How the body is political – with Shame on Me author Tessa McWatt

How the body is political – with Shame on Me author Tessa McWatt

by Suswati Basu
1 comment

The body is political. Our body can represent our identity, our past, our race, gender and status, and be a symbol for our society. However, how our bodies are viewed and categorised is not always in the power of the body’s inhabiter, many of these definitions are imposed upon us by systems of power beyond our control. 

So how is the body political?

TW: references to rape, slavery, body dysmorphia, eating disorder, PTSD and racism.

Thanks to the following guest for participating:

Tessa McWatt is the author of seven novels, two books for young people, and one nonfiction book. Her work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Toronto Book Awards and the OCM Bocas Prize. She is a winner of the Eccles British Library Award 2018. McWatt is Professor of Creative Writing at UEA. Shame On Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging is an autobiography of her life.

Here are some of the resources from the show:

In the fight for equality, she had no equal. Felicity Jones is Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On The Basis of Sex. The film tells an inspiring and spirited true story that follows young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she teams with her husband Marty to bring a ground-breaking case before the U.S. Court of Appeals and overturn a century of gender discrimination.

The weight loss industry is worth £220 million. A US study has show that 60% of children between the ages of 2 and 6 years old think they are too fat. Why do so many of us struggle to accept and care for our own bodies? Stand-up comedian Sofie Hagen tells the story of her own relationship with her body, recounting her journey from shame to defiance to joy in her body.

Books looked at this week:

Tessa McWatt: Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging

Sofie Hagen: Happy Fat: Taking Up Space in a World That Wants to Shrink You

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Want to watch special bonus material from this episode? Join the How To Be membership for only £3 per month!

Transcription (Automated)

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to season 2 episode 70 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky topics and skills by reading through the best books out there.

Body politics originally involved the fight against objectification of the female body, and violence against women and girls, and the campaign for reproductive rights for women. It’s when our bodies are used to shape policies, which tend to be skewed towards the negative. 

So how does it show up in the world?

Our first book is from Tessa McWatt, who is the author of six novels, two books for young people, and one nonfiction book. Her work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Toronto Book Awards and the OCM Bocas Prize. She is a winner of the Eccles British Library Award 2018. McWatt is Professor of Creative Writing at UEA. Shame On Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by McWatt is an autobiography of her life. She was kind enough to speak to me so here is a snippet but find the full interview on or on the YouTube channel. 

TESSA MCWATT: Well, I’ve been writing around the themes, uh, about race, about belonging, about kind of othering for my whole life as a novelist. And then in 2016, when the world seemed to really shift in a public way, in terms of Brexit and in terms of Trump, I just felt like I couldn’t really hide behind fiction anymore. I really had to talk about, um, the issues in the way that I think that only I can talk about them. Meaning that my very multiracial background, I think, has given me a particular perspective on ideas of nation and belonging and race and belonging. And so I thought I just wanted to explore that for myself because I wasn’t actually sure what it was going to come out to be. Um, so I explored it through thinking about literature, thinking about my own body, and thinking about what it meant to sort of have a racial identity. It’s very complicated. I think one of the things I tried to do in the book, I opened the book with a kind of imaginative projection of the women that are my ancestors. And I, uh, try to complicate my sense of my own ancestry, having not known any of them, only knowing sort of them and stories, except for one, my grandmother, I knew. So the book opens with this kind of complication of who they are. And then the essence of the journey is, um, the question that I was asked in grade three in Toronto, which is when we were reading a book, and the word Negro came up in the book, and the teacher asked everybody in the class, uh, and I sort of snapped to it and thought, you know, everybody in the class, what does that word mean? And I didn’t know what it meant. I knew what black was and I knew where I was from, but I didn’t know. So I sort of looked around with everybody else to find the answer to that question. And then someone said, oh, Tessa is inevitable. And the teacher sort of tried to protect me for some reason,  about that and said, um, no, no, no, Tessa. What are you? She asked me. And I couldn’t answer that question. I have no idea how to answer that question. Not because, I mean, it’s a ridiculous question, but it’s also I didn’t know what she was saying. I didn’t know what she was meaning me to say. What are you? And I think she was trying to get something sort of, uh, a nationality out of me. And had she said that, I might have been able to say I was born in Guyana, but she just said it was what are you? So the book asks that question in terms of what in terms of the very anatomical, physical level of what versus other questions that are about belonging. Well, I think anyone who’s in what the book examines is positions of power. And I think power and positions of power are what create the sort of foundations of race. So race is created all the time for by those people in power who want to other or dehumanize those people that they see as a threat to their power or as a threat to their material or physical existence or their profit or whatever it is that they are in power and in control of. And so I think it’s, uh um, a lust for power. I think it’s agreed. I think it’s very, very finely attached to capitalism and colonialism and this idea of conquering a ah, kind of othered society and then creating race in order to keep them in their place, which is below that’s supreme level of whiteness, really. Uh, it’s very difficult because race is also a reality, it’s a construct. But in the street, if you’re, um, a black person, um, walking down the street and looking suspicious, whatever that means, it’s a reality. So it’s very hard to separate those things. And I think that one thing that I want to do in the book is raise it as a concept and raise it as a construct of power, for sure, but also to acknowledge that for racialized people, it is a very real and very painful and very destructive and violent thing. And, um, continues to be. But that a lot of time. Race gets made and remade. And so I think one of the things that capitalism does really well is that it’s, um, sort of taken some sort of ideas of representation into its jaws and swallowed it whole. And so you have people who are racialized but still having power and therefore not acknowledging that the inequality is around racialized otherness, but it’s kind of disguised because a few people can run for prime minister as a racialized person, or that billionaire musicians can have their popular songs at number ah one for a long time. So it’s a kind of illusion of justice. Do you mean like how much we take on the racialization totally regulation and the colonial attitudes? I think we all do have to drag myself out from under all of this colonial self hatred that I had as a young person. And, um, that’s also what the book is about, how it took me a long time to, um there are all those things about decolonizing the self first, before you can decolonize anything else. And I think that’s a big task, because how I was educated, um, had to be reckoned with, actually. And it’s one of the things that I deal with in the book, which is the structure of we are structurally, um, the metaphor that I use is the plantation. So there’s the whiteness in the plantation house and the others in the field, um, and in various points of history. And I think one of the things that I think about whiteness is that lots of people can have whiteness as a mentality. But that what it does, is it maintains that structure. It’s the structural racism and the structural inequality that is the issue. So once so even if we have sort of individual notions of freedom from racialization structurally, we are absolutely still bound in that kind of plantation structure. That’s really good question. I think maybe we shouldn’t look at it as identity. I think we should look at it as authenticity rather than identity. Like, instead of naming what I see my identity as, I, um, want to live in the world in an authentic way and whatever that means. I think sometimes with identity politics, the whiteness whiteness loves identity politics. Because while we’re all arguing about who we are and how much of this we have in us and how much of that I mean, I’m not saying it’s irrelevant, because it’s grouping together is important to kind of get consciousness. But while we’re kind of worried about that, the tanks are rolling in, you know, that the planet is being destroyed by those people who I say their mentality is about whiteness because it’s about extraction and it’s about power, and it’s about inequality as fundamental to their way of work and their way of being in the world and the life, um, that is based on profit margin. Um, I think identity might not be as important under those circumstances. And that being the book also, um, ends with a different kind of question, which is, who are you? Rather than what are you? And I think, who are you in the face of climate catastrophe? Who are you in the face of, um, um, structural racism? Who are you in the face of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean? Who are you in the face of anti blackness in the street every single day. And so that’s what I mean by authenticity rather than identity. So there’s this constant examining of your positionality in the world and that truth to whatever political position you believe in, whether that’s based on your ethnicity or it’s based on your sexuality or gender identification, whatever it is, I think that’s part of it. And then there is, uh, all the other stuff about your authenticity. 

(Back to host)

Shame on Me, McWatt’s original and moving memoir, interrogates ideas of race, belonging, shame, purpose, destiny, desire, and identity. Through an examination of her physical body, she holds up a mirror to the ways culture and society read race and the bodies of others – their skin, hair, bones, and more. She does this with remarkable research and precision – an anatomical and literary close-reading of her own history and heritage. She attempts to separate Myth from skin and bone.

The book is divided in to different sections, much like scientific research, and almost an anti-thesis to race science that has been explored over the past 100 years. It begins with a hypothesis, which briefly goes through what McWatt believes her female ancestors survived. From her Chinese relative in British Guiana, who was raped, her Indian ancestor toiling in the fields, a Portuguese ancestor who was a free Immigrant, a possible French Jewish ancestor, an African great great grandmother “lost amongst trees that don’t know her name”, as well as her Scottish great great great grandmother who may never have known about all the other Brown women.

The experiment itself analyses the idea of “what are you?” after she was asked this question as an eight year old. And with it came feelings of shame. So begins her journey, where she realises that race is a story.

She writes that influenced by a taxonomy of human beings introduced in Systema Naturae, the research first published in 1735 by Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus; philosophers and naturalists began to make scientific distinctions among humans. Linnaeus’ succinct classification of the African ‘Afer or Africanus’ consisted of ‘black, phlegmatic, relaxed. Hair black, frizzled. Skin silky. Nose flat. Lips tumid. Women without shame. Mammae lactate profusely. Crafty, indolent, negligent. Anoints himself with grease. Governed by caprice.’

But McWatt responds that race is a construct not a reality. She says “I am a fragile map of stories told by others, told to myself, and they make up a whole person who has often been divided. Race is a construct, but the consequences of how a culture uses race are real, as is the violence committed against people for what they look like. There is violence in making a border. There is pain in being behind a wall.”

By examining her hair, McWatt investigates proximity to whiteness that people of colour grapple with – hair as aspirational, a site of contention and racial consciousness. In 1850, at the third meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Philadelphia, Peter A. Browne presented a study of human hair, exhibiting the world’s largest collection of hair and launching his book, The Classification of Mankind, By the Hair and Wool of Their Heads. He deemed Black people with their ‘wool’ and whites with their ‘hair’ belonged to different species, he told the assembled scientists and general public, thus creating a divide. His and other similar proclamations at the time created an enduring attitude toward African hair that would eventually lead to the quest for alchemy that would change ‘wool’ to hair, breeding loathing, self-loathing and industries of hair that fuel a beauty economy.

Pressure related to hair is similar to pressure related to weight and other markers of ‘beauty’. During slavery, the governing aesthetic for house slaves was for straighter hair. And now, McWatt says chemical products used to ‘relax’ hair break the hair’s disulphide bonds — the strongest, naturally occurring bonds in nature. The protein structures of a hair shaft are held together by these bonds and hydrogen bonds — the ones that are easily broken by wetting them with water. Destroying the elasticity and strength of the disulphide bond by perming or relaxing the hair changes its shape. The chemicals used — sodium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate — can burn the scalp and cause hair to fall out in handfuls. It’s still a point of contention.

By examining her ass, she addresses the history of the dehumanizing sexualization of Black women and its reclamation. She refers to Saartjie Baartman (originally Sawtche, but renamed by her Dutch owner) in 1810, a Khoekhoe and San woman from the southern cape of Africa, was brought to London to be exhibited to justify imperial missions, in essentially what was a horrid freak show. 

Khoekhoe women were a great curiosity for colonial collectors of ‘natural phenomena’ because of the large amounts of fat on their breasts and high up on their buttocks — a ‘condition’ labelled steatopygia, which pathologises it in European terms, although it is not an abnormality in the Khoekhoe people. They wore little or no clothing in their natural environment and have highly developed labia minora. People would pay two shillings to see this ‘Hottentot Venus’, where she as forced to wear a skin-tight, transparent outfit. 

She was then later sold, prostituted and studied by a French zoologist as the missing link between animals and humans. When she died at only twenty-six, she was subjected to further degradation. Her body was dissected, her brains, genitals and skeleton extracted and studied by the zoologist, who concluded that ‘Negroes’ were condemned to ‘eternal inferiority’. Baartman and her story have many times been used to demonstrate the brutality of scientific racism, but in repeating the focus on her body — continuing to replicate photos and drawings of her — we continue to reduce her to her biology. 

And now, in the age of black women as superstars, the age of the ass as the reappropriated site of female power, of the booty fetish as ways of taking back sexual control, of upending, so to speak, the objectification and dehumanisation of Saartjie Baartman, she wonders how much of that fetish is rooted in images of domination, in objectification of the body as a means to power, however appropriated. 

By looking at her nose, she looks at how the nose as been used as a sign of weakness such as Pinocchio, or Cyrano, who were both scorned and how different cultures interpret physiognomy differently.

For example, from the 1820s to 1840s in Britain, many employers would demand that their potential employees obtain a character reference from a local phrenologist in order to prove their honesty and ability to work hard. Phrenology is a pseudoscience which involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. She writes in the hierarchy of status and privilege on the plantation during slavery, a small nose would have marked her proximity to whiteness, and would have been advantageous.

When she looks at lips, she said there are women who pay a lot of money to cosmetically alter their lips so that they become as full as her mother’s — so that they look more like Bertha Mason’s, the white Creole woman described as the ‘Mad Woman in the Attic’ in Jane Eyre, than the protagonist herself. The market for lip enhancement is estimated to be worth billions around the world. In the US, more than 29,000 lip-implant procedures took place in 2017, amounting to about one every 20 minutes. 

And yet we don’t normally describe these procedures as ‘white women’ becoming ‘black women’ in order to enhance their sex appeal. The cosmetics industry has detached the history of racialised bodies — the black slave who is deemed worthless by the plantation overseer or owner, dehumanised, raped — from products.

With eyes, she talks about the epicanthic fold, which is the skin over the upper eyelid that covers the medial canthus — the corner where the upper and lower eyelids meet — of the eye. This is present in people from most parts of Asia, Polynesia and Micronesia, in indigenous Americans and indigenous people of the Nile Valley, and in Europeans. The folds are also apparent in children of any race, particularly before the nose bridge fully develops. Down’s Syndrome, foetal alcohol syndrome and other conditions that cause the nasal bridge not to mature will also produce epicanthic folds. She brings this back to immigration, and how her own father had migrated to Canada, despite the issues they had with his mixed Chinese wife’s status.

According to the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald ‘the Chinese has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations’. He made it clear that the exclusion of Chinese migrants was necessary or ‘the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed’. 

The Chinese Head Tax — a fee that each Chinese person entering Canada was charged, in response to antiimmigration feelings in the late nineteenth century — was increased substantially after the turn of the new century, and that, along with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, effectively put an end to Chinese immigration.

In the post-war world, scientific racism was scientifically discredited, with UNESCO publishing their ‘Statement on Race’ in 1950.  They stated: “The biological fact of race and the myth of ‘race’ should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.” But the structural inequality of the plantation is a difficult pyramid to tear down. Despite the struggles, her family managed to make a life there.

For McWatt, she says something about the shape of eyes, perhaps — while we all read one another for kinship — tells us that we belong to one another. 

By examining her bones, she explores her mental health, therapy, and the way language can join or push away. By examining skin, she looks at language around dark and light, black and white, as well as the multibillion-dollar phenomenon around skin lightening products.

Globally, skin colour and social status are linked, with paler skin associated with wealth and spending a life sheltered indoors, and darker skin associated with those who toil under the sun. However, long term use of hydroquinone found in these creams, can lead to ochronosis, a disfiguring condition that leaves the skin puckered with yellow banana shaped fibres, caviar-like papules and dark pigmentation. Overuse of topical steroids can lead to contact eczema, bacterial and fungal infection, an adrenal gland disease called Cushing’s syndrome, along with skin thinning and kidney disease.

When talking about blood, she looks at bloodlines. Historical views of mixed races, mixed bloods, half-bloods were infected by the same ideas that supported slavery. Language associated with animals — for example, the word mulatto, the sterile mule — was also used to underscore the fear of boundaries between races being broken down and to continue the racist project of white supremacy.

Among other accomplishments, Shame on Me dives into the history of British Guiana (Guyana), where African slaves, Indigenous Peoples, and South- and East-Asian indentured workers endured hardship from European colonizers.

McWatt, who was born in Guyana, guides readers through her family’s different roles and circumstances during the country’s long past. British Guiana, McWatt tells us, was the site of prominent sugar plantations dependent on slave labour in the 19th century. The plantation – with its fraught mentality, hierarchies, and modes of oppression – is a heavy representation of the effects of colonialism and othering. Sugar, and the ways in which it infiltrates our lives, becomes a symbol of danger, negligence, and inequalities of wealth that form the rippling effects of colonization. Yet McWatt notes that her ancestry centres on sugar; she is a song of sugar. Her memoir is deeply reflective and intellectually profound. It speaks with confidence, experience, and learnedness, a patient voice that will resonate with readers.

It is apt that the book ends with the findings revealed from her DNA kits, revealing all the diverse threads in her tapestry.

Before the next book, I wanted to highlight the film On The Basis of Sex, which explores late US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s struggles to fight for equality in the legal system, as one of few female lawyers at the time. Here is the trailer with Felicity Jones playing the lead. 


So they’re going to give you a corner office?

I wasn’t what they were looking for. One said, women are too emotional to be lawyers. Another told me, a woman graduating top of her class must be a real ballbusters. I worked hard. I did everything I was supposed to, and I excelled.

Martin Ginsburg will be signing all of our checks someday. There’s marker with you. You married a star. 

If the law differentiates on the basis of sex, then how will women and men ever become equal? I don’t read tax court cases.

Read this one.

The law assumes a caregiver has to be a woman. This is sex based discrimination against a man.

Poor guy. 

We need to take this case.

This is not a case. This is a declaration of war.

They could topple the whole damn system of discrimination. 

They think gender equality is a civil right. What’s at stake is the American family. Let’s put this idea to bed once and for all. You will lose. And when you do, you will set the woman’s moving back ten years.

You don’t get to tell me when to quit. I know this case disrupted our lives.

Who is this support for if not for me?

You’ve been ready for this your whole life. So go in there and let the judges see the Ruth Ginsburg I know. 

We’re not asking you to change the country. That’s already happened. Without any court’s permission, the word woman.

Does not appear even once in the US constitution.

Nor does the word freedom. 

Your Honor

(Back to host)

Our final book is from Sofie Hagen, who is a celebrated comedian, fat activist, writer and podcaster. She wrote Happy Fat: Taking Up Space in a World that Wants to Shrink You, which reveals how painful it is to grow up in a society filled with prejudice and discrimination. Here she is speaking at a Ted Talk.

SOFIE HAGEN: A few years ago, I was sitting in a cafe, being fat. I was just sitting, being fat, you know, eating my burger, drinking my milkshake, when, uh, four men, four young men walked in. And at first I didn’t really care because burger, but I very soon felt the heat on the back of my neck. You know that feeling when you know that someone is looking at you? And I noticed that they were staring at me. They were marking me. They were making faces at each other. They were filming me with their phones, and I felt so ashamed, strenched in shame. And I lowered my head. I tried to push my shoulders into the middle of my body, and I felt so horrible. And the voice in my head said, they’re right. You shouldn’t be here. Uh, you are gross. You’re disgusting. And I was taken aback, because it’s been a while since I last felt that way. I spent, I guess, from the moment I learned to walk until I was about 21 years old, just hating my body intensely. And then that changed. What happened was I saw a fat woman on the Internet who claimed that she left her body. I was like, you can do that. You’re allowed to do that. Like, that’s an, um, option. Like, that had never even occurred to me. And realizing that just changed everything in my head. And I started very quickly stripping away all negative connotations from the word fat. And suddenly I was like, I’m not unattractive because I’m fat. I’m fat and I’m hot. Uh, I am not unintelligent because I’m fat. I am fat and I am smart. I am not lazy because I’m fat. That’s more a personality trait. Like, why run? It’s not fun, is it? I don’t need to do yoga. I have a personality. So it was like the world around me just looked different. Like when I saw an advert or a campaign or the front cover of a magazine or a TV show, it no longer reflected, uh, something true. It reflected this lie that if you’re fat, you’re not worthy of love and respect and basic rights. So this might sound very simple, but my first piece of advice, the first thing I want to say to you, is you’re allowed to love your body. It’s okay to be fat. You can be fat and happy for so long.

(Back to host)

For so long, fat people have been made to be the butt of the joke, invisible, treated like there’s something wrong with them and us. All of these negative opinions on fatness can be described as fatphobia. Refusing to describe someone as fat (when in fact they are) is actually playing into this phobia – you’re implicitly saying that being fat is so awful that we can’t even talk about it.

Hagen’s relationship to food became complicated when she was just five years old. A nurse told her mother that she was overweight and would have to go on a diet because it was “dangerous” to her health. Her mother listened immediately to the nurse and tried to find ways to help her lose weight  without any medical tests. This included portion control and dieting which made her even more fixated.

She would periodically lose weight but always put it on again when she could no longer comply with the unrealistic demands of whatever diet she was on. This made her hate herself and her body even more intensely. She saw herself as a weak person without any willpower. She dissociated from her body and resorted to bulimia in an effort to lose weight. 

The outside world only reinforced her negative beliefs. Her mother was complicit in trying to force her to diet, giving her the message that her body needed to be changed. Her PE teacher would humiliate her in class, taunting her and forcing her to shower naked in front of her classmates. 

Hagen’s whole world changed when she realised she was allowed to love her body. Her friend Andrea at college challenged her ideas about what it meant to be fat. She showed Sofie that a lot of the self-loathing thoughts had been planted in her mind by magazine ads selling diet shakes and negative portrayals of fat people in the media.

There are very few portrayals of fat people on the big screen. When they are featured, they’re not shown in a positive light, but rather as desperate and mentally ill – like in the movie Seven, where a fat person represents gluttony. Or they’re evil and conniving, as in the case with Ursula the sea witch in the Little Mermaid.  

Fat people are also frequently characterized as unintelligent and silly, the objects of ridicule. From the world of cartoons, we only have to look at the bumbling antics of Homer Simpson in The Simpsons or Peter Griffin in Family Guy.  

Sitcoms also often feature fat people in an unflattering light to get laughs. Monica in Friends is portrayed as being intelligent, compulsively clean, and attractive. However, in flashbacks to her youth when she is fat, she is shown as being comical and clumsy. 

Why is this a problem? Because although what we see in the media is fictional, it’s still a mirror of our world, reflecting who has power in society and who is discriminated against. Seeing people who might look like us being dehumanized and humiliated because they’re fat can negatively affect how we see ourselves, as well as validate our fatphobic beliefs.

Hagen says dieting doesn’t work, except to enrich the weight loss industry. We’ve all seen shows like The Biggest Loser, which spread the idea that fat people could lose all their weight and become “winners” if they just dieted and exercised strictly enough.

As soon as you start restricting calories, your body thinks you’re being threatened with starvation. Your natural survival mechanism kicks in and tries to wring as many calories as possible from what you eat. At the same time, your metabolism slows down, so you’re not processing food as fast. What you eat turns to fat more quickly as your body increases fat-storage enzymes. In order to stay thin, you need to constantly reduce your calories intake, which isn’t sustainable in the long run.

So why do we keep chasing diets? Because we believe the feel good story that claims that if we have enough willpower, we will lose weight. Then if the diet doesn’t work, we blame ourselves and see it as a personal failure. For the weight loss industry, the cycle is very lucrative.

However, scrutiny of the scientific literature shows that this question creates a false equivalence between being fat and being unhealthy. In fact, key studies about the risks of obesity have been misinterpreted and falsely reported. 

One prime example is a study titled “Actual Causes of Death in the US,” which was released by scientists Michael McGinnis and William Foege in 1993. In the study, they argue that poor diet and low activity levels are a leading cause of death. People who quoted the study in later articles inaccurately interpreted this as “obesity is a leading cause of death.” This was repeated so often that it became a fact in people’s minds.

However, it is a simplification of the data. There are fat people who exercise and eat well, and there are thin people who do neither. The fat itself doesn’t necessarily indicate bad health. In fact, in a 2014 article published in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, scientists argue that physically fit fat people have the same health risks as fit thin people. The research shows that exercise-based approaches to health are much more productive than weight-loss based approaches. 

This is not to say that fat people are always healthy. But it does mean that fatness can’t automatically be seen as an indicator and cause of bad health in the way that medical establishments and the media portray it to be. 

Many health professionals suffer from medical bias, which means they discriminate against fat people by not treating them in the same way that they would thin people. Doctors aren’t as inclined to do a proper investigation of health concerns because they’re so convinced that the patient’s problem is directly linked to being fat. This, of course, is detrimental to fat people’s health care and can have tragic consequences.

Fat people’s lives are a minefield of daily discriminations – from the doctor’s office to a dating site, from the school playground to the beach. Fat individuals find it harder to get jobs and are paid less. In most US states, it’s even legal to fire someone for being fat. 

Exposure to this constant prejudice and discrimination creates unbearable levels of stress. Professor Michael Inzlicht from the University of Toronto did extensive research on the effects of discrimination. He found that it had serious, negative effects on people’s mental health. Discrimination can have physical health consequences, too. Medical studies have shown a link between experiences of prejudice, hypertension, and heart disease.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Obesity presented evidence that people who were unhappy with their weight were less healthy than people of the same weight who were satisfied. Specifically, the dissatisfied people had a higher rate of diabetes and hypertension. This makes sense if you think of the effects of extreme dieting and other desperate weight-loss interventions on your body. Also, if you feel bad about your body, you may be less motivated to go to the doctor, exercise, or make other healthy lifestyle choices. 

Compared to discrimination against other minority groups, abuse towards fat people has been rationalized: being fat is objectively wrong, because it’s unhealthy. Therefore, the logic goes, people are justified in criticizing others for being fat. As we’ve seen, this logic is very flawed. Bullying fat people in the name of their health actually harms their physical and mental wellbeing in profound ways.

Hence check your privilege. Become aware that the world caters for you more than someone considered fat. Stand up for your friends, be an ally and don’t allow for online bullying and abusive messages.

As an ally, it’s important to realize that discrimination is not one-size-fits-all; we need to be mindful of the fact that fat people are sometimes discriminated against on multiple fronts. For example, if you’re black, queer, or disabled in addition to being fat, you might be marginalized in intensely different ways. So it approach it from an intersectional perspective. 

So surround yourself with other people who love their bodies. Instead of joining your friends who are talking about their latest attempts to lose weight, surround yourself with radical fatties. In the age of the internet, you can find amazing groups of like-minded people arranging fat clothing swaps, dance parties, and all manner of wonderful things. Embody yourself. Open your eyes to diversity to inoculate yourself against hateful messages infecting mainstream media.

So to sum up:

McWatt says in Shame on Me that the biological make-up of a human being is not a prescription for how to perceive that being.  It serves to divide us from ourselves and from others with whom we belong in action, in resistance. She says the single most powerful tool we have is our language and its ability to reinvent realities, and ask different questions. We need a new language of belonging rather than the biological “what am I” and instead “who are you”.

She adds in public conversations and actions around race, politics, ecology we can’t leave out emotions — like grief, sadness, anger, shame — because these are key to action. We can’t explore and achieve equality without them.

Hagen says in Happy Fat that the world has been set up to hide and deny fatness, which is seen as so undesirable that it often can’t even be named. You can start to change that by embracing your body and reclaiming the word “fat” as a title you can wear with pride. Fat is a factual, descriptive word that doesn’t carry any intrinsic stigma or shame. You can be worthy and fat, sexy and fat, clever and fat. Instead of fighting fatness, we need to fight fatphobia in all its forms. 

Being a brown disabled woman, the body is very political for me. From policies surrounding accessibility, to what kind of jobs are available to me, the body itself faces discrimination. 

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See you in two week’s time.

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