afraid, even as I write this, that it will read as a weakened position. Oh, she’s not fully committed to HAES; oh, she’s not really a Fat Acceptance (FA) activist. Oh, she doesn’t really think that person’s body/ my body/ her body is okay.
No, I really, really am — and I really, really do. I believe that fat is a body type, and as such tells us little to nothing about health. I believe that exercise does not always mean weight loss and that weight loss does not always improve health. But I’m also aware that I’ve seen the struggle behind Jess’s article in other places. It came up for songwriter Meghan Tonjes when she began losing weight in response to a back injury. It came up for Pattie Thomas when she revealed her struggle with chronic illness. And it came up for Jess Weiner, I’d hazard a guess, long before she shared it with us in this article.
Of the three, it’s not surprising that long-time fat activist and social justice organizer, Pattie Thomas, offers the most nuanced narrative. Over at FattyPatties, she writes at length about how dieting contributed to her disability and how anti-fat bias contributed to poor treatment, misdiagnosis, and struggle. She tells her story in a markedly different way than Jess Weiner does. Still, I’m struck by the shared difficulty, the challenge all three express, the challenge of expressing a health struggle in a movement rooted in the notion of health at any size. Hearing these women express concerns about “backlash,” I’m reminded of a friend, years back, who feared mentioning she was queer-by-choice, lest she undermine the “born this way” queer rights movement.
What does it do to a person, to feel like their story cannot exist in the context of their politics?
Was the solution, for Jess, to diverge from those politics? Is that what explains her mind-boggling title choice, her conflation of exercise with weight loss, her uncritical acceptance that it’s losing weight — not moving — that improved her health? Is that what explains her desire to keep losing weight after her numbers improved? Her reification of the “if I’m losing weight to be healthy (not to be thin), then it’s not dangerous” narrative? Is that what made it necessary to write an article so easily viewed as proof that one more fattie that has “seen the light?”
I take issue with Jess’ work for misrepresenting HAES. I take issue with her suggestion that ignoring your body constitutes loving it, that having Binge Eating Disorder de facto means being overweight (and vice-versa), or that physical health requires the rigorous re-training of the body, not the acceptance of it. I hold her responsible for how easily her piece can be appropriated into the war on obesity/ orthorexia/ thin=healthy mindset. I take issue with a fashion mag once again framing self-love as a dangerous alternative to letting it fix us. I do not believe in putting the personal before the political. I do not believe our right to tell our stories lets us off the hook for what they mean in a cultural context. Particularly when we publish and promote them from a place of authority.
But stories like Jess’s continue to crop up. And I recognize that this article — particularly in the context of so many pieces like it– underscores the challenge that Wacky Lisa pointed to, in her comment on my last post, namely that Health at Every Size can read like a KEEP OUT sign to someone who is actively ill.
Like Lisa, I don’t believe the movement intends that; HAES aims to change public perception, not mandate individual health. But without more openness in the community to health issues, without more awareness of how ableism creeps into Fat Acceptance, our cries of “betrayer!” serve to push fat&sick people back into the fat-hating culture. They create a perception of the movement as a place in which unhealthy people have no role.
This is not the HAES/ FA movement I know. I cannot shore up this perception from the inside, and I cannot support Jess in shoring it up from across the fence. I do not believe in telling our stories in a way that supports an oppressive status quo, in sacrificing social justice for self-actualization. I do not believe in this, primarily, because I believe the two facilitate each other. I believe in self-actualization that promotes social justice and social justice that promotes self-actualization. I believe in self-love that harms neither my personal body nor the body politic.
What would it have taken, what will it take, for people like Jess Weiner to believe in that too?