Please stop asking us to describe our pain for your gain.
You’re preparing a presentation for your colleagues, or your class, or your professional society on healthcare, Health at Every Size, or weight stigma. You want to include some stories of the harassment, bias, discrimination and hatred fat people face every day, but since you live in a smaller body, you have no stories of your own.
So you ask for anecdotes from people with lived experience. It should be fine, right? After all, you want to make sure we’re heard, right?
Well, yes, and no. The thing is, explaining suffering over and over and over sucks. It’s hard, it hurts, and it heaps trauma upon trauma.
(And because fat people are routinely assumed to be liars and malingerers, every time we summon up the vulnerability to tell our stories, we risk being dismissed and accused of making it all up.)
You put out a metaphorical misery basket on your metaphorical desk, and we fat folks jump to write down our stories and drop them inside because we’re so grateful that someone, anyone, is listening. You get the information you need, use it to advance your presentation or project or career, and disappear. And five minutes later, another thin person holds that misery basket out and shakes it, to repeat the cycle.
But you’re doing good work, you protest! You’re working to end weight stigma in your sphere! You’re teaching professionals and providers like you to be less bigoted!
Don’t get me wrong: That is wonderful, vital work. Thank you for doing it. But those of us on the outside feel like we need to dredge up our pain and anger for everyone who wanders by, reliving it again and again in the hopes that this time it will make a difference. And what we get in return is a complete lack of noticeable change, while the thin people who collect those stories slide into speaking opportunities and career advancement based on thin privilege and all those titillating, horrifying stories of fat hatred they conveniently have on hand.
Want to advocate for fat people? Don’t do it in a way that forces us to relive our pain for you over and over.
The good news is that it’s not even that hard to hear us in a way that doesn’t further harm us:
Listen before you ask.
We’re telling our stories all the time. The internet is full of our stories. Every Health at Every Size and intuitive eating Facebook group is full of our stories. (That’s not even counting the thousands of stories in closed, fat-folks-only groups.) Instagram is full of our stories. Tumblr is full of our stories.
And how are you supposed to find these stories?
For heaven’s sake, search first. Just search. It’s not hard! Search the Facebook groups you’re in. Search Twitter. Search Instagram. Search Google. Search Tumblr. This is such an obvious step I’m astonished I need to say it, but here we are.
If you’re not hearing our stories, it means you haven’t been listening in the past. Now’s a good time to start. When you’re looking around for your stories, look at US. As people, not a renewable resource to make your audience gasp in horror at the way those fatties get treated.
Follow us. Listen to us. Share our posts, even when you don’t immediately want something from us.
Be accountable both to yourself and to us. Are you asking for these stories because you genuinely need them to make your point, or because there’s a twisted appeal in you and your audience getting to shudder about them?
Is it activism, or voyeurism?
Don’t tell me that you’re collecting our experiences to gather data, either. Anecdotes aren’t data, and if you’re doing actual research, I doubt your institutional review board would be impressed with your half-assed collection method.
Be accountable to the people whose stories you’re using. What do you intend to do with them? Do you have permission to use them? What was the outcome of your project? You probably wouldn’t take a piece of a valued friend or colleague’s life, use it without permission, and never follow up, so don’t do that to us, either.
Yeah, I said the c-word. Compensate us. We know you’re not made of money, but you’re taking pieces of us and our stories and doing something with it that presumably gets you compensated. So why do you get paid, while we fatties are expected to endlessly provide for free?
Pay fat people for their labor. Especially if you’re asking for repeated or detailed labor. Pay. Fat. People. We’re denizens of the internet, we’ve got Venmo and Paypal and Cashapp and Patreon. Pay us.
And if you sincerely cannot possibly manage that, then you’d better be supporting us in every other way that you can. Especially if you’ve never done anything but take. Now’s the time to give by supporting us loudly in public, sharing our work everywhere, encouraging others to support us too. And maybe have that hard conversation with your parents or your brother or your doctor about how fat people are human, too.
If you want the rewards, do your own homework. And then consider sharing some of those rewards with the marginalized people who made that presentation possible.
This is normally where I’d provide you with a beautifully-formatted list of people to follow on Instagram, or websites to visit, or articles to read. But this time, you get to do your own homework.
Or, you know, compensate a fat person to guide you. That works too.