Fatphobia and Justice

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“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.

Micah 6:6-8 Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 1096). Sheed & Ward. Kindle Edition.

Those of us in the Diocese of Washington have been invited to engage this October with the summation of what God wants from us in Micah 6:6-8. Here’s my sermon from Sunday, October 16th, 2022, on Justice and what it means to be a just person in God’s kingdom and the society God would have us help build.

As part of my own engagement with justice this month I have re-listened to the book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon. Yes, the bullying, the fatphobia, the judgement and the treatment of people based on their weight is a justice issue, an issue of human dignity. There are many issues over which people face unjust harassment and disenfranchisement: race, religion, sexuality, nationality, gender, etc. Weight, specifically fatness, belongs to that list as well.

Aubrey Gordon’s book highlights the fatphobia and fat hatred which we in the West have consumed on-screen and in literature, and perpetuated across the generations with stereotypes, jokes and all too often inaccurate assumptions about people’s health, bodies and virtues. The author candidly shares the unprovoked comments received from strangers, often violent, sexual and mean-spirited in nature. She details the humiliation she and others have experienced navigating public transit and public spaces. She shares research on the horrible treatment of fat people in our healthcare system from biased and judgmental medical professionals. When considering all factors of environment, genetics, employment, individual uniqueness, privilege and more, it’s rather astounding that we have allowed such a injustice to pervade our culture around weight and various body types.

I vividly remember boarding a full flight some years ago on which I was seated on the very last row of the plane. As I finally got to the back and and identified my seat I also identified that the young woman who was sitting next to me was of a body type for whom the airline cared not a bit. Those seats are too narrow for me, but this young woman was a shorter and broader body type than I, and not thin. Our author describes in her book the process of trying to draw in and collapse in upon herself in a similar situation, to become as small as possible. I saw that process in the affect and posture of my seatmate, but I didn’t have our author’s words to describe it. The young woman wasn’t smiling. She was trying to mentally disappear, to vanish along with the part of her body which could not help but enter into my seat’s space, space which my own body would try to use to the fullest. I recall feeling so sorry for her as I approached and sat trying to angle my body to share the space as much as possible. At the time I was a bit overwhelmed at how sad she presented, and so I smiled, greeted her, and tried not to add to her misery with my body language or communications. But even as I tried not to add to what she was suffering, I didn’t have a full awareness of how unfair the whole situation was, how truly unjust it was that she should have to suffer it. She was a paying customer, just like me, and as such she deserved better. She was a human being, just like me, and as such deserved better. I didn’t have the words to express my solidarity. I didn’t even know for sure that solidarity was an option. Oh, it is. It’s a necessity.

Fatphobia is part of our reality. Maybe in my own life I’ve used fewer jokes, made fewer judgments and never spoke or acted with the intention of hurting anyone because of their weight, but I do feel called out by the book for not having better recognized the anti-fat humor and hatred which I have consumed over the years in entertainment, internalized and allowed to shape my implicit and sometimes explicit biases. I’m doing the internal work to strip away the years of hearing and holding the myths that fat means things like lazy, stupid, or gluttonous… myths that fat means less worthy, less deserving or less human. It sounds implausible when said out loud, I mean surely we can’t think that way, but the lived experience of people around us show those attitudes and myths at work in our hearts, minds and society.

I don’t know exactly where my own dad bod falls the spectrum of fatness. But for real, click on that link and read the urban Dictionary entry for dad bod… it’s humorous, but also highlights the way privilege, specifically male privilege, can be and is leveraged to mitigate some stigma of weight. Often people of color and other minority groups don’t have any mitigating privilege with which to shield themselves. With my height and build, even though I’ve definitely got a belly on me, I’ve rarely been chided, joked at or harassed about my weight. I certainly have never faced trolling or public disdain from strangers. My doctors over the years have on occasion advised losing some weight, but never refused to explore my full medical situation or dismissed my concerns as simply due to my weight. It’s heart-breaking to hear the author’s experience and to imagine what others have been through.

Privilege comes with responsivity. My dad bod fits. I fit however tightly in airline seats, roller coasters and those flimsy plastic chairs they often put out at weddings and public events. Because I fit in airline seats I am not smarter, more virtuous, more disciplined or more deserving then someone who does not fit. The privilege of fitting comes with the responsibility to make sure others receive access to the same spaces.

I want to be part of a better world, I have to be part of a better world, where people of any and every weight live with full dignity and worth in our society, and don’t have to suffer the violence and hatred of the trolls online and offline. To work for that kind of society is justice work, and it pleases God. I want to be a safe person for my fat friend, not allowing implicit bias and microaggressions in my language or actions to humiliate or devalue them. I owe them that. They deserve that.

Last time I checked justice was not in limited supply. We can pivot our thinking and take our stand against the injustice of fatphobia without robbing energy from any other justice fight. To be just is to uphold human dignity. Let’s be just people. I recommend the book and the work of fat justice.

Be blessed, Rev. Todd