With this article Alanna Fero is as publicly vulnerable as she’s ever been. The only thing scarier? Being thin.
Dear ‘Dear Fatty’ Writer:
I’ve come across your viral Facebook post about the woman running at your track and read several of the responses celebrating you for encouraging her. I can see how you’d believe that your “You Rock!” is inspirational and intended to keep her running when you say that she is ‘paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another beer, another dessert.” And I get it that, at this time in our cultural history, most people are reading it that way.
I have another view, shaped by my own experiences of weight and size as a different kind of effect than the simple ‘lack of willpower’ one you espouse, and affirmed by the many men and women with life experiences closer to my own with whom I have been blessed to share in healing dialogue.
I feel you striving to mean it when you say to her “I’ve got nothing but respect for you.” And yet I still feel called to express my felt sense that it is an imposition of your values to assume she is wanting to lose weight, to assume we all want to be thinner, to assume you have the right to comment on her lack of grace or skill as she lumbers around the track – and it is an erosion of whatever kindness you may be intending to extend when you make sure to also include the assessment that her size makes her “two of you.”
The story you tell yourself about your body – or about larger bodies – might be truthfully rooted in snacks and beer and their relative correlation to laps around tracks or miles ticked off on treadmills for you. But that is not my story or the story of most people I know who carry the weight of shame we shouldn’t have to feel and protection we often desperately need. And we’re getting rather tired of being targets of ever more hateful scorn as the world speaks of an “obesity epidemic,” when what we really have is a stress- and trauma-related illness epidemic, within which obesity is just one manifestation.
You open your post with “To the Fatty on the track this afternoon.” I get it that, in some cultural groups, certain terms of degradation have been reappropriated and transformed to have positive meaning – Queer, Dyke, and the N word among them – when spoken or written by someone with the ethos to use the word that way, and still not without some controversy. It is possible for those words to be redefined because those minority cultural groups have made some headway on the path to being treated with respect by the majority, and because some of them have come together in mutually supportive groups to say “We All Deserve Respect.”
Sadly, that’s just not so with those of us who carry more weight – not in terms of broader social respect and even less so in terms of looking out for one another. Though we are actually now the majority in North America and could perhaps wield some power or influence, as a social class we are very much isolated individuals, all too busy trying to hide and protect ourselves to collectively demand there be no more shame for anyone at all. That you can write what you did, that you can use the language you chose, that you can imagine we owe some “debt” because of our size, and that so many people dealing with food or weight or self image issues can buy into your article and say thank you (a page right out of Internalized Oppression 101) makes that point for me.
Obesity and fat-shaming in our culture have been rising together in direct correlation to rises in trauma and dramatic decreases in personal safety, community connectedness and expressions of lovingkindness.
The worldview-shaping trifecta of tv, magazines and web tell us in a million ways every day that there are only two kinds of people in the world:
1. Those who have the self respect, self discipline and education to keep themselves thin or fit.
2. Those who want to be thinner or fitter but just aren’t working at it.
In this paradigm, there is no third option and neither is there a more nuanced, complex or compassionate rendition of 1 or 2.
I offer my own story by way of expanding the paradigm above because the “Dear Fatty” narrative and its viral responses are themselves personal narratives, and my own experience is naturally what I know best. I do so also because, while it is far from a cross-referenced longitudinal study, the elements of my experience are all too common – across gender, cultural and socio-economic lines.
Simply: my suburban Canadian home was a battle ground. I don’t remember a time when people weren’t yelling, throwing things or hitting, and even my toddler self was not spared whacks or head shakings, which soon grew into scenes from age 4 on where all of my dresser drawers would be dumped out on the floor, closet torn apart, sometimes even bed tipped over with a screaming command to clean it up or I would be sent to Foster Care.
I was sexually assaulted by four teenage boys when I was 6; lived under literal house arrest for over a year with my Dad carrying a gun everywhere we went to protect us from the creep boyfriend of a workmate of my sister who had raped her and threatened to kidnap me when I was 7 and 8, this meaning no recess, no play time, no respite from the bunker mentality that danger lurked everywhere. I had been leered at, groped and/or forcibly kissed by as many as a dozen older men by the time I was 14; and had the upstanding President of the Red Cross (writer of reference letters for scholarships I badly needed to afford university) try to take my clothes off after I volunteered at a blood donor clinic with him at 17.
By then I’d had enough. I turned my German Shepherd, Thunder, loose on this pillar of the community. He told everyone he’d nicked his hand on a wood fence, but we both know what really happened. Score one for Team Vulnerable. Problem is, one is not enough. I couldn’t sick my dog on everyone, and home hadn’t gotten any safer: it was filled with the chaos of verbal and physical violence and life-threatening illness on a daily basis, and there was no way out that was going to get me an education and a better life. Lowering my metabolism so that I kept an extra layer of buffer between me and a hostile world was a logical – indeed I’d say brilliant – biological response, and had not one damn thing to do with midnight desserts.
As for the second act, well, here is where it can be a little more puzzling to people. If you get out of that house, away from that town, out on your own, educated and self-supporting, many people would even say inspiring, the ‘logical’ conclusion is the first thing you’d want to do is drop the weight for its associations with all the pain. You can have a fresh start now – new home, new body. You can be accepted.
That’s certainly what I think people mean when they routinely offer me astonishingly non-sequitered tips on everything from hot yoga and pole walking to spirulina smoothies and colon cleanses. They mean to give me something they can sense I didn’t have growing up: support to live a healthier life. They don’t know that shame is how I got here and being judged as not making healthy choices, being evaluated for the size of my hips instead of the warmth of my heart, is just another layer of shame. They can’t imagine that I fundamentally don’t want their acceptance on those terms.
Whenever I lose 30 or more pounds, which I have done at least a dozen times in quarter century between the ages of 22 and 46, I start to feel like I am abandoning my solidarity with my younger self, and with all the wounded kids in the world, with everyone who has ever lived in that bunker state. I feel like I am selling out the kid still inside every adult who has ever been attacked for the way they were born, or for the way they choose to make themselves feel safe in an unsafe reality.
When people who literally can not see me at a size 14-16, those of both genders for whom I am rendered invisible because I am not ‘hot’ or ‘fabulous,’ start to notice me, make eye contact, give me a more genuine smile, strike up a conversation, and when the men among these formerly-blind-to-me invite me to join their table, offer to buy me a drink, or do that delicious ‘hand in the small of my back’ thing when they hold a door… I feel welcome or noticed or sexy for a split second before crashing into the sense I have become a war-time Collaborator.
When I hit the magic size 12 or the rarer 10, and the usual compliments I receive along the lines of “You have such a great energy” or “Gorgeous jacket!” morph into “Have you been working out?” and “Damn girl, you gettin’ skiiiiiiiiin-yyy!!!” (these usually women colleagues), I feel like a traitor to some of my most cherished values. It’s as if I’m a light-skinned black woman passing as white or a prototypically masculine gay man passing as straight and I cannot, will not, betray them or myself by enjoying benefits that would not be coming my way if people knew I am still a fat girl on the inside, that I have never been part of the mainstream and that I wouldn’t want to be.
Sometimes, when I lose enough weight that it feels like everyone I know is talking about it, I experience a panic not unlike when I was pushed to the ground or a wall or a couch as a young girl – and I am so fucking scared and angry, I just wish I had a German Shepherd handy.
Does this reveal some pathology about me? Of course. I have absolutely no memories of ever feeling completely safe or unguarded and I don’t imagine I’ll be creating very many with my background – if I feel 90% safe and only 10% on alert, I can call that utopia and feel very grateful.
I have done more than my share of traditional counselling, meditation, shamanic healing and somatic experiencing work and, yes, I’ve grown to enjoy a healthy and spicy sex life, too – with an equal quantity of opportunities coming my way across my full size spectrum, though epically better quality after I turned 40. I’ve been witnessed and held and loved by some remarkably good men and women, and created spaces where others like me can experience the same. I’ve done my work and come a long way, especially when you consider that someone with my start in life is statistically more likely to become a runaway, drug addict or suicide than a college professor, social entrepreneur and community builder. But there is no way to spend the first 10-20 years of life under constant threat and escape the issues that come with that.
There are also gifts from suffering, one of them being keen awareness, and it is with that awareness that I claim my right to be shatteringly dismayed by a culture that deems “You’ve lost weight!” to be the highest form of compliment it can give, and to call out those members of my society who can applaud a letter which opens with “Dear Fatty” and argues that an overweight runner has a “debt to pay” for what she eats or how she looks.
I owe no debt to exercise for the food I have eaten. I owe no debt to the health care system in my country for having my ways of coping with pain show up for all to see while others who are poisoning themselves with cigarettes, aspartame, alcohol, pot, skinny lattes, Xenical, Hydroxycut, Red Bull, amphetamines, endless television, video games, porn or pernicious gossip are somehow off the hook along with being off the media radar. As I’ve said, the real medical epidemic of our time isn’t obesity: it’s stress- and trauma-related illness, of which most kinds of obesity are just one example. Nobody gets through life in a body without suffering. We’re ALL in some kind of pain in this world, and most of us are easing it in a way that brings illusory relief today and consequences down the line.
When the words we write and speak can travel so far, be seen by so many and last indefinitely, when Facebook posts can ‘go viral’ and voicemail messages can find their way to the evening news, there has never been a more important time to be a person of compassion. And somehow, while I know it’s a twisted up kind, I feel more connected to my compassion in my thicker skin than in my thinner one.
The timing of the “Dear Fatty” story and its surrounding response is serendipitously significant in my life, as I’ve been shopping for a new dress and looking in a lot of 3-way mirrors to see what I will look like from all sides as I take to a stage.
I am celebrating 2 years of creating a compassionate, loving Conscious Network called Copia next week. We have a lot to be proud of – 150 events, 1000s if people inspired, hundreds of thousands of dollars changing hands in Conscious Consumerism with one another, dozens of new jobs for those on the path of Conscious Career, and my expansion plans make my heart sing. I should be loving every minute of planning and then basking in my little party.
But I know every time I walk across a stage to take a microphone, in the first few minutes before my gift for the spoken word starts to win people over – which it has never failed to do at any of my sizes, not once since my linguistic ability leapt from single words straight to paragraphs and never looked back – there is a whole lot of “Fatty” in the gazes cast upon me.
I could change that. I can drop the weight. Maybe putting this article out there will feel like enough of an expression of being ‘on-side’ with my people for me to tip first my psychic and then physical scale. Maybe once I have taken enough stages at a larger size I will feel like I have done my part for the cause and it will be okay to be lighter on a whole host of levels. Or maybe, given that I push myself outside my comfort zone about 14 ways every day in a body that never had its time in Eden, never knew attachment, safety and nurturing, it’s more likely I will keep bouncing around from being a size 10 to a size 18 and everything in between til the end of my days in this life. I don’t know.
What I do know is that, in any of those outcomes, I am living a life of meaningful service, generous compassion and uproarious laughter. In any of them I am deserving of love, joy, community and pleasure. And in all of them I pray for a society in which a word like “Fatty” would just never get published as the title of anything, and a woman running her ass off at the track would be noticed only for her running and not for the size of her ass. She’s carrying a heavy load to be sure. But so is everyone looking at her.
So am I. And so are you.