Fat and Disability: The Touchy Subject of Choice

February 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm (Disability, Medical) (, , , , , , , )

I have been gifted with a body. Whether you consider that gift something your parents gave you, or some cosmic dust exploded together by giant Invisible People isn’t necessarily the point in this essay. I just know that there was a time where I didn’t have a body, and now I do, and it’s my job to take care of that gift in the way I see best.

There are lots of people, some of which who have studied many other people’s bodies, who have strong opinions about how best to steward a body. Some people with bodies find something that makes their body and/or them happy, and they start thinking that if it did good things for them, everyone else should do it too. Some of us face bodies that do things we do not like, and we either come to a place of acceptance that our body has changed, or we fight this process by changing the way we steward the body.

Over time, we as a society have become incredibly judgmental about how other people take care of their bodies. We see people make decisions that don’t make sense to us, like smoking cigarettes, and we jump to the body’s defense. Rarely do we ask the person owning the body if they’re happy with their decisions, or are ready to change. We just see something we wouldn’t do with our body, and we assume that no one should do that with their body.

Maybe we’ve even seen other people, people we’ve loved, do things to their bodies and had their bodies decay and die because of them, or due to other things that came from those decisions. My father, for instance, smoked three packs a day. He made many decisions I didn’t agree with, including choosing to live separately from my mother, so he could continue to smoke. I know it doesn’t make sense to most of us, but to him smoking was important to the way he experienced being embodied, important enough that when his body started to change due to his smoking he chose not to quit. When his life changed due to his smoking, he chose not to quit.

Does this make me angry? Yes. I believe my mother deserved better. I believe my father deserved better. But we all make decisions about our bodies that make others unhappy. I don’t know where I heard this, but it went something like, “There’s a reason lung cancer doesn’t have a pretty ribbon you can wear on your lapel. That’s because society thinks that people who get lung cancer are all smokers, and they’re all at fault for their disease.”

I have had an abortion. This made my father very unhappy. He felt it was unnatural. But it wasn’t his body, so it wasn’t his choice. I know there are people I know who think that abortions are terrible things to do to your body. I am glad we live in a place where I had that option when the situation arose.

But this is supposed to be an essay about disability. I have been taking part in online conversations about the intersection of fat and disability, and it lead me to think about this whole concept that what I do with my body is my own business. When someone decided to tattoo their arms, it could affect their lives. They may be turned down for jobs, or potential loves, or places to live, due to the conceptions we have about tattooed bodies. However, when someone has a larger body, it become everyone’s business, and it’s completely socially acceptable to reduce someone else’s body stewardship to the size of that body.

There are “fathletes”. There are professional dancers, runners, sports players, who aren’t lithe. Look at Babe Ruth! Not lithe in the least. So do we judge bodily health based on athletic prowess? If I can walk six miles, or one sixth of a block, does that make me more or less healthy?

There are fat people who do not eat excessive amounts of food, and who have never eaten an excessive amount of food. In fact, I have been forced on so many diets in my life, I probably have eaten less over the span of my 37 years that non-fat people I know. The whole concept of bariatric surgery is based on the concept that fat people eat too much food, and as we look at some of the emerging long term studies of what happens to bariatric patients bears that out – many restretch their stomachs to factory-standard size and regain weight 10 years after surgery. (Others do use the surgery to retrain themselves to eat much smaller portions, and therefore the surgery works wonders. What I’m trying to say is that it is not the cure-all some people claim it is.)

There are fat people who make healthy food choices. On the other hand, there are lithe people who make terrible food choices, and suffer health consequences from it. But as a society, you rarely see someone accost a thinner person on the street or in an eatery and shame them for eating food we think is unhealthy or inappropriate. In fact, I think it’s more socially acceptable to shame a fat person eating an ice cream sundae, than it is to engage a pregnant woman in a conversation about smoking and drinking alcohol during their pregnancy. But no one thinks to shoot a thin person nasty looks when they order a triple burger with extra cheese. And you know what? Their bodies suffer from their choices too. I know it might surprise you, but thin people also develop type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

And there are fat people who suffer from disabilities. You’re right, sometimes we gain weight when our disability makes exercise and eating healthy food difficult – this is something I’m struggling with right now, and am about to embark on addressing with a nutritionist who knows about my limitations and is willing to come up with a plan. But as those of you who know me know, I was fat way, way, before I was disabled. So it’s not that my fat disables me; in fact, some of my symptoms get better when I gain a little weight. Also, not being able to eat or hold down food is definitely part of my disability, and so when I can eat,  and maybe gain a little weight as a side effect, it means I’m doing better.

I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that when I lose a great deal of weight due to my illness, it feels really odd to me how many people tell me how fabulous I look and how I should keep it up. In fact, there is one person that I see many times in the summer, who suggested that if my illness caused me to lose weight, then it was a good thing I was sick. It boggles me. It’s so ingrained in us that being thin means being well that we ignore the reality of other people’s bodies.

But what really makes me angry is that if I choose to be fat, or if being fat is a choice thrust upon me, I am barraged with messages (both overt and covert) that say, “If you lose weight, things will be better for you.”  No other life choice gets so much public scrutiny about how it relates to your health. People who decide to stop taking medication don’t get crucified; people who engage in risky sports don’t get harassed on the street; people who engage in addictive behaviors that decay the body are excused or ignored; but it’s completely acceptable in our society to substitute my coke for diet coke without asking (because diet coke is better for me, says you, a non-owner of my body) or to emphasize the fat content of the food I eat, or encourage me only when I am actively trying to lose weight.

This happened: I was at a local outdoor concert venue. The disabled parking was in a radically different place than other parking. Since I was walking with a cane, and long distances were difficult for my pain condition, and I have a legal parking placard, we chose to park in disabled parking. As I exited the vehicle, a man came charging up to me and loudly pointed out I was parked in a handicapped space. Mistaking him for a staff person, I pointed out the placard hanging from my rear-view, and offered to show him the documentation I carry that proves the placard belongs to me. It turned out he was just some attendee, and turned the conversation turned into one where if I walked from the lower parking lot, I wouldn’t be as fat, and I should leave that parking space for someone with a real disability. I pointed out that in Maryland, you have to have a doctor’s note that qualifies you for a placard, and the state defines what sorts of challenges count as a disability for the sake of obtaining one. So neither I, nor my doctor, just came up with “Del’s too fat to walk” and voila! I had to have long term walking issues that were documented by my doctor. Not that any of this was his business anyway. Legally, all a venue can ask for is the card in my wallet that proves the placard belongs to me.

When I see doctors, the weight issue always comes up. Now, don’t get me wrong; many of the behaviors that lead to bigger bodies can also have an impact on your health. No one knows this better than a fat person. However, it’s incredibly assumptive that if someone has a bigger body, that they’re automatically engaging in some or all the behaviors that may lead to bigger bodies. Instead of making diagnoses based on my appearance, why not ask me about those behaviors? Ask me if I have barriers to exercise. Ask me if I eat portions that are too large. Ask  me if I eat foods that are known to lead to obesity. Because in that process, you might find out things that have nothing to do with my weight.

For instance, right now, my big issue around food is that most days, my pain is too high to climb a set of stairs. Therefore, I don’t have access to a kitchen to prepare my food. Most of the food I eat is processed, shelf-stable food. I just recently put a mini fridge in my room so I can store some perishable stuff, but not much. So I’m not eating the best food for my body. On top of that, exercise is very, very difficult for me. I tried to do the Time Warp this weekend and I almost fell to the floor because my balance is way off. It is unsafe for me to go for a walk by myself, not to even address the chronic pain and neurological issues involved. But doctors don’t ask me about these things. They just slip me a brochure about bariatric surgery or medical weight loss. They just mention that if I weighed less, I’d probably have less mobility challenges.

In the end (because I’ve rambled enough about this), I’m very likely going to die a fat person. And I’m totally okay with that. I wish other people could be as okay about it, or at least accept that they, too, have ways that they treat their body that aren’t perfect, too.



  1. Deborah Friedman said,

    Yes. Thank you for saying this loudly and in public. I have the same parking lot and doctor experiences as you. “You are sick because you are fat” and “you do not look disabled enough to use that spot, in spite of your legal placard and documentation” are common refrains in my life. I hate to admit it, but both of these things still make me cry. There are so many bigger issues upon which I’d prefer to use my emotional spoons. The stairs between you and your food prep area are a major problem. I know you’re not looking to us to problem solve. Please know that you are heard, however, and you are not alone.

  2. debbiesdavis said,

    So it was really interesting when flying. I had bought the extra seat because I’m fat. And they give you the reserved placard. And you get to board early — like first — because you need two seats together and because of that you are “disabled.” I must say I took extreme satisfaction out of the dirty looks shot my way by very skinny people (who I imagined had been those who fought to force fat people to buy an extra seat) who had to slug their way all the way to the back and sit in the middle seat while I and my empty seat got to ride in relative comfort.

  3. Tina said,

    If you are happy the way you are, nothing wrong with that. Far as disability place card. I do have one for my diabetes and deafness and I ALWAYS get questioned. Even from a cop. They always say – you shouldn’t be using your grandmother’s car. I just want to sla em in the face!

  4. Wintersong said,

    The whole way our society sees issues of body size is seriously skewed. My mother has a debilitating gastrointestinal illness, and before she had major surgery a few years ago her weight had dropped to less than 90lbs (she’s 5’7″).

    She was the least healthy she’d ever been in her life, and her doctors were desperate to get her up to a weight where they could even do the surgery safely, yet people kept coming up and telling her how great it was that she was looking so thin.

    Thin =/= healthy and heavy =/= ill, but you’d never know it from the messages we get from both the medical community and the media.

  5. Cable Flame (@C4bl3Fl4m3) said,

    There’s a reason when someone mentions they’ve lost weight I always ask “is this something you wanted?” I don’t ever want to be accused of upholding “weight loss/skinny=good and weight gain/fat=bad”. I understand that some people lose weight because they were trying & are happy with it, and other people lose weight without trying and it may not be healthy for them and they’re unhappy with it. And when I ask “is this something you wanted? Should I congratulate you?” I get the weirdest responses from it, even from people that I know are mutual friends of ours.

    Being in the feederism/weight gain community, I also get the opposite response. If I mention I’ve gained weight in the community, I automatically get congratulations, regardless of if I WANTED to gain weight or not. When I first got fat (from medication that screwed up my metabolism), I gained 15 lbs in 15 days. (Which is especially a lot when you start at 5’1″ & 130lbs). Feederists have stated how I must have enjoyed that because of my fetish… the truth is, it terrified me. Thinking about it now, 11 years later, it STILL terrifies me. My body suddenly started doing something VERY DIFFERENT for it, and it was jarring.

    Alternately, with the gallstone I have, I have to be on a low-fat diet. Because of this, I’ve had a hard time feeling full & not feeling so hungry I’m in pain. I have to be careful I eat enough protein, carbs, and fats. I’ve also lost 23lbs without trying, and I’m still losing. I’m sure once my body starts reflecting the weight loss visually (I currently don’t look like I’ve lost any weight), I’m going to start getting the same congratulatory & positive comments, regardless of the fact that the weight loss has been born of illness & pain & a diet I didn’t choose willingly. (However, I *did* choose to start exercising, because I figured if I’m already on a low-fat diet & losing weight, I might as well “keep going” and exercise as well. But it’s also been something I’ve wanted to do for years now and finally got up the courage.)

  6. Bobbi Sheaffer said,

    I have MS and can sometimes not walk very far so I will use a handicapped space (I have a handicapped license plate). I only use them when I absolutely need them, and lots of times when I get out of the car and walk away I get horrible looks and mean comments from people. It is almost enough to make me take the risk of parking farther away. “You don’t LOOK disabled.” What a shame that people are so quick to make assumptions and judge the situation without much information.

  7. Tirani said,

    Thank you. Nameste.

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