208. Fat Bias and Disability: A Story and an Issue

I really retreated after writing the previous blog post. Aside from there being a lot going on, I was attempting to just exist in silence. I’ve been working on some personal change, and didn’t feel like writing about ISSUES.

Truthfully, I was also avoiding the topic I have been planning to tackle. It felt radioactive because it is an emotional one, and it is about someone I love, so I was also thinking about how to do justice to the whole thing. But then, as time went on, not writing began to feel like a pebble lodged in my heart; and so, disgusted at my avoidant reticence, I have begun.

Last time, I delved into Issues vs Anecdotes, and how people get asked to tell their stories, which then become vulnerable to exploitation or misinterpretation. How the role of the story sharer becomes shockingly devalued, their narrative diminished to the size of anecdote. It is not small, though. The story is everything.

This story is about the arc of disability and weight stigma. It is about my mother. I have gotten her permission to write about her, but I will of course do my best to maintain her privacy. Here goes:

My mother became disabled in her early 50s. It was due to a very randomly contracted and serious illness for which there is no cure. Because it is rarely seen in my home country, doctors took a long time to diagnose her. She continues to suffer bouts of this illness to this day, and it can take her months to recover from each attack.

The thing is, though, as serious as the illness was and is, no one recognized her transition to becoming a permanently disabled person. Since I already said it above, you might have guessed that weight stigma is the reason. No doctor told her, “You are now going to have to live with this chronic disease which has disabled you, and let’s talk about how to navigate life with a disability.” Had someone done that, her story might have played out so differently.

For one thing, isn’t family support a key factor in adapting to someone becoming disabled? Selfishly, I will say it: our lives changed too. It would have been informative for us to be told clearly that our family member now needed help in x and y ways. I do not recall any such preparation. I don’t even recall thinking of my mom as disabled.

And this is a problem. Because she was still expected (and placed this expectation on herself, since there was no acknowledgement of what was to be a lifelong struggle) to carry on as she had before, which in actuality meant that she continued to fulfill her responsibilities by dragging her pain-filled body through each day, resting whenever possible. And if she ever reached a point when her struggle was visible, there was always, always someone to remind her that her weight was the reason. And that because she had not tackled it, she was her own greatest enemy. Here, my mom wanted me to add (when I showed this to her for prior approval) that illness related disability was added to several preexisting conditions AND menopause. That is a ton of complexity.

As a young person, I lost count of the number of people who made weight related comments around us, claiming to be concerned about my mom, sometimes mocking her, often comparing her unfavorably to my dad. These people can all go fuck themselves. Like a lot of Asian countries, ours is body size (and skin color) obsessed, and is not kind to people who weigh more than society deems attractive or healthy. People don’t say “There is an actual person in that body, and I can actually put down my own assholey baggage and not make everything about my reaction to their size.” It is extremely rare for my mom to go out and not get some messaging that someone thinks she takes up too much space. The hateful behavior is unrelenting.

Even if you believe that a fat person would be better off losing weight, and that their other health issues would be made easier this way, you don’t actually believe, do you, that they are ignorant of such ideas? Do you truly think you are saying some messianic, unheard of thing? Please sit all the way down. And if you do profess it, I don’t believe you, since you (general “you”) have rarely spoken with compassion about it. Additionally, as the amazing Regan Chastain has said in her writing on fat liberation, no one has ever hated themselves into sustained weight loss. Extrapolation: your shaming comments are useless too. They change nothing. All they do is expose your horrible character and your own fears.

And this you can take to the bank: your hatred of fat people is palpable. You are not fooling anyone. Your sham proclamation that you have some mystical boundary between your own strict weight control and your ability to treat fat people with respect is just that, a sham. It is all coming from a place of hatred, from being at war with one’s own body. And you will never do better until you unlearn this thinking, and understand that fat bodies are beautiful bodies. Until then, you would do well to be quiet about the fat people around you. They have never deserved your toxicity.

Now I want to talk about how much my mom was carrying on her shoulders. She had a household to run, and she was also doing elder care for my crotchety grandma. The latter duties sapped her remaining strength. I am here to vouch for how difficult this sort of intense caregiving is when you are not so young yourself. Throw her own newly minted disability into the fray. I dare you to make any claims that you could have handled her duties with more diligence than she did, despite everything.

I can’t help thinking of how differently people would treat A if he was fat in addition to being autistic. Many autistic people are. What do you think happens when they are largely barred from extra curricular sports teams, fun community activities, gyms and etc, and the fact that people can be so selfish about expectations of appropriate behavior and hence, so hostile to them and their families at public pools. running tracks, and parks? They. Don’t. Get. To. Exercise. But boy oh boy do people know how to come right up to them and comment on their everything. Until and unless you are prepared to really be inclusive, you stay quiet about our kids.

Back to my mom. I think one of the worst things about people leading with their weight bias is how disability is policed. Using a mobility aid? No! Get up and move! That she will suffer intense pain does not seem to matter. Having a bad knee day? Her own fault for putting strain on her joints! And this doesn’t begin to address the lack of accessibility in public spaces, or the food policing. If it happens less these days, the main reason is that my mom has given up on a safe experience of public life, and mostly only leaves home for medical appointments (healthcare settings are often fatphobic too, don’t pretend you know don’t know that). If you think she should get out there anyway and deal with you all, I invite you once more to fuck all the way off.

You know why this story is important? Because anecdotes and stories ARE issues. The boundary between them is fluid. The story is my mom’s experience; the issue is how fat bias can compound the challenges of disability.

Fatphobia and ableism are soul destroying. If you have played any role in making someone’s life worse in these ways, I urge you to read stories like this and work on yourself in some very fundamental ways. Maybe while plodding through your ten thousand steps. Do not dismiss or trivialize the gift that is someone else’s narrative.

I want to end by quoting Da’Shaun Harrison, on how we celebrate weight loss, and what that actually means:

“…we are only so quick to celebrate a person’s ‘lost’ weight because we are taught that the weightiness of fat people’s bodies are inherently burdensome; cross-bearing; back-breaking; onerous. Not on fat people, but on the people who surround us. Therefore, there’s no regard for whether or not a person is well when they ‘lose’ weight because our societal desire–our only desire–is to not have to concern ourselves with the Ugliness of fatness… the celebration of ‘lost’ weight feels more like a celebration of thievery; theft of a fat person’s ability to see themselves as someone who matters; theft of a person’s right to see their body as neutral rather than inherently bad; a breach of consent on how a person enters into a relationship with their fat body.

The only way to undo this is…to devalue weight ‘loss’ entirely. Return to fat people the life you’ve earnestly and jubilantly stolen.”

Mic. Drop.

And humble gratitude to my mom for allowing me to share about her courageous journey.

Radha.

Source:

Harrison, Da’Shaun. “Celebrating Adele’s Weight ‘Loss’ Promotes Fatphobia and Misogyny.” Wear Your Voice. May 6, 2020.

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