We need to challenge fat antagonism in Black activist spaces
It’s important that what liberation looks like for ALL Black people is at the forefront of your mind.
by Denarii Grace
“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
These words, uttered by legendary Black civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, have become as much a part of Black languages and cultural understandings, both past and present, as “lit,” “bumboclaat,” and “the bomb.” Her expression of the ongoing oppression of Black people in the colonized U.S. has endured and resonates so deeply because it is so simple and yet so exact in its condemnation of anti-Blackness and systemic racism.
One of her lesser known quotes, however, demonstrates her dedication to food justice and an understanding of the relationships between food, healthcare, body size, poverty, and resources (or lack thereof) that I find fat people most often understand the best. “Just because people are fat, it doesn’t mean they are well fed. The cheapest foods are the fattening ones, not the most nourishing.”
While not familiar with the language, theory, science, and practice of what most would consider the (U.S.-based) fat liberation movement—which, for the record, is about 50 years old—as a fat Black person who grew up poor, Hamer had understanding based on her experiences that, quite frankly, don’t require that kind of education, formal or otherwise.
Like Hamer, I’m sick and tired…of having my needs and my fight as a fat person erased in activist spaces, and Black spaces—either digital or in “real” life—are no better.
So here’s a quick primer—some intellectual and emotional labor for ya—on how to remove the stench of fat antagonism (also known as “fatphobia*”) from your work and our movements.
THE WHOLE SYSTEM’S GUILTY
Listen, I get it. Like racism and anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, ableism, queer antagonism and all the other isms and so-called “phobias¹” out there, fat antagonism coats every aspect of society. The fact that you didn’t even know that fat/larger bodied folks (or people of size) are a systemically oppressed group isn’t your fault. You may even be fat yourself, but the nature of oppression is so sneaky that you absorbed all the harmful messaging about fat people and fat bodies anyway.
That’s why I’m here, and I’m here to tell you that fat antagonism is, quite literally, everywhere.
It’s in healthcare! Fat people are often denied healthcare or misdiagnosed due to assumptions about our diets, activity levels, or just the way our bodies and minds work—many of us even die, some more quickly than others, for reasons that have little to nothing to do with our body fat percentage. Being fat AND Black (AND queer and/or trans AND not a man) just compounds these experiences. And Black doctors and other healthcare professionals are complicit (or downright gleefully participatory), too.
It’s in the mental health system. Some fat folks have eating disorders (or the similar, less intense/frequent disordered eating). People of color have similar rates of living with these mental disabilities as white folks, and queer folks have higher rates of these eating disorders than straight people.
Fat people live with more than just overeating disorders, but according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, if you’re fat, you can’t be diagnosed with illnesses like anorexia nervosa, despite meeting all other criteria. In addition, healthcare professionals are often unequipped to deal with larger bodied folks who live with these illnesses, suggesting—or even requiring—regimens that trigger and exacerbate disordered behavior.
Fat people are diagnosed, on average, nine months later than thin people. And eating disorders are, by far, the deadliest mental disability. Fat people are dying, but often not by our own hands. This is unacceptable.
TAKING UP SPACE
There are many more healthcare system issues for fat folks, but I don’t have the space to name them all. What I do know is that they are directly tied to how much space fat folks are allowed to take up in society—which is, of course, little to none.
From literal space—on airplanes and in theater and other seats—to figurative space in fashion, entertainment, journalism, and other forms of media, fat people are often absent.
As the recent (justified) fuss over Netflix’s trailer for “Insatiable” demonstrates, in which a thin (white) actress dons a fat suit to play a fat character bullied into weight loss (by having her mouth wired shut, no less!) and exacting her revenge once becoming thin, fat people are often passed over for jobs.
We are subject to discriminatory hiring and firing practices and, when we are hired, we make considerably less than our slim counterparts. Statistically, fat women² make around 6% less than our thin counterparts and, of course, while studies about fat oppression are still rarely conducted, we can be sure that the numbers are even worse for Black fat folks, especially those of us who aren’t men. Furthermore, we have no legal protections in most of the U.S. should we want to fight said discrimination. Legally speaking, discrimination against fat folks doesn’t exist, though we know it exists in practice—and not only in employment.
Whether as actors, writers, directors, singers and musicians, programming directors, or office clerks, fat people are less likely to see ourselves.
And when we do, we often get caricatures and are made to be the butt of jokes, a la Eddie Murphy in Norbit or almost any Melissa McCarthy film.
And it’s a tale as old as film, as actresses like Hattie McDaniel prove. Roles for Black fat actors have always been extremely limited, especially for non-men. And not just limited in number but also scope. For the roles we do get, we’re often pigeonholed into telling specific stories and being specific two-dimensional, often racist and misogynoiristic, characters.
We’re often erased from fashion and journalism as well. Seriously, how often do you see fat news anchors or writers who, like yours truly, aren’t freelancers, but are gainfully (emphasis on fully) employed?
Like I said, fat antagonism is everywhere. And like any other kind of systemic oppression, it wreaks havoc on our lives and then has the nerve to also cut them short.
I’m sure all of this brings up a lot for you. “What about the obesity³ epidemic?” “We shouldn’t be promoting that kind of lifestyle, especially since we already have high obesity numbers as a community.”
Well, I’m also here to tell you that that’s fat antagonistic as fuck. How? Well, I’d explain it to you but, besides the fact that I’ve already done that numerous times⁴ in the past, I just don’t have the space here. But guess what?
Google is free (though it can be misleading, so consider the source). But, in addition to that, there are already many fat activists—yes, including Black fat activists like yours truly—who are doing the work and educating folks about the harm of weight-centric (versus weight-neutral) healthcare, fat acceptance and mental health, and many other issues. People like Ashleigh Shackelford, Jessamyn Stanley, Roxane Gay, and Sonya Renee Taylor, are just some of the Black, often queer and/or trans and non-binary folks doing this work in our various strengths.
Read our essays and articles. Read our books. Attend our workshops and conferences. And yes, lovely people, read the scientific literature that, while not usually written by or inclusive of us (due to various barriers to academia), still has a direct effect on our lives as fat folks. (But we are outchea doing research as well.) There are many important non-Black fat activists doing the work as well, like Virgie Tovar and Jes Baker, but, of course, Black folks are often given the least amount of support and exposure (and coin), so I ain’t gotta tell you what to do.
Whether you’re putting together an event with small chairs, starting a fashion line that only goes up to 3X (or worse, doesn’t include plus sizes at all), writing or producing content that erases or co-opts fat narratives, or putting it all on the line for Black liberation—in the streets, online, or at the polls—without a thought to how it affects your larger comrades, it’s important that what liberation looks like for ALL Black people is at the forefront of your mind. And that starts with putting in the work and listening, especially, to fat Black voices.
None of us are free until we’re all free, and fat Black people’s liberation is tied up in yours.
¹ I, and many others, do not use X-phobia to describe systemic oppression as it’s an ableist term that erases the reality of people living with actual phobias, like me. You can read more here.
² Gendered research often excludes and/or erases trans and particularly non-binary people (unless, of course, it’s trans/non-binary specific). I use the term “women” because that’s what the literature uses, but keep in mind that some people in that study may not (only) identify as women and that people who aren’t women are, of course, very likely to experience these negative effects in our livelihoods as well, particularly people who aren’t cisgender men.
³ Most fat liberation activists do not use, and strongly oppose, language like “overweight” and “obese” as they are directly linked to scientific research and medical industrial complexes that shame, reject, dehumanize, and kill us.
⁴ Originally published on the now-defunct online publication Unapologetic Feminism.
New York–based social justice warrior Denarii (rhymes with ‘canary’) Grace is a bisexual, non-binary, proudly fat, multiply disabled, poor, femme woman. She’s a blues singer-songwriter, poet, freelance writer/editor, screenwriter, public speaker/educator/activist, and a non-fiction editor at The Deaf Poets Society, an online journal featuring literature and art by D/deaf and disabled people. Denarii’s activism mostly focuses on bi+ (plus) identity and issues, disability, Blackness, and fat acceptance; they also talk about gender, class, colorism and other issues. Her activism today is primarily through their writing, music, and poetry, but she also has abundant experience moderating and participating in panels and webinars and facilitating workshops. As a freelance writer, they have written for Bitch Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Everyday Feminism, and The Establishment, among several others. She coined the term “exogender” to describe their (a)gender experience. It’s a term for Black people only. You can find her on Facebook,Instagram, and Twitter.