I received this question today from reader Suzanne about the practice of wearing fat suits to better understand the experience of fat people:
I was doing some research on the idea of wearing a fat suit and I came across the thing you wrote about some dancers who did it.) I agree with your criticisms of the dancers. It’s just that it seems that if wearing a fat suit helped someone empathize with the plight of fat people then it would be a good idea. I guess I’m wondering… are there any circumstances under which you would support someone wearing a fat suit?
It’s a good question and there are a lot of layers to this, I’ll try to break down my thoughts.
First, I do understand that it’s possible that wearing a fat suit might help someone better understand the oppression that fat people face, and I definitely appreciate their good intentions. But my question is – why couldn’t this person believe the many accounts of what it’s like to be fat that have been written by actual fat people?
If someone finds that they can’t believe and/or empathize with people’s accounts of their oppression unless they actually “dress up” like them, then I would suggest working on empathy rather than donning a fat suit.
Still, to answer the question (and with the reminder that, as always, I’m only speaking for myself here and other fat people may disagree) I would suggest that they do it as an entirely personal experiment with a very clear understanding of the limitations
First and foremost it’s important to realize that pretending to be fat gives someone a very narrow and limited view into what it’s like to actually be fat, and depending on other identities the person holds, it may not give them insight into what it is like to be a fat person with multiple marginalized identities (for example fat people who are also People of Color, Disabled/people with disabilities, older, Queer, Trans etc.) Also, pretending to be fat for a little while will not give someone the experience of fat people who have faced years of oppression. (These reasons are why I’m suggesting that it will likely be better to read about the experiences of lots of fat people, believe them,and respond to requests for support, rather than having a singular, limited experience of pretending to be fat.)
When the experiment is over, I would suggest that the person not give interviews where they talk about what it was like for them to be fat. (If they do that, they take up space talking about being a pretend fat person when they could center the experiences and voices of actual fat people. Despite the limitations of their experience they are more likely to be listened to because part of sizeism is the belief that thin people are more credible than fat people, even when it comes to the experience of being fat.)
Instead, they could center the voices of fat people by saying something like “As a personal experiment I wore a fat suit for x days and it reinforced the things I’ve read about from [links to accounts of sizeism by fat people, including fat people with multiple marginalizations] and the need to end sizeism and celebrate the full diversity of body sizes. Here’s some stuff we can do…”
So those are my thoughts. Thanks for asking!
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