[Note: The title of this piece is tongue-in-cheek and very intentionally in the first person. I am a fat hiker who occasionally climbs mountains. You don’t need to be able to hike up a mountain to be worthy of respect as a hiker or fat person. We are all worthy of respect as we are, no matter our abilities or lack thereof and we can all be outdoorspeople regardless of what our adventures look like.]
I was checking my e-mail for the zillionth time, as I tend to do, when I saw the subject line for the 2018 SHIFT conference. SHIFT (Shaping How we Invest For Tomorrow) is a yearly event exploring the issues at the intersection of conservation, outdoor recreation and cultural relevancy. Attending last November’s conference was one of my greatest, most transformative experiences of 2017. The organizers generously flew me out to Jackson, Wyoming, and put me up along with nearly all of my #diversifyoutdoors social media cohorts (Melanin Base Camp, Brown People Camping, Brothers of Climbing, Flash Foxy, The Great Outchea and many more). We then spent a few days collaborating, strategizing and ultimately putting on a panel about diversifying the outdoors that was so packed people couldn’t get in. These new in-person relationships have strengthened all of us and our work. In fact, as I am posting this, a website of all of our efforts is going live. Be sure to check out and utilize diversifyoutdoors.com!
I excitedly clicked on the e-mail. It was short, only about 100 words. Just a brief description of 2018’s conference. About halfway through, in a sentence about issues maligning Americans today along with opioid addiction and too much screen time, the word “obesity” jumped out at me. My stomach dropped clear down into my butt.
Technically, obese just means “very fat,” but now it’s validated as a “condition” by the BMI (Body Mass Index). The BMI has been the standard determination of fitness for doctors, insurance companies and government statistics since the 1970s. The main problem is while it’s technically just a measure of size (mass), it’s seen as a measure of one’s health. This makes little sense as it doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle. A hulking football player would likely be considered “morbidly obese.” None of that matters anyway because the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is playing us by consistently dropping the BMI. It used to be 35, then it was 30. In 1998, the NIH lowered the healthy BMI percentage from 27.8 to 25–branding roughly 29 million Americans as fat overnight. What does this all mean?
You’ve probably heard the words “obesity epidemic.” The only epidemic here is capitalism. Essentially, overnight, insurance companies were able to force people to pay higher rates and the weight-loss industry was able to push more weight loss drugs and surgeries via doctors who are paid extra to do so. Nevermind how historically dangerous these drugs and surgeries have been, but that’s another rabbit hole for another day. (Fen Phen? Meridia? Oh, and there’s Alli, if you’re cool with orange grease leaking out of your butthole. Just wear dark pants, they say!)
So, why the strong response to the word “obesity?” The word is just too stigmatized it almost means something else entirely. Words change over time. (If you google “obesity,” peep the chart showing how the word has exploded recently.) When we talk about obesity, we are rarely expressing actual concern for fat people. If we truly cared, the conversation would be about what may be contributing to the “problem” instead of the usual offhanded talk about “rising obesity rates,” etc. However, there’s a catch. The things causing obesity, don’t always make people fat. If you mean to say that depression, poverty, lack of access to affordable, healthy food and adequate healthcare or feelings of not being safe to exercise in public for fear of judgement from others are the things maligning Americans, then say that. Because these issues don’t affect just fat people, the meaning of the word is already lost. Obesity is not an umbrella term. It’s not shorthand and when we use it in these ways, it’s not even really about fat people. It’s about the weight loss industry, “fitness” culture and insurance companies making money off of our self-loathing and diagnosed “conditions,” even if those conditions appear overnight. It’s also about fear and morality.
Straight up, the word makes fat people feel like shit, and when people say a word hurts them, stop using it. When I see the word “obesity” in something, I immediately feel targeted, excluded and unwelcome to what could otherwise be an important conversation. People with more social capital (privilege) having conversations about the issues of people who don’t, rarely go well without the input of those they are discussing.
Impact versus intent. While most people would tell you they mean no harm to fat individuals when they talk about obesity, unfortunately, this is exactly what happens. We are oversaturated in advertising every day via billboards, social media, radio, tv, etc. that make it sound like being fat is one of the worst things you can be. Whether directly or indirectly, fat people become villainized or a barometer of morality. When do you see happy fat people living full lives in media you consume? Or in any outdoor media at all? As I said in another post recently, fatphobia is one of the most oppressive forces in American culture and also the most accepted. Racism, transphobia and class are just as, and at times more, prevalent, but they are usually coded. People don’t have to code their fat hatred. Imagine being fat and seeing these messages or receiving them from actual people every day? Living in a world where you are told your body is wrong, overtly and covertly, rarely leads the horse to water, let alone makes them drink. (Um, I’m not calling fat people horses, though that wouldn’t be a bad thing anyway because horses are magical creatures surely existing in part to remind us that not everything is garbage.) These messages are harmful for everyone. They instill an irrational fear in people who aren’t fat of becoming so, which certainly comes out in hostile ways toward fat people who appear to not heed those messages. We’re living in a time that is so counterintuitive to our very nature, that values things that shouldn’t actually matter (our looks, productivity, jobs, possessions, etc) over our individual well-being. We’re depressed and unfulfilled and we want to fill the void. We soothe ourselves with whatever makes us feel momentarily better. Yeah, sometimes it’s food, but it’s also alcohol, social media, shopping, internet TV, drugs, sudoku, etc. (Just kidding with that last one.) We’re struggling with feelings of not enough control and fat people are often seen as lacking control.
If I can’t find plus sizes at most outdoor retailers, where do I begin to talk about the outdoor industry piece in all of this? In 2017, I was fortunate to attend a handful of conferences and outdoors events like SHIFT and at most of them, I was the only fat person. Figuring out where my fat identity belongs in outdoors culture will likely be the center of my work in 2018. The casual fatphobia and body-shaming I’ve heard from well-known and loved people in the outdoors has been galling. So many of the conversations about diversity and inclusion are about race and this is absolutely necessary and needs to continue happening and more so. However, I have not yet found room for myself outside of where I and very few others are creating it. While I feel confident in my sense of self as a fat person, being the only one in spaces stifles my ability to participate the way I would like to as I don’t feel safe enough to share my experiences without having to do a lot of educating and unsupported emotional labor.
What about how these messages might be affecting children? Studies show girls as young as seven are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys due to gender and body insecurities. If this is about saving people’s actual lives, we should be worried about the ways this culture is making people hate themselves. People, especially women, literally die from hating their bodies. And if they aren’t dying from this self-loathing, the pressure and obsession with looking a certain way isn’t exactly living, either. What about health issues, mental and physical, that we can’t see? What we see isn’t necessarily what is.
Spoiler: being fat is not the worst thing you can be. I wish we talked about people’s mental wellbeing the way we talk about how we perceive people’s physical health. Things would be so different! Though, that would eventually get capitalized on, too. Maybe, just try being a good person? That would be cool.
Where does being genetically prone to having a bigger body fit into this? Personally, I’ve always been fat. Without a lot of back story, I was simply designed this way as most fat people are. Once, a doctor diagnosed me as morbidly obese, without measuring my BMI, when I went in for a sinus infection. A Sinus Infection, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t get from being fat. This stranger who I’m supposed to trust with my life, who is in the business of assessing health, who took a vow to “do no harm,” flippantly decided I was dying because of the size of my body. The thing is, by every other medical standard, I’m about as healthy as one can be, but I’m going to stop that train right there. While I might be considered “healthy,” this doesn’t make me more entitled to respect or validation than someone who isn’t. I don’t play Good Fatty, Bad Fatty.
Where does body diversity fit into this? There are so many ways to have a body, but we are often talking about one kind of body and that body is usually white and it is definitely cisgender. In general, western beauty standards are dictated in ways that uphold whiteness and smallness. Small bodies, small features. The pressure is endless and insidious and racist and leaves absolutely no room for trans bodies.
Exercise is awesome! Even more awesome? We can talk about the benefits of exercise and how to encourage it in ways that aren’t actually about changing one’s body or about morality or cultural capital. Exercise because it feels good! Because it makes your brain work better. Because you want to sleep better. Because you want to. Or don’t! When we talk about people not exercising more or engaging with outdoors culture (yeah, I’m crossing a lot of wires here because if I don’t, we’re going to be here all day), white people need look no further than their own noses. Access (information, financial, etc) and representation remain huge issues in terms of people not getting outdoors. Let’s stop scapegoating people and bodies to make lazy points about what we want to see more (or less) of.
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