Speaking from (thin) privilege

There’s a dustup in the Paganiblogosphere right now that was kicked off by an elder speaking about his “concern” about obesity among Pagans. This was not a good example of someone with privilege speaking carefully to those without.

Peter Dybing apparently spoke without being aware of the problem of fat shaming. That happens; part of having privilege is not having to think about it, hence the idea of the invisible knapsack. But when called on it, you have to step back and consider the situation, especially from the point of view of the person who is telling you about an experience that you don’t have – being fat, being Pagan, being whatever.

Do people abuse that? Yes. The “War on Christmas” is a made-up piece of propagandistic puffery that some Christians use to make themselves feel good about being an embattled minority. When they bring up concerns like that, you can assess the situation and make a sound argument that they are misusing the concepts or simply being jerks.

But people who have experienced fat-shaming speak convincingly, to me at least, about how being fat is experienced as a lack of privilege, how it is used to marginalize them and as grounds for mistreating them. Some people could continue to deny that; I don’t see how they could if they actually listened to their co-conversationalists, but I suppose it’s possible.

Once you know you’re speaking about an issue from a position of privilege, the situation changes. There are lots of rhetorical tactics that are available to you that continue to disempower people who have less privilege, and a great many of them are laid out with delicious sarcasm in Derailing for Dummies. (I’m sorry about the ableist title; the website says it will change.) One that’s not mentioned there is speaking in a way that contributes to the marginalization of the group while claiming nothing but the best of motives; that’s concern trolling.

More importantly, if people tell you that you are contributing to the problem, you have to take a looooong step back and look at what you’re doing. I think Dybing’s approach, though it might have been well meant, did fundamentally suggest that we increase fat shaming in Pagan circles. He might not have thought of it that way, but when it was pointed out to him, I haven’t seen him explain how he or anyone else can possibly “raise awareness” about this issue without it contributing to or outright degenerating into hurtful fat shaming.

Speaking about an issue from a position of privilege is hard. You have to do “extra” intellectual work to examine your own position. You have to do “extra” emotional work to apply imaginative empathy to the experiences that others tell you about and how others may perceive your speech. If you’re smart, you’ll do “extra” shadow work to deal with your own problems surrounding these issues.

But that “extra” work is the least we can do for people who are marginalized on an ongoing basis, every day of their lives, whether it’s because of gender, sexuality, appearance, or anything else. I guarantee that it doesn’t add up to a tenth of the “extra” experience of problems, of being hurt, of struggling just to be treated equally that they go through. So I don’t think we can really call it “extra” at all.

Note: I am far from perfect. I am speaking partially from experience here, and in the full expectation that I, too, will screw up on privilege issues in the future. It’s basically unavoidable. If someone needs to point me to this post of my own in the future, I promise I’ll step back and listen, like I advise here. I’m writing it because I think it’s the best contribution I can make to the ongoing conversation. 

About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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24 Responses to Speaking from (thin) privilege

  1. mmy0 says:

    an elder speaking about his “concern” about obesity among Pagans. This was not a good example of someone with privilege speaking carefully to those without…..I haven’t seen him explain how he or anyone else can possibly “raise awareness” about this issue without it contributing to or outright degenerating into hurtful fat shaming..

    When something like this happens I like to deal with it by analogy (that is, I like to analogize it to something I have personal experience of.)

    So my analogy is that it reminds me of people who have no food intolerances/limitations (that they are aware of — we all have some but for most of us they are masked in the fact they are shared by the herd in which we live) expressing concern to me about how I and others are dealing with food intolerances/allergies. We are told, very gently of course, that we should be aware of the fact that we might lose friends because we make life difficult for them, we are reminded that we are nightmares to ask over for dinner, we are chastised about how uncomfortable it makes everyone else to eat with gusto when we are not eating the foods they are love. And finally, just in case we aren’t feeling othered enough, we get asked if we are aware of the possible negative side-effects of our condition.

    I don’t want to be judged by someone else on the basis of what they think about the way I eat and so I presume that other people don’t want to be judged by the size of their clothes.

    • Literata says:

      Yes, exactly. And bringing religion into it – concern about our connections with nature in the form of our own bodies and in the details of the food we eat – makes it more fraught, not less, meaning that we have to be extremely careful, especially when we risk legitimizing that “othering” in the name of religion.

  2. How very interesting. This is the second time in as many days that the subject of fat shaming has come up, and neither time was it directed towards me. Such a difficult issue for me. Because of my history, I’m positive that if anyone even tried to bring this issue up, however sensitively, I would feel shame, mostly (or completely), emanating from within. Even when my sweet, dear hubby talks to me about wanting me to be healthy and happy and live a very long life with him, I find myself shaming myself. He would never do so. I probably shame myself far more than anyone else shames me… but believe me, I’m shamed enough from the public as well. Never having been thin, but once or twice reaching socially acceptable size, there most certainly is a difference. I am simply… not seen.

    I wasn’t able to locate the words that Mr. Dybing said (wrote?), but I did find information about his work to bring unity and peace to the Pagan community. I’m sure his words were meant with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, for me, the shaming is too ingrained and even the best intentions still illicit the same response.

    And with that… I have to go get dressed for the gym. God bless my Hubby, he certainly comes from a good place and gets this fat chick to the gym far more than I would if left to my own devices. : )

    • Literata says:

      Thanks for speaking so honestly, Lori. Hugs to you. And please promise to call me on it if I ever do anything that triggers that shame response from you.

      I’d like others to notice that neither you nor I am saying this can’t be talked about; we’re talking about how difficult it is to talk about and how we might begin to do so with a minimum of harm to people who’ve been hurt enough.

      • I’ve just found and finished reading the original post and all of the replies. It certainly is a “dustup.” I’m left with a few thoughts, foremost, that it is unfortunate the author was unaware he was speaking as a person from unknown “thin privilege.” Had the same post come from a person who’s gone through the struggle to get healthy, I bet it would have been received quite differently. There appears to be a distinct difference in his tone at the beginning and his tone at the end. His simple listing of facts comes across as quite judgmental, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and believing he didn’t mean to be. Perhaps as a thin person, and in his zeal to quote statistics to overweight people, he didn’t realize how condescending it would come across.

        Despite the original good intentions of the author, I am left with the certainty that should I ever be in his presence, or the presence of any members of The Firefly House, my own fat shame would be too great for me to overcome. Meaning… I’d get the hell out of there as fast as I could.

        • Literata says:

          Yeah, some of the responses really made it worse. I don’t want to go through and analzye/critique every single thing he said, but comments that boil down to “I’m not talking about YOU, I’m talking about the REAL fatties over there who can’t walk.” (who we should all despise, presumably) are throwing gasoline on the bonfire of fail.

          Folks from Firefly have an annoying habit of using Facebook to invite me to events that I can’t possibly participate in. I can’t run. I don’t remember if I’ve specifically addressed that or tried to ignore it because, well, that’s just what people do on Facebook, but I think I’m going to ask not to be invited to any more the next time it happens. I don’t need the guilt trip or the reminder that I’m different.

  3. I no longer recoil, crawl under a rock, or otherwise dissapear if someone is unkind enough to mention my weight. I have gone the other way, im afraid. I now tear them apart verbally, loudly, and draw as much attention to them as possible. In the future i will develop some mature response, but until then, i will enjoy this one. heh heh heh

    • Literata says:

      I’ve said I value anger, so I don’t think that’s necessarily an “immature” response. Anger needs to be tempered with other things, ultimately, but it’s not wrong in and of itself, and it is certainly a reasonable response, especially when you’re completely fed up with the crap you’ve been getting!

    • There’s nothing immature about anger. Anger is a completely valid human emotion, and a completely valid response to being attacked — and fat shaming and concern trolling are absolutely attacks, regardless of what the people making those attacks think.

  4. I appreciate your post here, lots of wisdom. I read the post in question, and to be honest it was the first I had ever read from the man and it put me off greatly. As someone who is overweight, and has been for the majority of my life, it always amazes me when people feel the need to express “concern” about the lifestyle, appearance, body of another human being, under any guises.It speaks to me of a greater concern than those addressed, and that is the problem many have with applying their own life experience and acquired knowledge onto the lives of others. That is the problem of assumption and projection. I think it is more relevant for us to express our own experiences and thoughts on an individual basis, rather than discuss our own opinions and their assumed relationship to others. I feel the author of the post in question could have addressed his concern much more effectively by discussing his own experiences with weight, health, and the positive changes his own lifestyle brought to himself, rather than addressing it from the standpoint of “this works for me, so everyone should be doing the same thing, and if there not then they have a “problem.” He is operating on the assumption that everyone is like himself, therefore everyone should value/act as he himself does. It is approaching the already sensitive subject with an air of superiority. The addition of his own assumptions of pagan values about lifestyle and body only add to the clusterfuck of embedded negative assumptions he presented in the way he expressed his concerns about weight.

    As for my personal beliefs on the issue, as an overweight pagan, or rather an overweight human being, personally I feel addressing the weight of another person is distasteful at best. In my eyes, a person’s weight is influenced by so many variant factors from one person to another, unless one is living in a person’s body they have no business commenting or making assumptions about whether another person’s weight is good, bad, acceptable, not acceptable, etc. It’s no ones business but the individual, and that’s all there is to it.

    As an end note, I found it absolutely disgusting that the death of David Grega has been used as a platform for people to give their unasked opinions about weight in general. There is zero percent evidence that weight contributed to his demise, but of course assumption works for most I suppose. I always prefer writing from those who have obviously had some education about the basic principles of logic. Like yourself obviously. =)

    Anyway, thanks for writing a great, honest post in response to the issue. A very sensible and unassumptive one at that. Refreshing!

    • Literata says:

      As an end note, I found it absolutely disgusting that the death of David Grega has been used as a platform for people to give their unasked opinions about weight in general. There is zero percent evidence that weight contributed to his demise

      I didn’t want to say that because I didn’t know the man, but that bothered me too. There’s a big difference between Trayvon Martin’s mother speaking out about gun violence and so-and-so talking about somebody else’s loved one’s death as an opportunity to concern-troll. It’s extremely context dependent…just like most things.

      Thanks for the encouragement; I’m glad I could begin to address this less painfully.

  5. Y’know, when I first began to study Wicca, it was very popular to talk about how accepting paganism was, and how it didn’t try to shame people about their bodies and sexuality. As with so many other things, I am so sad, disappointed and downright hurt that paganism has not lived up to that. I feel like on this issue it’s actually been getting worse over the past few years. I’ve seen lots of food shaming, especially around eating meat and whole or organic foods. That kind of shaming has a lot of issues, including classism, racism, and ableism, and they’re issues that are not talked about nearly enough in pagan circles, often because pagan communities are more homogenous in all of those areas than society as a whole. (Not that society as a whole talks about those problems with food shaming, either. But dammit, I want paganism to live up to its hype on this.) And now a lot more people feel like they’ve been given permission to openly fat-shame and fat-hate.

    I’ll have a post up on it in the morning, although it’s a relatively short one, mostly emotional. I couldn’t handle writing a longer one after that mess on twitter. I might take another whack at it in a few days.

    • Literata says:

      In my experience, Paganism is all good with the sex and not so good with the other stuff.

      Sorry twitter turned into a mess; hope you got some rest and I’ll look forward to your post.

      • I am just now getting to sleep. I have it scheduled to post in about 4 hours.

        I didn’t mind having the conversation with Coyle, I minded her attitude. And whoever that was who would not leave me alone when I asked her to.

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  9. Lydia H says:

    Trigger warning: Fat shaming (added by Lit)

    So many people struggle with weight. Losing weight isn’t as easy as “just dieting and exercise,” it requires a lifestyle change. I understand the struggle and that people are often marginalized or judged for being overweight. Judging someone because of weight is like judging them because of race. It’s all extrenal. However, for health, I wish people the best in making the lifestyle adjustments needed. There are many health issues that arise from weight.

    • Literata says:

      Lydia, if you really want to help people be healthy, I suggest you look into something like the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, which still has problems with fat shaming sometimes. The science about weight and health, such as it is, is much, much more complicated than you imply.

    • I am going to second that recommendation, and send you along to my favorite HAES site, The Fat Nutritionist. She’s a HAES-based dietitian, and she has a lot of information about the studies on this kind of thing.

      And pretty consistently, the studies show that any kind of weight loss attempt — including “lifestyle changes” — won’t work for more than about 5% of the population, who can maintain about a 10% loss for more than 2-5 years. 95% of people, who lose about 10% of their starting weight on average (so, some of them do lose more), will gain it back within 1-2 years. About 66% of those people will actually gain back more. Even if they stick to whatever it was they were doing to lose the weight in the first place. There’s a hypothesis known as set-point weight, which is, basically, that your body has a set point that it will naturally gravitate to, usually within about 20lbs. (My set point when I’m not eating optimally is about 20lbs higher than my set point when I am eating optimally.) You can have set points for various mode of living, but they probably won’t vary by more than 30lbs at the outside. If you do something extreme, you can lose the weight, but your body will attempt to return to homeostasis at its set point as soon as possible. But dieting, especially severe calorie restrictions, can screw up your metabolism enough to reset your set point — at a higher, not lower, weight. And then that’s the new set point you’re stuck with.

      It’s my experience that the people who really do lose a bunch of weight and keep it off are mostly people who had an underlying physical condition that caused them to gain a lot of weight. When they address that problem (a food allergy or intolerance, or needing a certain balance of nutrients, or schedule of eating, or getting off some medication, or whatever), they can lose quite a lot of weight and keep it off successfully. But the ones who do this through weight loss attempts usually just stumbled onto one that addresses their problem by accident, rather than finding their problem and addressing it directly.

      Bottom line: There is no, absolutely no method of weight loss known — not diet, not exercise, not weight loss surgery, not diet pills, not “lifestyle changes”* — that have any evidence that they achieve the goal of weight loss long-term for more than a very small percentage of people, and the amount of weight dropped and kept off is not enough to make a fat person thin. There is no practical way for the vast and overwhelming majority of fat people to get thin.

      …and I just posted a HAES screed, didn’t I? Sorry, Literata.

      • Literata says:

        No problem. You put it pretty succinctly, and I wouldn’t call it a screed – very reasonable.

        • “No, really, weight loss doesn’t work for most people, science says so,” tends to be one of those things people take as unreasonable no matter how you say it, alas. Thanks, though.

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