Those Aren't Benefits

[Trigger warning for discussion of body size; rape culture.]

Oof. I've gotten a bunch of emails about this post at Sociological Images, titled "Some Benefits of Being Fat." It's a seriously (and uncharacteristically) failful piece, which notes that the alleged benefits are: 1. Making oneself "socially ineligible for the sexual gaze," owing to a belief that being fat "will protect them from being looked at, unwanted touching, and sexual assault," and: 2: Inoculating oneself against the possibility that "you would not be lovable, even if thin," represented by a PostSecret entry reading, "I'm afraid to lose the weight because I fear I will still be rejected by guys. At least when I'm fat, there is a clear reason why no one looks at me."

Let's take these one at a time.

One: As I have written previously, several studies have found associations between childhood sexual trauma and childhood and/or adult obesity, especially in girls and women (example), and while part of that may be a response to having been sexually objectified, exploited, and/or assaulted at a young age, part of it may also be attributable to compulsively overeating as an emotional salve. Children (for the most part) cannot access on their own the appropriate tools adults use to process trauma, like therapy. They can't access inappropriate tools adults use to cope with trauma, either; they don't have access to drugs or booze, but they do have access to food—and children in emotional distress can use food to self-medicate.

So, it's not a solid assumption that all women whose fatness is correlated with sexual trauma are deliberately trying to make themselves "socially ineligible for the sexual gaze." Fatness may be a side effect of a functional coping mechanism, unrelated to a conscious attempt to change one's body.

There are, however, women who consciously attempt to change their bodies after sexual trauma, in response to the pervasive cultural narrative that rape is a compliment, as well as all the associated myths about fat women being sexually unappealing. But, of course, fat and sexy are not mutually exclusive categories, and sex appeal does not predict one's chance of being raped, anyway: Women outside of the traditional beauty standard are victimized by sexual violence, too. A belief that fat will keep one safe from sexual violence is erroneous.

Which means that consciously/deliberately (or even unconsciously/inadvertently) making oneself fat is hardly a "benefit," by any traditional understanding of the word.

It is, naturally, an understandable strategy for a woman to take in response to being victimized, in a culture where individual women are primarily tasked with rape prevention. But that makes is a lot less a "benefit of being fat" than a reflection of a rape culture in which routine harassment of women, ubiquitous imagery sexually objectifying primarily thin women's bodies, narratives about rape being a compliment, and individual women being expected to find solutions to a systemic and epidemic crisis act in concert to make "change your body" seem like a reasonable response to sexual violence.

Two: To use one's fat as a shield behind which to hide, so you can assume that anyone who doesn't like you merely finds your body unattractive, is some real fat-hating shit—again, rooted in the myth that no one finds fat women sexually appealing. Fat hatred isn't a "benefit" of being fat. It's also hardly a "benefit" to deliberately stunt one's personal growth by avoiding serious self-reflection and axiomatically projecting fat hatred onto everyone who doesn't like you.

* * *

To be clear, I don't want to suggest that there aren't women who use being fat in these ways (and others), and I don't mean to suggest that those women are "bad" if they do. I am also not arguing that there are no benefits to being fat, especially on an individual basis where the biggest benefit of being fat may be not fighting with your body every day to try to get it to do something it just won't do. I cannot underestimate the value of living in a body with whom one has harmony, which one views as an integrated part of self, rather than a nemesis with whom one is engaged in a constant battle.

I just fundamentally disagree that becoming fat as a rape prevention strategy and/or staying fat as a way of avoiding personal accountability/development are among those benefits. And calling them beneficial actually plays into some pretty damaging anti-fat tropes, while failing to make abundantly clear that fat is not an impenetrable shield against rape plays into some pretty damaging rape culture narratives.

There's certainly a post that could have been written about how women use being fat as a survival strategy/defense mechanism, but it doesn't belong under a headline mislabeling those strategies/mechanisms as "benefits."

[H/Ts to Shakers Ariel, MMC, and Memyni.]

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