Heavy thoughts on fat oppression

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

by Tavae Samuelu, Grassroots Fundraising Coordinator

When I heard that we were having a fat oppression workshop at ACRJ, my initial thought was that I didn’t need another way to be oppressed.  I was already feeling sufficiently oppressed by all of my other identities. I have come to know fat as an especially ugly word.  It comes out of my mouth, and my brain sends a signal to my facial muscles until they contort themselves into a cringe.  What happened to all of the nice euphemisms I had gotten accustomed to?  Words like thick or curvy that are less of an assault on the ears.  Then I realized how silly it was for me to want to dress up oppression and make it sound nice. 
The facilitator, Nancy Haque of Western States Center, opened the workshop by asking ACRJ staff to pair up and talk about the first time we became aware of our body image.  It occurred to me that I couldn’t think of a time when I wasn’t.  I remember being very young and conscious of my body.  It existed in comparison to my sisters.  The second born of three girls, I had always been the “skinny one.”  It was my moniker and the thing that seemed to distinguish me.  Only in hindsight did I realize that I took pride in the title because it was something people said with a smile.  They said it in the same gentle tone that they would say pretty making the words seem synonymous.  As I got older and people outside of my family felt it okay to comment on my body I began to hear things like, “You’re too skinny to be Sāmoan.”  I learned that being thin made me pretty but not Sāmoan.  At an early age, my body informed my family role, my racial performance, and my sense of self-worth.
After regrouping and sharing a bit, Nancy asked each staff member to share how many times a week they think about their body.  It was a seemingly simple question that elicited many layered answers.  I want to say that I don’t think about my body that often, but as each person in the group shared, my tally grew exponentially until I was squirming in my seat plagued with anxieties about how my shirt made my arms look big.  There are four very specific times during the day when I think about my body, not just think but JUDGE my body. 
1.       After I get out of the shower.
I race pass the bathroom mirror in a rush to cover myself in a towel.  If good hygiene didn’t demand it, I would avoid this routine altogether.
2.       When I get dressed in the morning.
Nothing fits right or flows the way it’s supposed to, and my roommate’s closet that I habitually shopped in, no longer carries my size.
3.       When a man hits on me while I’m walking down the street (Downtown Oakland seems to be a haven for them).
At some point in my life, I made a conscious decision to gain weight because I thought it would keep these men away.  I had convinced myself that I would feel safer at a larger size.  I was wrong.
4.       When I climb the three flights of stairs to the ACRJ office.
By the time I reach the office I am short of breath, nostalgic for the days when stairs were less daunting, and utterly disappointed in my body.  It feels like something I can no longer depend on, and in my efforts to feel safe I let myself become physically unhealthy.  
In my adulthood, my body defines the way I perform my gender, my sexuality, and my sense of safety.  

Nancy spent the last half of the workshop educating staff on the fat oppression movement also called size acceptance.  Fat activists like herself work to remove the stigma attached to fat. She revealed the myth of the obesity epidemic and how it operates to support the medical industrial complex.  Diet and weight loss procedures are a billion dollar industry that profit from the fallacy that thin equals healthy.  More often than not patients are told that fat’s the sole cause of their health problems as opposed to a possible symptom of a larger issue.  At its core, the fat oppression movement is about health at EVERY size and is centered on the social justice values of access and inclusion.  As an organization, we were critical of the ways that we may or may not be accessible or inclusive.  We walked away with concrete plans on how to implement this new knowledge.
Although the workshop left me emotionally spent, it was critical for the development of my own consciousness.  It also exposed an oppression that I had been willingly consuming for a while now.  I want to lose weight because too much of my body mass is made of insecurity and self-hate. 

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