Freedom of Speech Does Not Mean Freedom from Criticism*
I think it’s time we made something very, very clear.
When someone speaks negatively about fat bodies, they are speaking about ALL fat bodies. They are speaking about my fat body. They are speaking about your fat body. They are speaking about your Mum’s fat body. They are speaking about your brother’s fat body. They are speaking about all fat bodies.
While they may not be addressing you or I directly, our bodies are fat, and therefore are included when they speak of any fat bodies.
Because when someone speaks negatively about fat bodies, people hear that. And they take it away with them, in their brains, that thing they heard. When it is a public figure saying these things, LOTS of people hear it, because, well you know, it was said publicly by someone who has a wide audience. So lots of people take those negative things that were said about fat people away with them, tucked away in their brains.
Then they see me come along, or someone like me, minding our own business. Perhaps we’re walking down the street, or we’re sitting in a cafe having a cup of coffee and a scone with our friends. Maybe we’re in the supermarket buying food. Perhaps we’re riding my bicycle or going for an afternoon walk. Or maybe we’re at the beach, having a swim in our togs. Or at work/school/church/anywhere. You know, just doing stuff that people do.
Here I am, an example of a fat person, with a big plastic light fitting on my head:
I know, it’s a bit blurry but it was taken on my iPhone.
So along I come, with my very fat body (see my fat arms up there? And my double chins? And all my other fat bits? I have a fat bum too, but it’s in the chair and you can’t see it.) and the person who heard those negative words sees me, and seeing my fatness triggers the memory of those negative words about fat people in their brain. And they remember how someone on the internet or the news said that snarky thing about fat bums (which is retweeted by several people, widening the audience even further), or how fat people are unhealthy, or how people are abusing their children by making them fat by feeding them junk, or that we’re smelly/lazy/gluttonous/unintelligent/etc and they apply that negative to me, because look at me, I’m very fat! And Mia Freedman/John Birmingham/Tim Minchin/Michelle Obama/*insert public figure who makes negative fat comment here* says that they’re lazy/ugly/unhealthy/gluttonous/smelly/unintelligent etc, so they must be! Otherwise, they wouldn’t say it publicly would they?
But yes they would. And they do, whether it’s true or not, these people who are in the public eye seem to think that it’s acceptable to speak about fat bodies as if they are the authorities, even though most of them do not have fat bodies themselves, or if they have had a fat body in the past, they’ve been the statistical anomaly to be able to change that. They speak about fat bodies generally, without knowing a single thing about my fat body, or your fat body, other than what they can see of it.
They tweet about #womensobesity (and delete those tweets later) without actually experience being fat themselves. They post blogs criticising anyone who speaks against their fat stigmatising statements, as “glorifying obesity” (as if our posting about fat rights actually encourages people to go out and make themselves fat because they’re so impressed with our awesomeness) without thinking of the vitriolic fat hate that is spewed at any visible fat people as a consequence. They make “jokes” implying having a fat bum is something bad, without considering that those of us who actually do have fat bums have to suffer the humiliation of others carrying that message on in a far more vicious manner (“Hey fat ass!! Keep walking you fat cunt!”)
People read that. Or they hear it. And they believe it. They swallow it without question, and carry it around with them, ready to be regurgitated the minute they see a fat person. So when someone is talking about fat bodies in a negative way, it DOES affect me. It IS about me. As it affects anyone else with a fat body, in a whole host of different ways, all of them harmful.
Often, these public figures, and their supporters, suggest that it is not their fault that other people take their words and amplify them back at other fat people. That they can’t control what other people do when they say things online.
This is not true. It is your fault, you public figures who make negative comments about fat. You can control what other people do with your words. It’s very, very easy. You can not say negative things about fat people in the first place. Because you know, you have been told repeatedly, that it does harm.
The problem is, you are not listening. You are not listening when actual fat people tell you that it is harmful. You are not listening when actual fat people tell you that your words affect them. You are not listening when actual fat people tell you that the things you say about them are inappropriate.
When you are not listening, and you are continuing with this behaviour, the problem lies with you, not the people who you refuse to listen to, the very people whom you are speaking about – fat people. You cannot tell a marginalised person that “you don’t support their cause” as if this somehow puts an authoritative stamp on their cause as being over, invalid, done with. You cannot just say “I don’t interpret it that way.” when you are called on how your words affect others, when you are not the person who is affected by what is being said. You cannot repeatedly exhibit behaviours that a marginalised group object to and respond with “Leave me/them alone.” This is the equivalent of a schoolyard bully saying “Stop picking on me.” after their victim takes a swing back at them. You cannot tell a marginalised person who you have just stigmatised even further that they are “being too sensitive.”
You don’t get to set the parameters for what is an acceptable way to speak about a marginalised group, unless you are part of that group yourself. Strangely enough, the most vocal of you in complaining about not being able to set the parameters, are so loaded down with privilege that you cannot for one moment think outside your own comfort zone. That’s what working past your privilege is, getting out of the comfort zone and working out how you can make it better for those who do not have that privilege.
You are the one who has the power to stop people from speaking up about the inappropriateness of the things you are saying about fat people. You, and only you have that power. If you don’t want fat people to get “all up in arms and offended” by the things you say, then don’t say negative things about fat people.
It’s that simple.