The Fatosphere

14 Nov

I just discovered the blog Fatosphere (http://fatosphere.blogspot.com/). While it’s inactive right now, I want to share the author Mary’s welcome note:

“This blog is about fat and whatever else I feel like. I am a happy, healthy fat person with a little chip on my shoulder about our society’s attitude towards fat. I also happen to be a liberal, and I am irritated by liberals who have an irrational hatred of fat people. Being fat does NOT make you a spokesmodel for the megaconsumerist bigger-is-better mentality that liberals love to hate. Surprise — you can live an active, environmentally conscious life and leave a ‘small footprint’ even if you have a ‘big ass’!”

Kudos to Mary for naming one of those tacit, would-never-say-it-in-front-of-others (and maybe never-even-admit-to-myself-that-I-think it) assumptions many of us make:
 
fat = glutton = anti-environment
 
Whoa! What? 
You may be thinking: not me! I can’t believe people make such shallow and clearly baseless judgments! 
 
And yet maybe you and I do.
The assumption Mary points out is known at Harvard, University of Virginia and University of Washington as an implicit association: an “unconscious belief, attitude and preference about identity groups that people are either unwilling or unable to report” (Nosek, Banaji & Greenwald, 1998). Not just some trendy research, implicit association seems to have caught the interest of Fyodor Dostoyevsky almost 2oo years ago, when he wrote,
 
“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”
 
The street name for an implicit association is bias, which I define in my work as the inevitable inclinations toward or against a person, group or experience based on hard-wiring, personal experience and cultural norms that we can choose how to  act on. That last part is key: biases are human, and we can’t help having them, but we can choose what to do with them.
 
But the fact is that there’s a lot of bias about bias. Louise Derman-Sparks, a pioneer of antibias education, started a revolution in early childhood education that has taken off like multicultural wildfire. The premise is simple and appealing: teach kids not to be biased. How can you disagree? And yet, while I respect Derman-Sparks’ work, I consider myself very much anti-antibias.
I think “antibias” puts kids and adults in an untenable position of having to pretend we’re absolutely fair in thought and action… when the truth is, we’re always favoring some over others, for what may be irrational, reasonable or even arguably valid reasons. And if we deny what we think and feel, then what chance do we have of changing it?
 
So instead of “antibias,” I describe my position as pro-understanding, naming and then transforming bias into a conscious decision to be fair and include folks who aren’t equal in my eyes or the world’s.
 
But back to fat = anti-environmental.
 
Biases tend to do that: leap from one aspect of identity to an assumption (fat = lazy), and then a corollary assumption (lazy = indulgent), and then another (indulgent = overconsuming) and another (overconsuming = wasteful = environmentally wasteful)… and before we know it, we’ve connected dots with such tenuous lines that any serious examination would snap the link between them. And yet, because we don’t want to consider the biases we have, the connection remains.
 
So for bringing what I suspect to be a fairly common chain of bias to our collective e-consciousness, I thank Mary.
 
And here’s a DIY workshop moment for you: 
  • Consider an identity that you don’t have an active, positive regard for (ex. homeless, unemployed, elderly, Tea Party…) Notice I said “active, positive regard.” You don’t have to be campaigning for anyone’s deportation. Just choose an identity that you tend not to authentically and deeply regard with warmth and esteem.
  • Brainstorm all the stereotypes and implicit associations for this identity that you can think of. Do this either in private or with someone you trust. Really let yourself go there: name all the things you know better than to believe.  
  • When you’re done, step back and trace the web of biases about this identity. What are the first assumptions, and where do they lead? What assumptions fall like a row of dominoes in a clear chain of cause and effect? Which assumptions seem pretty valid, and which seem like leaps of vigorous, over-excited imagination? 
  • Discern where you own the bias: notice which assumptions felt most valid, true or familiar. Name them. Out loud. 
  • See what holes you can poke in them. Really have at ’em. How valid are they? (Does voting “Tea Party” really guarantee that someone is uneducated and anti-science?)
  • Now decide: what do you want to do about your bias? How do you want to handle yourself the next time this identity comes up… because it’s sitting next to you on BART, it’s a topic of conversation with like-minded friends or a child asks you a question about it? Whether you stand by your bias or wish it would just go away, how do you intend to express it?

And that’s what bias awareness comes down to: intention. If you don’t intend, bias still finds a way to make itself known–whether through an arched brow, pregnant pause or deliberate looking away.  And while we can’t always control how our biases come out, we can set an intention so that even when we speak or act in a discriminatory way, we have our personal compass to help guide us back to what’s fair and right.

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