by Sally E. Smith

A bit of anger every now and then is a good thing, especially when it's justified. But why is it that in increasing number of oppressed people seem to direct that anger at their own communities?

The size acceptance movement, launched three decades ago, has certainly made a difference in the lives of many fat people and FAs. Despite the relatively small number of people involved with the movement over the years (given the millions of fat people living in this country), our movement has had an impact on the public consciousness, and has drawn people who have had the courage to undertake the mighty task of traveling the path of self acceptance and size acceptance. As a result of the efforts of those in the movement, some of the stigma about fatness has lessened, there is less self-hatred and body loathing, and many thousands of people have led happier, more fulfilling lives.

When I think about the progress the movement has made, I'm very proud of our accomplishments, yet at the same time I can't help but wonder how much we would have achieved it we didn't spend so much time beating each other up. Perhaps if we didn't spend so much time engaging in a form of cannibalism, we would already have ended discrimination against fat people, and removed the stigma associated with preferring a fat partner.

Those readers who are new to the size acceptance movement, or those who aren't particularly active, may not know about this weird dynamic, which occurs over and over again where different scenarios and different characters. My perspective (from my knowledge of the movement and my experience as executive director of NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) is that there are regular blow-ups within both local and national groups severe enough to significantly impede the progress of those groups, and having long-lasting repercussions. NAAFA's blow-ups seem to occur about every five years, and they tend to the the slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners type of conflicts.

By the end of one of these blow-ups, a previously decent group of people become totally vitriolic, bitter, and generally part ways on terms that would best be described as "Yo' mama". At least some of the players end up trashing others in the most public ways possible (as someone whose adversaries fed her to the piranhas at the National Enquirer, I feel I'm somewhat of an authority on this), and as a result the size acceptance movement suffers tremendously, while our true adversaries (like the diet industry) rub their hands with glee at our antics.

This dynamic occurs between individuals as well, as evidenced by some of the downright mean notes that are sent on size-related lists and bulletin boards on the Internet and the World Wide Web. What begins as a disagreement between two people becomes, seemingly overnight, World War III, with accusations flying, others lining up to take sides, and ostensible colleagues tossing barbs at one another. I've often wondered why people write such nasty notes, because I can't imagine them verbalizing such thoughts to the other person's face with hundreds of onlookers (after all, I'm sure their mothers raised them to have better manners).

So, what's going on here? Are we doomed to fight each other to the next century and beyond, or is there a possibility that we can get beyond our individual differences and join together in a cohesive effort to end size discrimination and empower people all sizes of large?

My perception is that there are a number of factors contributing to the size acceptance movement's form of self-mutilation, the central one being that, as individuals, we can't manage to turn our self-hatred into productive anger. The experience of most fat people in the movement is that they have spent years loathing themselves and despising their bodies, then enter the size acceptance movement and over time come to realize that it is not they who have failed the dieting process, but rather that the dieting process has failed them; that the message reinforced by families, so-called friends, the media, and the medical community--that they don't deserve the same opportunities as thin people, and that they don't deserve the same dignity and respect as thin people--is completely and totally false. The dawning of this realization, which can take years, is accompanied by profound feelings of anger. This rage is totally understandable, and, I firmly belief, totally healthy.

We have a lot to be pissed off about: we've wasted years of our lives being duped into believing ourselves to be sub-human; we were dragged to doctors and dieticians and Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and back again by our parents; we were ridiculed by our schoolmates; we were fired by our employers; we were shamed-or even shunned-by our families. And we kept taking it and taking it. It's no wonder we're a little irate when we realize that it was all so unnecessary.

It's important to feel those feelings of anger. But the question is, What do we do with those feelings? This is the area that, I believe, trips up the size acceptance movement. It seems as though, in many instances, anger isn't worked through and turns into a rage that magnifies relatively insignificant transgressions and that is vented on allies rather than oppressors.

I know many folks (myself included) who have laid awake in bed at night, seething over an injustice, and many folks who confront those who caused the injustice. I know other folks who are enraged, but who don't even know it, and who become embittered by their oppressive experiences. And there are some folks who are able to turn their anger into a productive tool in the fight to end size discrimination.

If unproductive anger is the primary reason why the size acceptance movement engages in so much infighting, what are the other reasons?

Individuals and organizations in the movement seem to have severe scarcity issues. In other words, that there's "not enough" of something to go around, so we must fight or backbite each other in order to get our share. Whether it's women being catty at a dance where they outnumber the men, whether it's one faction of an organization's leadership turning against a faction perceived as too powerful, or whether it's one organization bashing another over perceived transgressions, it's all about scarcity: scarcity of men, scarcity of power, scarcity of fat people.

And low self-esteem may play an important role in this dynamic. On more than one occasion, I have pondered our relative ineffectiveness (Why does NAAFA have only a tiny fraction of one percent of the fat population in its membership?; Why do we have intraorganizational blowups every five years?; Why haven't we gotten the financial support that would enable us to work full time to change public policy affecting fat people?) and found myself wondering if the reason for our limited success is because, somewhere down deep inside, we still don't believe we deserve to be treated well. And if this might be the reason we don't treat each other well. Although I've always believed that you don't have to be friends with someone in order to work effectively with them, there does have to be a modicum of mutual respect. And I wonder if the reason mutual respect is sometimes lacking is because of a lack of self-respect.

I don't mean to paint a totally bleak picture, or lead people to think that the size acceptance movement is comprised of mean-spirited, terrible people. The movement has made a lot of progress, particularly in the last decade, and the people in the movement are, on the whole, good people. It's just that we engage in this really unproductive behavior sometimes. And it's a shame to think that, in addition to the efforts of our oppressors, we might be holding ourselves back.

Without pleading "Can't we all just get along?", I wonder what we might do to begin to change the destructive dynamic that exists in the size acceptance movement (and, as an aside, in most other movements of oppressed people). A good first step would be to recognize that we're a diverse group of people who come from vastly different experiences, but that we each have experienced weight-related oppression, and that we can respect and honor that experience.

We could also pledge to engage in direct and respectful communication, expressing our anger in a fruitful way, and to realize and accept that sometimes we will simply disagree.

As the mother of a 19-month-old, I've learned a couple of other tactics that might work. The first is to choose your battles: only fight the important fights and let the rest go. People with different styles and different personalities can work together as long as they don't try and make the other conform to their thinking or their way of doing things.

The second thing we can do is what I say to my son when he's getting into something that's either dangerous or off-limits to him: "Walk away, Morgan. Walk away." I think if we walked away from volatile discussions or situations rather than digging in and launching verbal grenades, the effectiveness of our efforts to work together to end size discrimination and empower fat people will increase exponentially. ß