You do not have to be good
The first step in moving from un-caring to true caring is to recognize that every fat person, like every human being, is unique. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg reads this fundamental idea from the pages of Talmud. There (BT Sanhedrin 37a), human uniqueness, and the expression of God's great Oneness in infinite human diversity, is related through the midrash of the coins: a flesh-and-blood king has coins minted in his image and every single one looks the same. But we humans are like coins minted in the image of the Holy One and every single one of us looks different.
One of the great dehumanizing sins of stigma is the way it burdens us with stereotypes of members of the stigmatized group such that when we meet a member of that group -- in another person or in the mirror -- we perceive them through the fog of these stereotypes. Being “concerned for my health” when you know nothing about my health comes right from the stereotype that says "fat people are unhealthy" (note: this is different than saying "fat people as a group may be at higher risk of certain diseases than their thin counterparts" and we’ll talk more about this when we look more at health itself). And if you find out more about my health, you may think you are complimenting me when I fail to live up to your stereotypes of fat people, but you are just reminding me that until that very moment you didn’t see me for me.
Seeing every human being in their own uniqueness is a start in the direction of true caring and creating communities of true belonging. But a focus solely on uniqueness (e.g. the “uniqueness” of a fat person who --today anyway-- doesn’t have any of the health problems you expect me to) quickly hits a snag: it makes me seem like a fat unicorn. As Stacy Bias explains in her archetypes of “good fatties,” being a fat unicorn means that I am asking you to grant “legitimacy for the fat body on the basis of its capacity for health.” This kind of exceptionalism might seem to be a good thing: if you value health and I can prove to you that I am healthy, then I have successfully broken a stereotype and perhaps chipped away at your fatphobia.
Fat people are, of course, not alone in experiencing this kind of conditional inclusion. Let’s all cringe together one more time about Joe Biden describing Barack Obama as “articulate.” It takes a toll, constantly trying to prove to you that I am “not like those unhealthy fat people.” The term “covering” is helpful in thinking both about the toll on the fat unicorns (and other “exceptional” types) as well as the ways in which this demand for assimilation and being “just like you” fails to actually dismantle the stigma itself.
I was proud that I could “prove wrong” the doctor who wanted me to have a fatty liver, but I was joining her in her fatphobia in order to shield myself from it. And every time I use my lab results or my blood pressure reading as a way to demand competent and respectful medical care, I am simultaneously implying that if my blood pressure were higher, you could definitely blame and shame me for it. I can feel myself using my good fatty privilege to protect myself while reinforcing the oppression of “bad fatties.”
Because the nature of systemic oppressions is that no one individual can be free of them, of course I still carry this within me. There is a cognitive dissonance here. When my ob/gyn repeatedly told me how proud of me she was that I didn’t develop gestational diabetes (despite my letting her know repeatedly that I hadn’t done anything different to try to “achieve” this result), I simultaneously felt my reward-seeking ventral striatum wagging its tail, my compassion-yearning heart break, and my justice-seeking rage rise.
So, yes, the shift to true caring does begin with seeing people as unique, but this only works if we are also dismantling fatphobia as a structure. Otherwise it’s an accepted unicorn or two and everyone else gets thrown under the bus. And when we are facing truly devastating forms of oppression, as Hannah Arendt pointed out of the Jews of Germany, the (assimilated) parvenu and the pariah are in the same boat.
No one’s belonging should be conditioned on their ability to prove that they are exceptional, that they are one of the “good” ones. As Jews we know the spiritual price of assimilating when true acceptance is unavailable to us. Or as Brene Brown puts it, the “greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in.” And, if we look back at our page in Talmud, we see that this clearly wasn’t what the rabbis had in mind either. The passage which brings us the midrash of the Divinely minted coins is found in a section on warning witnesses in capital cases about the gravity of the testimony they are about to give. Someone’s very life is in their hands and the value of that life is not contingent on whether the person is a good person or not.
“You do not have to be good,” begins Mary Oliver’s beloved “Wild Geese.” And how does it end? With a reminder that every one of us has a “place in the family of things.”
When I was having trouble finding some of the right words for this post, social media came to my rescue! Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas and citations and terminology. Check out this Facebook post to see who added what to this piece:
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