I’ve preached and blogged on a number of justice-related subjects over the dozen years that I’ve been in ministry. I’ve written about feminism, racism, classism, and homophobia. I’ve written about immigration and war and reproductive freedom and prison reform. I’ve written about religious intolerance and all sorts of types of bigotry. But there’s one issue I’ve always avoided writing about. I used it as a one-sentence illustration of a different issue once, but only, I think, once.
There are some prejudices that most of our society knows are wrong. Most people in our society know that racism is wrong, although there is still plenty of racism out there. And then there are issues that as a society we’re divided on, like homophobia, but where the liberal circles I’m in have a clear understanding that it’s wrong. But there are some prejudices that are still deemed completely acceptable. Those can be hard to write about, harder to speak up about, and hardest to confront when they’re clearly your issue to deal with.
For the dozen years I’ve been in ministry, and all the years in the pews before that, I’ve never once heard a sermon on this issue. A Google search on “Unitarian sermon” plus various wordings of this issue turns up nothing. It's mentioned about once on the UUA's website. I’ve only once (maybe twice) heard a colleague say that they were speaking about this issue. I’ve never read a UU blog post on this issue. And it’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve seen some individual Facebook posts by a handful of people indicating that they’re aware of this issue and sympathetic. And I’ve seen more than that which were outright insulting and negative. I was once told that there were only a handful of “issues” that ministers have that made it difficult for them to get jobs, and this was among them; the others were being transgender and being physically disabled. It’s an issue that’s come up as a complaint about me in almost every church I’ve been the minister at.
So I’m finally coming out of the fat closet today. You knew I was in there, anyway, because I carry this issue on my body. But I don’t talk about it, I don’t do advocacy work about it, and I don’t write about it or preach about it. And I’m starting to change that.
First of all, I want to say this: shaming is bad. It is wrong to shame people. People shame fat people all the time, and they seem to feel good and virtuous about it. The argument is that “Fat is unhealthy. My shaming them will help them to stop this unhealthy behavior.” Without even addressing the “fat is unhealthy” statement, this is wrong on two other levels: shaming does not help people. And even if shaming someone did change that person’s behavior, that does not justify the shaming. The shaming is still wrong.
Your fat jokes are not justified by your “concern” for my health. Period.
Don't think fat shaming exists? Heck, people not only do it, and justify it, they even recommend it. And the result of all the fat jokes and insults has not been a thinner America. The result is people who feel hurt, wounded, devalued, and debased. The result is depression and self-loathing. And do you know what a major side-effect of depression and self-loathing is? Weight gain. Your shame does not help the problem; it compounds it.
Secondly, people stereotype fat people with a lot of other assumptions unfairly. Fat people are considered lazy, first of all, and lacking willpower. Here’s a great example from a University of New Mexico professor who tweeted: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn't have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won't have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”
The science of weight loss is rapidly attacking the “willpower” myth. Fat people do not lack willpower. Lack of willpower is not why we are fat, and, even if it was, it wouldn’t mean that this lack of willpower occurred anywhere else in our life.
As for lazy, there are numerous other explanations for why fat people don’t exercise, when it is true, which it often isn't. Often there are other physical problems that have led to weight gain, and sometimes these also make exercise difficult. In my case, for example, I broke my leg very badly one year and then the next year broke my back. Since these two bad breaks, most forms of exercise became very painful. An hour of an exercise that taxed my back would be followed by two days laying on my back unable to move from back pain. And then as the weight has gone on, those problems have been compounded. People assume I have trouble walking and with my back because I'm fat. The fat has not made it easier, but the causality is actually reversed. I gained weight because I have trouble walking and with my back.
Beyond other existing physical problems, fat people are hampered by the fact that a lot of gym equipment isn’t well-suited for our bodies. And then, there’s the shaming. Yes, it comes back to that again. Ever been a fat person at a gym? Ever seen one? Did people stare? Did they laugh or snicker? Did people turn their heads in disgust? Were they outright rude? I’ve heard all these things and more from fat friends about their trips to the gym. Do you want to go somewhere where you are laughed at and insulted and made to feel like crap? Would you consider avoiding such a place?
Again, people justify their fat shaming as acceptable because a fat person is unhealthy. Yet when a fat person does make an attempt to exercise, the shaming doubles.
And if you think the scorn heaped upon the fat person at the gym is bad,
just imagine the fat person who has the nerve to fly on an airplane.
The truth is, fat is a complex issue that we’re only beginning to understand scientifically. Only 15% of diets are successful right now. We’re learning that the body works to put back on weight after it has lost it. Once your body has lost weight, it learns to use calories much more efficiently, in the attempt to put back on the weight. A person who has never dieted can consume more calories to maintain weight than a person who has dieted. We’re also learning that there are dozens of genetic variations associated with body size. We’re learning that our bodies’ response to artificial sweeteners is much more complex than the “zero calories” they were sold to us as being. The moral here is that even when fat people have been trying to make a healthy switch, it's not always as simple as it seems. Fat is a complex issue, and dieting is more complex than simply "calories in, calories out."
I think every fat person in this society has felt the pain of thousands of microaggressions. We get them every time we open a magazine or turn on the television to find another "hilarious" TV show making yet another fat joke. This is liveable -- we live with it constantly. But what needs to change is how we respond to individuals in our lives -- our parents, children, siblings, relatives, friends, coworkers. What needs to change is how we respond in our liberal religious communities as well. So far, my experience of our response has been that we see fat people among us as an "issue" to be addressed, and the mode for addressing it is to complain or shame. How could our response be different?
When I was a new minister, a complaint came to my committee on ministry, and the complaint was that I was fat. I think there were some surrounding words about how this would make the congregation look bad, because there were negative stereotypes about fat people. "There are positive stereotypes, too," I responded. "What are they?" I was asked, as I recall. I talked about how fat people are seen as "jolly" (i.e. Santa), as goddess-like (when female), as friendly and approachable. Fat people being seen as asexual could even been a benefit in the ministry, arguably. All of these "positive" stereotypes are still stereotypes and no more real than the negative ones, of course. But mostly, I said, in seeing a fat minister, other fat people might see themselves as welcomed, as valued, and as acceptable to our community.
That's the vision I hold out -- fat people could walk into your sanctuary and know instantly that they are welcomed in your church. What would it take to make that a reality? What signals might be sending the opposite message? How can they be addressed? It's time for more Unitarian Universalists to take up this question -- to preach it, to teach it, and to live it.