Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Should being fat be celebrated?

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"It's the people responsible for the fat shaming who ensure the fat positivity movement thrives," writes Shelley. Photo / iStock
"It's the people responsible for the fat shaming who ensure the fat positivity movement thrives," writes Shelley. Photo / iStock

Attitudes towards fat people have long been complicated. A column in 2011 about fat activism and the fact that fat people are fighting against discrimination elicited 140 reader comments.

As discussed in a 2013 piece entitled Why do fat people get a bad rap?, many of these comments revealed a "thinly disguised loathing of fat people".

Fast forward to 2016 and Substantia Jones, a New York-based fat activist, is visiting New Zealand to speak this week at a Massey University conference called Fat Studies: Identity, Agency and Embodiment.

For the uninitiated, this is a "field of study that confronts and critiques cultural constraints against notions of 'fatness' and the 'fat body'." It also "theorises how society conceptualises and pathologises fat bodies".

Jones, also a photographer, founded The Adipositivity Project which "aims to promote the acceptance of benign human size variation and encourage discussion of body politics ... through a visual display of fat physicality ... The hope is to broaden definitions of physical beauty. Literally."

In short, The Adipositivity Project catalogues photographs of fat people. To access these images you must "CLICK HERE FOR THE NAKED FAT LADIES!" These photographs make confronting viewing for anyone brainwashed by a mainstream media obsessed with thinness, smoothness, flawlessness and other conventional notions of what constitutes an attractive body.

In these images there are multiple fat rolls, puckered and sagging skin, stretch marks, dimpled bottoms and abdominal aprons. These are quality photographs, well composed, well lit and often atmospheric. Many of them convey a sense of beauty and quiet dignity.

Thanks to Jones' work, you realise that there is a continuum of attitudes. On one hand there is "fat hatred" and "fat shaming". Then there is the more enlightened "fat acceptance". Beyond that is "fat positivity" and even "fat celebration".

Yet this end of the spectrum is accompanied by its own set of issues. While most of us would surely see fat acceptance as desirable, there are questions about whether these more enthusiastic responses are problematic.

The Ministry of Health says: "There is evidence that obese children and adults are at greater risk of short-term and long-term health consequences" so surely the wholesale endorsement of fat bodies could be a potentially risky strategy.

Obesity can have far-reaching consequences for the individual concerned and, of course, an increasingly fat population stretches health resources. According to the Ministry of Health, almost one in three adult New Zealanders is obese. In the middle of what is sometimes described as an "obesity epidemic", is it in our interests for an overseas campaigner to be waving the flag for fat bodies?

Last year, Cat Pause, a senior lecturer and fat studies researcher at Massey University, penned an opinion piece in which she said that "anti-fat attitudes result in barriers to fat people receiving healthcare".

Concerned about the "structural oppression experienced by fat individuals", Pause argues that the "Government should look to ensure that all citizens, regardless of size, are protected from oppression (as opposed to embarking on a programme to combat obesity)".

It's easy to see why fat people are agitated by such an approach. Even the language used is confronting. The authorities want to "combat obesity" and "fight fatness". The ideas are expressed in terms of warfare, and a fat person would likely interpret that as an attack on his or her very being. These public health campaigns quickly become personal if you are identified as the target.

In the comments section on articles relating to weight, readers often say fat people are a "burden on society" and "putting a major strain on the health system". The process of becoming fat was often couched in simplistic terms: "[b]eing fat for most people is a choice", it's "purely down to how much sugar and fat saturated food they are shoveling down their gullet" and it's "because they are too lazy to eat well and look after themselves".

And then we wonder what provides the motivation for fat activists such as Jones and Pause. When fat people are routinely reduced to little more than lazy gluttons, there's a very clear gap in the dialogue for those who champion fat people and make them feel good about their body shape.

If fat discrimination didn't exist, there'd be no need for fat campaigners. It's the people responsible for the fat hating and fat shaming who ensure the fat positivity movement thrives.

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Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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