Last night, I kept Aidan awake by ranting about the all too-common moment that happens when you share food with people–especially desserts–in which people start talking about how they shouldn’t really partake because its “bad” or in which they curse you for tempting them to . . . um, enjoy themselves? When I’m feeling particularly belligerent, I think to myself, “I worked hard to make this so you should really just shut the hell up and eat it.” Or maybe I’ll think, “Why don’t you find something else to project your internalized sense of guilt onto and leave my brownies/cookies/cake/whatever alone.”
For me, sharing food is an act of celebration, an act of connection, an act of fellowship. It is, and should be, a spiritual and emotional act of communion in which we share in even the smallest of ways significant parts of ourselves–our histories, our cultures, our desires, and our stories. To make food mechanical or to treat it as a rule-bound terrain in which we separate the good from the bad is, I think, to deprive ourselves of a rich and necessary opportunity to nourish body and spirit together. I don’t share the food I make with the people around me because I just don’t want it to go to waste–I do it because I value the act of sharing, because I care about the people around me and the act of sharing functions for me as an outward symbol and testament to that care. I’m not going to be offended if people just don’t like what I make or just decide not to partake, whether because of choice or restriction. But I do feel deeply bothered, regarless of whether or not I’m responsible for making the food in question, when people insist on prefacing desire or appreciation with all kinds of qualifications about what they “shouldn’t” do or about feeling guilty for transgressing some set of externally determined expectations. Particularly when I am around other women, I don’t want our time together dominated by feelings of shame and guilt over enjoying food. Because when that becomes the case, it means that my interactions with other women, and my attempts to forge meaningful connections with them, are being overrun not only by misogynistic ideas about what it means to be “good women,” but I would also argue by a whole network of racist, classist, heteronormative ideals of citizenship that divide and pathologize particular kinds of bodies in order to justify a denial of the rights, protections, and recognition we all deserve. So it shouldn’t really come as a shock that I’m not willing to quietly allow that kind of bullshit to have so much power over my life and my relationships with others. And I don’t think you should either.
This all came to the surface again tonight when I caught a brief interview with Nikki Blonsky who starred in the 2007 film version of Hairspray and is now starring in the new ABC Family show Huge. In the interview, Blonsky spoke about the ramifications of her decision to not lose weight after filming Hairspray, as well as the sense of confidence and increased comfort with her body that she learned from playing the character of Will in her new show. Without thinking much of the interview, I opened up Ravelry and found a discussion thread someone had started expressing excitement over Blonsky’s new show. I probably shouldn’t have been shocked to find that this post was followed up by a whole slew of people more or less cringing at the idea of a show that “glorifies” obesity. But I was shocked, and I was also pissed, so I just stopped reading. But it’s not like you really have to read any of it to have a good idea of what might be said, because we all know the “fat is bad” script backwards and forwards. So many comments in the thread echo what we hear in so many other places: that the only “okay” way to be fat is to feel bad about it, to confess mental or physical weakness or inability, to show that you’re doing everything you can to be different.
I hope to write more here on this topic in the future, because I can’t possibly put all of my thoughts into a single post. (I take this a good sign since I see glimmers of a dissertation on some facet of body politics in my horizon.) But, as a way of giving myself a point to return to later, the question under my skin is this: what exactly is it that we gain from treating obese bodies as pathological, as weak, as necessarily diseased? And what exactly do we gain from treating fatness as a hyper-individualized issue through which, in the name of “health,” we continually foster a climate of shame and blame that disciplines us all into treating and talking about our bodies in very narrow and problematic ways? What has made us so certain that we are right to treat our bodies this way or to make pronouncements on the bodies of others?
While there’s certainly a lot at work in the way we talk about fatness, it seems to me that the power of a lot of these discourses lies precisely in their ability to narrow the scope of our attention. The climate of shame and guilt surrounding fatness not only has the all too frequent effect of relegating fat people to positions of silence and invisibility, but it also occludes from our vision powerful systemic factors that create deep and staggering divides between those more and less likely to experience frequent, debilitating, or even chronic health problems–divides that not only tend to correspond to but actively reinforce raced, classed, and gendered oppressions.
Sometimes when I realize how deeply I’ve internalized all of this negative body talk, I feel overwhelmed because it seems to take so long to unlearn the ways we so often talk about and view our own bodies and the bodies of others. But I’m committed to the unlearning, because I think I’m worth it and because I have no interest in reinforcing ways of speaking and being that are so harmful to others. I know there are plenty of other people who share similar commitments, and who are writing and speaking out loudly about body politics. I look forward to contributing in a more public way to these discussions.