Letter submitted by Nicole Sullivan in response to a recent article written by Paige Willey and published in the Swarthmore Independent. Nicole and Cora Segal helped lead the March 20th Fat Justice and Feminism workshop.
Despite it being late, I was restless. I had spent the previous night driving to Swarthmore from Boston for over six hours to to present a workshop on Fat Justice and Feminism and I just needed to move. I decided to cope with my restlessness by heading out to Tom Jones Diner in Brookhaven, PA to do some work and get a change in scenery.
I sat down in a booth alone with my laptop open. It wasn’t long before a group of men started harassing me. They called me fat. They called me a dyke. They sexually propositioned me. Though I repeatedly asking them to leave me alone the verbal harassment got so aggressive I had to leave the diner. However, instead of exiting into safety, I found more danger. When I was walking to my car, a SUV pulled up beside me and cornered me. There were five men in the SUV and they each told me in graphic detail exactly what they would like to do with me. They eventually got bored and drove away. I was lucky that this incident did not escalate into physical violence, though that has not always been the case in my past.
That night, like many other nights before it, I did not get a choice to hide the parts of me that are confrontational to others.
I am sharing this anecdote because I was recently directed to Paige Willey’s Swarthmore Independent article written in response to the Fat Justice and Feminism workshop at Swarthmore I helped lead. I have long been committed to education and social justice and respectful dialogue with disagreeing parties is part of that commitment. However, instead of ethical and principled disagreement, Ms. Willey’s article chose personal attacks and lazy journalism. In her article, she misquoted me and quoted statements without the relevant context and outright lied about various points Cora and I made. She even included a fake and deliberately inflammatory quotation about my sexuality. Most egregiously, she did not make her journalistic affiliations or intentions known at the start of the workshop, in direct violation of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Ms. Willey was in no danger in our workshop. There was no reason to hide her affiliations nor was there any ethical reason why she needed to talk about my sexuality the way she did, especially considering the ongoing violence and harassment of LGTBQ people in our communities.
In direct response to Ms. Willey’s article, I would like to offer the following corrections to her claims:
- BMI is an erroneous metric that does not measure any relating metabolic health. BMI is solely a ratio of height compared to weight, a ratio that was developed not to measure health, but to measure normality as compared to western European males. Given this, BMI cannot be accurately used to assess health. This is well supported across the scientific community.
- Adolphous Quelet was a mathematician, as well as an astronomer. The fact that we mentioned one profession but not the other is irrelevant to the larger point that the creator of BMI was not a health professional and even stated himself that the BMI should not be used as an indicator of health. This also leads us to reject the first of Ms. Willey’s claims Our evidence that the statistic of BMI was rooted white supremacy and patriarchy was not due to Adolphous Quelets race, but due to the fact the Adolphous Quelet was a key figure in the eugenicist movement and developed BMI as a way to categorize the “normal” man from the lesser man. In this time period, it was widely believed those of African descent were a lesser species than those of European descent.
- We never said that anyone should stop celebrating the suffragists. We did speak to the historical fact that suffragists were able to gain public legitimacy by positioning themselves as moral citizens, which required a public image of thin, feminine middle to upper class white women. The suffrage movement collectively turned its backs on women who did not fit that ideal, most notably black and working class women, but fat women as well. These tensions within the women’s suffrage movement have been written about extensively.
- Ms. Willey claims that we asserted that the obesity lobby “infiltrated its way into every doctors office.” What I claimed was that due to the large-scale privatization of public industries under the Reagan administration, private and for-profit interests had increased power to influence government policy on health. In the early 1990’s, the first anti-obesity organizations formed with donors and participants with direct connections to the diet industry. These organizations continue to have tremendous influence on our government’s policies on obesity.
- Ms. Willey’s assertion that we claimed that there is no scientific consensus on the harms of obesity is correct. There is absolutely no scientific consensus that obesity is responsible for a diabetes epidemic, heart disease, shorter life span or any of the other hundreds of diseases that have supposedly been linked to obesity. These links represent just a tiny sample of existing research that contradicts mainstream assumptions on obesity. The mainstream idea that being fat automatically makes you unhealthy is not based on scientific evidence. All body types come with their own risks and benefits. Traits such as being tall or male have both been proven to correlate with shorter lifespans however it would be ridiculous to assume all tall men were inherently unhealthy. Why do we feel comfortable with making these same assumptions that our society makes about fat people?
- We never claimed that all late term abortion providers refuse to give fat patients anesthesia. I used the example of one provider in Boston that has a BMI requirement for its procedures to showcase how fat bias can have grievous consequences in healthcare. You can see another example of these consequences with the latest plan B controversy. We highlighted reproductive care to show the intersections of fat justice and feminism, just as the title of the workshop claimed.
- Cora and I explained how body positivity (a movement that seeks to help people have more self acceptance) falls short because of its lack of analysis of social and political forces that shape fat women’s lives different than thin women’s. Despite this, we find body positivity to be an incredible important and beneficial movement.
I helped create the Fat Justice and Feminism workshop in order to work towards a movement that can unite all women against sexism, in all the forms it takes. Fat justice has an incredible potential to organize women against forces that seek to control our bodies and lives, whether through biased science or prejudiced views. Fat justice, however, cannot be the only path we follow for liberation. One of the main reasons behind this workshop was to build connections between fat struggles and struggles against racism, sexism and economic exploitation. My hope is that the material we presented would challenge people and provoke responses and engagement. Regardless of the nature of Ms. Willey’s response, I am beyond excited to see the level of discussion and debate that has emerged from our workshop. Social change only comes from a deep commitment to understanding the world around us and as far as I am concerned, Swarthmore is committed.