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Stubborn Ass Know-it-Alls and Barriers to Understanding

I'm brainstorming a "How to Teach Fat Studies" Workshop for the fall at my university, and one of the hardest things for me is going to be going way back to pre-fat-acceptance 101. One of the most frustrating things is going to be the fact that I'll most likely be dealing with people who teach and do research about oppression and privilege FOR A LIVING, and most of whom I'd like to think understand those concepts and the complexities of such things pretty well.

That's because while obviously they're not going to come to a Fat Studies workshop if they don't have a bit of an open mind for it, some of them are really still going to have some incredible walls built up. I was reminded when having a conversation with a friend today that people I know still think fat people aren't oppressed because body size is changeable, that they shouldn't have to feel guilty (I don't know who said they had to) for being thin. And these are scholars focused on oppression, let's not go into other scholars I know who aren't so focused on social justice issues.

I had a moment of intense irritation and frustration that many people who acknowledge privilege and oppression somehow cannot acknowlege fat oppression. It's a valid moment. It's compounded by my frustration that people get so viscerally and mentally uncomfortable talking about fat outside of a weight loss context--even feminists and otherwise hip-ass know-it-alls who like to push themselves and their thinking--that they just don't know what the fuck to do. They shut down. They are so uncomfortable that they refuse to acknowlege their discomfort---they push it deep down. And that's part of what makes it so damn hard to have these conversations.

Well, okay, I had that moment of irritation. It lingered. And then I thought about all the otherwise hip-ass know-it-alls in the fat acceptance movement (not referencing anyone in particular here) who can easily pour on and on about fat oppression, but still remain so closed to deeply examining other forms of it. It makes them so uncomfortable that they don't know what the fuck to do. They shut down--or they shut down conversation. They are so uncomfortable that they refuse to acknowledge their discomfort and--like some who scoff at the idea of fat oppression--they don't even know why they need to think about race or class or ability or gender or anything else.

This is not anything anyone hasn't said before, it's just something I'm working through in my head at the moment. Something I'm going to have to deal with if I'm going to put on a damn good workshop.

It's people's choice to ignore or downplay certain types of oppression and privilege, but isn't it just a damn shame.

Obesity ills 'are a myth' - | Call for Participants

lilacsigil June 6th, 2010 | Link | I am constantly disappointed

I am constantly disappointed by people's ability to understand one or more forms of privilege in deep and nuanced ways, while viciously denying other forms of privilege. Good luck, and you have my utmost respect!

wriggle99 June 6th, 2010 | Link | They shut down--or they shut

They shut down--or they shut down conversation. They are so uncomfortable that they refuse to acknowledge their discomfort and--like some who scoff at the idea of fat oppression--they don't even know why they need to think about race or class or ability or gender or anything else.

That sounds like each and every one of us, at some point (or points), no exceptions. Prejudices are overlapping and what liberates some groups can and do impose upon the liberties of others-that can itself be a cause of some prejudice. So if you believe in some things, you will be prejudiced against some group or another.

I must admit I struggle with the idea that fat people are oppressed, as oppossed to subject to oppressive treatment and therefore under threat of becoming an oppressed group/class. It just doesn't feel like some of the other things you mentioned, it feels like a different process in enough ways to make it distinct from them.

People are closed minded towards fatness, because it forms too much of a service for their beliefs, it's shoring up to many of the things they believe (or they think it is), they're "open" enough to attend an FA seminar, or whatever, because that meets their needs with regard to how they see themselves. I'm not sure they actually wish to change, maybe not because they want to hate fat people, but for where they think giving up their fat prejudice might lead.

withoutscene's picture
June 6th, 2010 | Link | I agree that we all shut

I agree that we all shut down and put barriers up, at some time or another. Thinking about it as part of the human condition makes me more empathetic in some ways and very well may make me less defensive, but it doesn't make the experience any less frustrating.

I think I understand what you mean about your discomfort in calling fat people an oppressed group. And fatness is categorically different from race or gender or even ability--there are different histories of oppression, different avenues, different cultural understandings. But I would still absolutely argue that we are an oppressed group, rather than merely facing oppressive treatement. And that's because fat people face systematic oppression, not just the prejudices of individuals (though often individual prejudice helps produce systematic oppression). It is a solid fact that we are discriminated against GREATLY in the institutions of healthcare, education, and employment. That's not cultural or symbolic, that's not just John Q. Fatphobe calling me fatso, that's three major institutions that shape people's lives.

Viola's picture
June 7th, 2010 | Link | I must admit I struggle with

I must admit I struggle with the idea that fat people are oppressed, as oppossed to subject to oppressive treatment and therefore under threat of becoming an oppressed group/class. It just doesn't feel like some of the other things you mentioned, it feels like a different process in enough ways to make it distinct from them.

I don't think it has qualified, but I do see alarming trends with the conferences related to the legality of obesity, some of the way we treat fat children in this society, having obesity listed as a mental disorder, different legal rights for people based on BMI. And, like almost anything else, there are groups out there devoted to fat hate, which rather alarm me as well.

wriggle99 June 8th, 2010 | Link | I think you're definitely

I think you're definitely right about the alarming trends. I think the distinction helps to shape how we fight back, if you will. Being oppressed is actually quite demoralising and the only potential value in acknowleging it, is if it is unavoidable. If you aren't you just get the downside.

Knowing that we are not quite there is actually good news, it means we might have a better chance of derailing the process, before we are fully penned in and we have to start again. If we can derail these processes, it could have a knock on effect.

As we know fat phobia/hate is filled with and facilitated by many -isms, if we derail or undermine it, who knows where else that could lead?

miriam heddy's picture
miriam heddy
June 6th, 2010 | Link | Two things: Regarding the

Two things:

Regarding the "but fat people can change" argument, it's worth talking about the ways this "change" is used against other groups. Jews can convert to Christianity (and were often forced to do so or face death). Gay people can arguably remain closeted (or even celibate, and this is the argument of the Catholic church, which argues it's the act that's wrong, not the temptation). Transgender people can remain in their birth bodies without making any changes to them and dress in alignment with those bodies. People of color can use skin lighteners or straighten their hair (and many do).

It's a really problematic argument, when you start to think about the ways it's often invoked. So the fact that change is possible should not lead progressives to advocate that people change in accordance with prejudice or to get access to privilege or simply to avoid being killed for being different from those in power who define "normal."

Regarding the shutting down problem, I don't know if it helps with the frustration, but really, this problem of failure of intersectionality is really common in all progressive spaces. You need only look at any of the RaceFail discussions online, or notice how ableist and transphobic many of the leading blogs have been (and how defensive the blog mods have been about addressing that and creating a culture that resists those things). Or look at major so-called progressive, leftist spaces like The Huffington Post (which is extremely misogynistic) or DailyKos (which has gotten a bit better but which for a long time insisted that feminists defer and tow the party line).

So this shutting down is so common that sites have popped up to deal with it, like FWD/Feminist and Stuff White People Do.

Any of the people who come to your workshop and resist are likely resisting on more than one front.

DeeLeigh's picture
June 6th, 2010 | Link | In my experience, fat

In my experience, fat acceptance spaces usually do acknowledge these intersections, much more so than other social justice spaces. As you noted, it's difficult to find people who support or even understand fat acceptance in other movements. Even though I sometimes get irritated by all the caveats that go along with intersectionality, it's true that in a sense, social justice is all one thing and if you're fighting one form of bias, you should fight them all. And, they don't exist in a vacuum. They interact. For example, I believe that racism is one root of anti-fat bias.

On the other hand, you're never going to get perfect insectionality, even if you limit social justice movements to academics. As you note, understanding and opposing one form of oppression doesn't mean that a theorist understands and opposes others. When you get to the grass roots activists, all bets are off. Frankly, most activists aren't academic experts on oppression, and why would they be? They're going to focus first on the form(s) of oppression that they've experienced personally, and secondarily on the forms that they've seen personally and had explained to them by friends and family who have been impacted. And, they won't necessarily be familiar with the academic vocabulary of oppression, or with the ideas surrounding it. I hate seeing people get scolded and condescended to as if their real life experiences and the way they've structured their understanding of social justice are meaningless and stupid, and even as if they had a responsibility to learn about the academic models and the insectional caveats before speaking out. To my knowledge, this is not expected of activists in any other social justice movement.

miriam heddy's picture
miriam heddy
June 6th, 2010 | Link | DeeLeigh, I'm not convinced

I'm not convinced by your division of the world into "grass roots activists" (who you argue see things through their own experience or that of close friends) and "academic activists" (who apparently are the ones you think "theorize" and "scold" and "condescend" and thought up the language of intersectional analysis).

Academics did not invent the idea of seeing the world through an intersectional lens.

To quote Ms. Truth who spoke the truth back in 1851, "Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?"

Those with the most privilege are the ones who consistently seem to have the most trouble with this idea of intersectionality. Strangely enough, those with the most privilege are also most likely to be academic activists. Funny, that.

Luckily, some of them are catching on and finally hearing what people who've long been excluded from their movements have been saying to them.

DeeLeigh's picture
June 6th, 2010 | Link | Maybe I was mistaken. I'd

Maybe I was mistaken. I'd assumed that the language of privilege and oppression had come out of the academic environment of ______ Studies (Women's African American, etc.). I first heard it from a friend of my mom's who'd taken a lot of women's studies courses. If it didn't come from there, then where did it come from? If it isn't being taught in those types of courses, then why do the people with that sort of academic background seem the most well versed in it? I'm asking seriously.

Also, I tend to think that theorizing is a good thing (as long as the theories are constantly being reevaluated as new information comes in), while scolding and condescension are problematic.

miriam heddy's picture
miriam heddy
June 6th, 2010 | Link | DeeLeigh, those _____

DeeLeigh, those _____ Studies departments tend to include things like history courses. As such, they often include readings by feminists and womanists and abolitionists and labor unionists who were on the front lines of social justice activism long before there were academic ____ Studies departments at universities. So academic departments really developed their language from the pretty fertile ground of pre-academic social justice work.

As for "scolding and condescension," I'd point to the fifty billion pieces of writing out there about "tone" as a deeply problematic critique. It's on BINGO cards for a reason.

You can read some here:
and here:
and especially here:

But long before any of those, Martin Luther King wrote this in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail":

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Viola's picture
June 7th, 2010 | Link | Just as an aside, the part

Just as an aside, the part of the Sojourner Truth speech that was quoted where she asked the crowd what intellect was is the one recorded by Frances Gage. The one recorded by Marius Robinson was different. I don't know enough about the topic to know which one is considered the more definitive, but it sounds like Gage put a lot of southern dialect into her version.

alex.k June 7th, 2010 | Link | "I was reminded when having

"I was reminded when having a conversation with a friend today that people I know still think fat people aren't oppressed because body size is changeable"

That's bizarre, as one poster before me pointed out, especially because the term oppression is not exclusively used where whatever triggers the oppression cannot be changed. As far as I know a lot of fighting oppression ties in with the right to remain a certain way, and to lift the ignorance of the general population in regards to this thing, as opposed to telling the oppressed people to change, where it's in their power. (Isn't that part of the process of oppression?) The example with religion is dead-on.

This post implies a phenomenon I've been wondering about myself; why is it that the same people who seem to grasp the mechanics behind the oppression of certain groups of people so stubbornly refuse to acknowledge it in other cases? (In my experience it's usually about things that society hasn't 'taught' us to feel bad for oppressing yet, which makes me believe that they're not nearly as open-minded or 'progressive' as they want to be seen as).

One possible theory may be that fat is still overwhelmingly seen as something that's unhealthy / awful, etc, and the "righteous-leftist-hipsters" (to steal some terms) may refuse to argue that fat people are being oppressed because they may feel that acknowledging this oppression is the first step to legitimising the existence of fat people, or at least don't want any of their "hipster-friends" to possibly draw that kind of a link?

For what it's worth, I had a module on discrimination back in university, and fat people were mentioned as a group that was being discriminated against, the teacher noting that "people can pretty much say anything about fat people and it's socially acceptable". Most people I've come in contact with do acknowledge the fact that this oppression is going on, if or if not they care much about it is subject to debate.

I've made similar experiences with people concerning other forms of oppression though, and as alluded to above, I'm theorising that people are less likely to acknowledge or mention the fact that a group of people they don't happen to like very much is being oppressed, while repeatedly mentioning that groups they like / have no problem with are experiencing oppression, where they are. I'd have to ask someone what kind of psychological phenomenon this is, because I really don't know, but it certainly is also an interesting sociological / political one. Maybe it's because the notion of "justified oppression" (which is what they deep-down may think what is happening to fat people in this society is) seems to much of a paradox for people to grasp or acknowledge, so if they believe that dislike or a certain kind of treatment against this group is *justified*, the word *oppression* is therefore automatically the furthest from their mind.

withoutscene's picture
June 7th, 2010 | Link | Somehow your comment

Somehow your comment reminded me of one thing I wasn't really thinking about when I wrote this. There is a backlash against ______ Studies. I have been in many conversations about Fat Studies where academics and non-academics alike said things like, "Oh my God! What's next?!?!" or "One more thing they want us to be PC about." And, of course, we can see that Ethnic Studies is being OUTLAWED as we speak, thanks to Arizona. While Women's Studies and African American Studies are more legitimate, they still aren't respected by many.

Often, when a new axis of oppression is being pointed out, this is seen to threaten any legitimacy that _______ Studies programs have struggled to get. People perceive adding to ______ Studies as being indicative of ______ Studies programs being frivolous, rather than true scholarship. So Fat Studies itself can be perceived as a threat in this way.

This works on a personal level too. In a sick way pointing out fat oppression may come off to some as trying to destabilize "concrete" ideas about what oppression is and who is oppressed. It may be perceived as a threat to one's own sense of identity. And often the root of that is an internalized hierarchy of oppression.

DeeLeigh's picture
June 8th, 2010 | Link | You really hit the nail on

You really hit the nail on the head, withoutscene. _____ Studies programs are fairly new and aren't always respected by academics in more traditional fields, let alone non-academics. Fat Studies must sound absurd to a lot of people. I'm sure the people in other _______ Studies programs are thinking it's going to make their programs look less serious and legitimate by association.

Personally, I think that all these areas of inquiry are valuable and that they're going to result in a better understanding of hierarchical behavior in humans. In a sense, intersectionality is important because all forms of oppression are fundamentally about tribalism and hierarchy - monkey stuff that we all take part in. There is no doubt in my mind that sizism has some of the same primitive roots as other -isms. (That's just my weird take on it, though.)

However, a lot of people see these programs as legitimizing a victim mentality, of singling out certain groups for special consideration, and of establishing annoying standards for politically correct speech. Some of those criticisms are worth examining, but when it comes down to it, the value of breaking down and examining the causes, mechanisms and effects of oppression is unquestionable.

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