Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Morality of Fighting Fat

Many bloggers in the fatosphere have eloquently described how the war against fat is often framed in the language of morality. Yet, as a fat woman whose religion is a living breathing aspect of her identity the moral arguments about fighting fat are quite pertinent to my experiences of fat-phobia within my own religious community.

While other bloggers have examined the rhetoric surrounding the obesity moral panic I would like to offer some anecdotal evidence to further flesh out the extent to which individuals feel that they have a moral obligation to comment on my fatness.

A few years ago I was at another masjid (mosque) for a community picnic. I had just finished offering salat (prayer) but before I was even able to leave the prayer space another woman approached me trying to sell me diet pills. She initiated her hustle by explaining that she had been thinking about me and had something for me. Innocent little me expected a wonderful gift-instead I was offered some herbal supplement to help me conquer my fatness.

Now most people outside of Muslim circles have seen the ubiquitous shots of Muslims bowing and praying. These images usually have the effect of making Muslims look like an army of zombies. Bowing like robots-devoid of emotion. Yet, the experience of prayer is quite different. For me it is a quiet, sacred moment of communion with God. A space away from everything.

So picture me emerging from this peace and being reminded by this woman that I was unacceptably fat.

In another subsequent incident-this time right after Friday prayer service- I was told by another sister that I "really, really, should" consider taking a women only aerobic class offered at my masjid. This time I promptly told her that my fatness did not allow her to give me advice, it was not a solicitation. She was in shock and quite offended. Her response was that she cared about everyone and just wanted to help. Oh Brother!

After I explained to her that I already exercised regularly (I had been practicing HAES *Health at Every Size* at this time for about a year) she continued to express sentiments that she was just offering her loving advice to me as a fellow Muslim sister.

I think her words of protest against my offense exemplify the type of fat concern/advice/harassment that can take place within religious communities (although I want to offer that this a common theme within other communities that I identify with -for instance the black community). As fellow Muslims, fat-phobia gets expressed as love or care. It is insisted upon as a obligation to take care of your sister or brother, and is deeply connected with protecting the community from destruction or damage.

It is sometimes justified through evoking foundational religious ideas. For instance there is a Qur'anic injunction that we should eat what is good of the earth. From certain ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad pbuh) Muslims are told to avoid overeating or eating until one assumes a pot belly. Thus the Muslims instructing me to declare a war on my fat feel as if they are performing a religious duty. It represents a mentality that equates thinness with righteousness or religious discipline. My body seems unruly within this paradigm (I will write more about the racialized/gendered dimensions of this within Muslim culture in future posts).

Of course this paradigm that sees thinness as moral is nestled within the very contemporary debates surrounding the war on obesity. The rhetoric of the war on obesity offers it scientific and social ammunition. It refuses to accept that fatness can also co-exist within a religiously disciplined life. It denies that one can eat what is good of this earth and not fit into an idealized normative body. In my mind it is symptomatic of a discriminatory hierarchy that is buttressed by ideologies of group uplift that attempt to exorcise or police other members of the group.

Another increasingly popular trend in some Muslim circles is the merging of "the hijabi lifestyle" with the exercise industry. As a hijabi who has soaked up many of her hijabs with sweat from exercise I have no problem with encouraging an often misunderstood group to both maintain their choice to cover and be physically active. Yet, I have been deeply troubled by the sexist rhetoric that surrounds the Muslimah exercise experience. The same body hating rhetoric that plagues the mainstream culture unsurprisingly gets reproduced here. If you are a Muslimah who covers you are told that you don't want to scare off your husband when you disrobe, that you should have a "bikini body" even if you cover. Great. Not only are we supposed to worry about the discrimination we face as Muslim women in the workplace we have to contend with it in our bedrooms! Forget about exercising for general emotional and physical health- girls you better do it to keep your man.

The bottom line is that the policing of women's bodies is pervasive. Our fat-phobia infiltrates every aspect of our lives to the extent that we find it acceptable to be rude and judgmental of other human beings based on our own biased stereotypes and ideals. While I understand that many people will always equate thinness with health, or even morality, I hope that people will begin to to work harder to expand their understanding of the hurt and shame that they perpetuate when they body shame and scapegoat other human beings.


  1. i'm overweight too
    but i dont think it is something anyone should feel ashamed off...but alot of us do..including me.
    i kid myself and think that if i was slimmer...lets say i weighed 10 stone...i would look better(maybe)
    i would feel better(a good chance)
    i would be happier(that i'm not sure of?)
    i hope you will come to terms with your weight and focus on other things rather than how much you weigh.

  2. "i hope you will come to terms with your weight and focus on other things rather than how much you weigh."

    Thanks for the words of encouragement. I already am coming to terms with my fatness at the same time that I examine its affect on my life and the world I move through.