6.17.2012

Facebook and bigotry without malice

On Friday, I posted a graphic on my Tumblr that visually represented the difference in search results between "fat acceptance" and both "dieting" and "weight loss". The difference was very stark and was meant as an illustration of the marginalization of fat acceptance for those who routinely look at the world portrayed in this pictures and complain about how the red leaves no room for the gray.



Two of my readers responded to note with alarm that when they searched "fat acceptance" on Facebook, it gave dieting results. When I first read this, I took this to mean that they permitted dieting results to be catagorized with fat acceptance, or perhaps more likely the reverse. I was alarmed to discover it was actually much worse.



As of Saturday night, when you entered "fat acceptance" in the search bar on Facebook and pressed enter, Facebook redirected you instead to a page about dieting complete with a stock photo of a scale. I posted about this on Tumblr, and people quickly protested to Facebook only to discover the actual page on fat acceptance was, itself, replaced with the content of the dieting page. I think complaints have stopped the redirect, but as of this morning the content of "Fat Acceptance" was still copied from a Dieting article. This kind of erasure of fat acceptance is appalling and entirely intolerable. So, naturally, what happened next were a handful of people insisting we needed to tolerate this.

Some were naked in their bigotry. It wasn't a problem that fat acceptance was being so literally disenfranchised because fat acceptance doesn't deserve to be. This is predictable, sadly. Unfortunately, so too were the hordes ready and eager to not simply excuse Facebook for having this on their site by to mock us as stupid for even being upset by it. We had no right to blame Facebook.

See, I thought the fact that this search result come through Facebook's own site and had their logo right at the top of the page and their site in the URL all tended to point to Facebook's accountability, but that was obviously foolish of me. You see, Facebook simply took this content from Wikipedia and someone on Wikipedia had "vandalized" the fat acceptance page to redirect to dieting.


I mean, I already figured this out. The page says its from Wikipedia. This struck me as the likely sequence of events. I just fail to see how this excuses Facebook. But then, I don't think oppression only matters when its done with malice.

This is a distressingly common belief from persons with privilege who want to police the outrage of marginalized groups. They seek to maintain and enforce their privilege by denying as much oppression as possible. Unless Facebook did this "on purpose" they are blameless. It doesn't even matter that this actually was done with malice by the "vandal" who did this at Wikipedia. Heck, just dismissing that act as vandalism and not bigotry is a way of trying to define the argument to their advantage. This isn't some dynamic exclusive to fat people, of course. It never is. Think of the white people who limit outrage over racism to the KKK and feel smugly satisfied with themselves as they ignore institutionalized racism that defies a sharply defined party to blame but result from a culture of oppression.

Oppression isn't only committed by secret cabals of bigots in dark room plotting to silence the already disenfranchised. I didn't imagine that someone at the Facebook corporate office plotted this. I think they were negligent. They exploit copy from Wikipedia knowing full well of the risks its open source nature carries to allow bigots to alter the content. Everyone knows that. Facebook may not have made a choice to specifically empower these bigots, but they made a choice that empowered bigotry. Indeed, is it that hard to conceive that hate-minded people have taken the time to figure Facebook's schedule for pulling content from Wikipedia and time their vandalism to ensure the widest audience for their hate? There are so many dark corners of the internet where hateful people actually plotting to advance the cause of oppression. Those corners may not be in the corporate offices of Facebook, but that didn't stop Facebook from this negligence.

Oppression from negligence and thoughtlessness is an all too real problem and not one hard to understand when it targets you. I understand why people with privilege would want to insist that "motive" matter above all, but intent is not magic. Intent does not change the facts of what happened. Intent does not erase the harm or undo the erasure. Great harm is done in this world by those who did not intend it. Facebook may have empowered bigotry without malice, but that doesn't change the fact that they gave power and resources to advance a bigoted mission. They must be accountable for that.

UPDATE: As of Monday afternoon, June 18, Facebook has updated the "Fat Acceptance" page so it has the proper content and doesn't redirect to Dieting. That this has been corrected is welcome, but it also doesn't absolve Facebook for responsibility for empowering bigotry like this in the first place.

5.21.2012

Anyway you look at it, we're wrong

The other day, I accidentally exposed myself to bit of gossipy fat shaming over a celebrity's pregnancy related weight gain. I usually try to avoid this sort of thing, but that's the problem with a pervasive culture of fat stigmatization. You can try to mitigate it, but its far too present to ever be able to just ignore.

I quickly realized, though, that there were actually three "scandals" I was aware of at the moment relating to new mothers getting shamed for for their bodies. That seems like more than is even usual, but that may be because the intense "gotchya" instinct to root out any celebrities not doing their "job" and being thin and pretty at all times. Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, singer and wannabe diet spokesperson Jessica Simpson, and actress Bryce Dallas Howard have all received scrutiny for varying degrees of transgressive non-thinness. Actually, in the process of writing this post, I've also learned that former teen star Hilary Duff was also getting scorn for not being an appropriate size less than a month after the birth of her child.

Perhaps against my better judgment, I waded into the comments of an article breathlessly sharing photos of Bryce Dallas Howard. What struck me as really discouraging was how every possible angle on this endorses and affirms fat shaming. Critics and supporters of Howard, alike, consistently framed their position in a manner unflinchingly approving of fat hate. You'd think this would just be limited to the people making crass insults about her current size or those who try to seem more reasonable by setting aside snide insults in favor for solemn scolding about how motherhood is no excuse for weight gain. You expect fat hate from those camps

What's really disheartening is how the acceptable defense of Howard and other celebrities like her is framed. Her defenders may call for compassion and understanding, but only from a perspective which concedes that fat is an improper state of being. They call for compassion not because fat people deserve respect. They do so out of pity. The "understanding" they speak of is built around the idea that fat is an awful thing to have happened to them and we should all be sympathetic with their plight. Its less a retort to fat shaming, and more a call for limited restraint while we allow people perceived to be temporary fat, transactionally fat, to get their affairs in order. They have no dispute with fat people being awful. They just think some fat people can have a chance to correct themselves if the circumstances of their fatness merit pity.

In a lot of ways, I find this attitude to be far more harmful and damaging than more overt fat shaming because of the sense of smug, self-satisfaction that comes with it. Well, not just the smugness. Most fat shamers have an over-abundances of smugness and self-righteousness, but its the nature of this smugness that really gets to me. See, they are smug because they think they are different from direct fat shamers. They flatter themselves and their sense of compassion with their patronizing pity. They feel entitled to their smugness in a way that's much more harmfully self-aggrandizing than those who jump right to snark and scolding. They try to capture all the privilege that comes with being a fat shamer, but then also lay claim to being enlightened about it.

In the end, "reasonable" fat hate is what empowers it's more overt and vicious forms. It is a symbiotic relationship where the two positions try to define the discussion of fatness as a binary where both sides agree that fat people are irredeemably wrong. This is never more obvious than when I see how non-fat positive spaces "debate" fatness. Fat liberation views have no place at the table. Its just a bunch of people arguing over how best to hate us. While "reasonable" fat hate puts a lot of stock into feeling morally superior to overt fat hate, it still fundamentally affirms it as an acceptable position. The idea that a person can gain weight without this being a personal failing at all? Not so much. No, you can debate when there should be consequences for the "moral failing". You can debate how much pity to offer those beset by the moral failing. You can even make conditional excuses for the moral failing. But you cannot question its wrongness.

I know these celebrities aren't going to be the faces of fat liberation. All will almost certainly lose the weight that is expected of them by whatever means necessary and employing enormous resources that bare no resemblance to how most people live their lives. Still, in a very real way, these are who fat liberation is fighting for. We're fighting for a world where people aren't just arguing over how to best hate and discourage fat people. We're fighting for a world where someone's weight is not a condition of social acceptance. We're fighting for a world where people aren't pilloried if their body happens to change and find itself at a larger size. We're not okay with people discussing fatness so as anyway you look at it, we're wrong. We're not participating in that mindset and culture at all. We're demanding something else. Not just for the fat people who've gotten to the place where we can stand nothing else, but for us all. We deserve better. Every last one of us.

5.17.2012

Fat Isolation

On Tuesday over at Shakesville, Melissa McEwan wrote a really awesome piece called Big Fat Love. She provides a response to a culture of fat hatred by declaring that she likes fat people and considering why such an ordinarily benign thing to say has become an extreme and radical position in our culture. Even amongst fat people, the social conditioning to hate fatness is extremely powerful. Its hard to even fathom what we lose because of this.

In a culture of external and internal fat hatred, there is no real solidarity among fat people. Well, at least not any fat positive solidarity. There can be "solidarity" in apologetic fatness, but can such self-blaming commiseration really be seen as solidarity? Bonding in self-loathing is what has been prescribed to us by a fat shaming culture, but what about bonding through encouragement? Well, there are risks there. You see an awesome fattie out on the street and maybe you want to say "yay!" but what if they respond with embarrassment or resentment? Most of the fat people I see and interact with in my life would reject any kind of affirmational solidarity. Many would be outright offended by it! And while I can't endorse that attitude, its still one I'm forced to be bound by. You can't impose solidarity, after all. Being fat positive can mean feeling terribly isolated, even surrounded by people who look like you.

Even when we can find a sense of community, it often still bares significant risks of rejection and stigmatization. I'm reminded of my experience going to "BBW" Social dances when I was younger. I'm not sure everyone is familiar with these events, but basically they are dances run at hotels or clubs intended for fat women and men who are attracted to fat women. They tend to have a bad reputation in fat activism, and not without reasons I'll get to, but they are still profoundly revolutionary in a lot of ways. They offer a space for fat women to feel some community. To be in a room and not have to worry about standing out because they are fat. It creates a little pocket where fat people can recreate some of the experiences thin people take for granted. They don't need to be political to be really quite radical.

But, they often aren't just apolitical, and that's the issue. Because most fat people have internalized our stigmatization. Gather a bunch of fat people together, and odds are they'll mostly be unhappy being fat. And being fat does not preclude one from fat shaming others, either. It doesn't even preclude shaming oneself, after all! This where the sense of community can end up feeling illusory. If you get past the thrill of being in a room with other fat people having fun, you may feel worn down by the viciously anti-fat political nature of the community. There can be intense pressure to be apologetically fat, both through negative reactions to fat positivity, and social reinforcement of constant fat shaming discussions.

Even more genuinely radical gatherings can carry the same risks. A couple weeks ago, I went with my wife to a fat clothing flea market. I knew a bunch of radical fatties were there and there was a real thrill in knowing that, even if I was mostly just trying to stay out of the way of the shoppers. I remember feeling really inspired by the energy in the room, but I also remember the wariness in the back of my head. Fat isolation can lead to a lot of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Put a bunch of fat people in a room together, even a really positive and radical room, and there is still going to be a significant impact of internalized fat shame. And we're made to expect no different. We're made to expect fat negativity. Fat activists are routinely called on to even affirm fat negativity, as if somehow our belief in something different is a threat to all the fat negativity in the world and we need to expend our time reassuring fat negativity that we totally respect it. We are constantly being isolated in our fatness, and its draining.

This is one of the reasons I value virtual communities so strongly. They allow us to come together in ways we never can in our ordinary lives. I started typing "real lives" there, but that's wrong. This is real. The communities we can find and build online are real. When someone declares on their blog that they like fatties, that's real. When we sharing experiences and ideas on Tumblr, that's real. When we banter on Twitter, that's real. It may not erase a desire to experience these same things face to face, but it shouldn't. That's just something else and it doesn't take away from the communities we can find. Being fat and okay with it, or *gasp* happy, can be very isolating and there is nothing wrong with taking whatever solidarity we can find. We can't always trust that it will be okay to say "I like fat people", but we can find some little corner where it is.

We then try to carry that with us as we stampede across the landscape. It may not keep us from wanting other communal fat experiences, but its not supposed to. Indeed, it should make us want them all the more. Isolation is not integral to the fat positive experience. It is imposed on us by those who want us quarantined lest our fat fatness infect others. Even if we don't always know how to break out, we shouldn't accept that our quarantine is in any way justified. We're going to get out and we're going to get our fat all over everything.

5.08.2012

Results still aren't typical


If you saw a diet ad in the United States during the first years of the new millennium, chances are there was an inconspicuous asterix hidden somewhere with the text "Results not typical." These "product does not work" warnings weren't invented by the diet industry. They were actually mandated by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC guidelines on the use of testimonials in ads were supposed to control false claims, but they came up with a little gift for the diet industry. As long as they qualified any non-representative testimonials with the "Results Not Typical" qualifier, they could make whatever claim they wanted. Didn't matter if the product failed 95% of the time or more. As long as you can document it working once, you were in the clear with just some fine print.

You may notice that this qualifier is no longer on diet ads. Is this because the results are now typical? Oh, goodness, no. Its actually because in 2009, the FTC decided the charade of "Results not typical" was just that. A charade. It determined that "best case scenario" testimonials were inherently deceptive and wrote new guidelines that forbid them. Well, that's what they said they were doing. What they actually did was empower the diet industry to fully resist a disclaimer they always felt was bad for business. The industry correctly recognized that the FTC really didn't have enough power to police their claims. It moved the qualifications off the ads and behind the scenes on flimsy "data" they could point to and shut down any FTC enforcement.

Basically, they were able to gin up "studies" that built atypical assumptions right into their construction. Those studies would show that the product worked just enough so they'd be immune from FTC enforcement. Didn't matter if the product only worked under very strictly defined circumstances and it didn't matter if there was no long term proof of success. The FTC's switch allowed the diet industry to do what they've long done in their marketing and that's blame dieters when diets fail. Their product works, you see. Its just the dieter that was doing it wrong. Their $40,000,000,000 industry is built on ensuring dieters always blame themselves for their failures and never the culture of dieting. This just codified that.

In the perversely inevitable result, we now see Weight Watchers replace that asterix with the slogan "Because it Works". Sure. You just need to "control" for all the times it doesn't work. Once you eliminate that data, the success rate is phenomenal! Basically, the new rule of fat shaming marketing is "Results Typical (If you ignore all the times it isn't)". Its a win-win for the diet industry. They lose the qualifier all at the price of continuing to blame fat people for the absurd record of failure the diet industry has left in its wake. What's not to love?

Just look at what passes for "working" with regards to Weight Watchers. A Lancet study of participants who all received the Weight Watchers program for free (a $500 value) lost an average of 10lbs a year. 10lbs is considerably less than the claims you'll see in any Weight Watchers ad and a good deal less than their claim that people can lose 1-2 lbs a week. Even that modest claim isn't verified by a study Weight Watches paid for to prove its success! And the study lost 40% of its participants in its 1 year. Gosh only knows what the results would look like 2 years out with all participants. But its something, and that's good enough for the FTC, I guess. Never mind that their latest ad includes a testimonial of someone who lost 100+ lbs. A result not typical even with the best data money can buy. It just doesn't matter anymore. The Weight Loss industry can lie all they want and no one will stop them.

The claims of Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem are still not typical. They are still hand-selected testimonials, often of people who are professionally losing weight. They can still make atypical claims in their ads. The FTC just decided that they'll be the ones the diet industry has to make the tortured qualifications to, leaving them freer than ever to lie to their consumers. Fat shame is a very profitable business. Not "because it works", but because it doesn't.

4.24.2012

The Injustice of Enforced Equivalence

I realized after I published my last post that I didn't flesh out a particular thought about the enforcing equivilance. Rather than edit the initial post, I'll just expand on that here.

The whole idea of enforcing equivalence without regard to the dynamics of social oppression is an inequity itself. Its an especially vile one as it tries to dress itself up in the attire of justice while setting out to enforce injustice. Fat people and thin people are not treated equally in our society. Same goes for POC and white people, women and men, queer and straight, trans and cis, etc. To insist that slights against both groups be seen as "the same thing" would be to ignore the essential truth of that unequal treatment. It would deny the oppression, deny the disenfranchisement, and lift up the privileged further still. "Equal time" is a myth constructed to give the privileged further advantage.

As a fat person, I can speak to my community about resisting and responding to resent of thin people. However, as a man, it is not my place to consider myself with "misandry" as if it were a valid thing to be upset about it. Women are welcome to advocate against resentment and hostility of men, but it would be manifestly unjust for me to do so as a man. Not because resentment is right, but because whatever extent such slights might exist pale in comparison to oppression of women. I have to take responsibility for my privilege as a man first and foremost. I have to respect that any resentment I experience as a man is a consequence of that oppression. It would be incomprehensible to blame feminists for such a consequence when the true culprit is my male privilege. If "misandry" exists, its hardly worth discussing in the face of misogyny and is itself a product of misogyny.

This extends to all forms of privilege. There has been "outrage" over a pro-trans slogan "Die Cis Scum", for instance. As a cis man, I have no right to judge that, to police the anger felt by a community under oppression. White people have proven especially adept at seeing themselves as the true victims of racism, denying all oppression and discrimination of persons of color while lamenting their suffering from "reverse racism". Well, guess what, white people? We don't have the right to scold POC for being upset about white supremacy. We just don't.

Accepting this as a person with privilege is not endorsing "hate." It is acknowledging privilege. It doesn't matter if I didn't ask for it. I still have it and I still have to respect the consequences of that. It is no surprise that the privileged want to write the rules for how the disenfranchised can respond to oppression. That's what the privileged do. They seek to enforce and perpetuate their privilege by restricting the opportunities of the oppressed. Well, we don't get to do that. Hating men or whites or cis people or het people or thin people is probably not productive or useful, but that doesn't mean its unreasonable. People with privilege need to recognize this distrust and resentment and they need respect it. People in those disenfranchised communities can certainly argue for a different path, but persons with privilege can't. We are owed NOTHING by oppressed communities. Least of all kindness and patience.

The inconveniences of the privileged mean very little

The Slacktivist spotlights two recent articles, Dianna E. Anderson on Hugo Schwyzer and Chauncey DeVega on white privilege, that hit upon a very important dynamic that we see throughout countless social justice struggles: where the abused are coerced to be the better people and forgive those who abuse them. As I read, I realized how familiar this felt within fat liberation and also quickly recalled similar dynamics playing out with queer communities, discussions of ableism, and many others. There is this constant demand that we must always trust those who have a long record of hurting us. That we must unequivocally endorse any declared change of heart and to do recall their abuses would be petty of us. It is an insidious dynamic that only reinforces and entrenches our disenfranchisement and the privilege of our oppressors.

It seems to me this extends to two other dynamics common in the politics of privilege. The issue with Hugo Schwyzer is an individual who claims to have changed, but such claims aren't even necessary for the disenfranchised to be pressured to settle down. "Good intentions" are enough to erase any culpability for heinous treatment of oppressed people. This is perhaps most vivid in the racism denial that comes with white privilege. To many privileged whites, racism can only exist with the explicit and stated intention to be racist. To regard something as racist without such an explicit intention is shamed as divisive and unfair, generally by people who fret far more about being being accused of being racists than actual oppression of POC.

Fat people face the same sort of restraints on calling out fat shaming and fat hatred. Since most fat shamers feel their stigmatization of our bodies is to our advantage, we shouldn't be mad at them. We are scolded and told that they aren't the real problem. They mean well, after all. Sure, there is a whole cliche about what good intentions are used to pave, but the disenfranchised often discover that time-worn wisdom isn't really meant for us.

This further resolves itself into "But what about teh [privileged group here]" protests. Those who fuss and preen about the evils of misandry, anti-white racism, threats to heterosexuality, or thin shaming directly try to pervert equality. By insisting on an equivalence of resentment towards the privileged and the disenfranchised, they merely promote that privilege and disenfranchisement. No, this doesn't mean that "misandry" or "thin shaming" is good, but by making them "equal", they are actually elevating them above misogyny or fat shaming or the like. The power dynamics mean the two can never truly be equal. Demanding they be regarded as such places a falsehood over reality and allies with the oppression that ensures these two things could never be equal. This is why I am so frustrated at those who endorse the idea that thin shaming is the same thing as fat shaming. Its just not, and pretending it is just further privileges thinness so that their slights must be elevated at the expense of those more oppressed. I find thin shaming to be profoundly unproductive and it ought to be discouraged and condemned within fat activism communities, but that shouldn't extend to honoring thin privilege.

All of these form a very consistent pattern of putting the needs of the privileged over the needs of the oppressed which is a horrifying thing to demand of the disenfranchised. Also, its a profoundly ordinary thing to demand. I mean, that's the oppression we are fighting in the first place. Just because the framing of justice as been appropriated to fight against justice doesn't mean we are obliged to care. Maybe there will be a day when my rights as a white, heterosexual man will actually be threatened, but that day is not today. Looking at struggles of disenfranchised communities to seek justice and seeing instead an urgency to fight for justice for the powerful is predictable, but in no way valid. The privileged merit no empathy for their "plight". Yes, oppression can hurt us, too. Yes, I didn't ask for my privilege, either. Yes, actual resentment can happen and probably isn't helpful. It just doesn't really matter, either. And it never matters less than the context it is always brought up, to scold and silence calls for justice by the oppressed.

See Also:
A Spectrum of Privilege, February 2011

3.31.2012

On Fatshion and the Privilege of Buying Clothes

I've been reading Lesley Kinzel's new book "Two Whole Cakes" for a review I'm hoping to write next week. I'm really enjoying it thus far. There is a section early in the book on fashion that does a fantastic job explaining what it means for a fat woman to just buy clothes. Its the sort of thing I imagine a lot of fat women just take for granted. I've known about the routine for a while being romantically involved with fat women. Its one of those privileges non-fat people take so for granted it probably never even occurs to them what a hassle it is for fat people to just get dressed. Lesley relates this in how she responds to people complimenting her on her good taste and how they really don't understand what goes into it. As she puts it "I SLAYED A FUCKING DRAGON BEFORE I COULD BUY THIS DRESS."

Even as a fat person, I could easily be unaware of the kind of ordeal this is for fat women. As a man, and as a comparatively thin man, I experience a lot of privilege with purchasing clothing. My wife, though really not much if any bigger than me, does everything Lesley describes in her book. Buying an outfit means maybe going to a number of stores and hoping a plus-size section might have something she wants. More likely, it means buying numerous sets of clothes online, trying them on to see if they fit, and paying to return whatever doesn't. Retail environments have withheld service from fat women, forcing them to either make due or essentially pay for the privilege of a dressing room. Do thin women get how much a privilege fitting rooms are? How much a privilege the wealth of options they have at their nearby mall is?

I'm very aware of my own privileges regarding clothing, in part because they are actually quite precarious. I'm a cusp size, meaning if I was any larger, my clothing options would plummet dramatically. I might not even need to be larger. Over the last few years, options at my size have been steadily dwindling. I can't tell you how frustrating I'm finding the fitted/slim fit movement. Its stealing the last inch I had available to me. Already, at the stores I regularly frequent, I've been shunted into online-only territory. As "fashionable" men's styles become a diverse gallery of slim fit to extra slim fit to fuck you fatty fat, online buying is getting more dicey.

Over February, I posted some Fatshion photo sets on Tumblr as I've been increasingly interested in how I related to fashion. I want to be more daring and creative and colorful and I'm already feeling constricted by the options available to me at retail. I'm not looking forward to the prospect of being further pushed aside as so many fat people already are. I'm even pondering trying to teach myself how to sew and tailor so I can try to create some styles that just don't exist. Like, I might want to try colored khakis, but right now I'm too fat for that. I'm keen on experimenting with colorful vests, but that's just not something that exists in my size. I'm faced with the prospect of commissioning garments or trying to take them on myself, either of which is a daunting prospect, but one that's just every day life for a lot of fat people. Just the fact that I haven't already been forced into this is a privilege I must recognize. I'm not sure thin people ever see just how much privilege they have in the things they regard as banal.

2.25.2012

Disney's Habit Heroes has closed


Well, that didn't take long.

Walt Disney World has pulled down the Habit Heroes website for maintenance and it seems the Epcot exhibit is also closed. In addition to complaints from fat activists, Eating Disorder groups and a number of bariatric doctors also complained loudly about how the exhibit shamed fat children. Right now, the best anyone knows is that the site is closed for retooling.

This is what concerns me. Sadly, I imagine those bariatric doctors carried the most metaphorical weight with Disney. While many bariatric doctors and organizations, like Yale's Rudd Center, share fat acceptance's opposition to socialized fat shaming, their motives for doing so are, in fact, still inherently fat shaming. There is a rather considerable difference between opposing fat shaming because it is disrespectful and hostile towards fat bodies, and opposing fat shaming because you feel it its not productive at inducing weight loss. I mean, its not, but neither are the alternatives these people propose and they all are still fat shaming in their way. Anything that defines a fat child as something to fix is going encourage that child to feel ashamed. We don't give kids enough credit to realize they can pick up on even "good intentioned" fat shaming.

What I want to see from Disney and the Habit Heroes exhibit is probably very different than what a doctor who specializes in telling patients to stop being fat would want to see. I hope that Disney incorporates perspectives from fat acceptance and from medical professionals who believe in Health at Every Size. I suspect, though, that the exhibit as designed simply is too far from being retooled to meet our needs. Maybe they can tweak the site and the game to stop rewarding players for bullying children (which is seriously how the video game plays), but the essential message that fat people are bad hardwired. Especially in the actual EPCOT exhibit which features elaborate artwork and virtual reality videos depicting fat bodies as lazy and villainous.

Frankly, I think the best we can expect from Disney is for "Habit Heroes" to just go away. Fat stigmatization is built into the exhibits DNA and I won't be encouraged to see what might result from them placating critics who disagree with fat shaming, but still think fat bodies are unacceptable. I'd encourage Disney to start from scratch and find ways to model better behavior without creating moral imperatives to meet them or by presenting fat bodies as the problem to be solved.


2.24.2012

Disney's Wonderful World of Fat Shaming



UPDATE: The exhibit and website are now "down for maintenance".

Earlier this month, Disney announced a collaboration between Blue Cross Blue Shield Florida to bring their considerable experience and expertise in marketing to children to the health insurance industry's long-standing commitment to blaming fat people for their health problems. These titans of industry will pool their talents to give fat shaming of children a brand-new re-branding. Oh, that's not what they announced, of course, but it is what they are doing.

Newly unveiled at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center is "Habit Heroes", an exhibit and online game designed to combat "bad habits" by personifying those habits and then stigmatizing those personifications. I'm guessing you are already ahead of me. 25 Pixar-inspired characters make up the "Bad Habit Gallery", a collection of low-ambition super villains content to use their powers to model socially unwelcome behavior. I'm not going to really get into the advisability of the project. This sort of negative reinforcement feels misguided in general, but especially when the negative reinforcement involves creating cool characters of the things you are supposed to be stigmatizing. (See Hungry) Never mind the broad condemnations of things like being in a bad mood are just setting kids up to fail. Everyone gets in bad moods or doesn't get enough sleep enough some of the time. Especially counterproductive is shaming kids for lacking self-esteem. You're going to make kids feel bad about themselves because they feel bad about themselves? Way to go, Disney. So, there is a lot to complain about, but as you probably deduced, what really concerns me are the fat shaming characters in the "Bad Habit Gallery".

And yes, characters. As I noted, the residents of the "Bad Habit Gallery" are all personifications of "bad" things. One is a personification of bullying (so, he's a bully), one is a personification of listening to music too loudly (a guy with headphones; they really didn't try very hard), one is a personification of sharing your personal information online (find out more when you register with http://www.habitheroes.com!). There is even a personification of eating spoiled and moldy food, which I must admit, I was not aware was so pervasive a problem.


Going through the gallery, some big fat bodies stand out and naturally the endeavor wants you to connect fat bodies with the kind of flaws fat people are normally accused of. The Glutton is a fat hot dog salesman who can't stop eating his own product and wears a donut as a pocket square(!). I mean, I know they are characitures, but how is it that even sensible on their terms? Wouldn't he just eat the donut instead of using it a bit of accoutrement? Next, we have Lead Bottom, the resident couch potato looking like one of the humans from Wall-E in a wrestling outfit. His bio tells us that he failed to pursue his dreams of dance because he was too fat and fell into wrestling instead. Its almost ironic given that fat people can totally dance and that these days, professional wrestling is actually pretty hostile towards fat bodies. His bio also contains the memorable line "blubbery loves company" which I so want on a t-shirt. Finally, we have our female fatty, Snacker. She washed out from the Tooth Fairy Academy and slathers all her food in butter. Would you believe me if I said her voice in the video game was more than a little reminiscent of Paula Deen? Her super power is summoning fatty food with her magic wand, which sounds kinda awesome to me. She's also a good example of why these slick character designs are counterproductive because I think Snacker looks totally bad-ass, like some awesome femme fairy godmother.

I'm having a little fun with all of this, but that's because I can. I'm an adult and I'm encountering all of this with cool detachment. That doesn't mean the influence on children isn't insidious. These three characters are carefully designed to get children to associate fat bodies with the negative behaviors our culture associates with fat bodies. Its like a "My First Fat Shaming". The game pretty explicitly tells children to see fat bodies and think they are slothful beasts cramming themselves full of fattening treats. All of these bad habits that we know our culture links to fatness, the game does, too. This isn't about the bad habits at all. Its training children to adopt the socially dictated bigotries around fatness.

Don't think the creators didn't know what they were doing, either. Indeed, its clear from the site's video game that they created another character to shield them from criticism for making all of the anti-fat "Bad Habits" big fat fatties. They already had Snacker designed to personify eating junk food. She was even designed like a sugar plum fairy of sorts. But she doesn't eat sweats. Oh, no. They have another character for that, Sweet Tooth. She's thin and everything. Well, "shapely" is how they describe her. See, they pointed out that she's not fat. Immediately after doing so, they scold her for not being fat, too, teaching kids to rely on the visual evidence of evil fat bodies even if some evil people have disguised themselves as "shapely" while really they have high blood sugar. (Yep, diabetes shaming, too!) For gosh sakes, she's got the name Sweet Tooth instead of Snacker who's bio identifies her as a FAILED TOOTH FAIRY? How clearer can it be that this character is just an afterthought to provide some deniability for their fat shaming? Well, as I mentioned, the game makes it completely unavoidable.  While all the other bad habits are encountered on their own, Sweet Tooth and Snacker are just doubled up and do the same thing. (You douse them with vegetable juice while they pelt you with donuts and cakes)


It doesn't stop there, though. Three other characters are fat in ways that specifically exploit prejudices about fat people. Stress Case is a fat opera singer. Well, former opera singer. Stress caused her to blow out her voice and destroy her career. Sounds tragic, but remember the point is how inexcusable it is to be stressed. The real take-away, though, is that she was too busy being stressed that she doesn't bother to exercise. While dressed up to be about stress, its actually just another lesson about fat people being lazy. What else do fat people do? They stink! Stinkbomb is the personification of bad hygiene. If you guessed that he's also fat, congratulations. Get Sweet Tooth to launch a cookie at you. I guess we should be relieved that he doesn't explicitly connect being fat to smelling bad. I'm pretty sure kids already "know" that, though, so they'll put two and two together. Finally, we have The Prescriptor, the personification of not doing what your doctor tells you. Hmm. Like lose weight? Again, they don't specifically connect is fatness to his fault, but its not hard to make the connection given existing social beliefs that people are fat because they are ignoring all the people telling them not to be. In a lot of ways, the construct of The Prescriptor is how a lot of trolls view fat acceptance. Just a bunch of ignorant people ignoring their doctor's orders. The fact that those orders can't really be fulfilled is meaningless.

Although the website features 25 bad habits, what I've found of the actual exhibit makes me wonder if most of the non-fat shaming ones were just filler. This site includes the preview posters for the exhibit which pretty much exclusively focus on fat shaming. The only habit we haven't already talked about is the one representing TV/internet/video game addiction although the poster renders him as a pudgy sprite instead of the robotic overload the site features. Spoiler alert? I wasn't able to finish the game due to site errors, but it wouldn't surprise me if the reveal on the interactive entertainment boogeyman was that he was just a squat guy. This review of the now open exhibit reinforces the point. No sign of the website's peer pressure or teethcare villains. It seems to just be the ones about eating and laziness. A point also made by the exhibit's focus on a gym as the hero's base. This was in the game, too, but was a minor point there. In the exhibit, its clearly a focal point.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the program is how it teaches kids to shame their peers. All of the bad habits are defined as having a "master plan" to subject everyone to their socially stigmatized trait. While the video game that accompanies the site has you winning over the bad habits (though much that involves making mean-spirited remarks to them which seem an awful lot like the bullying that is supposed to be a bad habit), the wording on the bios just makes it out like these people are obsessed with ruining everyone around them. Got a fat friend? They want to make you fat like them so they won't feel so bad! No, really, that's what the site tells you. At best, its teaching kids to constantly pressure their friends about their supposed faults. At worst, its telling you stay away from them at all costs. Or maybe best and worst and mixed up there. Its kind of hard to differentiate between two awful outcomes intended to stigmatize kids for not meeting certain standards. Either by constant pressure or by ostracizing them.

Simply put, kids don't need this message. They already know to shame kids for not fitting in, and that is a problem. Programs like this just teach those kids they are right to do that. No fat child needs a video game to belittle them for supposedly being lazy or gluttonous. Fat children already hear that all of the time. It has nothing to do with what bad habits they may or may not have, either. The implicit connection "Habit Heroes" draws between fat characters and fat lifestyles will empower the continued abuse of fat children, both externally and internally. They'll keep being taught to feel constant anxiety about their eating and activity level. They'll keep trying to do "the right thing" only to find it doesn't make them thin, teaching them that moderation is worthless and encouraging dangerous activities. It will keep teaching fat children that they aren't right and teaching other children the same thing. Society was doing just fine on that without Disney's metaphorical weight behind it. This is the last thing the world needed.

Habit heroes represents some of the worst of our society. It relies on cheap and easy prejudice, pandering to cultural bigotries surrounding weight and morality. It bullies the disenfranchised for the benefit of the status quo. They rely on the widespread of acceptance of fat shaming and fat stigmatization to put forward a message that will be poisonous to fat children. Fat shaming needs no more corporate partners or endorsements. Fat children are constantly being told to feel awful about their bodies. Given that no safe, reliable means of weight loss exists, even for the children, this is a prescription not for good habits, but for self-hatred. Worse than that, its an endorsement of others hating fat people.

For information about contacting Walt Disney World and Epcot, please visit their site or find them on Twitter @WaltDisneyWorld. Contact information for Florida Blue can be found here or on Twitter @FLBlueCenter.

2.22.2012

I'm not your metaphor

Earlier this month, a commenter here hit on a continuing frustration I have with progressive allies and how some relate to fat rights. Its frustrating, because I consider myself politically progressive. While I don't think one necessarily needs to a progressive to believe in fat acceptance, it is indisputable that the movements political foundations were products of radical feminism in the late 1960's. Progressives should be natural allies to fat acceptance, but a reluctance to respect our needs and perspectives continues to be a problem. The simple fact is that fat shaming is heavily ingrained in our culture and an expectation that fat people will sit down and shut up is all too common, even from people who think they are fighting with us.

Actually, that's usually the issue. They don't think they are fighting with fat people. They think they are fighting for fat people. That was what came up with this commenter who wanted to be able to blame fatness on corporations. This is a very common line you see from supposed allies in progressive communities and the fact is that this is a just feeding into fat shaming. The idea is that corporations are to blame for rises in obesity levels. The proof invariable amounts to some variation on "Look at all the fat people. Corporations must have done it." Which isn't, ya know, proof. Instead, what they are doing is looking at fat acceptance through the prism of their own agenda.

I don't disagree that corporations can often have an insidious influence on our lives and culture and I certainly support more accountability for corporate action and how it impacts our environment and lives. I don't see how those goals should obligate me to accept people who want to blame my body on corporations. The whole construct of looking for someone or something to blame for fat bodies is inherently fat shaming. It inherently disrespects our lives and our experiences.

Back in 2007, fatfu commented on a story Dr. Sanjay Gupta (someone embraced in some progressive circles, by the way) did blaming working moms for the "epidemic" of fat people. She pointed our how many things are blamed for fat people...
"Actually, I’m hard pressed to think of an aspect of modernity that hasn’t been blamed for the 'obesity epidemic.' Here’s a partial list of malefactors just from the past two months’ of headlines:

.
protein in infant formula
germs
mother’s weight gain in pregnancy
reduction in the nutrient content in food
diet soda
radical diets
advertising
restaurants

abundance of junk food and the lack of physical activity
television
drought
living in a rural area
urban sprawl
living in the suburbs
plastic in baby bottles
lack of family support

mother’s early puberty
“environmental food cues”
fructose
not enough fruits and vegetables in diet
permissive fathers
irresponsible parents
emotional eating
stress
emotional issues
sleeplessness
sugar
inaccurate infant growth tables
food prices
newspaper recipes
lack of individual responsibility
britain’s one-hour lunch break
larger portion sizes
farm subsidies
lack of personal responsibility
belly fat
beverages
the fear that being slim will make people think you have AIDS

precocious puberty
reading about the obesity epidemic
sodas
poor urban planning
low testosterone
southern high-fat diet
mother’s diet during pregnancy
disruptions of the circadian clock
online marketing"
She closes with a killer line that doing a story on one particular thing to blame for fat people, "almost certainly says more about his prejudices than it does about fat." How people seek to exploit fat people invariable is about their own agenda and their own prejudices and much less about fat people. If you don't respect fat people, there will always be some way to exploit fat people for your own purposes. Some social ill to attach to fatness. Some way to continue fighting "for" fat people and doing everything to avoid fighting "with" fat people.

Fat activists are constantly being told to sit down and shut up. PeTA wants to exploit fat hatred to advance their mission of promoting veganism. Dan Savage and Jon Stewart use lazy metaphors to promote marriage quality that are premised on the lie that fat people don't experience stigmatization. We hear constant cries of "what about the thin people" trying to recenter discussions of fat stigma and fat health. Dr. Sanjay Gupta Throughout all of this, fat activists are expected to play nice while our rights and experiences are erased because others feel they are inconvenient for their own agenda. How dare we suggest that we can pursue corporate accountability, animal welfare, marriage equality, or health care access without exploiting fat shaming? How dare we not sit down and shut up? Our outrage at this is constantly invalidated. We are pressured to know our place from allies normally well versed in standing with disenfranchised communities.

I'm getting tired of it. I'm tired of being told I'm letting corporations off the hook. I'm tired of watching the fat couples fighting for marriage equality so they can marry their own partners be thrown under the bus to make some lazy fat jokes. I'm tired of constantly having to placate thin people who take any discussion of fat contexts as an invitation to center the discussion back onto people who enjoy privilege. I'm tired of hearing that ethical treatment of fat people is expendable. I'm tired of being a cautionary tale or a "consequence". I'm tired of being fodder for cheap gags. I'm tired of being a useful metaphor. Progressive allies can and must be better. Respecting fat people does not threaten your cause. It will strengthen it.