OPINION: How lesbians help others to come out as fat

by Abigail Saguy | University of California Los Angeles
Wednesday, 12 February 2020 05:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lesbians, bisexual women, and non-binary people have used their experiences of coming out to come to terms with their weight and pave the way for others

Abigail Saguy is professor of sociology at the University of California Los Angeles and the author of Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are (Oxford, 2020).

As we head into the month of February, my gym isn’t quite as crowded as it was last month. My friends have finished their “life challenge” and are eating bread, wine, and dessert again.

You may be seeing the same pattern. People tend to abandon their New Year’s resolutions by February. And in a country obsessed with slenderness, many of these resolutions focus on weight loss.

While many people are stuck in a cycle of weight loss and gain, there are a brave few who buck the trend and come out as fat.

“Come out as fat?” you ask. What does that even mean? It’s not as if you can conceal being fat.

And yet, as I have examined in my own research, people affiliated with the fat acceptance or fat liberation movement routinely talk about coming out as fat.

Because of the hyper-visibility of body size, coming out as fat is less about disclosing one’s size than refusing to apologise for it.

It means reclaiming the term “fat”, thereby stripping it of its power to shame and silence. It is about rejecting negative stereotypes and standing up against weight-based oppression.

The first people to talk in these terms were fat lesbians. They had first-hand experience coming out as gay and saw the commonalities between disclosing their sexuality and coming to terms with being overweight. They used the language of “coming out” to convey that to others.

Indeed, lesbians, bisexual women and non-binary people have been disproportionately involved in fat rights activism.

As LGBT+ fat activist and intellectual Charlotte Cooper told me, gay liberation rhetoric was woven into the history of fat liberation from the start.

In the early 1970s, feminist lesbians founded the radical feminist fat activist group, the Fat Underground (FU). Since then, lesbians and bisexual women have organised scores of other fat activist groups and events.

A 1983 anthology, “Shadow on a Tightrope”, included several essays that were developed by the Fat Underground in the 1970s and some more recent pieces.

In an essay, titled, “Coming out: notes on fat lesbian pride”, the author, thunder, writes about how she came out as a lesbian and came to call herself “a radical dyke with pride”.

But, as thunder writes, “Coming out as a fat woman acknowledging my size, accepting it, feeling proud and gaining strength has been a longer journey, and in many ways a lonelier one.”

As a child, thunder’s siblings called her “Ali Baba and the Forty Chins”. Her mother refused to buy her larger-sized clothes and sent her to a diet doctor. But, ultimately, thunder was able to go “from being a fat woman to coming out as a fat woman”.

Over time, straight women also began talking about “coming out as fat”, spreading this language even further.

For instance, fat activist, author, and blogger Marilyn Wann, who talks about coming out as fat, said she drew inspiration from the “fat dyke community”, LGBT+ zines, and her gay male friends in Queer Nation. The latter took her to “politicised/punk drag shows and other gay community stuff”.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthier. Healthy lifestyle changes can include quitting smoking, being more physically active, expanding and deepening one’s friendship networks, as well as getting more regular sleep.

But research shows that weight-loss diets sometimes lead to temporary weight loss but that is typically followed by even more weight gain. Diets also reinforce anti-fat sentiments. That’s not healthy.

This is not just about personal acceptance and self-love. For LGBT+ activists, fat liberation activists, and fat LGBT+ activists, overcoming self-hate is the first step in collectively organising against stigma and discrimination.