What Your Fat Friends Might Not Be Telling You

by Suma Jane Dark

You’re one of the cool, open-minded kids. You always read up on how you can be more body positive. Sometimes you hashtag your photos just to participate in campaigns for self-love. You tell fat people that they’re valid and beautiful on the reg, sometimes even calling out fat-phobic behavior on Twitter. And you really, genuinely care. You’re not fat yourself, but you get why fat-phobia matters. What’s more? You love the fat people in your life.

It's totally possible that you are a rock solid ally in many ways, but there's a chance that you’re struggling in others — in ways that your fat friends might not necessarily feel comfortable telling you about. Not because you aren’t a great friend, but because these conversations can get a little weird.

The very last thing any fat person usually wants to do is to argue the finer points of painful topics with otherwise well-meaning friends. The truth is that most of us can acknowledge that our straight size counterparts, no matter how well-intended, haven't lived our experiences. They will never totally get it, and that's OK. But the tougher conversations your fat friends might want to have with you — but don't — are still worth thinking about. So here are eight of them.

1. Positive Conversations With Fat People Don't Necessarily Mean You Understand

Are we always talking about how much we both love [insert the name of any of the four fat celebrities who thin people like to talk about]? Did you see some pictures of a fat babe on the internet and love her outfit? Did a new study come out that suggests (albeit gently) that fat people might be telling the truth about their lives and health when they say they're OK? Don't tag me in it, please.

Just because the subject of something your encounter is weight, or includes an image of a fat person within it, does not mean that your fat friends must validate your interaction with it. We might have had an excellent conversation together once about body image, or you may have read a truly amazing piece that totally changed your view of the world. But that does not make you an expert on our problems.

It's great when our friends become interested in size-related issues. But confronting fat-phobia is about more than liking an Instagram photo. It's about refraining from telling every fat person in your view that they "look like Adele." It's about asking yourself, "Why is it so important to me to have my interest in being a decent person acknowledged?" before you tag your friend in an article. It's about self-educating with the understanding that your role in your fat friend's life is just that: To be a friend.

2. If You Become Romantically Interested In Us, You Should Treat The Situation As You Would With A Thinner Romantic Partner

Fat folks can be really hot, I know. Maybe you've always thought as much, too. Or maybe you’re just beginning to examine the role that culture plays in informing desire, and are excited to pursue a new range of bodies that might interest you.

The thing is, fielding objectifying advances can already feel like a part time job to many people, so try not to add to your fat friend's stress. If you've recently realized that you have feelings for them, definitely consider being honest. But do so in the same way you would tell anyone else. We don't need a back story about how you never thought you'd find us attractive. We don't need a drunken confession that you have always had a crush on us, but were afraid of what your friends might think because... you know. We don't need overbearing sexual attention from you when we're trying to have a good time, just so you can prove to us that you're OK with our bodies.

As with all individuals, dressing cute and going out in public does not equal a wish for physical contact. I know dating is hard, and it can be especially hard to navigate new desires. But trust that your fat friend isn't waiting for your validation.

3. It's Important Not To Doubt That Our Romantic Relationships Are Legit

On the flip side, the existence of happy, loved fat people is still perplexing to some folks, even to our friends at times. A fat person with a thin partner: How does that work? Did we get together before one of us was fat? Are our partners only attracted to us "despite our fatness?" Why is this person interested in such a controversial body type? Something must be wrong with them.

Please keep these questions to yourself. Don't assume that your friends' partners are "settling" for them; or that your friend has become the victim of a relationship scam rooted in a practical joke.

I also can't tell you the number of friends who have used my relationship as inspirational material to prove that "there's someone out there for everyone." I realize that seeing fat people in happy relationships flies in the face of the lie that only thinness can be attractive. But you should free yourself from that lie. Respecting and validating each other with no assumptions is an important step in dismantling constructs that only exist to keep everyone alienated and upset.

Being fat often involves constantly being told that we are not worthy of love and desire. That is some heavy shit, let me tell you. So the last thing I am trying to do on a Friday night is be baited into dredging up these toxic beliefs about my body or that of my partner.

4. You Should Be Prepared To Be Supportive During Fat-Phobic Encounters

In a mixed size friendship or relationship, I guarantee that there will be moments during which you will have to choose which side of the room to stand on. There will probably be times when your other friends try to make you side with their terrible behavior (whether they know they’re being terrible or not) over having your fat friend's back. There will likely be other occasions during which your parents will be jerks if you bring us over. And if they're not, your siblings, roommates, and coworkers still might be. And don't even get me started on the way thin people can act on social media.

Should you play along for the sake of comfort, or can you stand up for us? If you can’t meet people's negativity with firm education regarding why fat-phobia is problematic, there's little chance you can support the fat people in your life. Be cool or be gone.

5. You Mustn't Try To Tell Us That Something Wasn't Fat-Phobic

I know that you probably enjoyed that comedy show or film. But if the person you're with didn’t, please just let them feel how they feel. Fat people will have a better understanding of what constitutes fat shaming, so trust that we are the experts.

You're not on trial here, and most of us don’t expect straight size people to always notice the subtle stuff (though it would be awesome if they did). Just try to understand what it is that we’re feeling bummed about, and be supportive. Learning about the behaviors that aim to invalidate fat people is part of the process of fighting fat-phobia.

6. Never Exploit Us

Now that body positive dialogue has gone mainstream, it's inevitable that there are businesses wanting to cash in on the momentum, often without making any real commitment to ending body shaming or size discrimination. Maybe you think you're doing your fat buddy (and all fat people) a favor by launching a "body pos" advertising campaign or Instagram hashtag, but please don't try to define the terms of our conversations through your media outlets.

If you're going to get your business involved in body positivity, hire models who represent the full diversity of fat bodies, not just those who meet the "plus size beauty standard" of white, hourglass shaped women under a size 22. Don’t serially repost the work that we do side by side with body shaming articles just to get clicks, either.

More importantly, bring your fat friends and other self-identified fats into the loop as consultants and colleagues. Know that the voices of those more marginalized than you are key — even if you're trying to be helpful by launching something on your own.

7. Try To Think About Accessibility

Are you going out to eat, to watch sports, or to do whatever else humans do while sitting down? Some fat bodies have certain requirements in order to sit comfortably in a given area. Maybe there is a restaurant you adore where the servers always give your fat friend dirty looks or the seating is inadequate? Think about these things beforehand.

Like all humans, some fat people use mobility aids that can be hindered by the layout of the location you planned for your get-together. Some of us might have limitations on the type of terrain we can comfortably walk to reach your beach party. No matter the setting, listen to us when we express where we are physically and emotionally comfortable. If we've turned down an idea several times, there's probably a reason for that. Again, we might be navigating stressors that you aren’t even aware of.

8. Don’t Assume Anything

Regardless of your own body image, please don't assume that fat people are all insecure. Don’t assume anything about our health, for that matter. Don’t assume that we’re disinterested in working out by only addressing your thinner friends about that new fitness class. Definitely don’t assume that we want to lose weight. Don’t assume that your diet talk can’t encourage eating disorders, because we might have them, too. Don't assume we want to discuss our eating habits or hear about yours (this includes commenting on how much or how little you think we eat. It's uncomfortable and unnecessary). Seriously, not assuming anything is a recipe for strong, long-lasting friendship.

Continually practicing mindfulness will make things easier, too. Eventually, noticing all the ways that other people, institutions, and industries aren't supportive (or are outright hateful) towards your fat pals will become more obvious.

Images: Suma Jane Dark (4); Courtesy Sandy Bottoms/Cinnamon Maxine (1); pewpewzapzap/Leathia Miller (1)