by Dan Savage
on Mon, Feb 14, 2011 at 6:18 PM
I'm glad Lindy West loves herself and her body, and I'm happy that she's done with shame, and I think she's beautiful and charismatic and hilarious and I always have. I take issue, however, with Lindy's setting me up as some sort of boogey/straw man, attributing prejudices to me that I do not feel, and attempting to purge her fatshame by fathateshaming me. Arguing that the obesity epidemic should be off limits for discussion on Slog—or that Stranger writers, a notoriously snarky bunch, must slip on kid gloves before we sit down at our computers to post about this issue and this issue alone (really? at a publication that's joked about child rape, AIDS, and the Holocaust?)—because "fat people know they're fat" is simply ridiculous.
There are two things I'd like to clear up before I really get going...
Thing 1: I'm not Lindy West's "boss." I didn't hire her, I don't have the authority to fire her, I don't edit her. Lindy's post was courageous and it was inspiring—until the ad hominem attacks began—but it wasn't standing-up-to-the-boss brave. Because I'm not her boss. I could probably get her fired, I suppose, but I wouldn't try to do that, because she's brilliant and funny and, even if she disagrees with me, even if we come to rhetorical blows on Slog, we all argue all the time on Slog. What would Slog be without our intramural battles? What's different about Lindy's post is the personal nature of Lindy's attack. She's accusing me of bigotry and malice—she's accusing me of attacking her personally, which I've never done and would not do.
Thing 2: I was out of email, cell, and Internet range all weekend, starting Friday afternoon, and didn't get a chance to really sit down and read Lindy's post until late last night, and that's why I'm only just responding to it now.
Okay! Let the record show that I love that Lindy loves Lindy—everybody loves Lindy and so should Lindy—but I'm not so in love with the way Lindy used this quote from a Savage Love column I wrote more than seven years ago:
I am thoroughly annoyed at having my tame statements of fact—being heavy is a health risk; rolls of exposed flesh are unsightly—characterized as "hate speech."
That sounds bad floating out there in space like that, all removed from its original context and shit.
That's one sentence from a column that came at the end of a series of columns—a series of columns from 2004—that was not about the general unsightliness of fat people. It was about the late, unlamented fad for skin-tight, low-rise jeans coupled with midriff-baring tops. (The columns are here, here, and here.) The columns weren’t just critical of overweight or obese women in low-rise jeans and midriff-baring tops, but of women who didn’t have the right “proportions” to pull off that look; "most women" didn't look good in these getups, not just fat women. (Men came in for some slamming too.) In its original context the remark was not a reference to fat people's bodies generally, or a suggestion that fat people didn't have a right to live in their own bodies without shame (or wear those stupid jeans if they wished), but to a particular kind of pants that do not flatter most bodies, pants that created and exposed unsightly rolls of flesh on fat women, not-so-fat women, and not-at-all-fat women alike, pants that have mercifully been consigned to the dustbin of fashion history. I suspect that Lindy was casting around looking for the most damning possible sentence, found that one, and tossed it up on Slog. It's that or believe that Lindy was intentionally dishonest and manipulative. (And, yes, it could've been better put. Allow me to amend the record: "I am thoroughly annoyed at having my tame statements of fact—being heavy is a health risk; the rolls of exposed flesh created by low-rise jeans/high-rise tops are unsightly—characterized as 'hate speech.'" And thank God no one wears those fucking things anymore.)
As for the rest of the evidence of my supposed bigotry that Lindy links to in her post—sometimes snarky posts of mine linking to news stories about the obesity epidemic; links to research that gives lie to the diet-and-exercise-have-nothing-to-do-with-the-obesity-epidemic lie pushed by dishonest, vindictive, and codependent fat activists; a post of mine featuring a Tim Minchin song that I labeled "brutal" and "bullying" but whose title I happen to agree with strongly (can we all agree that people shouldn't feed donuts to their obese children?); discussions in a book I wrote a decade ago about the crazy fat people at the NAAFA convention (there are crazy fat people out there, Lindy, just as there are crazy gay people out there; be careful who you crawl into bed now that you're a "brave" hero to the FA movement for standing up to your bigoted "boss")—the bigotry in my posts exists only in Lindy's imagination. (Okay, I totally crossed the line when I made fun of Kate Harding's arms, which I've never even seen (they could be made of steel for all I know), and for that I apologize. I could dig up a few hundred emails from FA movement folks calling me a cocksucker, if it that would help balance the scales.)
Take Lindy's reaction to my "Ban Fat Marriage" post. Opponents of marriage equality in Iowa claim they want to ban gay marriage because gay men are unhealthy. By that logic, I wrote, "fat marraige" would also have to be banned in Iowa. Did I mean that fat people shouldn't be allowed to marry? Of course not. Does pointing out that there are a lot of fat people in Iowa—30% of the population of that state is obese—somehow "stigmatize" fat people? Um, no, not unless the existence of fat people is somehow inherently stigmatizing. I did point out that there are health risks associated with being obese—I had to in order to make the point that Republican legislators in Iowa are bigots—and you know what? There are health risks associated with being obese. There are also, as I've written until my fingers were numb, health risks associated with being gay and sexually active. (They're not the ones the bigots in Iowa are talking up; more on those health risks in a minute). Citing the prevalence of obesity in Iowa and mentioning the health risks associated with obesity to make a point about bigotry isn't by itself bigotry. So what was up with Lindy's reaction to that post? I think this reader is on to something:
I read your "Ban Fat Marriage" post. Applying the arguments for position X to analogous position Y in order to show that both arguments are spurious and indefensible is a standard and often effective tactic. Perhaps as a matter of discretion, you left out the "ick factor" that is often applied to gay (man-on-man, that is) sex, which could easily go with fat-on-fat sex as well, but when I mentioned the article to my spouse, I threw that in. Then I saw Lindy West's reactions "RE: Ban Fat Marriage" and "Hello, I am Fat." Apparently, Lindy isn't very good with reading comprehension, which is kind of startling since she writes for a living. Or maybe she suspends her reading comprehension and reasoning skills whenever the subject of "fat" is broached. I'd wager the latter is the case.
I'm going to start numbering these things, à la Lindy, because I wanna get through this and return to my regularly scheduled life:
1. Lindy cites that particular quote, above, as proof that I'm a bigot. She claims to know what I think about fat people and how I feel about fat people and leaps from there to claims that I think fat people are gross and that I don't want fat people touching me (no more hugging my relatives, I guess), which she then condemns me for. Ad hominemineminem. (I'm on an airplane sitting next to a fat person RIGHT NOW, Lindy! A fat person I'm sharing my NYT with! I even let her do the crossword! Because I HATE!) It's hard to disprove a charge of bigotry without resorting to some-of-my-best-friends-are—and on this subject I can resort to I-once-was-myself (relevant email from my brother after the jump)—but I'm not an anti-fat bigot ,and one piece of material evidence I could point to might be all the people of varying sizes that I have hired or had a hand in hiring over the years. The first thing I said to Lindy when we met in person wasn't "Unsightly! Unsightly!" but "Your film reviews are amazing—we've got to get you on staff." If that's bigotry... (Discrimination in the workplace is a huge problem for the obese... but not at the Stranger, despite the place being partly run by a fatpohbic bigot. Weird.)
2. I never claimed to be concerned about Lindy's health. The science is in: obesity has serious potential health consequences. Which is not to say that all the obese folks are unhealthy and all the skinny bitches are healthy. Individual results may vary. But being seriously overweight is likely to harm a person's health. That said...
I have always maintained that people have a right to live their lives and pursue their pleasures, wherever they find them, even if there are potential negative health consequences, even at the risk of shortening their lives. There are health consequences to being obese—the First Lady agrees, Lindy, go get her!—but like I wrote at the end of the gluttony chapter in Skipping Towards Gomorrah, we should all have the right to live however we damn well please without being stigmatized or discriminated against. But we don't have a right to demand that other people pretend that there aren't health consequences involved with being obese, with smoking, with eating meat, with skiing, and, yes, with being gay and sexually active. Sexually active gay men have much higher rates of sexually transmitted infections, higher rates of HIV transmission, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse (sometimes that drug and alcohol abuse is rooted in self-hatred, which the wider society is responsible for creating; sometimes it's rooted in destructive community norms, which gay men are responsible for creating and perpetuating). I've written about the risks gay men face—the potential negative health consequences of being gay and sexually active—until my fingers were ready to fall off. Was that bigoted of me?
3. I could give a shit about health-insurance premiums. I support a government-run, single-payer health care system, one that spreads everyone's risks around—the obese, the gay, the smoker, the skier, etc. I've no doubt linked to stories about the health care costs associated with the obesity epidemic because, you know, it's an aspect of the obesity-epidemic story and I'm interested in this story. (I'm a sex-and-relationship columnist; I could no more avoid questions about bodies and health and size than I could avoid questions about blowjobs and assfucking and cunnilingus.) I believe that the extra burden the obese place on our health care system should be borne without complaint just as the extra burden the HIV-positive place on the health-care system should. (And, hey, have I mentioned that my seventy-year-old dad is a smoker and on Medicare?) But there's nothing bigoted about encouraging the obese to take steps to improve their health—that usually means making the kinds of changes that lead to weight loss—any more than there's something bigoted about encouraging gay men to use condoms, fuck fewer people, stop using meth, etc.
4. I'm interested in the obesity epidemic—what causes it, how it got this bad, what we're going to do about it—and I'm angered by what I perceive to be the dishonestly of many FA movement activists. I think the obesity epidemic is remarkable, which is why I remark on it, and I will continue to remark on it so long as I'm blogging, and I reserve the right to make the odd snarky remark. I will continue to post the links to stories about the obesity epidemic that catch my eye, stories like this that give the lie to the whole lack-of-exercise-has-nothing-to-do-with-it crap pushed by fat-acceptance crowd:
Adult obesity rates rose in 28 states last year, the report says.... Among the [report's] findings: In a dozen states, more adults reported getting absolutely no regular physical activity beyond their jobs. It’s not likely a coincidence that the fattest state, Mississippi, also has the highest rate of physical inactivity in adults. There was a lot of overlap in the most-obese and least-active lists.
This stuff interests me not just because it pisses off the FA crowd. It's interesting all on its own.
5. The takeaway from Lindy's post—once the euphoria of our pleasure in Lindy's triumph over her self-loathing fades—seems to be this: Fat people already feel bad, so shut up. Reading about obesity reminds fat people they're fat and they already know they're fat and feel bad about being fat, so shut up. And diet and exercise never work and even if they worked for you it’s unpossible for a heavy person to keep the weight off so why bother, so shut up. And shut up because your not shutting up is making it harder for fat people not to hate themselves and only after fat people stop hating themselves and lose the shame can they... begin to lose the weight that they can't actually lose. And shut up.
I find that very confusing and confused.
Look, Lindy, I hear you. You don't like my posts about obesity. You don't think they're helpful. They're not necessarily meant to be helpful. You seem to assume that I post in the hope that fat people will read my posts and drop the weight. That's not my motivation; neither is shaming fat people. I'm interested in the obesity epidemic and I'm following the news about it and I assume other people are too and I'm posting about it and I'm ticked off about some aspects of it (including, yes, the vitriol that has been aimed at me over the years). And, yes, I believe that people should be fit—fit, not skinny; active, not sticks—not because Fat Is Gross, but because healthy—which doesn't always translate to skinny—is better than non-healthy. It's pretty much the same reason why I think people shouldn't smoke or fuck strangers without protection or play on railroad tracks or smoke meth or vote Republican.
I am not, however, responsible for your shame (RIP). You arrived at my posts with your shame, my posts didn't create it, and you managed to conquer your shame despite my posts. Good for you. (No snark intended in that "good for you." Seriously, Lindy, good for you.) If you don't want to read my posts about this subject—about any subject—just skip 'em.
And finally-for-real-finallyfinallyfinally... if you had written to me at my column seeking my advice about all of this (and I realize you didn't and I realize that now I'm the one pretending that I can read your thoughts—but, hey, you pretended you could read mine, so looks like we're even), here's what I would have to said after reading your letter: It sounds like you're externalizing an internal conflict about being fat—you're projecting your anger and self-loathing onto to me, and seeing malice and bigotry where none exists, and perhaps that's useful because that anger seems to be liberating and motivating. If having your own personal boogeyman on Slog helps you conquer your shame and love your body and this helps you break out of old, self-destructive patterns and habits (you can't be losing weight now just because your attitude changed), then I'm happy to be your own personal boogeyman. But honestly, Lindy, you don't need one. You're stronger than that.
Here's the email from my brother Bill...
When you do have time to respond to Lindy: note how often these people (LW included) use anecdotal evidence and generalize to the Whole World about it. She cannot lose weight dieting, so it's not possible. Then you might talk about our family.
You were fat as a kid. You started exercising and eating right and voila, you're not fat.
Other family members, not so much. Post a link to our CHF talk, where I look like fucking buddha for crissakes. if you and I both have genetically preset weights which our bodies just naturally go to, then we'd be roughly similar given our shared genetic backgrounds. But I don't exercise as much as you do (my biking not withstanding, I haven't been to a gym in years) and I don't eat as well as you do and so I'm 20 to 25 lbs overweight.
You and Eddie exercise a lot, eat right and are in good shape.
If they get to generalize anecdotes about themselves, so do you.
The ultimate irony in all of this? I still feel like the fat kid.