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Myth Six: Fat is Incompetent

June 8th, 2011     by Shaunta Grimes     Comments

Dr. Pattie Thomas wrote a book called Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life that is just really awesome. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth investing in.

The first chapter of the book has 10 fat myths. As I read them, I had so many ideas and thoughts and things I wanted to say about each one. I contacted Dr. Thomas and she said that it would be okay for me to use her list to talk about each of the myths here. So-welcome to a 10-week series.

Myth number six on Dr. Thomas’ list: Fat is incompetent.

Everyone judges another person’s competence every now and then. Think about it. You have to judge your hair dresser competent to cut your hair, your teachers competent to educate you, your doctor competent to treat you, even your friends competent to trust. Judging competence happens. A lot. And often so quickly that there is nothing but appearance and perhaps a quick perusal of qualifications to go by.

So, what is competence?

Paul Ernsberger wrote an excellent chapter in The Fat Studies Reader about how weight and social class are intertwined. He gives evidence that if you live in a lower social class than your parents, then you are “twice as likely to be heavy as someone upwardly mobile.” He concludes that rather than poverty causing fatness due to a lack of access to food sources and resources like gyms or safe places to walk, fat causes poverty.

Fat causes poverty. That’s a pretty intense statement. Now, we have to analyze whether fat causes poverty due to fat people being incompetent, or due to the incompetence of our society with regard to discrimination.

Not only that, but we have to think about whether poverty equals incompetence, too. There is a perception in the self-sufficient West that anyone who wants to be wealthy can be, just like there is one that says anyone who wants to be slender badly enough can be. Those who live in poverty are often judged lazy or incompetent out of hand. This sort of systematic oppression keeps people in poverty. I suppose this makes someone who is both fat and poor double incompetent in the eyes of some people.

Dr. Thomas points out that one reason fat people are assumed incompetent is because, as a society, we believe that being fat is a sign of “letting yourself go.” Fat people choose to be fat. Not because they want to be, of course, but because it’s easier than eating healthy foods and talking a walk now and then. Fat people are lazy. They’re gluttonous. Fat is an outward sign of overindulgence.

Think about things your fat friends who aren’t tuned into the FA message say about themselves (or maybe even things you’ve said about yourself.) Not losing weight is failure. Gaining weight is being out of control. Eating anything other than iceberg lettuce with a fork dipped into fat-free dressing between bites is cheating. Seeing ourselves unexpectedly, in a shop window or a photograph is cause to berate ourselves and promise puritan starvation.

In a society that both elevates slender people to positions of power more frequently than fat people, and then encourages those slender people to believe that their bodies are the result of something they’ve done, plus a higher moral standing, is it any wonder that fat people are often judged incompetent?

So, the question is not “are fat people really considered incompetent.” It’s clear that they are. We are. Sometimes, at least. The question becomes, how do we bust this myth? How do we change the perception?

I think one of the biggest steps in that direction we can take is to stop adding to it. Listen to our own self-talk, and make sure we aren’t contributing to the idea that fat people are failures or out of control or cheaters or lazy slobs. I know it’s easier said than done, but I have noticed for myself that faking it until I make it has been successful. Refusing to give voice, even in my head, to my own negative opinions of myself has caused those voices to quiet.

Another thing: we have to stop sabotaging ourselves. There are some people out there who will discriminate and judge us incompetent based on our bodies. But if we decide ahead of time that we’re not going to give them the chance, then they don’t even need to open their mouths or wield their rejection stamp. We’re doing it for them. Make sure that someone discriminating against you by judging you incompetent isn’t simply agreeing with what you’re projecting.

Something that I think happens sometimes with fat discrimination is that, being part of the same society that spawned it, we feed it by believing it. Instead of being outraged by being seen as incompetent because we’re fat, we agree and feel motivated to go on the next diet or change our life styles yet again.

Every time you do something now instead of waiting until you’ve lost weight, you’re hacking at the foundation of the haters who believe you’re incompetent.

This agreement that we’re somehow less-than because we’re fat feeds the impression that our fat somehow makes us incompetent. It’s time to stop that now. Call bullshit on the discriminator, even if it’s only privately. It’s how change happens.


Shaunta Grimes blogs about body acceptance and athleticism at Live Once, Juicy. Come check out her indie publishing experiment at We Are the Freaks.

Tags: body politics

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