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Posts Tagged ‘disabled and fat’

We flew back home Sunday (arrived early Monday morning), and on the way we had one experience that just shocked me.

My fiance had gone to take Hudson out to do his business, as it was a long connection so we had time for it.  I was on my scooter and headed to check in with the gate agents so they knew to pre-board me so we had time to get everything taken care of and settled properly.

A man started snapping pictures of me.  I couldn’t believe it!  He didn’t ask, and by the second picture I was giving him the ‘WTF is wrong with you?!’ look.

When my fiance returned with the dog, the guy once again took pictures.  When my fiance rode the scooter back to the gate agent so it could be checked, even more pictures.

I’m furious.  I don’t know what the hell people are thinking when they pull shit like this.  It’s not the first time it’s happened, and most of the time it’s people of asian descent.  I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t like it.  It feels like being fetishized – people are taking pictures of me because I look disabled.  Or maybe it’s people who are taking pictures because I’m fat and disabled and use a scooter, so they can har har over the way I use a scooter because I’m fat (nevermind that I’m fat because I have a disability and have been on meds that increased my weight, and the scooter is to relieve pressure on my feet and knees that they can’t take because of my multiple, overlapping disabilities).  It makes me so damn mad.

I’m not here for you to take pictures of and amuse yourself with.  I’m just living my life and I’d like the space to do so without being a THING to you, thankyouverymuch.

(On the other hand, the guy who wanted to take a picture of Hudson because he’d never been on a plane with a dog before?  He asked first, and I was totally okay because A) the picture was of the dog, not me and the dog, and B) he ASKED and waited for me to okay it rather than just jumping in and taking pictures.)

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One of the most disheartening parts of doing social justice work is how often people draw lines, create ‘us and them’, ‘deserving and undeserving’, ‘good and bad’ categories among people who could all theoretically come under one umbrella and work together.

I think in an ideal vision of social justice, I, a fat bisexual feminist crip, would be able to hold hands and work together with fat acceptance folks, GLBTQ folks, feminists, and crips.  I’d also like to be counted as an ally for groups I don’t belong to, like people of color.  In theory, in an ideal world, these groups that represent part of my fight against oppression (and even parts that do not oppress me but that I recognize as oppression that should be fought) would welcome me just as much as they welcome people who do not have intersections of oppression.

The unfortunate truth is that they often do not.  Let’s go through these one by one, shall we?  Now, keep in mind, I am speaking of the mainstream of each movement I mention.  There are figures in each of these movements who try to counter what I’m talking about, and I salute them, but that has not yet bridged the gaps that the mainstream movements have created.

Fat acceptance folks often start drawing lines between ‘good fatties’ – people who eat extremely healthy, normal portioned diets and exercise – and ‘bad fatties’ – people who do not eat as ideally or exercise.  There’s also often a line people draw between fat and ‘too fat’.  Now, as a crip with my particular gathering of disabilities, in hot weather, I cannot exercise beyond an extremely low minimum, and my diet is always somewhat limited by what my GI issues will allow.  My disabilities (and the medications that treat them) are a significant portion of the cause of my weight gain, so even eating well, at best, I level out temporarily until a new medication change screws up my body again.  I have also developed one of the problems we mark as belonging to ‘bad fatties’ – hyperglycemia, also known as prediabetes.  In a perfect world, we could look at people who are fat and say, it does not matter why you are fat (whether it is genetic, or disordered eating, or lack of exercise, or disease, or medication, or disability) or how fat you are, you are still just as valuable a person as a thin person and no one has the right to judge you for your weight.  But we don’t seem to be able to do that, we keep defending how we are not bad fatties, how we are not like ‘them’, the ones who shouldn’t gain the same respect we want for ourselves.

The GLBTQ (which some people now write as GLBTQAI – gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, asexual, intersex) movement has I think done a good job in recent years of attempting to start including more membership – hence why it has gone from just ‘gay rights’ to the longer groupings of letters.  They do still tend to represent most strongly the people they believe are their core, ideal group – gays, lesbians, and sometimes bisexuals.  However, this movement tends to cut itself off sharply from people who are poly (that is, people who have relationships that include more than two people).  They also tend to be rather shakey with how well they support their members who are people with disabilities or people of color (though this, as many of these intersections, is often a case of both groups kind of pushing away people who rest in that intersection).  The GLBTQ crowd also tends to try to make a clean break between the GLBTQ movement and sex workers, and rarely supports laws to protect and assist them. 

Next come the feminists.  Now, there are all kinds of issues with feminism cutting people off.  We say women should be able to work, and we now kind of scorn women who don’t, especially if they can’t (as opposed to women who choose to stay home).  We say women are strong and resiliant, just as men are, and we don’t like acknowledging that some of us are weak, some of us do not bounce back (whether that is a disability or a personality does not seem to matter).  We say women are intelligent, and we cut off the women with mental handicaps.  We talk about women’s reproductive rights, but we still treat women who choose not to have children as some sort of tragedy.  There’s the sexual revolution, but what about women who are asexual?  The feminist movement also treats victims of abuse very poorly, as a whole, because as victims they do not typify the self-sufficient image feminists want for women.  I can barely start to talk about the ways that mainstream feminism has sold out women who are lesbian, bisexual, trans, of color, disabled, fat, because it has been done so often and so deeply that it is hard to begin to describe the gap that has been created.  The feminist movement, having become successful, has done exactly what early abolitionists did to early feminists – they have said ‘Wait until we complete our success, and then you too can get what we are getting.’  They have treated the social justice movement as a ladder that only one group may advance at a time, and at that, only the core, ideal members of that group.

Which brings me to the disability rights movement.  Oh, we are a problematic group, I’ll openly admit that.  There are more than a few branches of the disability crowd that only recognize people with physical disabilities, and treat people with psychological or mental disabilities as very much second class citizens within the movement, if they’re included at all.  All three different groups have issues with attacking language that is negative to their particular type of disability, but ignoring language that hurts people with different disabilities.  In fact, we often use language that reflects negatively on other disabilities, even within our own categories (like people who will use ‘blind’ to refer to lack of foresight or insight when they are a wheelchair user).  The disability movement, in addition to often segregating itself (and failing with spectacular frequency people with mental handicaps), also tends to have issues with how it represents its GLBTQ members, members of color, fat members, and to some extent female members.

I’ll be honest, I’m not going to address the issues within the community of color, because I am not of color and haven’t seen the divides from inside.  What I will say is this – my experience with other social justice movements suggests that it is likely that people who do not represent the ideal of this group are shoved off to the side, ignored, and trampled on just like they are within other social justice movements.  I’ve heard things, but this isn’t my community and I really don’t feel like I have enough knowledge or experience to speak of it.

What does this all add up to?

Well, the simplest thing is that we have to look at ALL of the members of our group that we’re supposedly seeking rights for and try to make sure EVERYONE is getting the kind of rights we want for ourselves.  The right to health, safety, equality, basic standards of living, access to who you love, protection under law, and general fair treatment.

The harder thing is that I think we have to start reaching out to other groups.  I think we have to open our hands to groups we are not a part of and say this: we are all, every one of us who is working for social justice, seeking basic human rights that every person should have.  I trust you to say what you see as basic human rights you do not have now, and I will support you in trying to get them.  If we do not treat what others are seeking as basic human rights, they may not grant us the same treatment.  If we do not think of these changes as attempts for complete and true equality, then we may never succeed at getting them.  If we cannot invision our own rights, and the rights of others, that way, then the majority will win when they say ‘you’re asking for special treatment.’

And to me at least, the most basic tenent of social justice work is that we are not seeking special treatment – we are seeking inclusion, an equality of privileges, and being treated just like everyone else.

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There are categories of people whose bodies we label as public property. Bodies we can comment on, talk about, harass, own, label, criticize, and categorize. Bodies that are no longer people, just…bodies.

How often have we heard commentary on women gaining or losing weight? Aging? Getting pregnant? That’s this kind of public body issue. Why do we feel like it’s not just acceptable but appropriate? Complimentary to tell a woman that you’ve noticed she’s slimmed down, insulting to say she’s put on a little weight, but still within rights to comment on!

Disability makes a body ‘public’, too. Questions from strangers about why you have your mobility aids. Comments (often quite rude) about why you’re using the disabled seat on public transit or the disabled parking spots. Don’t get me started on what they say about people using electric wheelchairs or scooters. People feel like they have a right to assess whether your disability is real or if you’re a ‘faker’, with no more information than what they can see when they look at you.

And then there’s size/weight. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the recent fracas with Lincoln University. They have added a new ‘fitness walking and conditioning’ class that is required for anyone with a BMI of over 30.* Lots of things to say about this – firstly, BMI is an inherently flawed measure. It was never intended to be a measure of health, only to show where the average ratio of weight to height falls. That’s it. And it only showed what average was at that point. The equation for BMI dates back to the 19th century – back far enough that for people who were poor, periods of starvation/undernourishment when crops weren’t good were a regular part of life. That kind of skews your averages, don’t you think?

Anyhow, enough about the history. So what we have is a measure that shows what the average weight to height ratio for men was in the 1800s. Sounds pretty irrelevant to me, what do you think?

Further, BMI doesn’t differentiate between muscle mass and fat. Serious athletes tend to test with very high BMIs even though they are in almost impossibly good shape because all it assesses is weight-to-height ratio.

Okay, so we’ve talked about how BMI is useless. Now let’s talk about how this measure at Lincoln University is a bad idea.

Now, let’s get something out before I say anything else – I think encouraging people to exercise and eat healthy is a good idea. However, I think that ACROSS THE BOARD. Some of the most unhealthy people I know happen to have metabolisms that keep them skinny. The fact that they are skinny does not make their lack of exercise and their poor diet any better!

However, the way this is being done at Lincoln University – targetting people who are fat – is discriminatory. We’ve had studies show that people don’t actually have long-term control over their weight. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/health/08iht-snfat.5614611.html?_r=1 Our bodies change their energy use to reflect the amount of energy we’re taking in, leaving us with bodies about the same size whether we eat more or eat less. https://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/332/10/621

Dieting, we’ve seen, works in the short term but every study I’ve seen suggests that the vast majority of people who diet or make ‘lifestyle changes’ find themselves as heavy or heavier 5 years later. And that’s people who stuck with the change, not people who tried to just diet a bunch of weight off and go back to their old eating habits.

Furthermore, dieting is HARMFUL. A metastudy* by UCLA came to the conclusion that “The benefits of dieting are simply too small and the potential harms of dieting are too large for it to be recommended as a safe and effective treatment for obesity.” The study also noted that weight cycling – also known as the yo-yo effect of dieting – increases all cause mortality. I wonder if perhaps this increase is part of why we have this idea that fat people have higher rates of certain diseases. Among other things, this study connected weight cycling with increased rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and strokes – all diseases we say are caused by being fatter. Maybe they’re caused by being past dieters more often than they’re caused by body size! (http://mann.bol.ucla.edu/files/Diets_don’t_work.pdf)

Okay, so I’ve talked a lot of the problems with the actual requirements…but what about the media coverage of the issue?

When the articles include pictures, they pull the usual trick of dehumanizing fat people. They are either turned away from the camera or their heads are not included in the picture. Often, they are ‘artfully’ out of focus. Also, they’re a lot bigger than the minimum size a person has to be to get forced into this new class at Lincoln University. A BMI of 30 is a lot smaller than most people think. For example, I was at a BMI of 30 not long ago. I wore a women’s size large. Maybe an XL if it was cut on the small side. In numerical sizes, I wore between a 14 and a 16. The people shown in the pictures I have seen so far are probably 8 numerical sizes larger, if not more.

That’s part of the media’s obesity craze, you know. They represent obesity as being UNBELIEVABLY ENORMOUS when really the medical definition of obesity includes people we’d think of as just being not skinny.

Yeah, according to BMI, I’m about halfway between ‘obese’ and ‘morbidly obese’. That’s a clothing size 18, for those of you who’re curious. Between an XL and an XXL. I also exercise daily and try to maintain good eating habits.

BMI is just a number. It tells you little more about health than age describes disability. At extremes, perhaps it tells us something, but in ranges just outside of ‘average’, it’s pretty damn useless.

Here’s the real twist I want to suggest. Even if BMI was an accurate measure of health, or we used an accurate measure of health to base our judgement on, it be not right to discriminate against people because of their bodies.

So here’s my question to you: why do we let our culture tell us that people have a right to judge the bodies of women, of PWDs, of fat people? Are you going to do anything about it?

*The Lincoln University faculty meeting minutes on their website confirm the existence of this new requirement:
The HPR 103 requirement can be satisfied/completed by doing any one of the following ways:
(a) Test out (earned a BMI of less than 30)
(b) Pass the “old” HPR 102: Lifetime Sports class
(c) Pass HPR 103: Fitness for Life
(d) Pass an approved “physical activity course” at another college (must be a transfer student to LU)

* A metastudy is a study that reviews the results of many other studies to see if conclusions can be drawn from the whole

…and yes, I’m aware I’m leaving out categories of people whose bodies are treated as public – people of color, homeless persons, politicians, GLBTQ folks (expecially trans people), and celebrities spring to mind. I’m limited here by the experiences I can speak from – a woman who is disabled and fat. I haven’t the ability to speak for those experiences I do not know, and I hope you will forgive me for not including them.

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I’m fat.

This hasn’t been something I’ve talked about here because it’s something I still struggle to accept. Yes, I am fat.

In my teens, I was very slender – a size 4 or so at most. I got up to a 6 for a while, and then the summer before I turned 19, I worked at a Girl Scout summer camp and got down to a teen’s 3-4 again. I was hardbodied and muscular, and very proud of that body.

Well, the next year brought new birth control (depo) and my thyroid output decreasing dramatically. I put on about 35 pounds over the course of a year. I’m sure you can imagine, going from a teen’s 3/4 to a women’s 10 was pretty distressing. I felt very unattractive for a while, and a relationship with my ex-fiance that was falling apart didn’t help matters any. What that came down to, in its harshest terms, is that my ex-fiance cared more about not moving and keeping his life exactly as it was than he did about being with me. That sort of thing makes a very hard realization at any age, but when you’re 19 and it’s the first time you’ve been in a relationship where you truely would do almost anything for them and think you’ll get married, I think it’s especially rough. I think I did more crying than I did studying that year, and considering that I was writing a thesis paper that’s saying something.

I did a lot of work on my body, though – yoga and running mostly. I got my thyroid hormones balanced out again. But the weight stayed. I slimmed down slightly with all that activity, perhaps one size. I didn’t diet, but doing yoga really got me in touch with my body’s needs so I was eating a lot lighter and healthier. My plate was full of fresh vegetables more often than not, and I didn’t eat much in the way of carbs. My sweet tooth was often satisfied by fruit instead of candy or pastries.

It was very hard to be doing all of that work and not see my body slim down at all. However, I started being able to see things about my body that I liked again – the muscular definition in my legs and arms, my shoulders, my curves (I’ve always been a curvy girl, the smallest bust size I’ve had since I became an adult is a DD).

I bounced back up to a 10 pretty quickly when I moved off to grad school and no longer had a thrice-weekly yoga class. I took up dancing, which is probably what kept me from gaining dramatically, as the stress of grad school had me back to eating a lot of junk food.

It was in my second year of grad school that I really came to terms with, and started loving, my body as it was. Of all things, the thing that did it was the mirrored closet doors in the bedrooms of my townhouse. I couldn’t avoid seeing myself – clothed, naked, half dressed, so on. I had to buy a lot of new clothing, because I worked as an office manager and had to be professional every day, and having a lot of good looking clothes that fit well really helped, too. I started to realize hey, I really do look good at this size. The frank admiration of men I dated and male friends helped, too. Being able to see that I was attractive to other people did help me see myself as attractive.

I quit grad school after my second year and took a year off. That year, I was a gym rat – I was at the gym every day to do cardio, did yoga once a week and weights 3 times a week. I stayed exactly the same weight – 138 pounds. But I dropped a size, and I looked and felt good. Well, in my opinion, anyways.

And then there was the disasterous family portraits. We hadn’t had a family portrait shot for several years, so we finally went and had one done. And let me tell you, almost every shot that woman took was awful. We ended up buying the least awful picture. Unfortunately, it happened to make my upper arm look…rather large.

When we took a trip to visit my grandparents and give them the newest family portrait, my grandfather said I looked like I weighed 300 pounds. More than twice my actual weight. He picked the portrait to death – my dad looked like he was staring at nothing/daydreaming, my mother was sneering. While he said nothing about my sister, he has in the past suggested that she could be a model…if she got a boob job and a nose job.

The combination of the bad picture and my grandfather’s harsh critique of the way I looked in it put BIG cracks in my already fragile self-esteem. Combine that with going head over heels for someone who had been very supportive, flirtacious, and I daresay even romantic but in the end decided he wasn’t interested in me, and I was in bad shape.

I started dating a guy (long distance) that I knew was all wrong for me. I’m not going to go into why he wasn’t the right guy, just say that things got as far as they did with him because of the shape my self-esteem was in and the fact that I was rebounding off of the guy I’d lost my heart to.

Things eventually fizzled out; even the need to have someone wasn’t enough to keep me with him. I did start dating pretty quickly, and that was when I met my boyfriend. I’ll admit, I’d been very nervous about starting to date again. Painfully nervous. I was a size 12, which to me felt very large and doughy. I was walking with a cane; it was the first thing I saw about myself, so it was hard for me to concieve of a man who wouldn’t see it that way.

The now-boyfriend who thought I was heart-stoppingly georgous, even though I was now a size 12 and walking with a cane. Thought I had a great ass, and a beautiful face.

My self-esteem slowly improved. Buying myself clothing that fit me, rather than sticking to my too-tight jeans that pushed my hips up into a ‘muffintop’ helped, too. Finding out that a couple of classmates that I considered friends thought I was pretty helped, too. Once again, other people seeing me as attractive started to help.

And then my thyroid slowed down again, throwing another 30 pounds on me. Now a size 16, I’ll admit I cried about it a bit. I was horrified by the bulge of my stomach and the wobbly fat on my thighs. Don’t get me started on what I thought of my butt.

That my boyfriend if anything found me more attractive momentarily shook my faith in his view of my body as beautiful. If fatter was more attractive to him, my brain said, then how can I really be beautiful? He must be wrong. I’m just a…a…blob. A blob who can’t do anything about her weight. Sure, it stabilized, but it didn’t go back DOWN. Fixing my thyroid levels just made it so I stopped gaining. I was still fat.

Once again, it was clothing that FIT that made the difference. I gave in and admitted that my old clothing was unflattering and uncomfortable, and *gulp* started buying size 16 and 1X-2X. You can be sure I cringed at the lables, but when I put the clothing on, it was a different story. Hey, I looked GOOD! I had great curves, I had these great muscular calves, and I still love the line of my neck and shoulder. Sure, finding cute clothes became a lot more difficult, and shopping trips were downright depressing – trying on 20 items might yield nothing, on a good day perhaps 2 items that looked good and 1 that was…okay.

But I DO look good at size 16. I am attractive, I am beautiful.

Anyone that tells you it’s all about inner beauty? Screw them. Forget them. Being fat does not mean you aren’t beautiful. It means that you have to learn to see that you ARE beautiful. Shaking that cultural training that anything above a size 6 is fat and ugly is hard. Truely, deeply hard.

I know that being a size 16, I have an easier time of it than someone who is a size 26 or 30. I do believe, however, that we can learn to see our bodies as beautiful, by not hiding from them. Seeing yourself naked, half dressed, dressed in clothing that fits well – that is how you learn to see yourself as beautiful. Looking for the features about your body that you love – that is how you see yourself as beautiful. And sometimes it takes trying to see yourself as someone who is attracted to you sees you. It’s okay to ask them – tell me what you love about my body. And then look in a mirror and let those words play back, so you can see your amazing ass, your beautiful hands, your killer calves, your rack of DOOM, your dazzling smile, your laughing eyes, your georgous hair, your beautiful self.

So dress yourself in something that makes you feel good and remember, when idiots insult you…they are idiots. You are beautiful.

Really.

You are beautiful.

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