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Emma Woolf has misunderstood the whole concept of fat pride

Supersize, superskinny: aren't we all bigger than that now?

New Statesman
Women in a park. Photograph: Getty Images

Emma Woolf,  Supersize vs Superskinny presenter, recovered anorexic and author of the recently published Ministry of Thin, is under attack. So she wrote a book in which it was argued that thin people face discrimination in the same way fat people do. Then she wrote a piece for the Guardian reiterating this, and one for the Daily Beast, in which she claimed to have “discovered that even to hint that fatness might be anything [other] a cause for celebration is a big mistake” and that “the plus-size sisterhood can be frightening – not unlike playground bullies”.  So now it’s all blown up into fat versus thin – a literal supersize vs superskinny – despite the fact Woolf’s main aim (which I don’t doubt) has been to support those with eating disorders. It’s all deeply unpleasant, and hard for outsiders to approach (not least if one dreads being cast as a plus-sized bully). Nonetheless, if this really is how some thin people feel, isn’t it time we engaged with it?

On the face of it, this feels a tremendously pointless debate to be having, Who’s got it worst, fatties or thinnies? Seriously, is that where we’re at? And yet the level of disgust, resentment and bullying faced by fat people seems to me so high that Woolf’s position requires a response.

Woolf’s failure to acknowledge the difference between sniping at thin people and the constant discrimination faced by those who are fat is a real slap in the face to anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the latter. Hence the real pain and anger her comments have unleashed. It’s not a competition, no, but honestly – the scales just aren’t evenly balanced here.

Allow me to be clear: I’m not fat. I mention this, not because this makes me more or less authoritative, but to nip all those ad hominem “you’re just jealous” arguments in the bud. After all, Woolf has used the apparent envy of her fat friends as evidence for her thesis (she quotes one token fat friend as saying: “it’s jealousy, pure and simple. Skinny-minnies are fair game because we all want to lose weight”). I write this as a relatively slim person. I might have issues with my body but I see no need to stick a thinspirational photo of Woolf on my fridge. However, I have been fat. What’s more, I’ve also been very, very thin.

Like Woolf I suffered from anorexia for a decade. Unlike Woolf, upon recovery I went through a phase of not being able to stop eating. What happened to me – an extension/distortion of the original eating disorder – is not uncommon in former anorexics. Even so, I would like to stress that I do not think fatness or thinness in itself is indicative of an eating disorder. Woolf seems to suggest otherwise:

I see clear parallels between fatness and thinness. I believe that out-of-control eating may work in the same way as out-of-control starving, as a defence mechanism against the world, a place to retreat when it all gets too much.

For someone like me – and indeed Woolf – that might be the case, but most fat people do not get fat the way I did. Body size does not tell us everything about a person’s relationship with food and their psyche. My fatness was not another person’s fatness. I do, however, think the responses I got when I was big – and the ways in which I felt myself to be positioned in relation to slimmer people – are pretty typical when it comes to the fat person’s experience of the world.

Woolf is correct in claiming that “fat-shaming” (as in directly accusing an individual of being repulsive/unattractive/morally deficient etc. because of their size) is officially more frowned upon than “thin-shaming”. That’s not to say we don’t do it (the fat and famous are always fair game), or that we don’t find ways to get around it (the passive-aggressive indirect fat-shaming of Heat, Closer, Now etc. is aimed at all of us, not just that one starlet who failed to get sufficiently beach body ready). More important than this, though, is the fact that what we don’t say out loud to people’s faces can be far more damaging than the things we’re comfortable expressing. Antipathy towards fatness is ingrained. We don’t even need to voice it.

The moment you start – as Woolf has done – saying things like “if it’s OK for you to be fat and proud of it, it’s OK for me to be slim and proud of it, too”, you’re misunderstanding the whole concept of fat pride. You’re treading on the same ground as Straight Pride UK, with their laughable assertion that the heterosexual community need to get more “out there” and confident in their sexuality. What next? When someone mocks me for having pale skin, should I start googling “white pride”? I don’t wish to suggest race, sexual orientation and body size are equivalent attributes (many people can and do change their body size), or that fattism has the same heritage and  structural implications as racism or homophobia. What I mean is that the pride that comes from facing up to disadvantage and dismissal isn’t the same as merely feeling “woo-hoo, look at me with my slim legs / white skin / heterosexual partner!”. It’s pride not in the attributes, but in your own fundamental worth and courage. It’s something I, as a fat person, aspired to but never achieved. I didn’t want to love my flesh – it’s just flesh – but I wanted to love myself enough to face down the world (instead I resorted to chain-smoking and self-induced vomiting. The worst thing of is, given how much more accepted I feel as a smaller person, I often find it hard to regret such abuse).

Mockery of the thin –  my size zero hell, return of the lollipop ladies, etc. etc. – is not acceptable. Nonetheless, it sits within a broader context of absolute veneration of thinness. Hence there’s a curious double edge to thin-bashing. When I returned to work after nine months of breastfeeding – for once not anorexic yet underweight – I became very much aware of this. Colleagues were split between admiration (“you look fantastic!”) and rather rudely expressed concern (“you’re way too thin, you look terrible!”). Sometimes I sensed both sentiments to be coming from the same person at the same time. I felt uncomfortable not least because I felt, unwittingly, I’d made them uncomfortable, just by being there in that thin body. I worried that people would assume I was judging them for not being skinny like me (Woolf is certainly not helping thin people on that score). But – and this is a big but – I did not feel like a transgressor. I did not feel as though I was looked down on, rejected or seen as comically irrelevant (all of which I felt when fat). If anything, my discomfort was connected to the sense that I’d become, quite inappropriately, one of the chosen people.

I’d switch on the TV or flick through magazines and all I’d see were other women who were thin – thin! – like me. And then there I was, in real life, walking round the office, suddenly back among the lesser mortals, the normal people with their muffin tops and cankles. Being thin is a privilege, however you achieve it. It’s a weird one, especially if you’ve tortured yourself to get there, but it’s a privilege all the same.

I think, deep down, Woolf knows all this. She knows she’s on the side of the 100 per cent fat-free angels. In Ministry of Thin she even claims to feel pity when she sees fat children. I was a fat child, an anorexic teen, a fat adult, now a slim one. At no stage have I wanted or needed the pity of a thin woman based purely on what I look like. Acceptance, yes, pity, no. Pity implies superiority. It suggests fat children are losing on their own, self-contained grounds when actually it’s someone else’s gaze – your gaze – that seeks to rob them of their dignity. If you are too weak to see a fat child as an individual human being, someone to be responded to on his or her own terms, then I’d really question who’s most in need of sympathy.

Healthy bodies and minds aren’t defined by shape. Our outline is an indicator, and a poor one at best. The normalisation that Woolf depicts as healthy – and the fake equivalence she posits between life on the extremes – simply feeds our delusions. And yet of course, this isn’t an argument we should even be having. Aren’t we all bigger than that?