This opinion piece is a response to HuffPost Highline’s recent report “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong,” by Michael Hobbes. Read it here.
I’ve read all the hot takes about fatness, trust me. Because I’m a fat person, people can’t wait to show me the latest terrible article about how Fat People Are A Drain On The System or Fat People Are Morally Bankrupt or I Don’t Want To Have Sex With Fat People So What’s The Point Of Them.
And I’ve read all the hot takes over and over, because the people who hate me for being fat seem to think that the hundredth Hey Fat People, You’re All Going to Die! article will be the one that finally, magically, makes us skinny.
That’s what made Michael Hobbes’ article “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong” so refreshing to many. It was an article about fat people (written by a skinny person) that was well-researched and well-intentioned. When you’re fat, it’s amazing how rare good intentions can be.
Much of the article discusses being fat and being healthy, and how, contrary to firmly entrenched popular belief, those aren’t mutually exclusive. Fat people can be healthy! Skinny people can be unhealthy! These simple facts, once accepted, can be life-changing.
Fat people can be healthy. Skinny people can be unhealthy. These simple facts, once accepted, can be life-changing.
But if we’re not careful, they also risk creating a caste system among fat people, drawing a line between the healthy and unhealthy ones. The healthy are considered about as virtuous as society allows a fat person to be ― or, at the very least, redeemable. The unhealthy are seen as lazy, selfish and better off dead.
Hobbes writes that “we’re not going to become a skinnier country. But we still have a chance to become a healthier one.” He makes it clear that health is multidimensional and depends on much more than weight, and that our obsession with weight is actually making us less healthy.
These are good points, but they, too, reinforce the notion of the “good fatty.” Hobbes quotes a woman named Jessica, who has learned to perform as a “good fatty,” especially at social gatherings. She “nibbles on cherry tomatoes, drinks tap water, stays on her feet, ignores the dessert end of the buffet.” When fat people do things like this, or otherwise try to prove their healthiness to the thin people around them, it’s an attempt to signal that they’re not like the “bad fatties,” the ones who aren’t dieting, who publicly drink soda or eat a steak or take the elevator instead of the stairs ― so they should be treated with respect.
Trying to prove you’re “one of the good ones” is a survival tactic. All fat people are trying to survive in a fat-hating world, and respectability politics can offer a form of protection. Unfortunately, it also feeds the idea that there are some fat people who don’t deserve decency and kindness.
There are healthy fat people, lots of them. There are also unhealthy fat people, and regardless of whether their poor health has anything to do with their weight, their fatness gets the blame. Joint issues? Lose weight. Depression? Lose weight. Cancer? Lose weight. If you’re fat, all of your health problems are your own fault. You chose this, and because health is regarded as a virtue, your choice was unvirtuous, immoral. So you’re unworthy of respect. You are not “one of the good ones.”
The truth is that every fat person, healthy or not, deserves respect. The idea that only healthy people should get decent treatment is bullshit. It’s just as much bullshit as the body mass index ― that is to say, complete bullshit.
Health isn’t the same for everyone. For someone with chronic illness, “health” is going to look different than it would for someone without it. I don’t have chronic pain, so I feel healthy when my pain levels are around 0-2. Someone with chronic pain might celebrate a day when their pain level gets down to a 6. Mental health is relative, too. I have anxiety, so my default state is feeling like my veins are filled with a swarm of bees. To someone without anxiety, just a couple of bees would be an emergency; to me, as long as the bees are bees and not hornets, I’m doing good.
The truth is that every fat person, healthy or not, deserves respect.
Health is highly individual, and belongs only to individuals. Unless someone is dead, you can’t look at them and know their health. And for a lot of people, “normal” health isn’t even possible. Their health is different than yours, and that’s actually fine. It’s fine for someone else to have a different kind of health than you, or to be unhealthy. Their health is not your business, because it doesn’t affect you.
I know what you’re thinking. “It does affect me! Fat people are a drain on the health care system. Fat people take away our tax money!” Those well-worn and mind-blowingly incorrect arguments have already been debunked in detail by fat activist Ragen Chastain. This hasn’t stopped fat haters from ignoring the facts, though. They’ve been doing that for decades.
Underpinning all of this ― the lack of respect for unhealthy fat people, the pressure for fat people to prove they’re “good fatties” ― is a deep, inaccurate collective belief: that because being healthy is virtuous, other people owe it to us to be healthy.
But health and worth aren’t connected. Health is not a virtue or a moral imperative, and it doesn’t determine your worth as a person.
Thinking that it does contributes to the terrible framework of “good” and “bad” fat people, and to respectability politics and justifications of fatness, and on and on. We think health equals worth, and we want to prove our worth and have others prove theirs to us.
Hobbes’ article is a welcome change from the usual coverage of fat people. But it leaves the door open for people to say, “OK, I get it. Fat people can be healthy, so I should be nice to them.” I’d like to close that door. Even if it were impossible for fat people to be healthy, we wouldn’t deserve bullying and harassment and traumatically bad medical care. Our health should never enter into the equation. A person’s health is not anyone’s business but their own.
Every fat person, healthy or not, deserves to be treated like a human. Every fat person deserves respect. Because every fat person is a person.
Sarah Hollowell is a fat Hoosier writer of young adult fiction, among other things.