Why can't we recognize fat anger?
It was nearly midnight when I first read about Zeta Beta Tau’s so-called “pig roast” at Cornell University.
Zeta Beta Tau was an explicit, institutionally-sanctioned version of a phenomenon I’d long been familiar with as a fat woman. At Cornell, the “pig roast” contest awarded points to fraternity members for sleeping with fat women. In the event of a tie, it would be broken by whoever slept with the fattest woman.
While it was the first to receive such widespread media attention, this instance at Cornell was far from the first “pig roast” — it was simply the first to be disciplined. For years, my fat friends and I had traded stories of our experiences of being asked out on a dare. Sex with fat girls like us was collected like a curio or howled at like a punchline. I just wanted to know what it was like. Our personal stories all bore a striking resemblance to what happened at Cornell, echoing its themes: that fat sexuality was a freakshow, that fat sex was hilarious in its repulsiveness, and that fat people were fundamentally undesirable.
A dozen years before Zeta Beta Tau was brought before Cornell’s Fraternity and Sorority Review Board, something strikingly similar had happened to me.
I was in a bar, thousands of miles from home, talking to a kind stranger. He asked for my number, and I gave it. When he returned to his friends, he was greeted with cheers and laughter. They stared at me openly. One high fived him.
I had been a bet.
When it happened, I felt the ground fall away beneath me. I was dizzied by the realization that I had been a living punchline to someone else’s joke, that their delight was solely derived my humiliation. The shame I felt was so deep, so pervasive that it saturated every inch of my body. And it was so intense that I didn’t tell anyone for years.
Now, another group of young men on a nearby college campus had done the same thing — this time, they bore the name of a fraternity. And this time, someone paid attention.
A dozen years later, my reaction to reading the Zeta Beta Tau story was different. I was overtaken again, but this time by an electrical current, a searing anger that buzzed and popped like neon. I wasn’t ashamed. I was furious.
Who were these people? I thought before immediately correcting myself. I knew who they were. They were the same men who laughed at me in the bar that night. They were the same men who wrote no fatties in their dating profiles — or its more demure cousins, I like a woman who takes care of herself or active, outdoorsy type.
They were the people who stared at me at a restaurant, who freely removed items from my cart at the grocery store. They were the cameramen whosurreptitiously filmed fat people in public places, filmed only from the neck down, their images unknowingly used as a scarlet letter, a shame-based deterrent for anyone else who might have gained weight.
They weren’t just Zeta Beta Tau. They were everywhere. And I was intensely angry.
When I told friends about the actions of Zeta Beta Tau, their reactions were decidedly more passive. How sad. What limited lives they’ll lead. Hopefully those women had enough self respect to turn them down.
My anger doubled, their passiveness bellowing my flames. Why was it the work of those women to have enough self respect to know they’d been intentionally misled? Why was it their job to hold off the bad actions of men who could — and did — know better? Why concern over the limited lives these men would lead, of their gauche and untoward actions, and so little discussion of the psychological damage of the fat women forced to be such public punchlines?
Why was I alone in my anger?
As our conversations continued, it became clear that it wasn’t just their reactions that were steeped in disappointment — they painted mine the same way. I can see why you’re so sad. It’s heartbreaking.
Like so many before them, the straight size friends in my life struggled to see my anger as a fat woman. To them, fat hate was so organic and ubiquitous that it wasn’t cause for alarm or for anger. Like pollutants in the air, they didn’t rail against fat hate because it was so omnipresent that it seemed natural. Fat hate warranted mourning, maybe, but never anger. And the more we discussed the story, the clearer it became that they didn’t object to the fact of these frat boys’ beliefs, but of the vulgar openness of their fat hate. The brothers of Zeta Beta Tau had been too bold, too gauche in their gleeful disdain for fat women. Of course no one wants a fat woman. But it’s unseemly to make such a public point of it.
They couldn’t locate anger in themselves, but they couldn’t see it in me, either. Like so many straight size people, they struggled to see my anger because they struggled to see what had happened as fundamentally unacceptable. To them, it was a shame was these young men had systematically and publicly humiliated so many fat women. A shame, yes, but not an outrage. Instead of seeing my anger, they translated my reaction into something they could understand. To them, I must be heartbroken that this was a fact of living in the body I have. It couldn’t be angering. It was just a sad and simple truth.
My friends were not alone. Too often, many struggle to see fat people as we are. Culturally, we can only seem to see fat people as sad and isolated or fierce and unapologetic — two sides of the same, flat coin. Fat people can have depression and defiance, but we have not earned a third emotional dimension. So of course our anger cannot be seen. But if we cannot hear fat anger, we cannot hear what fat people are saying. And we cannot see fat people for who they are.
Fat hate is worthy of my anger and yours.
Fat people are routinely denied health care. Many doctors describe office visits with fat patients as a “waste of time,” and are openly biased in their beliefs about fat people. Fat people die as a result of unresponsive health care workers. One woman died because she was denied entry onto an airplane that would have delivered her to lifesaving medical care.
Women as little as 13 pounds overweight take home $9000 less per year than thinner women, and are less likely to be hired at all. Employers reliably view fat people as less suitable for any job, regardless of its physical demands. And in the US, employment discrimination on the basis of size is perfectly legal.
67% of Americans are, according to the deeply flawed Body Mass Index, overweight or obese. People you know are assumed to be lazy, stupid and doomed to an early grave. People you love are routinely told they are unlovable.
All of that might make you sad, but it should also make you mad. Sadness settles into your bones, pulls you into maudlin inertia. But anger ignites.Anger is active. It requires engagement, prompts action, fuels change.Movements are built on anger. Policies are changed by outrage. Behaviors are forged in fury — in the flames of anger, the solidity of resistance suddenly becomes white hot and pliable.
I need your anger because I need your action. The passivity of heartbreakingand what a shame will not slow the tsunami of hate that sweeps fat people away. It will not stop the brothers of Zeta Beta Tau, or any other fraternity, from seeing fat women as easy and funny sexual targets. Action — and anger — will do that.
And your anger is a measure of love. It sparks when you see the humanity and worthiness in someone you love, and want to defend them. Anger ignites when you are able to identify that something happening around you — even if it is commonplace — is wrong, and must be changed. Anger is the combustion that starts the engine.
If we cannot see or hear others’ anger, we stand in the way of the change it seeks. And if we quell our own anger, we numb ourselves to what’s wrong, and we muffle how to make it right. Despite our best intentions, our resistance to anger blocks our ability to connect, to empathize, and to take action to build something better.
So nurture your anger. Let its flame burn bright when it needs to. Let it reduce to embers when it has been exhausted. Let the heat of your anger lift you like a paper lantern. Let it propel you to something bigger, better, stronger. Let it fill you and let it move you. Let your little light shine, and let it join mine. Let us illuminate the sky.