fat as speaking physically and socially

A guest post by Jess Khouri

 

Fat.

Fat is a physical descriptor. Something is fat. Yet, describing something or someone as fat is never simply about that three-letter physical definition, especially when talking about human bodies. There are so many connotations to the word FAT .

How did so much social meaning become attached to a simple word? How did the physical and the social come to affect one another? I have been struggling with how to describe fat body identity and fat embodiment as I believe the physical body tells in relation to the social. By this I mean, I believe my fat, my physical size, tells the social and cultural world what it is already preconditioned to assume or believe.

I am torn between what my physical body actually tells me and what it tells society. I am “healthy.” I am physically active. I eat “healthy” by society’s standards. And yet, by looking at me, by looking at my body size, some might think I should shed some pounds, only for my health’s sake of course. The same goes for many fat bodies. They could be perfectly “healthy” by medical standards and yet because their fat reads as unhealthy their bodies are prescribed physical weight loss, exercise, and dieting.

In relation, when thinking of the recent discussions to prevent women with a BMI of 35 from in-vitro-fertilization treatments, specifically the September 20, 2011 article in the Globe and Mail, I wonder how body vs. perception of body comes into play. What does this decision say about the medical reading of fat bodies? And in turn what does this do for self-identity?

By not allowing women of a certain size to get IVF treatments, doctors are making assumptions on their reproductive abilities. They are reading fat as incapable of reproduction. Body size then becomes an indicator of who will and will not be a good reproducer.

And if fat is therefore seen as not reproductive, I then question how this reading of bodies plays into questions of citizenship. If a common perception is that women reproduce the nation, how then are fat women read? As less than, because the medical community tells them they cannot reproduce? As not fulfilling their citizenship? As bad citizens? Citizenship, in this case, gets read on fat bodies as the inability to reproduce the nation. In the article, Dr. Cheung states that he wonders if this decision is reflective of the biases of our own society. (read fat biases). I also wonder if this means that Fat bodies do not have the same reproductive rights as the thin. It most certainly becomes a question of size and perception of size. The bias that Dr. Cheung addresses speaks to the fat hating lens through which many people in society view bodies. We see inability to reproduce, because we want to.

Additionally, I wonder whether the decision to prevent  fat women from having IVF treatments also goes hand in hand with the way fat mothers are read? Fat women, who are mothers, are often perceived as bad moms, passing fatness to their children, not encouraging them to “eat right” or exercise. Does this reading of the maternal body play into medical decisions? Stop it before it can start?  The stigma surrounding fatness as a whole must play into the medical viewing of fat bodies.

Yet, in a plain physical sense, there’s no medical evidence to prove that it is dangerous for women with a high BMI to get IVF treatments. If physically, without any social meanings, preconceptions, assumptions attached, physically these women are able to get IVF treatments successfully, why does the social meaning of fatness trump all? By this I mean in a plain physical sense if the body tells capability it must be the social meaning we turn to, to understand fat as incapable.

This leads me into my next question of how the social reading of fatness affects self-bodily identity. If these women, who are considered “obese” by arbitrary measures, are consistently being told they are not fit to reproduce, are incapable of reproduction, would be putting potential children at risk, how then does this perception affect their own? How long before these views are internalized? Before they start reading their own bodies this way?

At the very least, preventing women who are “too fat” from getting IVF treatments is a severe form of discrimination. It speaks loudly to how the medical community, hand in hand with the social and cultural, read fat bodies and in turn the effects that it could have on how fat people perceive themselves.

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