The personal narrative is something I have avoid, because the naked honesty also leaves one extremely vulnerable to attack. Living in a marginalized body is difficult enough without showing one’s war wounds, but when it becomes clear that hiding is only enabling the complete erasure of people who look and function like me, then it is time to speak out. You see, I am fat, Black, female and differently abled.
I can never completely be at home with any one of the labels that best describe me. In the media, I can see Black women, or even fat black women, but fat and differently abled are definitely categories that are understood to be mutually exclusive. A body like mine contradicts the mainstream social discourse.
Fat activist groups like NAAFA (The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) have worked hard to promote HAES (Health at any size). NAAFA’s goal is to build “a society in which people of every size are accepted with dignity and equality in all aspects of life”. Considering the amount of hatred that fat men and women face in every avenue of life, this is most certainly a laudable goal. The problem is that the HAES model often excludes disabled folks, because our bodies are seen as broken.
How can you claim health at any size when people who are fat and disabled exist in direction contradiction to the message? My fat is a direct reflection of the two chronic illnesses that have plagued my life for the last three years.
I am fat because I have been on prednisone (a steroid) for years. I am fat because the smallest amount of exertion causes extreme pain. There is nothing healthy about this fat.
There is nothing to experience pride in, because fat for me represents all of the ways in which disability has robbed me of the life that I once had. There is no room for this story in a fat activist platform, because it reminds people that yes, fat can indeed be a form of illness — and that is the antithesis of what fat activists are aiming for.
I fully understand why there is a reluctance to embrace bodies like mine. Fat shaming has become a part of our daily life. Fat men and women are both subjected to attacks and expected to perform the role of the jolly fat person, or else disappear into their homes with only the comfort of two or three cats and the internet. Our bodies are continually subject to ridicule and it has become the national narrative to assume that we are dysfunctional, lazy, greedy, and slovenly and that we simply don’t know how to eat properly.
Disability and or chronic illness does not necessarily lead to the sympathy or empathy that we present as our social myth. If for instance, one has emphysema from smoking, the role that smoking played in contracting the illness quickly eliminates any sympathy. We become gatekeepers to the chronically ill and disabled, determining guilt which in turn is used to justify apathy and discrimination.
Fat has become one of the markers that is often suggested as leading to several diseases, and or chronic illnesses. We have become socialized to believe that fat can only function as the cause of the illness and that if one avoids being overweight that somehow it will alleviate the suffering that is caused by any chronic health problems.
When I am out negotiating the world in my scooter, my fatness speaks for me long before my disability does. Strangers who barely know my name are more than willing to suggest that the problem is my weight. It is assumed that despite all the limitations that come from needing a mobility device, that this is an active choice on my part.
“Eat less, move more” – but none of this would change the state of my health! I understand that the judgements and suggestions do not come from a place of concern, but out of a desire to avoid becoming disabled. They are based in an absolute fear of losing able bodied privilege.
Even if you eat right and exercise every day, it is not a guarantee that good health will be a lifelong condition. Able bodied status is temporary for us all, and for some of us the loss happens at a relatively young age.
This is no way a suggestion that people should not try to eat healthy and exercise, rather it is an admission that effort does not suddenly grant one immunity from disability. My fat, disabled body makes people uncomfortable because it stands as visual evidence that despite all of the myths we create to make negotiating this world easier, there are still no easy answers to the many medical problems that plague us. Fat may not always be a symptom of illness or dysfunction, but sometimes it most certainly is and when fat activists ignore, belittle or silence this truth they are simply acting in the same manner that skinny people do when they fat-shame.
When the reality of my disability is ignored so that someone may feel free to fat-shame me, it reveals just how insistent able bodied privilege is. It is only out of a desire to express power coercively, that one can decide what constitutes disability and where responsibility lies.
Those who has power are those who get to stick on the labels, and this is true in many instances involving social marginalization. No person that has been “othered” has ever created the social stereotypes to which they are expected to adhere. Some may say that there is a grain of truth in each social stereotype, and in this they would be correct, because all of the ways that we have categorize people are all based in our desire to maintain a hierarchy that is not only reductive but ultimately oppressive to us all.
So here I am, waiting to be seen, waiting to be heard. My truth, and the reality of what it means to occupy my body, can never be accepted until we move away from the idea that we have to justify our existence or that all human beings have to look and feel a certain way.
I am fat and I am disabled and yes, the two can co-exist in one body and still be a celebration of life and that which is good.