On debates and comments and exhaustion.

by Michelle

I’ve never published an official comments policy, because it always seemed kind of an unnecessary thing to do. I mean, obviously this is my website, so what I say goes, and if I don’t like a comment, I don’t have to publish it. End of story. Pretty self-explanatory, right?

It gets fuzzy at times. I am actually quite lucky in that I don’t come under attack too often, and usually the really obvious stuff (UR A DUMB *$%@!!!) doesn’t get to me much, and I just delete it. But recently, it has been harder than usual to stomach that stuff because I am exhausted.

It gets especially fuzzy when people want to come here to debate. I want them to have a chance to air their questions and arguments so that I may answer them honestly for the sake of everyone else reading who may have similar questions. For some people, this is simply an engaging intellectual exercise in which they get to argue for or against the right of fat people to exist without having their bodies legislated against or their personal choices controlled. Debate club! Fun!

But it’s a little bit less fun and intellectual for those of us who live in those bodies – it is no longer just an exercise in civil debate, it is an exhausting and frankly scary conversation to have. In the current political climate, our lives may literally be on the line.

For some others, this is an issue of intense emotion because they have struggled with weight, and either found a way to lose weight and keep it off, or are still struggling and are very angry and frustrated with me for seeming to take their hope away. Or they have a family member who is struggling, or who died of some illness associated with being fat. Difficult personal experience has led them to the firm belief that fat kills, and that they must do everything they can to save themselves and others from that fate – and my viewpoint, and the statistical indicators that fat people can be healthy, represents an intolerable fly in the ointment.

For me, this is also an emotional conversation, for reasons I mentioned above, and because my beliefs about this issue are anchored to an immovable ethical conclusion that I have come to in my life: that it is not right to treat people poorly, or to afford them fewer rights, because of their body or appearance. This belief is the foundation not just for my beliefs about how fat people should be treated in society, but also my beliefs about racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the various ways we have of marginalizing each other as human beings.

People have complained about my inability to be shaken from my position, to which I respond: to some extent, that is true. From this position – that it is not right to treat people poorly or afford them fewer rights because of their appearance – I will not be moved. It is not a position based solely on logic (although there are logical arguments to be made in its favour) – it is a deeply-held moral conviction arrived at after years of study, relationships and conversations with others, questioning my priorities, spiritual belief/unbelief, and often painful personal experience.

On all other matters, I may be impressed by evidence, though I will not accept evidence on the strength of forced consensus, or comfortable and privileged status-quo. I also recognize that, while the scientific method is the best way humans have of observing and grasping something of a reality that is much larger and more complex than we can fully apprehend, the humans themselves, the researchers, reviewers, publishers of journals, university PR departments, and finally, the journalists who disseminate findings through the mass media, are all vulnerable to bias.

Nevertheless, science and sociological research has shown some things about fatness that I accept.

I am comfortable with the fact that, yes, there is a clear association between higher levels of weight and ill health. (There is a similar association between underweight and ill health, and there is data to show that healthy behaviours can lower this risk for fat people, even without weight loss.)

I am comfortable with the fact that, yes, behaviour contributes to weight. (But it is not the whole story. There are also significant contributions to weight from genetics, living conditions, and social determinants of health.)

I am comfortable with the fact that, yes, many people do not find fat people sexually or aesthetically attractive. (I don’t need them to. There is a subset of people who do, and aesthetic ideals of beauty are partly socially constructed, subject to change over time and place, and should never be used as a referendum on whether someone has the right to exist and be treated fairly.)

None of these facts shakes my conviction that It Is Not Okay To Engage In Appearance-Based Discrimination, to deny rights or enforce unfavourable social policies on people because of their appearance.

These facts also do not preclude the peculiar theory to which I subscribe, that people can be healthy and happy at a variety of weights by focusing on self-care instead of weight loss, and that, in my opinion, this is a preferable policy to the destructive and ineffective “War on Obesity” we have waged for the last decade.

I have been studying this topic, and writing about it online, for over ten years. I was so interested in it that I went and got a degree in nutrition, and worked in hospitals for nearly five years. I am not always right about everything, certainly, and my friends, mentors and colleagues can easily point out holes in my arguments and flaws in my reasoning that make me laugh and blush (Dee, Joy, Kate, Regina, Katja, Linda, Ellyn, Deb, Jacqui, Ricky, Kelly, closetpuritan, the two Chrises, and many others, I am indebted to you.)

I usually welcome this, though it may smart at times, because ultimately it makes my understanding better and my arguments stronger. What makes me able to take in these suggestions is the trust and respect we have established, and the fact that I can count on their sharing my moral belief that it is not right to discriminate against people based on appearance, and that all people have the right to bodily autonomy.

It is going to be much harder for me to engage in intellectual exercises and arguments with people who do not share those ethical underpinnings. It is uncomfortable and draining to talk with someone who seems to wish, more than anything, that people of my size and shape would just go away and stop ruining the world for everyone, or someone who genuinely believes that my body is proof of my laziness, gluttony, and moral corruption. I don’t debate about women’s rights with transparent misogynists, either. How could I have a productive, civil debate with a person who, not to put too fine a point on it, hates me at first sight?

Occasionally, I am up for it, and sometimes I am not. Right now is one of the latter times. As great as the outpouring of support and interest has been, it cannot undo the damage that is done when someone hurls epithets at me, wishes my death, or questions my worth as a human being. Love and abuse are two different things, and one cannot entirely erase the other, which is both a blessing and a shame.

This is my long-winded way of saying, I hosted a bit of debate at the beginning of the month for the sake of people who were finding my website, and this wild notion of fat people being equally valuable, for the first time. Now I’m done. Maybe we’ll have another debate again sometime, but it’s time for me to take care of myself, to take care of my regular readers and commenters, and to get on with the business of communicating with the people who largely get it, even if we disagree on the details.

As such, I’m no longer letting through naysayer or pro-weight-loss comments, because I do not have the time and energy to deal with them, and since this website is not intended to be a Speakers’ Corner, I will not let them stand without rebuttal.

If I get caught up in devoting my time to the same arguments I have had repeatedly for the last ten years (all of which ultimately boil down to the question, “Is it okay for fat people to be fat? Is it acceptable for fat people to exist?”), I could use all of my energy doing that and never progress in doing what I am trying to do, which is to help people who are looking for ways to care for themselves at their current weight, and to offer a different viewpoint in the largely negative, punitive, controlling and orthorexic discourse around eating, health and nutrition.

The right of fat people to exist as fat people is assumed here, and it is the foundation on which I am attempting to construct something larger. Continually questioning that foundation at the request of new commenters spoiling for a fight undermines my work.

I may touch on the basic arguments in my writing, like whether or not fat people are unrepentant gluttons, or whether food is poisonous and killing us all, or whether safe, permanent weight loss is possible for most people, or the health risks of being fat and what to do about them, but I am not going to engage in those arguments with commenters who come here with the agenda of proving, once and for all, that fat people are less than other people, and need to be forcibly re-educated into complying with the prevailing aesthetic standard.

Everyone else may stay.

Thank you all for the support you’ve given me, and all the sharing of personal stories and experiences, and the support you’ve given each other.

Carry on, and be excellent to each other.