Non-fat Fat

So, at work, one of us is working on this project about obesity and poverty, which occasionally leads us to this weird thing where we’re sitting around talking–and by “we” I don’t mean “me” because I am not participating in these conversations because when I participate in the conversation it goes something like “well, poor people are fat because they don’t eat well and fruits and vegetables are too expensive blah blah blah and you can’t buy fruits and vegetables with food stamps.”  and I say, “First of all, that’s not true and second of all, not every poor person is so poor that they qualify for food stamps and not every person is fat because they don’t eat right.  Kids need time and space to run around, but if you don’t have a safe neighborhood, you’re not going to let your kids go outside unsupervised.”  And they all nod and act like they’ve heard me and then go back to discussing whether people are poor because they’re fat or if they’re fat because they’re poor.

I am fat.  I have been poor.  My lived experience and my observations do not matter.

So, this week we were talking about, again, how fat people just don’t eat right but whether it’s up to the government to force them.  And I tried again to bring up my suspicions that our Kroger does not get fresh food.  And I know it makes me seem all crazy and conspiracy theorist, but I don’t.  I’m deeply suspicious that fresh fruits and vegetables are sitting out at, say, the Belle Meade Kroger for a week and then, what’s left, which may still be fine, is brought up to my Kroger for another shot at the market.  Let me reiterate, I have no proof of this.  But I’ve shopped at both Krogers and sometimes the produce at my Kroger is fine, beautiful, and sometimes the produce looks old and nasty and my Kroger is always busy, so it’s not like the produce is getting old and nasty there.

And don’t even get me started on the difference in case space given to milk and gallons of purple or red or orange drink between the Belle Meade and the Bordeaux Kroger.  I went off on that and they were all just like “Well, Kroger wouldn’t have a case of purple/red/orange drink right next to the milk if people didn’t want it.”  And I was like, “Yes, that’s true, but why would people rather have a gallon of red drink instead of a gallon of milk unless you didn’t want to shell out a bunch of money for milk only to find out, when you’d gotten it home, that it was bad.  Red drink doesn’t go bad.” I mean, seriously, yes, people make their own choices, but let’s not act like they’re making those choices in a vacuum or on some even playing field.

Anyway, so these discussions always end up with a bunch of average-weight people sitting around talking about why fat people are so fat in front of a fat person whose possible reasons are dismissed.

It feels bizarre to me and uncomfortable.  I mean, first of all, I don’t want to talk to my co-workers about my body as if it is a social problem that all of society has some stake in fixing.  Who else’s body at that table ever gets talked about in the abstract like that?

And when they start talking about fat as a class issue, which is, frankly, something I agree with, I still feel like “Oh my god, these people don’t feel like I’m a part of them.”

But you know, maybe they do.  As Kate Harding has repeatedly pointed out, when people talk about fat, they often are talking about people they think are gross and out of control and, if my co-workers don’t see me as gross and out of control, then it doesn’t matter that I could carry of my spare change under the roll of my belly all day and not be a penny short in the evening, that I shop at the very grocery store they all see as contributing to the problem, but have never shopped at, that I am living the experience they want to talk about abstractly, it’s not me they’re talking about.

Over at Feministe, Kai is talking about how hard it is for white people and people of color to have meaningful conversations about the interactions of white people and people of color–

Once again we see detrimental impacts of whiteness on discourse within communities of color, even when it is well-intentioned, because the very discursive tools of whiteness are tools of colonization which are designed to destabilize people of color, exert power, assert a cultural assemblage point, and prevent communities of color from establishing footholds on social legitimacy and autonomy.

–and at first I was thinking about that in terms of the discussion from the other day (obviously, since that’s what it’s directly related to) and nodding in agreement.  This is what I was trying to figure out how to say from the angle of being a white person–the ways that we’ve been taught to discuss things, to take them out of the realm of the personal and into the realm of the theoretical, the way we believe that there is such a thing as an (almost) objective understanding that we can achieve, the ways we expect to be able to have discussions about the actions of real people and for those people not to be hurt or affected by it, because it’s just a discussion for the sake of knowledge, that, because we know words like “colonization” and “token” we can throw them around like we know their full weight (while at the same time, practically forcing the people we’re throwing them against to not acknowledge their full weight).

And it would be nice and it would be justice for us to not do those things because they are so terrible for other people.  But you’d think we would not do those things because of the fucked-up twisted ways it makes us.

Which is a giant sidetrack to my point.  It’s those words–“discoursive tools” and “destabilize”–which hit home for me in the context of these bizarro fat discussions where the non-fat people sit around and talk about the problems of obesity while the fat people sit quietly and wait for the discussion to run its course.  Because how can participating in it for me or for my other fat co-workers not suck?  Not be destabilizing?  Either you discover this strangeness that, even though you are objectively fat, the discussion isn’t about you because they mean those problem fat people.  Or, because of the ways that class and weight are related, you discover that, even though you think you’re a peer with your co-workers, you have to discover that they don’t think you are.

And I guess what Kai’s point makes me wonder is is this about whiteness?  Is this kind of discourse, where there’s this “us” and there’s a “them” and the them is often poor and often not white, but is also, say, me, who is not poor (anymore) and is white, this discourse, which is happening in a room full of white people a discourse about being White?

Do you see what I’m asking?  I mean, I’m asking from inside of being white, so it’s hard for me to get the perspective I need to see clearly what’s going on, but I kind of feel like there’s this whole way the conversation goes–theoretical, not about “us”, about how we can best understand and fix a problem (i.e. take control of the situation)–and in being present for the conversation, I am, implicitly, being asked to privilege my shared whiteness (by understanding that it is not me they are talking about) over my shared fatness with the people under discussion.  And yet, no one in that room thinks we’re talking about “whiteness.”  I’m not even sure that’s what’s going on.

But I wonder, is that how white supremacy is trained into white people and perpetuated by white people who would never in a million years consider ourselves to be white supremacists?  How many of those moments pass by, where the implicit message is “we’re not talking about you” and we just say “Oh, okay, then, great.  That’s not me.  I’m like you.”  Where we are confronted with the pain of being recognized as not a part of the group and then, through our shared race, given a way back into the group, a way to negate the pain?

14 thoughts on “Non-fat Fat

  1. i don’t know. I’m fat and I come from a fairly wealthy family. Everyone in my family is overweight. And it’s not for lack of trying to lose weight, I’ve been on every diet known to mankind.

    I can afford to shop at Whole Foods, and I do keep my refrigerator well stocked with fruits and vegetables and healthy snacks. But if you put a cookie in front of me, I’m going to eat the cookie, calories be damned. If you put a beer in front of me, I’m going to drink the beer, and then I’ll probably have another one.

    I figured out sometime during my freshman year of college how much I can eat and how much I should work out in order to at least not gain any weight. And it’s worked fairly well for me. But it makes me a basket case every time I come back home and have to deal with my mother hovering over me watching every bite I put in my mouth, even at 23.

    /personal “issues”.

    It’s only a class issue insofar as the lack of access to healthy foods is a real problem. The people who shop at the Bordeaux Kroger should have the same real choice as those at the Belle Meade Kroger. But you’re right, these choices are not going to be made in a vacuum. Your co-workers may have good intentions, but it is at the core a personal matter, not something that can simply be fixed by the government.

  2. I’m glad you brought up the parallel between the two situations (privileged group discussing not-privileged group). Not that I have anything to contribute, just glad you noted it.

    I don’t know — was it a discourse on Whiteness? Probably. I don’t even know if I can answer that, being white and prone to doing privilege-y things no matter how aware I think I am.

    I do know that I sort of want to shake your co-workers a little bit. Also that the (cheap) grocery store in my (combination of non-white and university-affiliated and/or punky white) neighborhood carries a lot of organic products. That cost MORE than they cost at the Whole Foods two miles away. (Really. I did a statistical analysis.)

  3. maybe you should get involved with community food security programs here:

    i totally agree with you on the disparities between upper and lower income locations. don’t even get me started on when food goes on sale and why. i used to trust grocery stores to at least have edible food. now, not so much… if it’s on sale i know something is wrong with it or they wouldn’t put it on sale to get rid of it.

    oh, and skinny people discussing fat people can just kiss my big old fat ass!

  4. i think this is often a difficulty among “liberals”, we often spend a lot of time pontificating and little time listening. I wish a lot more of our conversations were actually dialogues, where ideas, thoughts and experiences were shared. I also think that we spend to much time making value or judgment statements. I agree with you that when they were talking about fat poor people they were coming from a place of judgment and didn’t probably even consider you part of that group because you were one of them. If we spent more time talking with and understanding the “other” whomever that other might be, perhaps we could all come to a better understanding.

  5. There are SO many sides to this dicussion that I barely know where to step, for fear of stepping in something (that I probably dropped there, myself!).

    I was talking with a friend about the small town in West TN where my dad lives. It’s 25% white, 15% rich, and the illiteracy rate is astronomical. My friend is biracial and grew up here in OKC. He’s college-educated, lives with his (well-to-do) parents, and has a good job. He claims to be a progressive, but seems rather insular in his thinking.

    I was attempting to dicuss the problems in my dad’s town: illiteracy, EXTREME poverty, the health care crisis there (I would rather try to get well on my own than go to that hospital), the obesity rates, and the alarming number of people on welfare who will never have a chance to “do better.” He said “it’s just laziness and [screwing] around.”

    It seems to me that, if you’re not taught proper food choices, you can’t accept responsibilty for bad food choices. I went up two pants-sizes since last summer. I will own that: I haven’t excersized, have over-eaten, and have generally been treating myself like shit. But I had the CHOICE.

    There are two different parts to the “fat discussion.” One should be no one’s business but the person in question. The other part is exactly as you state it: if you’re poor and, worse still, undereducated, well…

    I’ve been poor, too. But I came from educated parents of “a certain class.” That certainly shifts my perspective, but if those of us who are outside “those people” don’t discuss it, who will?

    I don’t think there’s a right answer in discussing race, weight or class. I think we just have to keep discussing, try to learn from the times we get it wrong, and then learn to stop thinking in terms of “them” and “us” and discuss some more.

  6. I understand what you are saying (I think), which is why I try to studiously avoid conversations with white people about racism because I feel like as a white person I’m not really the best judge of whether racism exists in America aside from pointing out the obvious (i.e., groups like the KKK still exist).

    And as for your suspicious that the Kroger in Belle Meade has fresh food whereas the Kroger in the poor neighborhood does not, a) the produce at most Krogers sucks because Kroger sucks; b) drive through any of our housing project neighborhoods and there IS no Kroger; c) when I first moved to Nashville and worked off Music Row I stopped at the Piggly Wiggly next to the Edgehill projects after work one day and was shocked to discover that the food there was twice as expensive as the food at the Kroger in Brentwood. This was the first time I’d ever shopped at a grocery store in a poor neighborhood and I didn’t know what any social worker/social justice advocate will tell you: it costs more to be poor.

    Since then I noticed that gas in the Edgehill neighborhood was always more expensive as well. I didn’t know this then, but there have been several articles written about it since then, including this one in the Boston Globe:

    BEING POOR IS bad enough. Now a study reports that even basic groceries are more expensive in poor neighborhoods. The study thoroughly cataloged prices – and surveyed customers – at stores selling grocery items in various neighborhoods around Buffalo. Prices for the same items were about 10 to 15 percent higher in poor neighborhoods relative to affluent neighborhoods. The cause? Competition. In wealthier neighborhoods, there are more chain stores, and customers are more likely to have cars, making it easier to price shop. This drives down prices. Moving the nearest chain store closer by 1 mile to a particular neighborhood store brings the neighborhood store’s prices down by 1-3 percent, the author found.

    Talukdar, D., “Cost of Being Poor: Retail Price and Consumer Price Search Differences across Inner-City and Suburban Neighborhoods,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

  7. I noticed the same thing down here in Franklin. The one grocery store that’s in the not-so-nice part of town has prices higher than the Kroger (about 1.5 miles away) or the Publix (about 3 miles away). It amazed me the first time I saw it — I kept thinking, “But why don’t they just go to Kroger?” I’m sure there are reasons beyond my limited experience here (less than a year) that explain it.

  8. I noticed the same thing down here in Franklin. The one grocery store that’s in the not-so-nice part of town has prices higher than the Kroger (about 1.5 miles away) or the Publix (about 3 miles away). It amazed me the first time I saw it — I kept thinking, “But why don’t they just go to Kroger?” I’m sure there are reasons beyond my limited experience here (less than a year) that explain it.

    Not being from the area, I can’t comment on the geography or the public transportation. As someone who used to have to do the ‘walk to the grocery store/see how much you can carry/try to get it home in one piece’ dance, however, I can say that a distance that seems weensy with a car (or even walking unencumbered) becomes astronomical when you’re trying to balance heavy, melting, perishable stuff. Even moreso if the public transportation is unreliable, the streets suck, or it’s incredibly hot.

    Obviously, not everyone lacks a car, and there are a whole lot of other issues involved. For me, though, it just tossed me right back into undergrad, and I know I was incredibly privileged back then too. I had an ‘old lady cart’ to help carry my stuff, public transportation that was (relatively) reliable (for when I wanted to go to a more distant store), and a Safeway (and a Trader Joe’s, and a handful of produce stands…) within walking distance. (Not to mention the fact that as a student on a meal plan, I wouldn’t starve if I couldn’t get to the grocery store when I wanted to.) Even with all that, it was still a struggle to get perishable groceries in any sort of useful quantities. Doing it without those privileges would certainly be enough to drive me (personally and individually) to suboptimal choices.

  9. A documentary on social class in America, that came out around 2001, has a segment that relates to this. The transcript is at
    Check out “The Trouble with Tofu” starting on page 8.

    In short, it talks about a group of upper middle class people trying to get poorer people to shop at a grocery co-op, but the poor people want to be able to eat food they like, like Wonder bread, and that’s not sold at the co-op.

    Actually, the whole documentary is worth watching. It makes some good points, and is pretty witty.

  10. A confirmation of on of magniloquence’s points, from my own experience: When I worked in a residential job on a college campus, with a parking space close to a mile from my dorm, I ate horribly. Because the only groceries I could get home were lightweight and shelf-stable. Read: Ramen noodles, mac and cheese, cereal, maybe chips and velveeta for nachos. No meat, no frozen food, certainly no squishy produce that would be pulp by the time it got home.

    Now I live in a poorer neighborhood, and see people walking home from the Kroger. This has got to be an issue for them too.

  11. And don’t forget that, in addition to prices generally being higher in poor neighborhoods, healthier varieties of processed foods all have a value-added price bump. Do you want your lunch meat without added salt? Instead of paying less for saving the expense and trouble of adding salt, you pay more for low-salt. Want food that’s less fattening? You’ll pay more for letting them save on the oil. And so on.

  12. I drive to the burbs for my grocery shopping, though there is a grocery store a few blocks from my house. The selection in the nearby store sucks (worst of both worlds — poor neighborhood and a lot of college-age kids) and the prices are high; moreover, it’s not safe to walk around heavily laden at most times. I save money and eat better driving ten miles than walking three blocks.

  13. Public transportation down here leaves a lot to be desired, so I’m sure that factors into it greatly. I also would imagine that housing patterns determine a lot of where one shops — I rarely make the drive to Trader Joe’s, because it’s a good 30 minutes away. But Kroger? Two within a 10 minute drive.

    Not that I’m a Kroger fan, mind you. But when you need it and need it fast …

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