a torah that is fat
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
What I love about fatphobia...wait, that didn't come out quite right. Let me try again: what I find so deeply compelling about the work of Fat Torah is that the insidious pervasiveness of weight stigma --harming so many different people in so many different ways-- also means that the healing and liberation can start from anywhere. Fatphobia is woven so thoroughly into so many corners (and wide open spaces and cul-de-sacs and schools and offices and homes and, yes, houses of worship) of our society that one can pull any single thread to start its unraveling. Or to quote my 24-year-old self "you can have a little uprising from wherever you're put down, and so I start my revolution in my bathing suit and I make my politics very very personal."
Another framing: This work pitches its tent right in the space where the fields of spiritual care and social justice intersect. In spiritual care, we are primarily concerned with the spiritual well-being of the individual in front of us. In social justice, we are concerned with how membership or lack of membership in a particular group impacts one’s life chances. In spiritual care, I am focused on suffering and the alleviation of suffering. In social justice, I am focused on privilege and power (and lack thereof) and the righting of wrongs on the societal level.
Weight stigma is a particularly powerful teacher around how these two fields interact, how tikkun halev (innermost healing) and tikkun olam (world healing) are inseparable. To understand how this works, we first have to look at some different types of fatphobia: internalized, interpersonal, and systemic. Author and activist Virgie Tovar does a lovely job of describing these with slightly different terminology/valences. Internalized fatphobia is about how I relate to my own body. Interpersonal fatphobia comprises interactions between individuals (e.g. friends, family, community members, etc.). Systemic fatphobia is at play when the actual life chances of fat people are limited due to lack of equal access to healthcare, employment, education, or clothing.
In looking at who is impacted by each of these types of weight stigma, we can start to see the interplay of the fields of spiritual care and social justice in addressing them. The vast majority of women and femmes, as well as plenty of people of all other genders (or none), have experienced internalized fatphobia at some point in their lives regardless of their actual size: looking in the mirror or stepping on the scale and believing that some aspect of their lives or their mood would be better if they were thinner. Given the distorted ways in which girls and women are taught to view their own bodies, I would not be surprised if research found that there is not even necessarily a predictable connection between the amount that one suffers from internalized weight stigma and the actual measurable size of one’s body. And as Virgie points out, this kind of fatphobia (which she calls “intrapersonal”) isn’t just about being dissatisfied with how one looks in the mirror. One example she uses is when a person “cannot focus on a meaningful moment in their lives (like sex or a wedding or an important birthday) because their fatphobic thoughts are so loud that all they can think of is how this moment would be better if they were more weight compliant.”
Interpersonal fatphobia is judgments that one person makes about another based on their body size. These judgments can then be expressed in many forms from passing comments to decisions about hiring. Interpersonal fatphobia mainly impacts fat people, however there are certainly people who are not fat who nonetheless have people in their lives (usually close family members) who express deep judgment about their bodies and “accuse them” of being fat And, of course, since our bodies change over time, there are plenty of people who, for example, experienced interpersonal fatphobia as fat children but then grew up to be adults with considerable thin privilege. They may carry the internalized wounds from those experiences while not facing interpersonal fatphobia in their adult lives. But the biggest burden of interpersonal fatphobia falls on the largest among us. You, my thin friend, may have had an abusive aunt who regularly called you “fat” as a skinny child, but you are much less likely than I to have random strangers say mean things about your body when you dare to be fat in public.
Systemic fatphobia impacts the life chances of fat people. No matter how much internalized fatphobia you suffer from, unless you are fat, you are not experiencing this type of weight stigma. Here are some examples to help you understand whether you are subject to systemic fatphobia:
Can you go to a “straight-size” clothing store and find clothes in your size?
Can you go to the doctor and expect that you won’t automatically be judged as “noncompliant?”
Can you apply to graduate school and not have your size seen as a measure of your chances of completing your degree?
If so, you are not experiencing systemic fatphobia, regardless of how badly you feel about your own body (even if your pain has contributed to an eating disorder). And the converse is also true: one can be quite fat and suffer much less from internalized fatphobia than someone in a smaller body who hates themselves. While my own internalized fatphobia has its ups and downs, I know that there are smaller-bodied people all around me who are in much greater psychospiritual pain about their size than I am on average these days.
I keep using the term thin privilege (here are 22 examples in case you’re not sure what I mean) and I want to be clear that this is on a continuum. I have more thin privilege than people in larger bodies than mine (as well as other forms of privilege that intersect including white privilege and currently-able-bodied privilege) and less than people who are smaller than me.
In putting this all together, I imagine a quadrant chart where one axis measures “amount of suffering from internalized fatphobia” and the other axis measures thin privilege. Where might you place yourself on such a chart today and what might it help you understand about all of this? And how does this help in thinking about the nexus of spiritual care and social justice?
If we were only interested in spiritual care then it wouldn’t matter how much privilege you had or lacked. Thin people could simply heal their own internalized fatphobia without making any moves to dismantle fatphobia as an oppressive system. In fact, thinner people in the body positivity movement have been accused of doing just that. Instead, Fat Torah calls upon and teaches thin allies to use their power (which is what privilege is) to make change not only for themselves but for others.
However, if we were only interested in social justice then it would be easy to dismiss the pain of those in thinner bodies who suffer from internalized weight stigma. This suffering is real and, as I said above, if this pain could be measured, I’m sure that there are many thin people who experience more pain about their body size than I do. Fat Torah is also a place for paying attention to that suffering and attending to its healing without letting it eclipse the power dynamic of thin privilege and fat oppression.
In some ways these two perspectives of spiritual care and social justice align with the Jewish mystical attributes of Hesed and Gevurah: hesed with its unbounded and unboundaried lovingkindness, flowing to all and not distinguishing between kinds. And Gevurah, boundary itself, the great “No!” which recognizes the world-building and world-saving power of judgment and justice. In Fat Torah, we recognize the deep value of each of these Divine attributes as well as the need to balance them.
And my grandest hope is that the necessity of including perspectives of both social justice and spiritual care in confronting weight stigma will also provide an opportunity to increase our understanding of how these approaches can work together in confronting other systems of oppression. While as an individual I may be limited by my positionality (as a white, straight-ish, temporarily-abled, educated, Ashkenazi woman), I dream of Fat Torah serving as a resource and an ally for anti-racism, disability justice, queer liberation, and other movements of the marginalized just as it learns so much from them and owes so much to them, a Fat Torah that embodies both the need for and the possibility of a complete healing of each human heart and of the world itself.
In other words, Fat Torah is a Torah --a source of wisdom and spiritual sustenance--
that is fat: rich and expansive, nourishing from itself and beyond itself, with room for all, teaching through its love of fatness a love of all other marginalized bodies --Black and brown and queer and trans and disabled and old and sick and neurodiverse. A Torah that is fat: an unfolding knowing of delicious plenitude and, God willing, a breadth of fresh air.
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