For most of my life, and especially since coming into a fat identity, I have usually been one of the fattest people if not the fattest person in any given room I enter.
When I came into fat activism, I did it operating under the (false) assumption that my experience of fatness was the same—or at least similar, or perhaps comparable—as other fat people’s. The more my community and conversations expanded, particularly around experiences related to fatness and its intersections with and complications by race, gender, ability and especially size and shape, the clearer this became.
It would lead to confusion when I would see others I was in community with, others who shared a fat identity having experiences that I felt were not available to me—everything from sex and dating to clothing to seating to the ways our bodies were capable of moving. It took me a long time to unpack how different the fat experience is from body to body.
A product of the fat acceptance movement is a bigger and more diverse group of people embracing their bodies and claiming fat identity. There are so many reasons to claim fatness and so many ways to be fat. It’s an embodiment that is contextual depending on other variations like race, gender and ability especially. I don’t think that the destigmatizing and expanding the boundaries of fatness is necessarily a bad thing, but it can become complicated for me when the vast majority of these people are on the smaller end of the spectrum of fatness.
What do I mean by smaller fat people? This is a somewhat ambiguous term and is completely relevant on who is answering. Part of the ambiguity and flexibility of fat identity is that it can be relevant to so many different experiences. There is no hard and fast rule for this standard, but you might be able to decipher your position on the fat spectrum based on which of these experiences you relate to.
Here is some of the harm caused when fat communities focus on smaller fats.
It reimagines ideas of body—but not enough
In some ways, this can reify fat stigma and antagonism against larger fat people. When a bigger range of people begin to identify with fatness, but they all remain in a specific and smaller range, it can work to reformulate ideas of a standard and acceptable body size rather than integrate fat liberationist ideas of bodies and body size.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen presumably fat positive articles circulating that are attempting to challenge ideas of fatness. Sometimes they will be claiming to praise the fashion sense of this group of people, or provide proof that fat people can be attractive too. Most of the time, these articles are filled with people who are still much, much smaller than me. Frequently it can feel like this visibility doesn’t subvert or upend notions of normativity as much as they merely move them slightly to the left—but still exclude and by extension marginalize me as a bigger fat person.
For example, the praise of a ‘thick’ body feels very prevalent right now. Thick is a euphemistic descriptor that comes from African-American Vernacular English to describe bodies that aren’t thin. The problematics of non-Black folks appropriating the term aside, in my observation it is primarily being used as a nod to body positivity but by very small people who might fall outside of strict considerations of being skinny but are not the primary targets of fat stigma to reclaim their desirability. There appear to be limits to those who can be ‘thick’, though and, therefore who can still be valued and desirable. I, for example, would not qualify as ‘thick’ because of my size. This is a very subtle form of fat stigma—one that attempts to appropriate fat positive ideas but uses them ultimately to reify the praise of thin(ner) bodies.
Often times instead of challenging notions of body terrorism, visibility that focuses primarily on the smallest—and therefore most privileged—group of people can re-create what fatness should look like, re-stigmatizing those fat people who don’t look this way. These spotlights frequently do nothing for, and may harm in this way, folks who are much fatter, have different fat proportions or types of fatness (i.e. soft vs. hard, not combined with muscularity, not hairy ‘enough’ or ‘too’ hairy, folks with skin conditions etc.)
It obscures the thin privilege that smaller fat people have access to
Thin privilege is a spectrum.
Over the summer, I moved to a new city where I am in community with a bigger range of fat people, including folks who are fatter than me. This has forced me to reimagine my fat identity, along with my relationship to it. It has also forced me to think about and acknowledge some of my own privileges even as a bigger fat person.
Pants in my size are difficult to come by. I’m at the larger end of the spectrum of many plus-size retailers and some of them don’t even sell my size, but I can still find them. I have to squeeze into chairs with arms and they are not comfortable but I can still fit into them. While I can’t get in and out of cars easily, I can manage and don’t need a seat-belt extender most of the time. This occurred to me when I caught a ride share up the coast this summer and, on the way, realized it didn’t occur to me to confirm what kind of car the driver had, because I was confident it would be able to accommodate me, even if uncomfortable. And it did. It was even comfortable.
All of these experiences are much, much different from those bigger than me. And my experiences are much, much different from those who are smaller than me. The abstract category of ‘fat’ can sometimes flatten these differences and imply that, not only are we all having the same experiences under systems of fat hatred, but that we are also not experiencing any privileging based on our size and even shape.
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It forgives the fatphobia of smaller fat people
One of the limits of identity is that frequently by claiming one, people allow it to alleviate themselves of the responsibility to continuing to do any work and forecloses their acknowledgement of a potential to perpetuate harm within community and identities. We see the effects of this when anti-Blackness in spaces that are for all people of color and transmisogyny in LGBTQ spaces go not only unchecked but are frequently woven into the fabric of them.
The taking up of a fat identity, while it can be empowering, doesn’t always motivate people to continue to work on their internalized fat hatred—especially not beyond their own body, or how they might perpetuate it against bigger fat people. Microaggressions from smaller fat people can feel especially betraying.
While fat identity is relevant to a variety of experiences, it should not convince smaller fat people that they can no longer perpetuate this harm. We all have obligations to continue working on ourselves, so that we can liberate not only ourselves but everyone.
More Radical Reads: 5 Ways People with Thin Privilege Can Fight Body Terrorism
It erases who bears the brunt of fat stigma and fat antagonism
Ultimately, though, it centers in the conversation the people who are not always the most immediately targeted by institutional fat stigma and hatred.
Focusing on smaller fat people not only redefines what fatness is, but also obscures the goals necessary to achieve justice for those most affected by fat stigma.
By focusing on and centering those who are most likely to experience street harassment, negligent medical care, wage discrimination and other avenues of the most violent forms of fat stigma, we can liberate us all.
I support folks identifying in ways that make them feel good and best in their body. I believe that the destigmatizing of fatness is not only beneficial but ultimately integral to the long-term goals of fat liberation. But while we expand the definitions and boundaries of fatness, and continue to work towards fat liberation for all, we need to keep holding ourselves accountable, being aware of our positions, and loving and supporting those more vulnerable than us by being aware of the space we take up and the spaces we create.
[Feature Image: Photo of four people sitting on a bench against a light-colored wall. The person to the left has short white hair and is wearing a black sweater, blue shirt, brown skirt and black stockings and shoes. The person next to them on their right, is wearing a hat, a brown jacket, a blue shirt and has a white bag in front of them. The person to their right has short brown hair and is wearing a dark jacket, a blue shirt, blue jeans and white shoes. The person to the far right has short dark hair and is wearing a dark jacket and blue jeans. Source: CGP Grey]