My ass has never been so politically unpopular. The fashion industry has despised my rounded belly and curvy thighs for at least 40 years, but it’s only recently that politicians have been weighing in, so to say.
If you read the news, you’ve no doubt heard about the obesity “epidemic” that’s been gripping the Western world. The hysteria alone could be enough to convince you that chubby girls like me will be single-handedly responsible for destroying Canada’s health care system, creating a future backlog of medical ailments triggered by my inability to resist the urge to eat that second cupcake.
Chubby kids have always had it hard, but the vitriol being directed at fat people these days seems unprecedented. The US Surgeon General has called obesity “a greater threat than weapons of mass destruction,” and the British Health Secretary called it a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change.”
After a plus-sized model won a recent season of American Idol, pundits lined up on network TV to debate whether or not size-12 Jordin Sparks was too fat to serve as a role model for young women.
Nothing makes me want to dive into a bathtub of pad thai more than the way this debate seems to be placing the blame for a whole series of societal problems — including poverty and lack of food security — squarely on the shoulders of curvy kids. And as queers, we have a stake in the war on fat people, whether or not we wear jeans with elasticized waists.
If you look closely at how discussions of obesity have been framed in the media, you’ll notice a faint echo of the way the HIV/AIDS debate played out in the 1980s. Fat people are painted as lazy slobs who are placing an undue burden on the medical system, due to their “unhealthy” choices.
This sounds awfully like the way HIV-positive people were castigated in the media several years ago for sexual promiscuity and drug use — suggesting that they somehow deserved to be sick.
The queer community has a long history of challenging conventional wisdom — especially when it comes to other people’s judgements of the way we protect our health and live our lives. When it came to the AIDS crisis, queer activists fought the blame game and successfully reframed the illness as a disease that needed to be treated with compassion, not judgement. They challenged drug companies to release much-needed medications to the gay men who were dying in droves. Perhaps now it’s time to apply some of that pressure to the multi-billion dollar diet industry?
Because I have a little secret to share with all of you. Dieting doesn’t improve your health — it actually makes you fatter, while also contributing to the growth of eating disorders and low self-esteem. In a recent interview with The Independent, Professor Patrick Basham argues that “in a classic case of spin, there are real victims: those people condemned by wrong-headed policies to a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and unhealthy obsession with food and weight.”
In a daring affront to the medical community’s panic over expanding waistlines, he says that “there is surely a compelling case that the damage to health from attempting to lose weight is far greater that the health consequences of overweight and obesity.”
And while chronic, morbid obesity is definitely a medical condition, these cases only represent a small proportion of those of us who are considered overweight according to the dreaded Body Mass Index. My much maligned booty serves as a perfect example. Even after dropping almost 30 pounds, maintaining a fairly consistent exercise schedule over the last couple of years and eating a healthy diet full of unprocessed fresh foods, I still rate as overweight on the BMI scale.
I have spent many hours with my gay male friends, hearing them bemoan how a millimetre of blubber on their waistline has condemned them to dating purgatory. But it’s encouraging to see that bear culture continues to celebrate gays with greater girth. And now, a new crop of sassy dykes are taking up the “riot, don’t diet” manifesto. Performance art groups like Pretty Porky and Pissed Off and the Fat Femme Mafia in Toronto are demonstrating that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and that self-confidence is way sexier than obsessive calorie counting.
Let’s not forget that this is also an issue of justice. Everyone — whether fat or skinny, healthy or sick — deserves equitable access to health care and public services. In the queer community, we know that positive change in our day-to-day lives comes from affirmation and celebration — not medicalization or the search for “a cure.” Reclamation leads to power, and that power leads to better health. Meanwhile, pass the cupcake.