The QFF Guide to dealing with social situations with a potentially fatphobic acquaintance

TO: Bevin
FROM: Sarah
RE: I know you don’t write an advice column, but…!

I couldn’t think of anyone else to ask. :\ Bevin, my bright and compassionate role model, how would you handle yourself at a social event with an acquaintance who hates/dislikes/at the very least disapproves of you based on something as stupid and arbitrary as weight? You see, I’m going to an event and I just discovered that the person I was most looking forward to hanging out with is part of an online social networking website group about fat hatred. I’m not willing to skim through the BS to see if she actually contributes to it, but somehow I doubt she joined just to view the posts from a critical, detached perspective. It shocked me to discover that she harbors this sort of prejudice, especially since she never displayed similar forms of asshattery like hating someone based on race, sexual orientation, etc.

I doubt she will directly comment on my weight, but somehow dealing with silent fat phobia in a social situation is scarier to me than dealing with the occasional snide comment from an asshole I don’t know on the street. How do you deal with people like this? Do you try to focus on the things you did have in common with them? Do you hope that you can make them question their prejudices simply by being fat and awesome? Somehow I feel that if I’m super friendly to her, I’ll be condoning her fat phobia or trying to pretend it doesn’t affect me or something. Gah! So confusing!

It would be awesome if I could get your perspective on this issue, but I know you’re busy. Thanks for creating something as positive and amazing as Femmecast. It helped me through a tremendously crappy breakup and continues to infuse my days with femme magic. 🙂

Oh Sarah! Though I do not technically write an advice column, I totally would if even one publisher gave me the chance.

This is a pretty intense situation, but I think first we need to step outside the direct issue and look a little bit at fat oppression.

Fat oppression is insidious. It’s the kind of thing that affects everyone intensely in ways they are rarely aware of. Mainstream media teaches us that fat is aesthetically and sexually undesirable and the rhetoric around the obesity epidemic will teach you that fat = death. Like many other kinds of oppression, fat oppression is fear-based. But rather than just being afraid of fat people, often thin people get freaked out by fatties because they are afraid, themselves, of becoming fat.

Oppression also acts as a way that people get power and control over other people using social constructions. People actively engaging in fat hatred are using the arbitrariness of body size to get a sense of power over fat people and also over the fear they have of getting fat. Though of course, I doubt the people in that internet group have ever discussed the arbitrariness of the line between thin and fat the way fat activists have.

In the first episode of FemmeCast Zoe talked about how some fat activists say things like “Fat is the last acceptable oppression”. This is completely untrue, because racism, sexism, homophobia, etc… is alive and well. Now, just because someone hasn’t said anything to you about being racist or homophobic doesn’t mean that they aren’t, it just means they’ve learned to use coded language and aren’t as out about it. There are totally internet groups for those kinds of phobias, too, just not likely as closely associated to social networking profiles like you’ve found with this girl.

Since you asked what I would do, I’ll answer that part first. Given my understanding of oppression and acts of hatred to be fear-based and power-seeking, I don’t engage in it. Sure, it would really suck for me to be in a situation where someone was being vocally fat hating (or gay hating, misogynist, femmephobic, queerphobic), but at the same time I find it a really comforting coping mechanism to remember at all times that no one has any power I don’t give them and that fear makes people weak.

I also tend to be a bit of a Pollyanna about people. I know that people change. And I do believe that just by being a fierce at home in my skin fat girl I make a difference. In fact, I know I’ve changed people’s hearts and minds about fat oppression by just being who I am.

I also model the behavior I want to see, which is fat accepting and loving. This is totally just part of my personality now, but it took a lot of conscious effort for me to move into the kind of person who uses fat positive language and behavior. I also use a lot of humor in my activism, and my daily parlance, which I think tends to break down people’s barriers. So while I am sure there are acquaintances of mine who are fatphobic (skinny and fat alike) I think they also know better than to say anything fatphobic to me or around me. I also am pretty intolerant of racist, transphobic, antisemitic (and other oppression) remarks and will call people out, gently and with humor.

And on a Pollyanna note, it may be possible that the acquaintance you’re talking about isn’t a fat hater. I mean, there are lots of times I’ve joined weird online communities I have no affinity or affiliation with to look for a girl I have a crush on or to read a particularly salacious string of e-dramaz or whatever and then completely forgotten I was a member of them. (Or, for that matter, old personal ad profiles I had forgotten about–I was only single for 6 weeks in 2005 and somehow I left a profile dangling until LAST WEEK. I don’t know whether to be more mortified that I had an old profile or that no one responded to it in 3.5 years.)

But, if it is true, and she’s a flag bearing member of this community and is actively engaging in fatphobic stuff, well, that gives you all the information you need to know about her to rule her out as a friend or someone to be trusted. And nothing says you have to be friends with her.

Further, just because someone is a fat hater it doesn’t mean that they are actively hating on you. It’s a lot easier to be mean to people on the street (like the street harassment you talked about) than it is to say something to someone’s face when there might be social consequences. Further, she may not even be that actively conscious of her fatphobia while interacting with you. But ultimately, there’s no telling what is going on in her head when she’s around you and frankly IT DOESN’T MATTER. What matters is what is going on in your head, because you have all the power and control over how you act.

So, given all that, I have some practical advice for you. I tend to feel the way you describe (sort of panicky and awkward if I’m reading you right) when I’m going to be in social situations with people I have emotional issues with. Former friends I’ve had falling outs with or ex lovers, particularly. A practical way of dealing with this situation, is to just be as fabulous as you can muster. Nothing eases yourself into a new or awkward social situation like a good wing-femme or femmetourage and a fabulous outfit. I would also just practice your winningest smile. It’s really disarming to people when you smile at them and compliment them. Model the behavior you want to see, which is detached positivity.

Just because you’re friendly to someone doesn’t mean you condone all of their behaviors, values and judgments. How can you possibly have that kind of queer dossier* on someone already? Further, there are so many moral turpitudes in the queer community, if we were to be unfriendly to everyone we knew who had done something bad, well, every queer event would be absolutely unbearable. Being friendly and positive is easier than being bitchy and mean, and it makes everyone have a better time. You don’t need to become BFF with everyone, but having a smile for people isn’t anything more than just adding to the positive energy of an event.

Thanks, also, for your kind words about FemmeCast. I’m trying to get the next minisode done soon!

I hope everything works out! Let me know what happens!

xoxoxox,

Bevin

*That’s a phrase I learned from my friend Bryn, which describes that method by which you remember all the nitty gritty details of people, whether or not you know them. Used in a sentence “I don’t know that person very well, but my queer dossier is full of her indiscretions and she’s had a lot of messy break-ups.”

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