Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Last Straw and the #Truth

It seems I still have more to say on this issue, so those who are tired of it already may want to just close this post now and avoid the next few.  I promise to move on to another subject soon, but having NOT written about this for ten years of ministry, I've built up a list of things to say.  And it seems that there is a segment of people who have been yearning for someone to write about this. 

So what was the straw, the final thing that made me break my silence?  I think it was the "fat-shaming professor," Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico, 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."

For the record, having written an M.A. thesis, a D.Min. thesis, and something over 300 sermons, I'm pretty sure that's not the #truth.  But I was raised by a fat man with a Ed.D.  He always told me what the hardest thing about finishing a dissertation was, and it wasn't his weight, it was having his daughter born during the dissertation writing.  I know a bit about what it takes to finish a dissertation--I was born into that legacy.

It's not that I was so angry over what Prof. Geoffrey Miller said, though.  Actually, it was a relief to have somebody say it so starkly, when usually it's never said aloud to our faces.  The #truth was finally out in the open, and the #truth was that fat prejudice does keep us from getting jobs.  And it's not because our fat makes us unable to get the job done, it's because of prejudice.  But it gave me the opportunity to talk about the fact that this kind of prejudice is common for us, and does affect us, and in ways that are not fair and have nothing to do with our ability. 

In ministry, I've known all along that while weight doesn't really affect my ability to do my job, it affected my ability to get a job.  I was told this by people in positions where they would know.  I have no doubt that past and present settlement directors would agree that fat ministers have a harder time getting asked to interview.  And they would tell you this in very kind ways -- they're not to blame, and I certainly don't blame them for the situation, and I'm appreciative when they see the situation.  And I'm not trying to say that other people don't have prejudice against them, or that this struggle is harder than other struggles.  I do say that many isms we are confronting openly, and this one we're not.  Whether that makes it harder, I can't say, I can only say that it makes it more hidden, which is what I'm trying now to do something about.

A couple examples from my own life about being fat and trying to get a call to a congregation may serve to illustrate.

During my seminary years, I was in a room with a bunch of seminarians and a minister who was with us because he was looking around for a new associate minister.  I was soon to graduate, and looking for just such a job.  And yet, no matter how many times I tried to inject myself into the conversation, I couldn't get this minister's attention.  I felt invisible.  We all feel invisible at times, but I was told later by another colleague that this wasn't a big surprise in this case, and that it was likely about weight.  I didn't put the weight interpretation on it initially; my initial interpretation was that this guy was just a jerk.  The weight interpretation was given to me later by a person who was in a position to know.

Another example: In a pre-candidating weekend, I was asked to preach at a neutral pulpit in a mid-sized church.  The search committee of the small church I was pre-candidating for said to me, "Your pulpit presence is so large.  Do you think that could work in a smaller church?"  Now, mind you, I've now been preaching successfully in small churches for over a decade.  The comment was, at first, baffling.  Should I have been somehow more meek in the pulpit?  Made eye contact with fewer people?  Gestured as if the room was smaller?  But then it seemed a clear interpretation emerged.  I do think that this comment was not so much about size of the congregation as it was about size of the minister.  Usually it's not a problem--in any size church--for the minister to hold the attention of the entire congregation during the sermon.

All of these little things could not be about weight.  They could be about other issues.  That congregation could have been looking for a meek pulpit presence.  Any one incident can be picked apart and explained by other reasoning.  I've heard African-American ministers tell me that this is something that happens to them often, that they'll tell about an incident of racism, and the white listeners will want to pick apart the incident and analyze it and get to decide for themselves whether or not it was an incident of racism, rather than just accept the experience of the teller.  I can't prove to you these were about size.  I can't prove that size was a factor in any of the congregations that chose not to interview me, either.  I just know that overall fat ministers have a harder time in settlement than average.  That's the #truth.

In our society, everyone is judged on their looks.  And ministry, for all that we are a liberal denomination, is a field where the image is part of the job process.  There's a degree to which looking particularly "ministerial" is an asset in this profession, and not looking like the image of a minister is a detriment.  And "fat" is not part of what people's internal image when they think "minister."  This is not the only trait people carry on their bodies that has this struggle, to be sure.  But it's one we're not confronting actively.  It's not a part of the "Beyond Categorical Thinking" discussion, to my knowledge (although it's been so long, I could be entirely wrong here).  I've never seen a workshop or discussion where people were working on getting over their fat prejudice in the process of hiring a minister.

The fat-shaming professor has been rebuked.  The school has said it's not their policy.  Academics everywhere are distancing themselves from him and from his opinion.  And yet it is the #truth that sometimes we still need not apply, because we will not be chosen.

The other side of this, and it would be remiss of me not to say this, is that sometimes a congregation doesn't let weight stop them from picking a good minister.  While I've never had a congregation where weight wasn't raised as an issue with me at all, in my current congregation the times have been few and far between.  This congregation I'm in treats me like my ministry is valued, and I really can't say enough what a great group of people they are.  I feel like here there's a clear understanding that my worth as minister isn't measured by the scale on my floor.  #truth

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Big Issue Simplified

A lot gets projected onto fat people.  And a lot gets projected onto people when they talk about fat.  So here's the nutshell version of what I was trying to say in my last post:
  1. Be nicer to fat people.  Shaming people is not nice. 
  2. Shaming fat people is also not productive and helpful.  Truly.  Not.  Helpful.
  3. Judge not.  Period.   Really.  Stop judging other people. 
  4. Let go of some of the stereotypes you associate with fatness.  Like many stereotypes, you can find examples where they seem true, but they aren't always true.  Particularly look at your assumptions about willpower and laziness, but there are others you should challenge and let go of, as well.
  5. Fat is complicated, and varied, so avoid assuming that everyone can be fixed by your personal favorite simple solution or that your personal diagnosis or experience fits everyone, whether it is "diet and exercise," "calories in vs. calories out," "emotional eating," "addiction," or "willpower."  Even if you're someone who has struggled with this issue, don't assume that everyone's struggle is like your struggle. And if you haven't struggled with it, don't assume that because you  haven't found it a struggle that it is a simple issue. 
  6. You may think that what needs to change is the other person's fat.  They might need to change, but that's their decision and their business, not yours.  What you need to change is how you treat people, if you're not treating them with kindness and understanding.  In other words, what I said in #1.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Big Issue

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.