On the Epistemology of Fatness

With my recent fifteen minutes of fame, I’ve attracted attention from people who find what I do distasteful, disgusting, and/or dangerous. They post comments on YouTube, send me harassing emails, troll my online writing, and send me Facebook messages of hate and mockery.

They express their disbelief at my work and concern over my dangerous message, that fat people deserve the same rights and dignity as non-fat people. They share their disgust with my body and call me hurtful names I have not heard since the playground. Many of these people are happy to contradict the work that I do, and even the life I portray. (And I’m not alone in this.) These strangers insist they know more about my body, and my behaviours, than I do.

  • ‘You can’t be that fat without eating at least 4500 calories a day.’
  • ‘I appreciate that you think you’re happy, but there is no way you can be happy being that fat.’
  • ‘You’re kidding yourself if you think it’s okay to be so grossly fat.’

These individuals are trying to get me to understand that they are a better judge of my health, my identity, and my life, than I am. They believe that they know things about me, and are happy to dismiss anything I have to say about my life that does not fit in with what they believe they know.

When it comes to fatness and fat bodies, who gets to be a knower?

Authority figures, be they physicians, politicians, or others, are happy to speak about issues of weight, health, and behaviour. And many of them are happy to do so without having any empirical evidence behind them.

  • Talking point #1: Being fat is unhealthy. Everyone nods.
  • Talking point #2: If fat people ate less and exercised, they will no longer be fat. Cue nodding.
  • Talking point #3: This is the first generation of children who will not live as long as their parents. Vigorous nodding ensues.

These phrases are thrown around by authorities, media outlets, individuals, and even cartoon characters. Rarely do they offer any reference for their claims, or empirical evidence to support their statements.  They are knowers. And the truths they speak are known by most and therefore true. Full stop.

But if you choose to speak out against, or challenge, those talking points, you’d better have a long list of empirical evidence to back up your claims. You better have peer-reviewed, positivistic, articles from medical journals. Lots of them. And even then, you will most likely be accused of cherry picking evidence, or falling victim to confirmation bias.

If you chose to engage in this kind of research yourself, especially as a fat person, you are simply self-serving and looking for an excuse for your own moral failings. How convenient for you that your research finds that you are not the worst thing in the world, responsible for global warming, terrorism, and rising healthcare costs. Sounds like someone is trying to justify their own fatness.

When it comes to fatness and fat bodies, who gets to produce knowledge?

Fat people across the world are told that they are not allowed to know their own lives. They are contradicted by family, friends, and strangers. They are challenged by every caricature of a fat person in movies and television. They are repudiated by the ‘real’ fat people on television and in magazines who are unhappy and trying to change their lives by changing their bodies. They are questioned by every negative news story about fatness and fat people. They are presented a single way of being : This is what fat is. This is what a fat person is like. This is what a fat life is like. And anyone who suggests otherwise is lying. They are doing fatness wrong.

When a fat individual does stand up to their family, or friends, or classroom, or larger community and says – ‘That is not me. That is not my life. My life and experiences are different.’ – they are often ignored. Or dismissed. Or infantilized. Or patronised. Or called liars.

When it comes to fatness and fat bodies, who gets to know?

The trolls who contradict me seem to honestly believe that they know me and my life and my behaviours better than I do. And they are angry that I am suggesting a different truth than the one they know. They want to take away any claim I have to agency, or to an authentic life or experience. And they get really, really, really mad when I refuse to let them.

But here’s the bottom line for me:

Fat people are the ones who know best about their lives, their behaviours, and their experiences. Fat people are knowers, and fat people know. Fat people produce knowledge. And if what they have to share, say, or show, contradicts the norm, or common sense, or the accepted truth – that’s too fucking bad. But that doesn’t make it any less true.