(Photo via Huffington Post)
Shared with permission from Ragen Chastain. Note: I was torn about whether to use the above image or one of a group of meerkats hugging. But because I *just* watched David Attenbourough's account of how frightening a clan of meerkats can be when faced with a cobra (surprisingly frightening) AND how I feel about bikinis in general (I love them the most) I chose the featured bikini photo. Yet, I believe that everyone should have a chance to "Awwwww" over an adorable picture of meerkats squishing each other- so if that's something you need today (and let's be real, they ARE pretty adorable) here you go.
The idea of a “thin ally” within fat activism is a complicated one- both because classifying body sizes can be difficult, and because (though relative privilege because of size is a real thing) the culture of fat hatred hurts people of all sizes. For the purpose of this piece I’m talking about people who don’t identify as fat who engage in fat activism (everything from retweeting size acceptance stuff or attending rallies.) I also want to point out that, as always, I’m speaking for myself here and other fat people may disagree with what I’m about to say. (<-Note: Jes emphasizes this point as well and recognizes that this approach does not work for everyone nor every marginalized group.)
First of all, I want to talk about why I think having thin allies is important:
They aren’t subject to the “you are only trying to justify your fat!” argument
In an ideal world people would understand that our bodies need no justification. But this isn’t an ideal world and the truth is that an entire panel of fat people can have their message dismissed in less than a minute by this (totally bullshit) derailment technique and the bigotry upon which it is built.
Their privilege can mean that they are listened to
In an ideal world people would listen to fat people about our experiences and what we think is best for us. But this isn’t an ideal world and sometimes people whose prejudices get in the way of hearing what fat people are telling them are able to process the information when they hear it from a thin person.
Is this incredibly frustrating? Yes. Is it totally bullshit? Yes. Is it theoretically how social justice is supposed to work? No. Is it how it often works in real life? Yes. And I’ll point out that good allies also center fat people’s voices and work as part of their ally work and/or to give people information for future study.
It’s just nice to have someone stick up for me
As a fat person I have had tons of bad experiences with fat phobia and fat bashing where other people either joined in or sat by and did nothing while I was forced to fend for myself. So it feels really nice when someone sticks up for me, even if they are doing it “imperfectly.”
This is especially true considering the difficulties and challenges that allies face:
They put themselves in harm’s way
The fat hate trolls who are always yammering on the periphery of fat activists also target our allies with the same range of cyberbullying to threats on health, safety, and family. Many fat people avoid activism to avoid dealing with this (which is a completely legitimate choice!) so when people open themselves up to this horrific treatment to help dismantle a system that actually privileges them, I appreciate that.
Many thin allies suffer professionally in terms of professional respect, accolades, and even promotions and pay.
They will never “do it right.”
Fat community is not a monolith, and members of the community have very different ideas about our goals, and how we should accomplish them. That means that every single thing someone does as an ally (including what they have been specifically asked to do by some fat activists) other people in fat community will disagree with.
Call Out Culture and Kick the Puppy Syndrome
The issue with never pleasing all the activists can become more difficult because of call out culture – where activists are often very quick to criticize someone doing what they see as imperfect ally work, sometimes harshly and very publicly. And even though allies are theoretically supposed to roll with this form of education, in the real world it can definitely hurt, and it can definitely make someone less likely to do ally work.
This can be further intensified because our allies are around and open to listening to us, while the people who are actively and purposefully engaged in fat oppression are not around and are unwilling to listen to us. When we can’t take out our frustrations on our worst oppressors, we sometimes take them out on our best allies which makes them less likely to be allies and/or puts them in a state of paralysis where they are scared to make a mistake that will not only lead to public humiliation but, they fear, actually make things worse instead of better.
I’ve definitely been guilty of unnecessarily harshly calling people out, and taking out my frustrations on allies, and it has never benefited me or my activism. The theoretical argument says that allies should just suck it up because they are not in as bad a position as fat people are, but I’m not sure that’s realistic or entirely fair, or helpful.
No cookie for you
There is a school of thought that allies shouldn’t be praised or rewarded for being allies because it’s what everyone should do. This is often expressed as the idea that you don’t get a cookie for doing what’s right.
In terms of the way that I interact with allies, I disagree with this emphatically. I think that even if it’s true theoretically, the reality is that it definitely isn’t what everyone does, and it’s difficult work with real negative consequences.
I also think it’s important to remember that allies don’t have to do this, they can stop at any time and their lives may well be better and easier for it, and often their ally work is about dismantling systems that are currently benefiting them.
So I don’t want to take allies for granted and I really appreciate people who take on ally work and I’m happy to give allies a cookie (though it will be store-bought because I can’t bake for shit.) (Jes adds that she can bake and will make you any cookie you want because she loves you.)
It doesn’t cost me anything to appreciate people, in fact it often makes me feel better to recognize people who are helping. And not for nothing but it’s certainly been my experience that giving positive feedback to my allies increases the likelihood of continued ally work (and shows other people that doing the right thing has benefits) which is something that ultimately benefits me and my work.
If You Are An Ally
Being an ally can be difficult, but that’s also part of the deal. While I stand by everything I said, I also want to be clear that none of that is a “get out of jail free” card to not be constantly educating ourselves, centering the voices of the oppressed communities we are trying to work in solidarity with, doing our own research, trying to use incidents of being called out as educational opportunities, and trying to have compassion for people who are having a difficult time and taking their frustrations out on us.
So, this week, I recommend you thank an ally! And if you are someone who is/wants to be an ally find a way to be an ally today – post something fat positive, challenge a fat phobic remark, spend some time researching questions you have about how to be an ally to fat activists.
If you're wanting to learn more about how you can be a "thin ally", there's a great article on this from The Body is Not an Apology here. If you are fat and know of a thin ally that you appreciate, send this blog post on over to them with a heart emoji if you're feeling it.