Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"my body is not a symbol of oppression"

Marianne Kirby reblogged a piece of art on tumblr today which showed a fat white man squishing a very thin black man in a circle- yin and yang in disturbing imbalance. The message of the western white world's overindulgence and greed and it's effects on the poor and starving were obvious, but the fact that we all know what fat and thin symbolize, especially in political cartoons, doesn't make it less offensive. Being well known doesn't make it right. This was Marianne's response to the art piece (Marianne in bold):

It’s also the conflation of fatness with overconsumption - which makes me wince even as I WANT to support the message it’s trying to send. As a fat person, I get nervous when fat people are used to illustrate the oppressions perpetrated by *fill in the blank* Western culture. My body is not a symbol of oppression.
(reply to Marianne:) overindulgence and greed have been associated with fat dating all the way back to ancient greece. i’m not saying i agree, i’m just saying this artist is illustrating his point with means in which a general audience can and have been able to understand for a very very long time. also, i think this painting is extremely evocative.
OF COURSE it’s evocative (I didn’t say it wasn’t, nor did I imply that the audience wouldn’t get it) - but it’s evocative in a way that does active harm to how fat people are viewed and treated. I’m not going to use offensive stereotypes of other oppressed groups to raise up fat activism - I’d appreciate it if my body weren’t villianized in return. Again, my body is not a symbol of oppression - nor is it a symbol of overindulgence and/or greed.
I am with her 100% on this.
As Marianne points out- this is a message that I want to believe in. The fact is that we do revel in our greed and our excess while almost literally stepping on the poor to get what we want. This doesn't just apply to starving people overseas but even the classism that goes on in our very own country. The bottom classes are used and abused so the wealthy can get where they are and then have to endure accusations that they're the lazy ones and that they are worth less as human beings. It's a good message. But, as Marianne also points out, it's a message that piggybacks on the oppression of others. It spreads it's message by contributing to a culture of fat hate. 
This piece of art uses every stereotype of the fat person available- they're greedy, gluttonous (as the fat man sits with a piece of pizza balanced on  his chest, crumbs trailing across him), and, apparently, the cause of world hunger. It's not the first time I've heard that accusation, by the way. When I asked some people on what they thought of fat people more than one said that they thought of how many people and families could be fed with what the fat person ate. Cause that's what we do you know.. we eat. A lot. Apparently enough for several families.. and thin people eat only enough to survive. According to Marilyn Wann in Fat!So? "One group of researchers tracked six thousand people, but could find no correlation between what they weighed and how much they ate" and a recent study from our neighbors to the north found that fat kids ate less than thin kids. Yes, a starving person will eventually get very very thin.. but the solution isn't to blame and mock people just because they're not starving. 
Fat people have been blamed for everything from world hunger to global warming to disease. I've seen perfectly reputable environmental sites say that fat people were behind climate change because we drive to eat fast food so often, use more resources, waste more, etc. We are causing the end of the world! Sounds a bit over dramatic and sensationalist doesn't it? I know that it's symbolism and it's just to make a point.. but it's making a point with my body. And it's not a cautionary tale or a warning or a symbol or a metaphor for society's woes. Fat people have to actually live in their bodies. We have to work and cook and clean and have sex and raise children and socialize in the bodies we have. You don't live in them, you can't judge them. Not your body, not your right. 
Statements like the one made in this art piece are relying on judgmental stereotypes to make sure everyone knows what the point is- without the fatphobia and sizism that exists in our culture, no one would get the message- it specifically relies on bigotry to portray it's point. There is just something inherently wrong with that. Worse, it contributes to that bigotry. Making a statement by oppressing and abusing another group of people is probably not the best way to go about it. 
(*If you don't follow Marianne on tumblr do so! It's awesome!)

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