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Lizzo's LIbertating Love

Updated: Jan 29

NOTE: This sermon was preached as part of a program that included short readings from two books, What We Don't Talk about When We Talk about Fat by Aubrey Gordon and Why We Get Fat and What We Can Do about It by Gary Taubes. You can read these here. The children's book Bodies are Cool! by Tyler Feder was also read.



LIZZO

Lizzo is the stage name of American rapper, singer, and flautist Melissa Viviane Jefferson.  She’s 35 and has won four Grammys, two Soul Train Music Awards, a Billboard Award, a BET Award, and been nominated for many others.  She performed at the Glastonbury Festival and headlined Pride Festivals in Indianapolis and Sacramento. She was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live.  She is glamorous, loves fashion, make-up, and her costumes live in the same neighborhood as Madonna’s. Lady Gaga’s, and Dua Lipa’s. And….

SHE'S FAT!

Her Instagram handle is @Lizzobeeating.  She has an Amazon Prime reality show called "Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls" in which plus size women audition and compete to become her back dancers. I’ve been a fan since she burst onto the scene about five years ago. It says a lot that she’s notable for being a sexy pop star who’s fat. But what it says is that fat people shouldn’t dress to be sexy, shouldn’t dance, and shouldn’t live out loud about who they are.  Her dog died on Christmas Eve. And she’s being sued by former employees for sexual harassment and weight shaming. Lizzo denies the charges.


“I am a proud Black woman. I love my plus-size body and I celebrate every inch of it as sexy and beautiful. I believe in hard work, striving for perfection and constantly pushing myself to do better.”

I hope the accusations are not true, but if they are - it fits the pattern of people who are oppressed for whatever reason internalizing that oppression and inferiority and practicing it against others.   When I learned about these accusations I was bummed out. It’s been wonderful having a bonafide A-list FAT superstar.


I grew up as a fat kid and all there was at the time was Fat Albert and he was a cartoon version of fat that was still easy to make fun of.  As a kid I was called lots of names pudgy, husky, pleasingly plump, stout, portly, roly-poly, tubby, and fatso.  The kids mostly used some variation of fatso, but it was all the verbal contortions that adults went into that bothered me the most.


CHILDHOOD MEMORY

On my tenth birthday in May of 1976 I went to K-Mart with mom. I can’t remember what I bought with the money my grandmother had sent. But I remember vividly what I did next. After K-Mart, we went to Barone’s – our pharmacy – which was next door.  We called Barone’s "the drug store." We got our medicine there, but we also got comic books, hot dogs, and ice cream. That afternoon of my 10th birthday, I remember mom buying me the latest issue of the Amazing Spider-Man and a chocolate milk shake.  Barone’s made the best milk shakes, even better than Friendly’s or Dairy Queen.  On the way back to the car, we passed Mr. Fournier. Mr. Fournier was the coach of a team in my little league.  Mr. Fournier looked at me and said,


“Pudge, that milkshake ain’t doing you any good. You’re chubby enough. You gotta be able to move behind that plate (I was a catcher) and run out ground balls.”


And then he smiled and winked at me. It was bad enough when other kids made fun of you because you’re fat, but it was worse when adults did.  I thought of throwing the damn milkshake at him, but that would have been wasting half a milk shake. I stood paralyzed in what I can now name as shame. My mom tugged my arm, gave Mr. Fournier the same look she gave me when I was in big trouble, and pulled me along to the car. 


LIBERATING LOVE AND LINGERING PREJUDICES

Each month I extend a spiritual challenge based on the monthly theme. This month’s challenge is to do an examination of conscience for lingering, under the radar prejudices, and to get people started I suggest the topics of fatness, being poor, and being uneducated.  Most good hearted people are aware of prejudice and understand that even the best of us have certain biases and prejudices, sometimes unconscious, that inform our attitudes and behavior.  You’ve probably done some work - or even a great deal of work - on unlearning white supremacy culture, engaging and combating racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other glaring prejudices.  My challenge to you this month is look underneath those prejudices that loom large at the front of consciousness and peek under the psychic bed and into the mental closet for some persistent prejudices and biases that tend to get overlooked, especially by liberals and others with a more open-minded world view. One of those is FAT.


Reflect with me a minute. Look at this list of ten statements related to obesity and fat people. What do you think or feel when you read/see/hear them?



a list of statements about fat people and obestity
Fatitudes

Here's a short True-False Quiz about fat.



10-questions true and false quiz about fat people and obesity
Fat True & False Quiz

You may have noticed a pattern. All the odd number questions are FALSE and all the even numbered questions are TRUE.

Did you learn anything about any bias you might have toward fat people? Did you learn something about the actual causes of obesity? It’s OK to not be righteous. No one is. I’m fat and I know I fall into these modes of thinking sometimes.  If you want to dive deeper into attitudes and bias about and toward fat people, there’s a great little questionnaire published by IDR Labs that gets you thinking about your own ideas about weight, fat, body image and acceptance: https://www.idrlabs.com/fat-shaming/test.php.  


Even while reading this you might you be thinking – "Yes, yes, you’re right that we shouldn’t be cruel to anyone on purpose or make fun of people for being fat, but --- being fat really is unhealthy and I don’t think it’s OK to tell people it’s OK to be fat.


That’s just it. Fat liberation isn’t about telling people to be unhealthy.  I think it’s about what’s called Healthy at Every Size, trademarked by Association for Size Diversity and Health.   They advocate a non-diet approach to promote a gentler to health than weight loss at all costs mindsets. In a May 2022 online essay Registered Dietician Cara Rosenbloom quotes Veronica Garnet and Ani Janzen who say of their approach:

"Our current five principles of HAES are weight inclusivity, health enhancement, respectful care, life-enhancing movement, and eating for wellbeing."

Gary Taubes directs us to the science to get fat straight. We’re learning more and more all the time about what actually causes obesity. He says:

“The science itself makes clear that hormones, enzymes, and growth factors regulate our fat tissue, and that we do not get fat because we overeat; we get fat because the carbohydrates in our diet make us fat. The science tells us that obesity is ultimately the result of a hormonal imbalance, not a caloric one—specifically, the stimulation of insulin secretion caused by eating easily digestible, carbohydrate-rich foods: refined carbohydrates, including flour and cereal grains, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, and sugars, like sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup.”

Why have obesity rates skyrocketed? Because over the last century the American diet has become increasingly full of simple sugars like high fructose corn syrup and scientifically engineered food like products full of refined carbs. They’re everywhere and in everything.  And in urban food deserts, the convenience stores aren’t full of fresh produce, but Doritos, hot dogs, and ice cream. We spent the 1970s telling everyone all fats were bad and filling people full of low-fat – and high sugar – substitutes.

The vast majority of people who lose substantial amounts of weight gain it back. The diet and exercise mantra has not led to a decrease in obesity rates.  We need to re-evaluate the way we approach fat.  When is weight truly causing, and not a symptom of, poor health?  We assume fattness is bad so we don’t yet fully study how people like my wife can be obese but have normal blood sugar and blood pressure and run half marathons and swim a mile and half for exercise four times a week. Our assumptions and prejudices get in the way of using science to figure out the real answers.  And when science finds answers social stigma and stagnant attitude keep even doctors from using them effectively.

 A 2003 study found 50 percent of the primary care physicians they surveyed viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and non-compliant,” Cited by Evette Dione in YES!

Not only is being fat not some type of character deficiency and moral flaw, it has a systemic justice component in much the way all other injustices and oppression do.  And just like all people who experience discrimination, scorn, shaming, and shunning, fat people don’t want to t be tolerated.  We want to be included. We want to be able to walk into any store or visit any website and find something in our size. Have you noticed that I only wear two suit coats? I can’t find anything in my size of decent quality in my price range, my waist is big, my shoulders broad, and my arms relatively short.



bias against fat people is actually a larger driver of the so-called obesity epidemic than adiposity itself. A 2015 study in Psychological Science, found that people who reported experiencing weight discrimination had a 60 percent increased risk of dying. Chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart conditions are mislabeled “lifestyle” diseases when behaviors are not the central problem.

RACISM

Fat liberation, like all liberation movements, needs to be approached as intertwined and connected to other struggles such as sexism, racism, and poverty.  The history of fat shaming can be traced directly to racism attitudes toward black bodies.    Sara Baartman was an enslaved woman from the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Her amble bosom and large rear end were said to be examples of primitive African body types. She was put on display around Europe in the early 18th century in freak show as the "Hotentot Venus" and   people paid extra to poke her with a stick or a finger. Eventually she was prostituted. She died at 26 in 1815.  Scientists preserved her voluptuous body parts and her remains were used to support racist theories about Africans and black bodies. In 2002, after a decade of requests, her remain were returned to South Africa.



  • 2010 University of Michigan “kids who were obese were 65 percent more likely to be bullied than their peers of normal weight;

  • A USC study of the top 100 films released in 2016, found only two women larger than a size 14 were cast as a lead or a co-lead. Of the top 50 TV shows that year, only three women leads were larger than a size 14.

  • In 2017 Fairygodboss found fat employees earn $1.25 less per hour  on average for doing the same job as nonfat workers.


You can still be fired for being fat in 49 states – yay Michigan. Although there are cities and a few states considering anti fat discrimination laws, existing federal and local anti-discrimination laws consistently don’t hold up when tested by fat people suing employers.


Quite often when people try to lose weight, they are not usually trying to lose weight for its own sake, merit worthy or not, What they are doing is trying to lose the discrimination and mistreatment they suffer because of their size. I was once told by a member of a congregation I served - at coffee hour in front of others - that the congregation would benefit if I were in better shape because fat people weren’t as good at marketing.

 

How prevalent is fat shaming?

MY WIFE'S SERMON

My wife is a priest in the Episcopal Church.  I share this with her permission. While on vacation this past summer in Portland, OR she preached a guest sermon at an Episcopal church. The prescribed scripture reading for that Sunday was The Gospel of Matthew chapter 15 where Jesus says:

 ‘Listen and understand - it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 

Her sermon was about fat phobia and how fat people are still the butt of jokes, cruelty, and discrimination. She received actual hate mail about the sermon. The worst was from a professor at a local university who sent an angry, hateful, curse laden email calling her just about every fat slur in the book and offering,

“Your taking of the gospel lesson, in which Jesus says that righteousness depends on what comes out of our mouths rather than what goes in, and turning it into a call for gluttony and obesity was bizarre. This may also explain why there are no young people left there. My daughter thankfully has established good eating and exercise habits. But your call to obesity would have most parents of young people scrambling for the exits.”

My wife is a large, fat woman. And her call to kindness, inclusion, and compassion for fat people resulted in hatred directed at a fat woman for being fat. 

 

BUT THERE IS HOPE


Cover of novel featuring diverse high school age students leaning against a wall.

I published a novel in 2017 about a Catholic High School in Boston.    The title Saint Somebody Central Catholic is based on the name of the school in the story which is named after some long forgotten Irish Catholic saint and the idea that everyone – even unknown teachers and their students in a insignificant high school in Boston are all saints – holy people. I’ve always been a Universalist at heart.  Spoiler alert – it wasn’t a best seller.  After about 18 months sales dropped off and it’s a nice thing I’ve done in my life and I can say I have an author page on Amazon. BUT…


Just after the Covid quarantine began in the winter of 2020 I received an email from a woman in Australia named Sophie Henderson-Smart offering to buy the domain name of my web site for the novel.  She needed the domain name for her business. Fashion designer Sophie Henderson-Smart had started a business in Australia in 2018 making top of the line swim wear for plus sized women. She called it Saint Somebody because everyone is beautiful, holy, and special – we’re all saints. Even fat people. Or as she says,


"Inspired by all women and their beautiful, diverse, remarkable bodies we create pieces that feel incredible to wear. Luxury fashion isn't only for one body type, nor should it dictate how we view our bodies. Fashion is about how the clothes make us feel."


The front page of Saint Somebody Swimwear with plus size women wearing high-end designer swimwear
The Saint Somebody Swimwear Website

 I absolutely loved that when she told me why she named her business Saint Somebody. I told her she could have the domain name. She didn’t need to buy it from me, and I signed over the rights.   She also told my wife that she should pick out two or three suits from the catalog and she’d have them sent.  So, I traded the domain name for $700 worth of swimwear and the knowledge that I’m not the only person who thinks we’re all valuable, lovable, and acceptable, whatever our size.

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