25 July, 2007

"You're Just Not Trying Hard Enough": Notes on Disability and the Size-Acceptance Movement

Over the past week or so, I've been reading a ton (no pun intended) of posts on various blogs that are part of the size-acceptance movement. While I'm probably not what anyone could call "fat" [for the record, I'm 5'2 and weigh 142 pounds], something about these blogs has resonated with me personally. In recent months, I have done quite a bit of research on disability and its cultural meanings, and I can't help but notice the scary similarities of our culture's treatment of fat people and disabled people. An old post of Steve's, in particular, inspired this, so if you're going to blame anyone, blame him!

Before I go into this any further, I should bring y'all up to speed: I have a disability. Two, actually, if you count the cerebral palsy I was born with (the result of a premature birth), and the fibromyalgia that rather spontaneously developed last year. [Three if you count my experiences with major depressive disorder, but for this post, I'm going to focus on the physical.] Cerebral palsy and fibromyalgia can both affect an individual neurologically, and can vary from mild to very severe. I am fortunate in that my CP is mild; I can walk, albeit with a bit of a limp, and the muscles on the left side of my body "spaz out" on occassion and are a bit weaker than those on the right. In sum, I have an unequal body. Doing things with my left hand--the non-dexterous one--is difficult, possibly more so than most people think. Most of the time, I can manage just fine with my right, but the reality is that that the two will never be entirely equal. The fibro, of course, adds a great amount of pain and fatigue to my unequalized body, and I must say that it has been harder to deal with than the CP. While I sometimes get stares and occassional comments from random strangers asking about my limp, the fibro makes it worse, as it is difficult for me to even walk some days. I thought the stares from the CP-caused limp were bad--until the first day I walked with intense joint and muscular pain caused by the fibro, which made me move like a wingless stork on 'roids and attracted stares so intense that, by the end of the day, I collapsed onto my couch, feeling like someone had given me a colon-cleanse for my emotional state. Ouch.

In our culture, there is a certain standard of the white, heterosexual, not fat, able-bodied, attractive and preferably male subject. The fat person and the disabled person both buck this norm, often to the point of it being noticeable. For some reason, "normal"-bodied people love to stare and perhaps point it out, if they are feeling especially saucy. And yet, most people say they'd "never" stare at make fun of a person with a disability, or call them out. Our cultural conception of "disabled" exists as: a.) Someone in a wheelchair; or, b.) Someone who is blind and/or has a seeing-eye-dog. Hilariously, it seems to me that it is still acceptable to stare at people like myself, who "walk funny," or to ask why I walk funny.

It is still culturally acceptable, even encouraged, to make fun of "fatties." I have heard people say, "Wow, look at that fatass!" upon seeing a fat person cross the street, or stare and giggle at a fat person who is ordering a cheeseburger at a restaurant. And, though I am ashamed of it, I have never said anything or thought of saying anything until now. I am too familiar with hearing people try to hold in their laughter as I have stumbled around with my weak foot and aching body. I am too familar with people asking, "What's wrong with your foot [or feet]?", perhaps out of good intentions--nonetheless, one can be well-intentioned but entirely misguided. I know that if I were fat, it would be much, much worse.

Then there is the uniquely American trope of "You're just not trying hard enough." Feminist theorist and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome-r Susan Wendell explains:

[T]he idea that the mind is controlling the body is employed even when physical causes of a patient’s symptoms are identified clearly…The thought that ‘she could be cured if only she wanted to get well’ is comforting…to those who feel the need to assign a cause and cannot find another, and to those who want to believe that they will avoid a similar disaster because they have healthier, or at least different, psyches. (The Rejected Body, 100)

She's talking about illness and disability here, but I think it applies to fat hatred as well. We've all heard it: If she could stop eating, she wouldn't be so fat. If only she'd diet, she'd look so much better. If only she'd lose the weight, her health problems would go away! If you're fat and don't lose the weight, you're just not trying hard enough. If you're ill and can't get better, you're just not trying hard enough. You must be getting something out of it if you're still fat/disabled/ill. This person got better, and so can you! [Don't believe me when I say that these sorts of comments are made? Here's proof.]

The message that we cripples and fatties get, overwhelmingly, is: Your chub/limp/whatever offends those of us who are normal. It disgusts us, so you'd better make up for it by hating yourself, saying, "Yes, I am too fat; I wish I could be thin," or "Yes, I hate having a disabled, non-normative body; I wish I could be like everyone else."

I propose the following: We STOP buying into this load of bull, starting today. We realize that whether you are rich, poor, fat, thin, able, unable, of color, female, male, neither, both, gay, straight, trans, in between, none of the above--judging based on outside appearances is a shitty thing to do. Give everyone who's ever stared or made rude comments the finger by refusing to go along with what they want to put you through. Stare back.

Other people to blame for this post include Rio, Kate and The Rotund. Thanks, ladies.


amanda said...

Brava. From another fibro-ite, or whatever the hell you call us. I look able-bodied (young, thin, no deformities, no obvious limp) but I'm anything but. People look at me funny when I slow and huff-and-puff far, far earlier than they would during physical activity (like... half the way down the block at a running pace, when they could go on for literally miles). Etc. Or when I sit. Anywhere I need to. On the floor waiting in line at the grocery store. Etc. Strange to them, but necessary to me if I want to preserve "spoons" (you have read spoon theory, no? :)) to be able to go on and do things.

Anyway. Just reaching out. Keep on writing. You're definitely right to see a connection here.

lauredhel said...

Good post! (Hi, I found you via Shakesville.)

Something I've been banging on a bit lately is that fat accepters aren't particularly immune to the invisible, unconscious ableism that pervades the rest of our culture.

When anti-fat bigots are doing their "Fat people are unhealthy!" schtick, the response is far too often a simple "No they're not! I'm healthy, therefore it's ok for me to be fat!" - instead of questioning the assumptions underlying the bigoted busybody moralistic healthism.

A more radical fat acceptance might involve unconditionally accepting ALL fat people, whether they're healthy or not. (And, of course, all disabled people, whether they're fat or not!)

RioIriri said...

Yay, I love to be blamed for posts :)

Kate Harding said...

Yay, I love to be blamed for posts :)

I do, too! Especially when they're as good as this one!