Tuesday, 12 August 2008

fat acceptance and compulsive eating

I got some great comments from people on yesterday's post, and one basically triggered another post, so thank you, lovely people, for being encouraging and smart.

Here is the comment that resulted in the following mass of words:

The compulsive eating behavior has absolutely nothing to do with being fat. You could be thin or average weight with compulsive eating, and your feelings and reactions to it would still be the same. Being fat and being a compulsive eater are two separate things.

This is true. And then again, it's not really the whole picture, especially in the FA community.

I understand why fat acceptance activists, who are usually trying to disrupt the stereotyping of fat people, harp on about health at every size and how fat people don't eat more than thin people and all the rest of it.

The thing is, though, if you have a person who, like myself, is inclined by nature to be less thin than other people (if not fat), and who then goes on to eat compulsively for twenty years, you'll get yourself a fat person, who probably got fat by trying to not BE fat. And although I love to hear that being fat is not the end of the world, that it isn't the end of your health, that the stereotypes don't hold up, etc etc etc, I am still a fat person who got fat, primarily, by eating too much. And there is a strong tendency amongst FA activists to reject that as a reason for a fat person to be fat. It doesn't have to be the reason they are fat. It doesn't have to be the reason most fat people are fat - as I say, even if I wasn't this fat, I still wouldn't be exactly thin. But it is a reason that some of us are fat, and pretending that we're not part of the fat spectrum kind of hurts.

It's kind of like if you got a bunch of gay activists together, and one of the things they wanted to do was bust the stereotypes of gay men as "effeminate", and so they spent a lot of time proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that that you can be gay without being effeminate, that gay men are, on average, no more effeminate than your average straight man, and that there's nothing wrong with being a non-effeminate gay man (replace "effeminate" with "unhealthy" and "gay man" with "fat person", and you'll see what I'm saying). Those things may all be true, but you can imagine the feelings of gay men who actually are camp.

And that's without considering the feelings of any effeminate man who isn't actually gay (who would be the thin compulsive eater). I'm not, by the way, trying to draw comparisons between anti-gay and anti-fat prejudice, to engage in comparative suffering, nor to imply that there's anything wrong or self-destructive with being a camp gay man, because obviously it's an entirely different thing from having an eating disorder. I'm just trying to highlight that any group exists on a spectrum, which includes real life realisations of identifiable stereotypes, even if those stereotypes are representative of only a small proportion of that community, and other members of the community would prefer that people did not assume that everyone in the community is the same way. Fat people are not a homogenous whole, and, just as there is a section of the gay community which is identifiable as being stereotypical, there is a section of the fat community that is that way as well.

Fat people who got fat by compulsive eating are not necessarily naturally fat, and are certainly not healthily fat. But we're still fat. And a lot of us got that way by behaviours which our culture identifies as "fat person" behaviours, i.e. eating too much, regardless of the mental illness which drove us to develop those behaviours. And yet the only place we can come to which tells us it's okay to be fat still emphasises the notion of having the habits we recognise as "thin person" habits (even if that's not true) and which we know we don't have.

Now, I get it. If you're a fat person who lives a very healthy life, it must be frustrating and depressing to feel like the compulsive eaters at the other end of the spectrum are dragging down your public image. And I understand that healthy fat people would love to stop being stereotyped and suffering from prejudice because of those stereotypes, and that part of doing that is educating themselves and others about the fact that fat =/= unhealthy and/or greedy.

But becoming fat accepting is, in my experience at least, a vital part of recovering from an eating disorder, because we can't really release this problem without accepting that our bodies are going to end up where they end up, and that getting better may not equal getting thinner (this is not easy when you're obsessed with that notion). And yet being immersed in the "we are healthy fat people" culture in the FA community can actually be just as freaking depressing and alienating as reading a magazine with five articles on how to lose weight, and two photo spreads on how Posh Spice and Lindsay Lohan are too skinny.

The thing is, of course, that those of us who got fat via an eating disorder aren't REALLY stereotypical. We're not "just" gluttonous – we have a mental illness. But it looks exactly the same from the outside. That guy watching me eat my donut at lunch isn't thinking "well, I bet she spent an hour thinking about that before she ate it, and I bet she'll be agonising over the decision for the rest of the day, and that must be very hard". He's thinking, "wow, no wonder she's so fat". And you know, part of me, even while I'm acknowledging my issues, is thinking the same thing.

And more importantly than that, we're people who already have a tendency to beat ourselves mercilessly with our supposed moral failure to control our eating. So sometimes, being surrounded by fat people who have exemplary eating behaviours and an agenda to demonstrate that you can be fat and yet completely "good" (even while they decry the moralisation of food, as they should) results less in feeling better about being fat and more in feeling worse about being such a bad example of a fat person.

Please understand, I am absolutely on board the FA train in theory. There are a lot of really important messages that everyone needs to hear about what constitutes actual health, and how thinness is not the only or even main goal of health, and I don't want the train stopped at all, not least because the external pressure to lose weight would be significantly reduced if people would stop going "OMG U R OBESE U WILL DIIIIIIIIE".

But. That doesn't mean that I'm unaffected by the fact that the people I look to for a reminder that my being fat doesn't equal hideous, worthless and on death's door usually defend fatness with the (perfectly true on average) weapons of "fat doesn't mean being unhealthy" and "fat people are not greedy".

As for the thin compulsive eaters, yes, absolutely, we share an illness and I have no doubt that it is as destructive for them as it is for me. But, as is often discussed in FA circles, thin people with terrible eating habits are not subject to the same scrutiny as fat people, because thin and healthy are so equated that no one pays any attention to the five donuts being devoured by the 95lb girl at the next table. She may be eating a lot of donuts, but it can't possibly habitual, because, hey, 95lbs. (This is probably a bad thing, actually, because it means that compulsive eating disorder is harder to identify amongst the thin, because it's culturally okay for thin people to eat like horses as long as they don't gain any weight, and less support is likely to be available, because eating too much, even in a crazy way, doesn't seem that abnormal as long as you don't end up fat.)

But you see, thin people with compulsive eating disorder are unlikely to seek out fat acceptance, because they're thin. They don't need it. They certainly will need some of its principles, IMO, if they're going to recover, because they'll need to learn to accept and love their bodies whatever weight they turn out, but they don't need to learn to personally accept bodies that are culturally unacceptable. I'm not saying that they are at a particular advantage in that by any means - I'm sure there's a whole other bundle of troubles for the thin compulsive eater - but they don't need to seek out an environment where people will say "there is nothing wrong with your body", because most people will say that of a thin person – even if the eating disordered person doesn't believe it. Those of us who are fat, on the other hand, often find comfort in FA blogs and communities because here, at last, are people who are telling us that it is really okay to be fat, which we, in the midst of our war with our bodies, really need to hear.

It's just that sometimes (I do note significant exceptions to this, such as Meowser's excellent post about mental health counting as part of Health At Every Size) the framework for it being okay to be fat is that it's okay to be fat as long as you're healthy, and you defy greedy, unhealthy fat person stereotypes. And, you know, I just don't.

Of course, the thing about any movement is that there's always a need to raise public awareness, and change public perceptions which are based on harmful stereotypes. I even agree that that's a need. Activism and individualism are an uneasy mixture at best, because any activism is about a group of people who are disenfranchised in some way, and, outside of the one thing disenfranchising those people, they may have little in common. What we fat people have in common is that we're fat. Some of us lead healthy lives, some of us don't. At the moment, in an effort to try to have our existence legitimised, a lot of FA supporters are emphasising the fact that you can be both fat and healthy, and that's fine, because it reverses a lot of assumptions held by society at large.

I suppose just, as a minority within a minority, I occasionally want to put my hand up and point out that the unhealthy amongst us are still people. Occasionally crazy, self destructive people, sure, but we're probably trying really hard, even if we're failing.

So yes. Two different things, fatness and compulsive eating, but when you're a fat compulsive eater, quite often you have to deal with them as part of the same package. For me at least, I'm this fat because of the way I have eating for decades. I need, badly, to know it's okay to be fat, because it's only when I stop warring on my body that I stop eating like this. And maybe that'll result in me being less fat and maybe it won't. But I also need to know it's okay for getting better to take awhile and for me to not be able to be "healthy" at the moment, because the last thing I need is another weapon against myself.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. As a fat person and a compulsive overeater, I often feel left out of the FA movement. I understand that they're trying to reverse stereotypes and I support that. That's a good thing for everyone. But I still feel marginalized and pushed aside when the subject of overeating comes up. Some of us do overeat and for some of us it does lead to excess weight. And it's so damn hard to get your head together when the one place you look to for support is constantly sending the message that your behavior is bad for the movement. They might not think that's the message they're sending but I am certainly not the first person to take it away.

And frankly I'm tired of the, "well, skinny people do it too!" argument. I'm not skinny. We are not talking about the skinny acceptance movement. This is the FAT acceptance movement. I am fat. I am also a compulsive overeater. And you can be damn sure that in my life the two have plenty to do with one another. And I'm tired of being told my experience doesn't count.

Rachel said...

This is a great post and an issue that I've raised in the past here and here. I've often felt at odds with the movement (within which I no longer identify as a member) because I do believe what and how much we eat does play a role in what we weigh. My concern is with those fat activists who are so preoccupied with myth-busting that people who do happen to fit the stereotype and/or those with compulsive eating (CE) issues or binge eating disorder (BED) often feel alienated from the movement. The perception here is that these fat activists try to distance themselves from those fat people -- the people who do eat too much and don't exercise or do any of the things society has deemed morally imperative. In a sense, they're merely reaffirming the values upon which many fat stereotypes are based.

I also see a lot of people who have CE or BED feel alienated from the movement because due to their disordered eating, they are often at a higher weight than what is healthy or average for them. Often they want to both learn to manage their food issues AND lose weight. Yet when these people share any such desire to lose weight, they're often dismissed by people in the movement for bowing to societal shame. I'm staunchly anti-dieting and I am opposed to using potential weight loss as the carrot to promote eating disorder recovery, but it is true that once overeaters/bingers learn to overcome and/or manage disordered eating behaviors healthily, their weights may stabilize at a lower range that is healthy for them.

It's a slippery slope for fat activists to tread.
One on hand, we have to battle fat-based discrimination with the numerous examples of fat people who break the mold, and continue to present the ever-expanding girth of scientific studies which show that fatness isn’t merely a lack of willpower. But on the other hand, we run the risk of becoming so mired in promoting fatness as a genetic edict, having absolutely nothing to do with the food choices we make, that we, perhaps unconsciously, perpetuate the very stigma that lies at the heart of fat-based discrimination and alienate potential fat allies. It's not an easy pendulum to balance.

What we need are more voices like yours raising eating disorder awareness and working to educate the public on what an eating disorder is and isn't. And we need fat activists to continue breaking down fat stereotypes while yet working to create an inclusive atmosphere where even those fat people who fit the stereotype feel welcome.

Anonymous said...

You know I've gotten a countless amount of good from FA and am so grateful for the way it's helped me; however, I have had a lot of these same ideas.

FA generally decries "good fattie/bad fattie" ideas yet HAES and the constant efforts to buck the overeating and sedentary lifestyle stereotypes seem to perpetuate the idea that it's only okay to be fat if you have a reason like PCOS or genetics.

I am genetically and naturally predisposed as you said to be "less thin" and my years and years of starving to be "as thin" has led to some crazy cycles that have resulted in an exponential gain over time.

But do I know that if I ate intuitively and practiced HAES as it's preached that I'd be less fat? Yes. So I'm constantly feeling "bad fattie" feelings. Then I feel anti-FA for wanting to be less fat.

So in response to this, I have been trying to take the approach that HAES encompasses mental health and that's my "excuse".

I'm left with the conflict though - I still feel that I need an excuse and though my mental health could be it, my needing one isn't true to really accepting myself.

And then of course, there IS the outside perception which mucks it all up even further. And the fact that eating and exercising intuitively is HARD for me. When I think that eating a meal is bingeing (so I then really go for it... till I don't feel well) and that food is making me fat and horrible because I'm a bad fattie... Then dealing with this is going to remain difficult.

Melissa said...

This is a great post because I was often thinking a lot of these same thoughts about Fat Acceptance.
I know there are people who don't eat a lot or eat healthy and are still big, but I also knew that I had gotten overweight by over eating when I was stressed, bored or anxious (or a variety of other reasons).
I've gotten a lot better but I still over eat on occasion (like sushi last night hehe).
I saw a youtube video of a women who was angry that she was told by people who promoted FA that if you're for FA they don't promote weight loss. But there she was with major health issues because of her weight and so she felt exactly as you say "pushed aside", really with no support.

I think FA is great because it not only helps inform people of the variety of reason there is to be fat, but it can help someone realize their worth so they can get on the right track with living their life (whether that be by eating healthy and consequently losing weight, or accepting yourself and doing things you've always wanted, whatever it may be).

I think it shows how everyone can adhere to stereotypes and how limiting they can be.

Thanks for your post


Piffle said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences and feelings. I can feel them moving around and stirring things up in my mind; but I'm not sure how they'll integrate yet.

I do want to say that you are a good person and a good fattie. You don't have to be HAES to be a good person, it's okay to be fat because you overeat. You aren't a bad person to use food to serve your needs. Eating doesn't hurt anyone else. Equally, you are perfectly justified to learn different coping techniques if you find overeating hurts you, yourself.

Anonymous said...

Yet again, you seem to be able to come up with posts that align perfectly with feelings I've been having about the fatosphere ever since I came here. I don't think that anything Iv'e ever read has spoken to me as much as this, and for that, I thank you.

As someone who doesn't feel like a "good fattie", because of an eating disorder, and as someone who doesn't totally relish in exercise, I frequently feel alienated from the FA movement. As everyone has said, I recognize the need for the movement to bust stereotypes, but it doesn't change the fact that I got to be the size that I am because of how I eat.

I almost feel like there is a need for a sub-group within the movement, for fat people who who also have eating disorders. Because really, with all the "you can be fat and healthy" posts that go up, reading the fatosphere makes me depressed, and since that's the primary mode of thinking in FA, I feel uncomfortable to share the sort of things you're sharing with us, since I tend to feel that I'm just some freak in the movement, and I can't relate to anyone.

So again thank you, so much. Your posts mean more to me than you'll ever know.

Anonymous said...

I have often felt the way you describe in your post (I am a binge eater/ chronic dieter). While I am probably somewhat "fat by nature" my ED has had an impact on my weight and my health.

The ironic part is that I believe my ED is partially a result of having been exposed to a fatphobic as a kid/ teen. I started to sneak candy and eat in secret, hiding the candy wrappers somewhere in my room afterwards when my parents started to watch what I ate after my pediatrician told them so. Later, my secret binge eating worsened when I was being bullied for my weight in school, and after returning from a fat camp like institution it worsened even more.

However, I sometimes get the feeling that the idea that conscious weight loss can not only lead to gaining more weight in the long term because of physical but also because of psychological reasons is suspect to parts of the movement... although I have to say that I don't have solid proof for it, it's more a vague impression I have.

nuckingfutz said...

Thank you for writing this. I've learned a bit while reading it.


I hope that, in my original comment, I didn't make you feel left off of the fat spectrum. Because that's not what I meant at all.

As the original commenter that sparked the whole post, I feel I should respond to some of these comments.

Anonymous - I apologize for irking you with my choice of words. I simply used the "thin compulsive overeater" argument as an example of why I saw the ED and the being fat as 2 different things. I certainly didn't intend to say that ANYBODY's experience didn't count, and if that's what you thought, I truly apologize.

I hope that no one thought I was trying to perpetuate any stereotypes or imply the whole good/bad fattie thing. That wasn't my intention. However, I can see where different people could infer different things from such a short comment. I tried to simplify what I wanted to say and maybe I simplified just a little TOO much.

Anonymous said...

It was so great to see this post and to see comments which make me feel that I'm not alone in feeling that, yes, just as it it possible to diet yourself below your natural set point, it is also possible to eat yourself above it.

To my mind, one does not have to agree on the reasons behind an individual's fat to believe of and be a member of fat acceptance.

BStu said...

Here is the thing, though. FA DOES need to push back against "I'm fat because I overeat" because a lot of people internalize the assumptions about fatness and self-diagnose themselves as overeaters when they are nothing of the sort. There is a degree to which fat acceptance absolutely needs to question those assumptions. I've seen it a lot. People who say, "I believe in FA, but I'm fat because I binge." When you probe them, though, the picture gets far less obvious. Maybe you learn that the only binge in periods coming off diets. Or their definition of overeating is overly punative to themselves, criminalizing behavior that average weight people do all of the time. In our culture, ALL fat people are prompted to see themselves as overeaters with the size of their bodies all the necessary proof. Many fat people come to understand their behaviors as compulsive eating, not because it actually is, because of this warped cultural view. (All fat people overeat. I'm fat, therefore I overeat. Therefore, however I eat is overeating) Likewise, there is bound to be a degree of self-fufillment, since eating less has never been shown to be a reliable method to induce weight loss, some fat people will conclude that they may as well overeat. These groups are compulsive overeats, but the way THEY self-identify is pretty close to CE and that is what FA needs to counteract.

And this push back needs to happen even if there are people who are compulsive overeaters AND if those people are because of that. The two don't necessarily go together, it should be noted. Just as there are people starving themselves who never end up thin, there are overeaters who don't end up fat. The personal responsibility issue still isn't clear to me in blaming the behavior for the body, even if the behavior is clearly overeating. Again, I think its largely a product of a cultural bigotries that define fat as a state which someone or something necessarily must be blamed for. There are micro and macro issues here. Other people overeat who don't gain weight or may not gain as much as weight as another. I still think assigning blame on the micro level is invalid in any circumstance because its so unreliable on a macro level. That isn't saying that the micro experience doesn't matter. Its saying that its still not reasonable to say one person is wrong (or wronged) for something that could happen to another person without any thing happening. I think in all cases, FA needs to reject the notion that fat is something to assign blame for. No matter what is being blamed. That doesn't negate the experiences of compulsive overeaters, but it does suggest a different perspective to consider their experiences. I think that's valuable. I think the interaction between FA and compulsive overeating should act to challenge assumptions about compulsive eating. Conventional approaches about CE are steeped in fat negativity and fat stigmatization and I should hope that FA can carve out something different.

FA has to be something different than our standard assumptions about weight, which means it has to be different than our culturally standard assumptions about compulsive overeating. That doesn't mean that CE doesn't have a place in FA, but it shouldn't expect that place to endorse conventional approaches, either. It isn't going to measure success in pounds lost. I would hope someone struggling with CE would see this as an opportunity, and not a restriction. All of what FA stands for absolutely still has a relevance for someone with CE issues. But its going to be a different approach than our culture endorses. An opportunity.

JenK said...

That guy watching me eat my donut at lunch isn't thinking "well, I bet she spent an hour thinking about that before she ate it, and I bet she'll be agonising over the decision for the rest of the day, and that must be very hard". He's thinking, "wow, no wonder she's so fat".

See, I tend to assume that nobody cares what I'm eating, because they're not my mother. (Yes, I mean that literally.)

Hope said...

BStu, you use the terms compulsive overeating and overeating as if they are synonyms, but they're not. For example, you wrote,

"In our culture, ALL fat people are prompted to see themselves as overeaters with the size of their bodies all the necessary proof. Many fat people come to understand their behaviors as compulsive eating, not because it actually is, because of this warped cultural view. (All fat people overeat. I'm fat, therefore I overeat. Therefore, however I eat is overeating)."

This is actually a really good example of how people in the FA movement don't get compulsive eating. Maddie described the agonizing pain of being a compulsive eater with amazing accuracy in her previous post. It is a truly awful heart-rending, life-sucking way to experience the world. It's not subtle. It's not something I'm confused about. I don't need you to explain it to me. It is a real problem. And I think that most people don't have a clue how complex it can be. Society at large sees fat people as overeaters and this is wrong and I agree that it is something the movement needs to fight against. But to conflate overeating generally with the disorder that is compulsive overeating is also wrong and to me is an attitude that is part of why I feel unwelcome in the movement.

So yes, many thin people overeat and many fat people don't and the "over" part of overeating is a subjective thing anyway. But that's not the point being addressed here. I am 100% certain that I developed this problem because I grew up in a culture that hates fat people and I was a fat child. So for me being fat and compulsive eating are completely related and Maddie, I am grateful to you for starting this blog (and for being such a good writer) because you are addressing aspects of this problem that I have also experienced, but can't articulate as well.

James said...


Thoroughly excellent piece.

This is the kind of sensible, reality-based, big tent attitude towards fat acceptance that (in my opinion) is its only viable direction for success.

One thing I picked up on though was this:

"I suppose just, as a minority within a minority, I occasionally want to put my hand up and point out that the unhealthy amongst us are still people. Occasionally crazy, self destructive people, sure, but we're probably trying really hard, even if we're failing."

Fat acceptance has to encompass the fat people who are indeed gluttenous or those that dont live by a HAES regimen. It must be inclusive of those that either (as in your case) dont have full control over your eating or indeed those that enjoy being fat and 'choose' to engage in a lifestyle that sustains their fatness.

Certain fat acceptance puritans might wish to ignore or disassociate from these people, not least because aknowledging the fact that there can be examples of determinism, or choice, in body weight probably feels too much like giving away ammunition to the fat-hating enemy.

As a movement we've gotta get real becuase I think we are lining up behind some pretty fragile contentions and some pretty selective thought processes... that as you correctly identify, are excluding some of the people that fat acceptance ought to represent.

BStu said...

I wasn't using them as synonyms, Hope. I was pointing out the way our culture intertwines them. There are people who self-identify as a complusive overeater simply because they believe they overeat because they are fat. That is something FA needs to push back against. It needs to ask fat people to question those kinds of assumptions our culture has made for us. That should not be presumed to be a judgment against any possible response to that questioning, but it needs to happen. Our culture has disagnosed all fat people as compulsive overeaters with only our bodies offered as proof. Part of what FA needs to do is to challenge that. Again, I would hope some who does deal with CE would see this not as affront but as an opportunity to better define the issues they face outside of the singular way our culture sees them.

Maddie said...

Anonymous - Yes, I completely understand why people are trying to reverse stereotypes. I suppose it's just hard to do that when you feel like you ARE the stereotype, and that therefore, in certain contexts, you either have to pretend you're not or you have to go away. The thing is, I'm not blaming individuals for this – people only have space on their blogs or, indeed, in their heads for so many ideas at a time. It just makes it difficult at times to be told that what this movement wants to project is only that fat people can be healthy, and therefore it's okay to be fat. I'm aware of the fact that not everyone follows this, and Rachel points to some of her excellent posts below which are very helpful. But clearly I'm not alone in feeling that there is a certain amount of rejection of those of us who have this problem. Anyway, I'm glad this post helps.

Rachel - Those are excellent posts. I'm interested that you no longer identify as a member of the FA community. Do you have anything posted anywhere about why? To be honest, I'm not a particularly active community participant in any case, but I am at present very much torn between the fact that I do believe myth-busting is important and the fact that I do also feel quite alienated and, well, "bad" because I'm failing to be a good fattie just like I failed to be thin. And yes, it does feel like the morality of good/bad has moved from the body type to "how I got here". It often feels like it's okay to be fat as long as you have "thin" habits. I understand WHY it has, but it does make it challenging for people in my situation to wholly embrace FA.

Charlee - yes, I'm like you. Finding FA has been a HUGE help to me, and has definitely helped my progress in recovery. But I can't deny that it's thrown up a few roadbloacks as well. I suspect that part of the problem is that people with eating disorders are already inclined to beat themselves around the head and shoulders with whatever anti-body notions we have handy, but at the same time, it isn't always a particularly inclusive environment for people who don't practise HAES because they're just not there yet, and who can't say they're healthy fat people. I'm not sure what the solution is, to be honest. Maybe just more of us putting our hands up to say, I want to accept myself, but I don't yet. And that's not easy either.

Melissa - Yes, definitely, FA is great on so many levels, and does really important things for people. And I'm not even for losing weight as a priority myself, because I know how crazy it makes me (though, on the other hand, I do wonder if my feet would hurt less if I were lighter). I understand where people are coming from on the "it is anti-FA to try to lose weight" front, and I agree with many of their points. I just don't want this community to become as restrictive on what's acceptable as the rest of the world. I totally understand the need to change people's understanding of fatness, but let's not pretend that people who have eating problems are a separate group who aren't going to be touched either by the achievements of FA or its own prejudices.

Piffle - Thank you. It's interesting to hear you say that it is okay to be fat because one overeats. Even in FA circles, that's not usually stated, and I'm having quite a weird reaction to it, because overeating is SO widely disparaged in the world at large. It's an even more challenging notion than that it's okay to be fat. I shall have to ponder that for a bit. Thank you.

Integgy - Yeah, I was thinking about a sub-group. Maybe we need a message board or something. I don't know, it does seem like there needs to be something. I need to find the post I saw yesterday which was about the notion that it's okay to be unhealthy. I love to know that a person can be fat and healthy, but I don't want that to turn into something that I can punish myself with. And I'm glad that my posts are helpful to you. It is always good, I think, to know you're not alone.

Queendom - Oh, I completely have an eating disorder because of fatphobia. I ate in secret because my mother was afraid I would get fat. Which I did. These things are not separate – I honestly believe that if society was less fat-hating, and the fundamental message of FA (it's okay to be fat) was more widespread, many of us would not be in this situation. For that reason, I do think FA is an absolutely vital part of having a physically AND mentally healthy society. Being obsessed with being fat does not lead to physical or mental health. It's a lot easier to gain both when you're not obsessed with one small aspect of being a human body. I think, actually, this is part of what my issue is with the emphasis on healthy fat people – yes, we can be healthy fat people, but only if people are not afraid of being fat. And I do think, at least from my own experience, that there's a not insignificant number of people who would be less fat if they weren't so afraid to be fat.

nuckingfutz - Sorry, I didn't mean to make you feel like I was calling you out. You didn't make me feel left off or that you were perpetuating stereotypes, I was just struck by that part of your comment, started replying to it, and ended up with a whole post.

As I've said, I think that although, yes, there are thin compulsive eaters ("overeating" being a different matter), there are a lot of parts to the experience that are different, not least the fact that they don't need any reassurance that it's okay to be fat. They need assurance that it's okay to be in whatever body they're in, and that's a tool that FA espouses, but I think that fat compulsive eaters need something from FA that thin ones don't, and we're not always getting that. Thank you for responding again. J

devi42 - You're not alone at all. And yes, I think you're right – Fat Acceptance needs to be able to accommodate all the fat people, including the ones who supposedly got fat the "wrong" way. Which, I guess, means the notion of right and wrong when it comes to bodies needs to be more stringently addressed.

BStu, I'm replying in more detail below.

JenK - Lucky you.

Hope - Thanks for your comment, you said a lot of the things I wanted to say to BStu. I get that people who don't have eating disorders really don't understand them, and tend to reduce them to a mere sum of eating habits – anorexics are starving, bulimics are puking, compulsive eaters are eating – but it's frustrating in an environment which you need to actually deal with the damn disorder to have people being so simplistic and unsympathetic. Thank you, and I'm glad that what I'm writing is helpful to you.

James - Thank you. :) As I say, I get why people do it - it's pretty much universal amongst activist groups. It's just that it's not either helpful to those people who don't fit, or completely as a form of activism, because either the people who are left out reject it completely or it just succeeds in creating a new kind of prejudice. I guess I just want there to be room for people to say "I'm working on it, but I struggle".

Maddie said...

BStu - I really don't know where you're getting the idea that I or anyone else here endorse a "mainstream" or fat-hating approach to ED recovery, because it's the farthest thing from what I've said here. I agree that there needs to be a strong readdressing of stereotypes from FA, and that it needs to be more widely understood by people everywhere that not all fat people fit those stereotypes. I'm not sure where you're getting from my post that I think there aren't thin compulsive eaters, or that my eating disorder is just because I think I must eat too much because I'm fat, and therefore that I must be fat because I eat too much. Since I've said repeatedly that the FA tools I've learned are very important to my ongoing recovery, and that I believe the would be to the recovery of others, lecturing me on how FA should be "different" is not news to me nor particularly helpful.

Nor is it helpful to conflate all overeating with eating disorders, and play down the very existence of eating disorders as though, if only everyone would stop hating Teh Fatz, all of us would be eating normally. Eating disorders may be created for some of us (though not all by any means) by fat hatred, but they're not artificial for all that, any more than depression created by a stressful life situation isn't really depression. I can't say I've ever met anyone who thinks they binge but, from your perspective, is behaving normally, but I question the assumption that it's the amount of food that makes a compulsive eater. I've had "binges" which have consisted of one Mars Bar because that's all I had, which is a totally normal amount to eat, fat or thin. What makes it a binge is the desperation to consume and the self-loathing that follows. I've also had binges in which I ate enough food for three days, and it's eating like that which has contributed towards my being fat. Yes, there are thin people who eat like that and never get fat. Yes, there are fat people who live on lettuce and never get thin. But there are also people who may not be naturally thin in the sense that our metabolisms do not offset our consumption as much as others, and who become as fat as we are because of the way we've eaten.

And I think there's a problem when the emphasis on how fat people are totally healthy becomes prescriptive, because those of us who need the non-conventionality of FA to recover from our eating disorders (and as I said to Queendom above, I would guess that a number of us developed compulsive eating disorders precisely because of the fatphobia in our lives, and can't break free of the cycle until we stop chasing the goal of thinness) do not fit there. We need to know that it's okay to be fat, but we need to know it's okay to be fat even if we don't do things the way the leading lights of HAES do. If it's not, then this is not a fat acceptance movement – it is a movement for the acceptance of fat people as long as they act like thin people. If you truly think that fat is not something to assign blame for, then you don't need to be ashamed of us, or the way we eat, and you don't need to come to our blogs and explain how we just don't get it, how our eating disorders aren't really overeating and how our "micro" experiences aren't important. It's not like we don't get enough of that from everyone else. But FA doesn't always come across as being unashamed of us, and that isn't how you're coming across now.

I'd love for FA to "carve out something different", but the very reason for this post is that a number of fat people with eating disorders feel that what is being carved out is our experience, because it's just easier to promote fat as being okay if it's healthy. No one, certainly not me, said anything about success in pounds lost. Do some of us believe we'd be thinner if we did HAES properly? Yes. Would some of us prefer that? Sure – we have eating disorders, there's nothing healthy about the way we view our bodies or what we put into them, and many of us are still failing to reach the holy standard of not caring if we never lose a pound. Does that mean that it's hard to do HAES properly because our mindset about eating and exercise is so messed up that doing something that we think might lead to weight loss sometimes makes us crazier? Yes to that too.

I want to be totally fat accepting, and I want to be healthy at whatever size, but I'm not there yet, or even close, and the reason I'm not is because I have a goddamn eating disorder. You can't pull it all apart and pretend that the pieces will resolve by themselves. I'm this fat because I have an eating disorder. I have an eating disorder because my parents were fat-phobic, long before I was ever fat. Part of the eating disorder is that I am desperate to lose weight, and yet absolutely unable to stick to anything I think will achieve that goal. I need to accept my fatness in order to resolve my eating disorder, but resolving my eating disorder will probably result in a dramatic change in my eating habits, and it might result in a change in my weight, and that makes it difficult to stick to resolving my eating disorder. This is a contradictory, relentless nightmare, like a 3D puzzle of an Escher drawing, and there is no single strand that can be fixed by itself. I need to be fat accepting so I can get better, and that's hard enough all by itself. It's made harder when being an okay fat person is defined by behaviour which I can use to self-flagellate in the same way that I do with my failure to become thin.

Anonymous said...

This is anonymous from the first comment. Maddie, I want to again say thank you. That last comment of yours said just about everything I wish I could say about this issue. I'm glad there is someone out there like you to articulate it so well.

Anonymous said...

"Do some of us believe we'd be thinner if we did HAES properly? Yes. Would some of us prefer that? Sure – we have eating disorders, there's nothing healthy about the way we view our bodies or what we put into them, and many of us are still failing to reach the holy standard of not caring if we never lose a pound."

Realy great response. I wish I could have found those words myself. I also think it was awesome of you to respond to everyone's comments.

I will always be overweight. I believe I was meant to be overweight. I don't, however, believe I was meant to be this overweight. The fact that I gained so much weight when I started eating for emotional reasons and compulsively is just too much of a coincidence.

The idea tht this belief flies in the face of FA and that I have nothing to offer is ridiculous to me. A cowrker told me that she saw Wall-E and, that while she didn't have a problem with the film, she questioned what she was seeing on screen - something she wouldn't have done, she said, had it not been for our discussions on how the media portrays overweight and obesity. Maybe that's a poor example but the fact that I can get just one more person to question something makes me believe that I do have something to offer.

Maddie said...

Anonymous, I'm glad to be of service. :)

Devi42 - Thank you. :) While I'm not getting so many comments that responding to them would take over my already crowded life, I think it's polite to do so. People have taken the time out to tell me they appreciate what I've said, so I should take the time out to appreciate them saying that.

I think it is very difficult for people who don't have our problems with eating, even fat people, to actually get their heads around it, especially when they're invested in the okayness of their fatness.

And yes, I totally know what you mean - having this blog, especially recently when I've started to get quite a lot of comments from lovely people like you, has made me think, okay, maybe I am a big fat crazy person, but I have made some people feel better and less alone. So go me. Go us, in fact.

Michelle said...

Thank you for this post, Maddie. It perfectly sums up my feelings about the disconnect between FA and those of us with eating disorders. I had more to say, but all the wonderful people above said them first. :)

Scattered Marbles said...

Hey there.. I just wanted to say that your post really inspired me with my latest post and I linked to you and this post on my blog. I just wanted to let you know in hopes that it was ok with you. If not I could edit things but I really wanted to give you credit for inspiring me with your words! Thank you

Maddie said...

Michelle - as always, thank you. :)

Scattered Marbles - I've just left a comment on your post. It's absolutely fine with me, and I'm really glad that what I've said here has been helpful to you. I'm starting to think there's quite a community of us out there who really need the FA/HAES ethos to help move us on, but who also feel that we can't be part of the main movement because we know that we're not healthy and that our behaviour isn't what people to see.

spacedcowgirl said...

Amazing post and excellent discussion. I identified with so many of the things you said. I do think that FA makes an explicit and nontrivial effort to include "bad fatties," but in practice this can be drowned out by the apparent legions of folks who eat better than I ever have in my life, hike miles every day or whatever, and are still fat. (And it is certainly valuable, as you said, to be reminded that a lot of fat people are like this.) So maybe a "subgroup" really is the answer.

I still think we need to keep in mind many of the points BStu made, that is, in this day and age eating more than 300 calories at a meal is thought to constitute "overeating." Well, maybe for some people it is, but for many of us I think this contributes to the pressure to think of ourselves as "overeating" even in situations where we are not. This makes it incredibly maddening and frustrating for me because sometimes I binge in the way Maddie describes, that desperate all-consuming need for food; and then other times I take a second helping of something because I feel like eating it or I just want it or I'm bored or whatever. IMO the first is much more a symptom of compulsive eating than the second, and the second is a big-time slippery slope to this idea that BStu describes--I'm fat (or not as thin as I want to be), therefore I must overeat because society tells me I must, therefore every "out of control" eating behavior I engage in (like getting ice cream when the people with me do, even though it's not on my diet) constitutes overeating, even though, as BStu said, a thin person may do the same and not assign nearly the same level of grave importance to the act. This may not rise to the level of the person deciding they have an eating disorder--more likely they will simply beat themselves up for lacking "willpower"--but it certainly makes the picture much harder to figure out if you do have an eating disorder. And it turns discussions on the topic into something resembling Weight Watchers discussion boards where people bemoan how they ate too many chips last night or "ate past full" and the guilt and shame there are functionally no different for me from a diet support group. IMO that is a problem.