Cover of Shadow on a Tightrope

It has been 30 years since the first anthology of fat women's writings was published by Aunt Lute. Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression offered what was then a unique perspective on how societal norms affected the every day lives of women who were not an acceptable size. It is because of their work that Carl and I were able to write Taking Up Space. It is because of their work that hundreds of authors and thousands of people have been able to speak out about what it is like to live as a fat person in a society that considers a fat body to make the owner of that body less than human.

The mechanisms of stigma are fairly simple. A person decides that a particular group of people are all the same in their behaviors and moral character. Once deciding this and meeting a member of the group, the person then treats that members as if the person knows all he or she needs to know about the member. No need to get to know that member as an individual. No need to be open to the humanness or dignity of that member. Stigmatization closes the mind and heart of the person who stigmatizes.

What this boils down to is that as long as a person remains fat, the person cannot speak for his or her own experience. "Everyone just knows" that a fat person eats too much, exercises too little, doesn't care about life or health, resists change and so forth. This is the usual litany of character flaws that are generally hurled at any stigmatized group: "lazy," "ugly," "stupid," "dirty," and so forth.

The cure for stigmatization is social empathy. Stigmatization "just knows" and having already decided, has no need or desire to learn more. Social empathy begins with a stance that says, "I want to know more," and having acknowledged ignorance, has a need to be open and curious. Stigmatization attempts to silence the voices of the stigmatized. Social empathy seeks out and listens to those voices. 

As a stigmatized person, I have found that I must speak out. If I stay silent, I quietly affirm the attitude of those who would decide my life experience for me. If tell my side of the story, I am saying, I am human.

This idea of speaking our experiences was the core understanding of early feminists who asserted "the personal is political." We are experts of our own bodies. We are experts of our minds. We are experts of our own experiences. 


The feminists who wrote Shadow on a Tightrope knew this. They knew that their fat bodies were being medicalized and stigmatized. They knew that this social and political process was rendering them less than humanAnd, most importantly, they knew that their power lay in their testimonies to their own experiences.

When stigmatized people speak out, those who are open can hear and change their minds. Of course, many will not. Many will say that fat people who speak of their bodies in ways other than the need to reduce their bodies are "just in denial." I've been accused of this many times on this blog alone. But change of stigma lies in the change of the hearts and minds of those who listen and say, "wait a minute, no human being can just be one thing, one singular experience." 

But speaking out is not really about changing the minds of those who would oppress us. Speaking out is much more fundamental to our own lives. Speaking out is refusing to be silenced. I tell my students that power is always cooperative. Often that cooperation comes by coercion and fear, but nonetheless, the power that one person has over another is diminished with the other says "no" and refuses to cooperate. This is the basis for non-violence resistance. 

So when fat people talk about their lives while they are fat, and when fat people speak to other experiences than trying to lose weight, then fat people stop cooperating with the oppressive systems that would silence them and their experiences. In other words, it takes power from the powerful. So even if we are not heard, we must speak. We are saying that we get speak about our own experience and no one can take that from us. It says, "Nothing can be said about us, without us."

Fat is just an adjective. Losing weight does not transform the character of a person or lift a person to the level of humanness. Gaining weight does not transform the character of a person into something less than human. 

We are more than our weight loss and weight gain experiences. We are the sum total of all our choices, experiences and character. We have victories. We have losses. We are perfection. We make mistakes. We are human.

About the Author

Pattie Thomas, Ph.D.
Pattie Thomas, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and author of Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life, a sociological memoir.

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