Look at me
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
In unpacking the ubiquitous trope of people being “concerned for your health” if you are fat, we started by looking at concern (or caring) itself. While strangers certainly make comments about fat people’s bodies (especially fat women’s bodies), fatphobia framed as concern is encountered most frequently and most painfully in our most intimate circles. When “caring” is toxic, those who care about us most can cause the most harm.
I described “un-caring” as claiming to care about me and my health while actually caring about your own agenda. Then last week we looked at the promise of seeing each human being as unique as well as the potential pitfall of exceptionalism that can stem from it. Now I’d like to circle back to this idea of uniqueness and look at the idea of meeting people where they are.
True caring means seeing me neither as an undifferentiated member of a marginalized group, nor as a “unicorn” who defies your stereotypes of that group, but as a person with actual needs. Meeting people where they are --just as God heard the cries of Ishmael “ba’asher hu sham” (where he was)-- means accepting them where they are even if it is not where you wish they could be. It means helping them in ways that they actually want to be helped.
In the thinking of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, this means refraining from destroying the alterity (or otherness) of the Other. Too often, when we try to treat others humanely, we do so by looking for ways that we can find or create sameness between ourselves and the Other. Levinas makes it clear that to truly treat someone else as human, we must respect and make space for how they are different from us.
Truly caring for a fat person means recognizing not only that their needs may differ from yours, but that their needs may differ from the needs of others who you see as being part of the same group. Every single body is different. Respecting difference also means respecting your own differences: you can be caring even without changing your beliefs that my size is a health problem and that there are things I can do to change my size, provided you can maintain these beliefs without invading my space with them.
And if all this seems too highfalutin and theoretical, let me give you some real-world examples. When I say "respect my alterity" what I really mean is "look at me." As we saw at my daughter’s Chanukah party, encountering interpersonal fatphobia often involves feeling oddly invisible.
At my six-week postpartum check up, my doctor told me that I needed to lose weight. We went a few rounds with me explaining why I wasn’t interested in that. (If you read Hebrew, you can read the longer --and significantly funnier-- version of this encounter here.) He didn’t mention any specific concerns about how my size was impacting my health, he just felt, as most doctors do, that it was good practice to tell a fat person to lose weight. Somehow, we moved on. Then, toward the end of the visit, I asked whether he would write me a referral for a test of my thyroid function. I had lost thyroid function in my previous pregnancy and now take a daily synthetic thyroid hormone. During this pregnancy my thyroid function was closely monitored because pregnancy can both impact thyroid function and, in turn, be impacted by it. Now that I was breastfeeding again, I wanted to be sure we kept a close eye on this because low thyroid function can cause low milk supply.
And do you know what my OB/GYN said? He said, “Ask your family doctor. The thyroid is not a gynecological organ.” I cannot know his actual intentions, but the impression my doctor left me with was that he cares about my fat body when it comes to recommending weight loss for unspecified reasons, but my specific needs around the health of my specific (fat) breasts are outside of his area of concern. He was seeing my size but he wasn’t actually seeing me.
That really is what I am inviting you to do: look at my actual body. Look at my body as it is and not as you wish it were. See my actual body and not a stereotyped member of a stigmatized group. Look at my actual body, if you dare, lovingly. If you truly care, you will get over whatever mixture of disgust and politeness keeps you from seeing me as I am and actually look at me.
And do you know what I hope you will see? What I so often wish people would see? My butt. Because too often, people who purport to care about me watch me enter a room and keep their own butts in the only seats that would be accessible to me even when other options are available to them.
I don’t think this is out of meanness, I think it comes from an inability to truly and lovingly appreciate difference and its different needs. So many needs are invisible. And, absolutely, I believe in empowering people (myself included) to be vocal about what their needs are. I am not asking people to read my mind; I am asking them to read my body. The more I think about how true caring involves seeing and respecting the difference of the other, the more taken aback I am that this very visible, easy-to-assess difference is somehow rendered impossible to see.
My only other explanation is that people do see my need for an accessible seat but think that I would be embarrassed if they offered it to me, as if they would be drawing attention to my difference. And this really is thin privilege at work, because I can assure you, not a moment goes by that I -- usually the fattest person in the room -- am unaware of this difference. But (butt!), dear reader, as someone who loves her own body enough to know it deserves a comfortable place to sit, an actual seat at the actual table, I can also assure you that any embarrassment would be your own.
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