a miracle of fat
When people ask me what fat torah is and what its aims are, I find that I keep circling back to the same story. So, while I had said we’d be diving into my own history of dieting and then a framing of weight stigma as idolatry, responses to last week’s post have made me want to share this with you first instead:
My nearly four-year-old daughter and I went to the Chanukah party for her gan (Israeli pre-K and kindergarten) this past December. I was 39 weeks pregnant and feeling...39 weeks pregnant. We walked into the synagogue sanctuary to find it teeming with delighted preschoolers and their parents: the music was about to start and our first activity would be dancing!
I generally enjoy dancing, especially with preschool children, but I wasn’t really feeling up for it. I swayed in time to the music and tried to just be in the moment with my pregnant body and my delighted daughter, but when she made it clear that she wanted me to jump up and down with her, I felt deflated. I usually move through the world these days, thank God, with a good amount of body confidence, but I felt uncharacteristically self-conscious, with a monologue of internalized weight stigma suddenly running in my head: “I hope everybody knows that I would be dancing all over the place if I weren’t pregnant.” Here I was using my pregnancy to try to defend myself against imagined fatphobic put downs about my ever-so-slightly limited mobility. As if anyone was actually going to say something judgmental about my fat body because of my dancing! (Spoiler alert: Someone was about to actually say something judgmental about fat people dancing.)
They had hired a young man to play guitar and lead the singing and dancing and I thought he was doing a lovely job. I’ve been in his shoes, and playing music for a large number of preschoolers can be quite a challenge. After a few lively renditions of familiar Chanukah tunes, we took a break to eat sufganiyot. I felt relieved that I could stop disappointing my daughter with my slower-than-she-wanted dancing. Kids and parents alike were served the fried, jelly-filled Chanukah treats and an absorbed hush fell over the munching crowd.
The young man picked up his guitar again, and once again I felt impressed: he knew how to work with this age group well enough to bring them back into the music before anyone started wandering off. And that’s when he check, check, checked his mic and said, “Ok! Let’s all come back to dancing, unless you’ve gotten too fat from those sufganiyot!”
Was I invisible? How is it that the fattest person in the room was somehow unseen? Or did he just not think that what he was saying would be hurtful? Or did he think he was only addressing himself to the preschoolers and surely none of them had body image issues? Let me be clear: I was made fun of for my size as a kindergartener; it hurt plenty.
More than one person that I’ve told this story to has chuckled at his “punchline” and tried to comfort me by explaining that he was just making a joke. I understood very well that he was making a joke. I understood it because, whether he intended it or not, the joke was at my expense. So often fat jokes bring to mind George Orwell’s insight that the aim of a joke is “not to degrade the human being but to remind him [sic] that he [sic] is already degraded.”
So let’s unpack this “joke” a bit. “Let’s all come back to dancing, unless you’ve gotten too fat from those sufganiyot!” is only funny if you follow this line of thinking:
1. Sufganiyot make you fat and unhealthy. (That’s not actually how it works.)
3. It’s funny when some people’s bodies can’t participate in the planned dancing activities. (Welcome to the intersection of fatphobia and ableism.)
What’s powerful to me about this story is that it shows how particularly damaging it can be when fatphobia shows up in the context of religious community: in these spaces that are specifically meant to foster belonging, we do genuine harm when we cause people in all kinds of marginalized bodies to feel that this is not a space for them. In communities where we are asked to bring our whole selves -- body, heart, mind and soul -- the injury caused by stigma, by “othering” cuts to the very core of our beings; it is soul-deep. This is certainly true for fat people and for people of all sizes who are recovering (or not yet recovering) from eating disorders when we encounter fatphobia, but it’s also true for Jews of color, Jews with disabilities, queer Jews, Jews dealing with mental illness and others with marginalized identities.
This kind of “joke” also undermines our relationships with Jewish observance -- in this case by suggesting that enjoying our culturally significant foods will turn you into an object of derision. Across Jewish backgrounds, what Chanukah foods share (whether sufganiyot, sfinj, or latkes) is that they are fried in fat. What does it mean to demonize those foods specifically?
The musician’s one little throwaway line does an amazing job of showing the specific harm done by fatphobia in the context of religious community. Yes, I was embarrassed and angry and concerned for the message this person was sending to these little kids about eating and celebrating and fatness. I was worried about being judged for my dancing; he made it clear that, yes, dear three and four and five year olds, you will be judged for what you eat and what your body looks like and how it moves.
But his barb also sparked another response in me, an upwelling of resistance, a deep knowing and desire to sing out this torah of liberation: We eat fried foods on Chanukah in remembrance of the fat that allowed our traditions, and by extension our people, to survive. Chanukah is, in fact, a holiday that celebrates fat as that which sustains and renews us. What if we started shouting that into our microphones instead?
I hope this story has illustrated how fat torah is a methodology of both confronting fatphobia and understanding our traditions as a potential source of fat liberation. My audacious goals for this work are:
1. to end weight stigma in Jewish communal life and train Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and community members to confront fatphobia wherever they encounter it (including in themselves).
2. to better equip people who already work in fat activism, Health at Every Size, eating disorders recovery, and related weight neutral and body positive fields to recognize and attend to spiritual and religious needs in themselves and those they serve.
3. to propagate a methodology of connecting with sacred text, tradition, and spirituality that fosters body liberation for people of all sizes.
In Jewish tradition, we are called upon to be God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation. Our midrashic (interpretive) tradition imagines a God who looks into torah and reads the world into existence. We too can look into torah, into our practices and traditions and holy communities and read creation anew.
In these challenging times --when our social media feeds are full of fear mongering about gaining weight during social isolation while racism leads to both law enforcement and the coronavirus disproportionately killing Black people-- this practice of looking into torah and reading into being a world that sees human dignity as the birthright of every single body is not only an option, but a commandment and a deep calling.
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