So. Quarantine doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. We’ve learned a lot of things during this unexpected downtime. We learned how to bake bread. We’ve become better plant parents. We worked on honing our creativity. We worked on crafts. So why don’t we also take this as an opportunity to learn how to be slightly less horrible humans?
Ever since this period of isolation started, we’ve been flooded with memes and jokes about “how fat we’re going to get during quarantine”. Fitness influencers came to the sudden epiphany that they, too, have love handles, and decided to speak out for all chubby women. Recently, Argentine magazine CARAS framed a Dutch princess’s mere existence as “choosing a plus-size look”. The critical eye placed on the body of others, dressed up in supposed good intentions.
Maria Gentile, known as Marius to her friends, defines herself as an “anti-activist, anti-kindly-fatty, anti-political correctness, fat picket-line stone-thrower,” and she has a few things to tell us about it.
Marius, when did you realize you were in this fight?
I’ve been overweight since I was three or four years old. That’s as far back as my concept of fatness goes. Other people took care of pointing out that my body was a fat body. I didn’t understand what they were referring to, because my body looked like those of people I loved the most, my mother and my grandfather. My grandfather was a tall, fat man. My mother was a fat woman who was always very unhappy with her body. Those were the bodies I had as reference points. I looked like them, and to me that was perfectly normal. But then the outside world came along to tell me “No. You are like this, and your family is also like this, and this means you are ugly.” At a very early age they implanted this idea that my body being this shape was a bad thing. My body being this shape meant that I was ugly.
It was something that always came from other people, not from me. I never saw my body as something bad or something ugly. But I always received those comments. This is something that happens a lot, always receiving these negative comments about one’s body, it ends up affecting you. Especially when you’re very young. That’s what happened to me. I had a terrible time in primary school. I felt like I just didn’t fit in, like I was different, that I wasn’t fine just being the way I was. And that I would finally become happy the moment my body looked like everyone else’s. I saw myself as disproportionately gigantic. It made me feel awful.
At around 15 or 16, after many years of failed diets, forced upon my by other people and not born out of my own desire, I asked myself, “do I want to be skinny?” And I really didn’t. I didn’t want my body to be different from what it was. But I couldn’t bring myself to say this out loud. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it to other people because I thought this was a wrong mindset to have, or that I would be bullied if I expressed this notion. They wouldn’t understand where I was coming from.
When I was 21 or 22, I had a conversation about it with my mom. She was talking about needing to go to the nutritionist, telling me how I would have trouble when I decide to have children, that I was still young and had the chance to lose weight. This is when I told her that I didn’t want to lose weight. I looked her in the eye and said “I like how I am, I don’t want another body for myself. I really can’t imagine myself being skinny”. And I didn’t say this from a place of hopelessness, I said it from a desire not to be skinny. My mother responded by asserting that I was lying, that I was lazy, that I didn’t want to try. Because fat people aren’t happy. According to her, nobody could be happy with a fat body. My mom died convinced that her body was horrifying, disgusting, and that she was a failure for not being able to change it. Since the day she passed, I promised myself that I wouldn’t live my life lamenting my body and existence. That I wouldn’t live my life trying to change something that I didn’t feel was wrong. I’m not going to waste away the years. I’m going to live how I want to live, do the things I want to do, regardless of whether someone of my size “should” or “shouldn’t”.
That was more or less seven years ago. Then I started to take on the attitude of “this is me existing. This is me doing what I wish to do. This body is the body I inhabit, my vehicle to traverse human existence. I’m sorry if others view it as an impediment to live my life how I choose to, but I’m going to keep doing it.” That’s when I realized that my militancy is simply to exist. To exist and show myself as I am and not give it too much thought or explanation. I don’t need to justify my existence. I started to live on my own terms, without justifying myself to anyone, and simply showing myself as I am.
How did things evolve from there, after you took such a firm stance?
I started getting into the world of photography, working with photographers in the trans-feminist world. Once I started interacting with other people in that world, they started to see me as a type of “self-love guide”. I instinctively started giving answers that were not expected of me. The whole self-love song-and-dance has me pretty exhausted. I had to find new answers to express myself more clearly, and support my way of thinking. I found myself in networks with a lot of fat people working on these issues. I discovered the world of activism. I started reading up on the subject. I got in touch with other people who were in it. Two years ago, after reading a lot about it and acknowledging the work of others, I wanted to learn even more about the subject and get deeper into activism. Even still, I don’t actually consider myself an activist.
Why don’t you consider yourself an activist?
I consider myself “a person who wants to agitate. I find it a little pretentious to refer to myself as an activist, since all I do is to say what I feel and answer the questions of those around me. It’s almost expected that a fat person should be an activist, that anyone who represents a minority should be an activist. Sometimes you just don’t feel like doing that. Sometimes you just want to talk about your favorite band, or a movie you saw that blew your mind. You don’t feel like facing off against hateful trolls who are telling you you’re going to die every day. That’s the reason I don’t really see myself as an activist. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be. It’s great to be an activist! But I don’t consider myself to be in a position to take on that mantle. To call myself an activist I’d have to do more outside the virtual world, which isn’t really happening right now — what with the current pandemic. To me, being an activist means stepping out of that isolated virtual space, not just posting your genuine thoughts on social media. I’m not able to do that right now. This is why I consider myself “someone who wishes to agitate [for the cause]” and not “an activist”. Reaching out beyond the virtual plane is essential.
Why do you think people have such a hard time owning up to their fatphobia?
Being fatphobic, or having fatphobic attitudes, doesn’t just mean laughing at someone for being fat, or calling a fat person ugly names. It involves a number of attitudes we have completely normalized without realizing it. It’s a product of our environment. We were raised in a fatphobic world. Fat hate is just part of everyday life. It doesn’t necessarily mean looking at a fat person and telling them “you are disgusting”. It’s looking at your own skinny body and feeling fat for some reason, and having that feeling rooted in the fear of having a body that looks like mine like that’s the worst thing that could happen in life. Fatphobia is part of the fear of gaining weight, in what you consume, who you follow on social media, the prejudices you don’t realize you’ve completely absorbed, the stereotypes that you see in your head. The way you use language, what you relate to the word “fat”. What you laugh at when you see a movie or a meme. It’s not as literal or obvious as seeing a fat person and punching them in the face. I wish it was that literal, because then it would be a lot simpler and easy to dismantle. There are a lot of small habits and behaviors that are a lot more complex and internalized by society.
What would you say is the best way to support this fight?
Recognizing your place of privilege. Whether it’s something that doesn’t affect you directly, or affect your everyday life. The way to support this struggle is to provide a voice to those who are directly affected by this reality. This also involves owning up to your own fatphobia, and confronting the fatphobic speech of those around you. Stop sharing nonsense, or idiotic memes that are meant to mock, even indirectly, our bodies. Question your own stance regarding diet culture. Share the work and voices of fat people on your social media, not just when they’re talking about being fat. Share fat artists, fall in love with fat people. And, above everything else, look within yourself. Questioning one’s own privilege and owning up to that privilege is a very profound thing. Recognizing that you’re in a privileged position is to let go of some of that privilege.
I think that people need to be more empathetic and let go of that role of prominence. There are people who are so used to being the constant target of others’ attention that, when something isn’t directly about them, simply disappear. It’s like when little children are at a birthday party and start crying because it’s not their own birthday and they want to blow the candles. This is what non fat people look like when they find and display a roll, appropriating a discourse that is not theirs. If you want to talk about what affects you directly as a person who fits within the hegemonic parameters of fitness, start openly questioning the aesthetic pressures you are under. Start questioning the world of fashion. Question where these demands towards our bodies are coming from. Question whether it’s right or wrong. Name your privileges. Recognize the benefits that they’ve brought to you.
We’re not saying your suffering isn’t valid, but stopping and thinking about what we want to build or destroy is so important. When you open your eyes and realize that what’s happening is absolutely horrific, you suddenly wish to destroy this oppression that surrounds you. Without a deep self analysis and acknowledgment of a place of privilege, this can’t happen. There’s no possible self love or acceptance or supposed body positivity.
Well, the whole body positivity thing is an issue.
Vacuous pretty words are of absolutely no use if there’s no systematic critique behind them; towards society, patriarchy, the fashion world, diet culture… it runs way deeper than saying “today I’ve decided that I’m beautiful and I love myself and my value transcends my waist size because I’m incredible”. It’s not good to add another point of pressure on people. You can’t demand that they love themselves. The almost dictatorial pressure towards self love, to always feel perfect, to always consider yourself queen of the fucking universe. It strips you of the right to feel like a piece of shit from time to time. You can’t be 2020 queen of self-acceptance all the time.
It’s important to give yourself permission to live through the bad feelings. To arrive at the realization that it was merely a moment everyone goes through. We’re people. We navigate a sea of factors every day. We live under capitalism, which is a huge bummer, it’s okay to feel bad about it. If self-love comes from a place of obligation, it turns into oppression instead of an act of freedom.
We also need to acknowledge that this is the vessel we arrive in and that we have to treat it as well as we can, but not out of some sort of obligation, but because our bodies are the only things we have that are uniquely ours. I heard a girl from England, she was encouraging people to stop thinking in “body positive” terms, and instead assume a “body neutral” stance. I think that’s a much more interesting concept. It feels a lot more real. Some days you’re going to feel great and some days you’re not. Neutrality is simply accepting your own existence within this corporeality. It rings much more true than running around embracing your own rolls and loving yourself all the time.
The other big lie is the supposed concern about the health of fat people.
The health of fat people is always up for scrutiny. Nobody says anything about a traditionally skinny person eating a Big Mac, but if I do it I am hit with a wave of people telling me I’m going to die in 10 years. And it’s like… do you have access to my medical history? To have to constantly have your health called into question simply for existing, while there are others with destructive habits that nobody would ever openly question because their bodies fall within the norm. If I upload a scantily clad photo of myself, I’m going to receive a bunch of messages of people telling me I’m going to die, that I should think about my health and whatever. If a skinny dude uploads a photo of themselves smoking a cigarette or drinking alcohol, nobody is going to question anything, whether they’ve considered their liver or their lungs, or tell them that they’re going to die. Nobody is going to question that. Nobody cares what’s going on inside because what’s outside falls within the norm.
People “worry” about the health of fat people, but they don’t know what it’s like for a fat person to go to the doctor. They don’t know what happens when I go to the gynecologist to ask about birth control and he ends up asking me to step on a scale and telling me I’m going to die at forty, based on nothing other than seeing me and weighing me. Without any further medical information. People shield themselves in this false concern for health to hide this internalized fatphobia. They don’t want to admit that they are bothered and disgusted by fat people. They don’t like that our bodies exist. They want to stay within the argument that “I’m not fatphobic, I’m simply concerned for your health” to deny that they find our bodies disgusting. People will reject what is disruptive, what doesn’t fall within what they were taught to be okay. But if they saw my medical chart, they’d fall over backwards. Because I’m just fine. But I hate that I have to constantly say that when nobody should question me about my own body. Fatness is immediately associated with sickness, and crossing a certain number threshold immediately puts you “at risk”. But having risks related to health doesn’t mean being sick. All bodies have risks. You can’t automatically associate health with looks.
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