Thursday, 12 November 2015

How Do I Sound, Through Your Eyes?

This past week has been a whirlwind. A beautiful, chaotic whirlwind, with a TV appearance at the centre of it.

I was lucky enough to be invited on ITV This Morning, and was interviewed by Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford. (pssssht, you can watch it here). Despite being terrified, I held it together quite well and managed to get a little bit of this magical movement out there. But when I shared the video with my friend Whitney, she showed me that there was a huge problem with it all.

Whitney is a body positive badass. She has her own TV show, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, and her own campaign, No Body Shame, and both do tremendous amounts to spread the word of body positivity in a world that so desperately needs it. Whitney was also interviewed by Eamonn Holmes last year. And here's the crucial bit:

Whitney and I promote the exact same message of body positivity, intersectional feminism, and self love,


Whitney has more body fat than I do.

And for that reason alone, Whitney's interview was derailed and turned into an antagonistic obesity debate, leaving her fighting her way through a minefield of 'health concern' bombs just to be able to get her true message out there. The message she was told the interview would be about.

Whitney has already made an incredible video mash up of our interviews, dissecting the issues and calling out the size discrimination in the media that this makes so clear. You can watch that one here. I just wanted to add my two cents.

A really important part of being an intersectional feminist, is recognising your own level of privilege. Even though most of us encounter some difficulties or struggles that are due to a part of our identity (like our size, skin colour, gender or ability), the intensity of those hardships depends on our level of privilege. 

For example, a fat white man may be discriminated against because of his size, but because he has white privilege, the sizeism he deals with will not also intersect with racism. Because he is a cis-gender male he will not also be dealing with sexism. He gains more privilege if he is also able-bodied. And if anyone is thinking about claiming reverse racism/sexism, what I'm talking about is the systematic and undeniable oppression and discrimination that manifests in social, political and economic inequality. Your male/white friend may have been targeted in some way based on their gender/skin colour, and that is a valid issue, but not one that is reinforced by centuries of genuine oppression and societal prejudice.

So a fat white man may face discrimination. But a fat, transgender woman of colour will face it tenfold. She will have to fight harder than the first guy can even imagine to be heard, to be recognised, to be respected.

Some of you are probably wondering where I'm going with this, so here's the point: I have a hell of a lot of privilege, and I realise that me and my message are being more widely heard/recognised/respected because of that.

I am:
  • Light skinned. Light skinned enough that the majority of people think that I'm white with a tan, even though I'm not.
  • Cis-gendered. I identify as the gender I was assigned with at birth, and am also very feminine in my appearance.
  • Able-bodied. I don't have to deal with any kind of disability or illness on a daily basis.
  • Chubby. But not that fat. Not fat enough that people look at me in the street and make a million assumptions about my health being bad and me being lazy. Not fat enough that my image might be defaced and used alongside a dehumanising headline about fat people being everything that's wrong with the world. Not fat enough that people accuse me of using body positivity as an 'excuse' and discount everything I have to say because they can't get past their own size prejudice.

And it's that last one that is especially relevant here. It's that last one that made the difference between my interview and Whitney's interview. And if you combine that last one with the fact that Whitney and I are both women, you get to the root of the problem.

Whitney's interview was not only hijacked because of her size, and therefore the interviewer's assumptions about her health because of her size, but also because the interviewer didn't find Whitney attractive, because of her size.

Whitney and I both post dance videos online, hers are more professional, polished routines, mine are just me shaking my wobbly bits about in the name of bopo. Basically, hers are actually impressive, mine are just a bit of fun. And yet mine received express approval (in the form of an uncomfortable comment), and hers was greeted with an avalanche of ignorance about her knees being damaged or her collapsing from exhaustion. Make no mistake - there was no genuine concern about Whitney's state of health (as is always the case with health concern trolls), there was simply a lack of interest because he didn't find her visually/sexually appealing. 

And that's a problem. That's a problem because despite what some people believe, we do not do this for the sexual gratification of straight men. We're not asking for the reassurance of an approving gaze. Our purpose is not to be aesthetically pleasing to others. It is our message that we want to be appreciated, not our bodies by themselves.

This isn't a problem with how Whitney and I were perceived, this isn't a problem with how those of us in the body positive community are perceived. This is a problem with how women are perceived. Every day. We are taught that our worth resides in our appearance, and how attractive that appearance is to others. Our words are heard more loudly if the listener is seeing something they like (although if they like it too much the intellect behind the words can quickly be brought into question - talk about not being able to win). I am also the owner of a face that fits a lot of people's stereotypical ideals about 'beauty', with that I have more privilege still.

And sure, it wasn't all about whether Eamonn found Whitney attractive. It was also about the health stuff. The health stuff that actually stems from the fatphobic prejudice that is rife in our society because of sensationalist and overblown 'obesity crisis' headlines that make people believe that fat people are death incarnate. Widespread studies, funded by diet companies (or companies affiliated with diet companies), that conflate correlation and causation when it comes to size and health, and make everyone believe that they're a medical professional with the right to judge health based on size and then bully, berate, and belittle accordingly. I won't launch into that, because I'll be here for days, but I highly recommend reading Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon to debunk some of the lies we've all been told.

The thing is, neither Whitney's health nor how attractive she is should have any bearing on her message. Because neither of those things define her worth as a human being. She is not less valuable for not fitting into societal standards of body ideals. She would be no less wonderful even if you could determine ill health from her appearance. We cannot be reduced to our looks or our health, we have so much more than that to offer the world. Which means that our words should be heard, equally.

I am so immensely grateful for the opportunity I've had to raise awareness for body positivity. But I also know that I am at an unfair advantage. And I think that advantage captures so perfectly, why we need to keep fighting for this.