Trigger warning: this post contains examples of negative comments used in attempts to rhetorically negate the evidence of Ragen’s physical abilities, and they may be upsetting or triggering for some readers.
Society hides people like me – fat, healthy people. We don’t fit into the popular misconception that you can look at somebody and tell how healthy they are, we don’t make the diet industry any money, and we won’t just loathe ourselves like they want us to. I’ve found that when people are faced with a real live healthy fat person they often try to solve their cognitive dissonance. Sometimes they do this by just calling us liars, as in this comment from a total stranger on my blog:
5’4 and 280 pounds is not healthy and you’re just deluding yourself if you think it is. There is no way that you can work out the way you say you do and eat the way you say you do and still be that fat. You are not healthy and you need to get real, stop gorging yourself and get to the gym.
Sometimes they use the VFHT (Vague Future Health Threat). This occurs when people try to convince me that it’s less likely that I’m fat and healthy and more likely that they are psychic and that my “fat will catch up with me someday.” My fat’s already here. What is there to catch up with me – my healthy eating? My exercise? My numbers, strength, stamina and flexibility in the top 5% of the country? For the record I know plenty of old, healthy fat people, but even if I’m wrong I still feel that I’m making the right choice.
Finally, if you are a fat person who says you are healthy or physically active, you will frequently be asked to prove it.
After working for a year to obtain a level of flexibility that I didn’t even have as a (relatively thin) kid, I was thrilled to accomplish this heel stretch:
[Photo by Richard Sabel]
Among the supportive comments were a group of very prolific writers who make a total of 127 comments in three hours. One comment that was fairly representative of the group stated,
You are a stupid bitch. You are a liar to say that you are fat and healthy, there’s no such thing. Nobody cares how flexible you are (this move isn’t even that hard) or how well you dance because you’re still a fucking fattass. I bet your ankle shattered 5 seconds after this was taken. If I see you in the street I will slap you across your triple chins you dumb fat bitch.
Someone posted information about me on a listserve of people who, at first, were being reasonable and curious. I was e-mailed and challenged to state my numbers to prove beyond doubt that I am, in fact, healthy. I posted my cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure etc., all in the exceptionally healthy range. But, a random stranger on the internet asked, what could I do physically?
So I posted pictures of my strength and flexibility:
They said that holding that same 284 pound body (the one that surely shattered my ankle) up in an arch and doing suspended pull ups isn’t that hard. They said I must be flexible because I’m all fat and no muscle. They asked why I didn’t show something more athletic.
After several other attempts to counter their arguments, I posted a video of me dancing:
They got mean. They called me a whale, they called me a hippo, they said that it doesn’t matter because I’m still fat.
Several things about this incident stand out to me. First, many of the people who posted weren’t satisfied with disagreeing with my Health at Every Size lifestyle or calling me a liar, but actually felt the need to diminish my accomplishments. I can only assume that they were trying to avoid some sort of cognitive dissonance. In addition, the comments reflect an intense desire to convince me that no amount of accomplishment is enough if I am fat — as if being fat is such an utter failure that it eclipses anything else that I could possibly accomplish. Their core belief is that accomplishments only count if you’re thin, so since I’m fat no amount of proving it will ever be enough.
At first I was shocked by these comments. But I wonder if they are simply the end result of the constant marketing messages that the diet industry makes billions of dollars imbedding into our collective consciousness: The idea that anyone who chooses to focus on healthy habits rather than having a smaller body must be stupid and should be ridiculed. The idea that no accomplishments matter until you are thin because, if you are fat, you aren’t worthy of feeling happy or successful. (Remember Jennifer Hudson’s commercial where she said “Before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t” even though before Weight Watchers she had won a Grammy for her first CD and an Oscar for her first film?) Finally, the image of trainers like Jillian Michaels physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing fat people and treating them as subhuman “for their own good” might even make these people feel like they are somehow good Samaritans rather than run-of-the-mill judgmental abusers.
In the end, I’m over it. Don’t like what I write? Don’t believe me? Fine. I’m not here for you. When I do something that is counter to someone’s stereotypes, I’m not asking for their approval — I’m doing them the courtesy of giving them the opportunity to challenge their preconceived notions. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to live. I believe that every person of every size deserves respect. After that it’s all about presenting options, letting people make their own choices, and respecting those choices just like I expect mine to be respected.
Ragen Chastain, of Dances with Fat is a corporate CEO, choreographer for and a principle dancer in Fat Bottom Cabaret, and a three-time National Champion partner dancer currently seeking her first World Professional title; but all of that pales in comparison to her greatest accomplishment – learning to love her body. She is a strong advocate for Health at Every Size, and she unwaveringly believes (and is living proof!) that health is not about body size and that every body deserves respect.
Ragen agreed to write a post about her own personal experience with an issue facing many fat people: the insistence of other people that anyone who says you can be fat and healthy is mistaken, deluded, or actively lying, and the hostility and aggression often aimed at fat people who challenge these social assumptions (including on previous posts on our blog). She has previously posted parts of this article here and here.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.