This morning at 8:15am some man with a cool life navigated to my YouTube page, found a five-year-old video in which I taste-test an unpleasant seasonal cookie, and typed the comment: “It’s like watching a reallllllly slow suicide.” Men have been leaving similar comments on this video obsessively for the past five years: “You fucking disgusting pig. KILL YOURSELF.” “You actually posted a video of the time when your fat ass got really super excited about eating seasonal, promotional candy.” “Fugly dumpling stuffs her gullet on youtube. Disgusting.” The video is monetised; my husband asked me today whether I’ve made any money off of it. I told him I think YouTube sent me a check for $100 (£80) once. That’s it.
“Huh,” he said. “Is $100 worth five years of psychological torture?”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “I was just trying to make some jokes about some cookies.”
I do not think the men who come to the page ever actually watch the video, which is silly and benign. The joke is that the cookies are gross. Nevertheless, they persist. I am fascinated by their persistence. Somehow, my little cookie video has become a vessel into which a certain contingent of angry, lonely men can pour all of their fury at women who fail or refuse to please them sexually. It doesn’t matter that the content of the video is fundamentally at odds with whatever they are ostensibly ranting about – usually the hypocrisy of fat people demanding that the public respect our lives while extravagantly eating ourselves to death. They are not embarrassed to have left a flagrantly irrelevant comment the way you or I would be if we, say, threw a public fit over an onion headline.
It doesn’t matter because their “arguments” aren’t the point. The abuse is the point. The abuse is always the point.
I have now been writing about fatness for six years. I wrote a book about it, called Shrill. For the past year, I’ve been travelling around the world, on tour with my book, talking to people about fatness. That’s not the only thing in the book, but it’s the thing people always bring up. And they always ask me the same questions, over and over, as though I have never addressed them before, as though they aren’t addressed in the book, as though previous generations of fat activists did not address them literally before I was born. They ask anyway, even if they have already heard the answers, because the answers are not the point. Making me defend my humanity is the point. Making me dance for them is the point. The abuse is the point.
Everything else is a screen.
A few weeks ago, on the Australian night-time panel show Q&A, a woman addressed this question to me: “As a person who has hated their body, and fought against their body for most of their adolescent life, I commend you for promoting acceptance of your body and the fact that we do not fit into one mould as women. However, given the global obesity epidemic, is it ignorant to assume that overweight is not linked with poor health outcomes? By promoting fat acceptance, is there a risk that you are also promoting obesity and all its risks?”
Last Friday, on a Dallas public radio show, a man called in to ask: “In your opinion, at what point does this body-positivity movement kind of veer into the territory of maybe what some would call making excuses for not making tough lifestyle choices that would lead to an objectively healthier BMI?”
This question has always been a trap, a late-night YouTube comment disguised as care, a holding pattern to stymie progress. The question itself is an assault: it validates the idea that fat people’s humanity is one side of a debate, that our bodies are public property.
And my answer is the same now as it was in the first post I ever wrote about being fat, on February 11, 2011, and in every article since then, and in the 50 other interviews I’ve done over the past year. You can go look them all up if you really need my opinion on whether or not people who don’t meet your arbitrary, personal aesthetic standards somehow forfeit our right to dignity, medical privacy, and bodily autonomy. I bet you could even guess!
Or you could pour that seemingly boundless time and energy into battles that actually do affect people’s bodies: you could fight for better healthcare and mental healthcare, the overhaul of our food production and distribution systems, a higher minimum wage and functional social safety net, and the dismantling of fat stigma so that fat people can feel comfortable leaving their homes and moving their bodies and leading full, vibrant public lives. If you claim to care about fat people’s health but do nothing to fight fat stigma, you are a liar.
The most salient thing I have learned over my past six years as a public fat woman — and the intensity of the last 11 months in particular — is that everybody is in pain. We all suffer from this hierarchy of bodies. The people lashing out and the people pleading for help exist on the same spectrum. So when fat activists fight to destroy that hierarchy, we are fighting for you, even if you hate us.
I am so sorry that it is so hard to have a body — that even if your body is “good” you need to chase that little thrill of superiority to feel safe. But fat people do not exist as leverage for thin people’s self-esteem. We simply exist, same as anyone.
I am not answering this one any more. Ask me something else.