Fat and Intersex?

When I came to work as the Director of Programming for ISNA, many of my friends and colleagues asked why someone with a background in the scholarship of fat politics would come to work in the intersex rights movement. As it turns out, the issues involved are strikingly similar, and I find more common ground each day. We’re doing so much good work here at ISNA that undoubtedly benefits people with intersex conditions and their families, but I also think our work benefits other people with stigmatized embodiments. By insisting that we understand both the social and medical issues involved (and which is which!), advocating for patient autonomy, and working to end the stigma and shame that often surrounds bodies that are different, ISNA helps set the stage for many groups of people to receive better medical care and social support. We hope you’ll support this important work. And I hope you’ll read on to find out more about what fat and intersex have to do with each other.

I think people interested in fat politics and intersex rights can learn a lot from each other. Specifically, they can learn:

  • That most treatments designed to make people “normal”—whether that normalization be via genital surgeries to make genitals look a certain way or bariatric surgeries to make people lose weight—often fail in one of two ways. They either don’t produce the physiological traits hoped for (bariatric surgeries often produce smaller but not necessarily thin people and early genital surgeries often don’t produce ‘”normal” looking genitals) and/or procedures like early genital surgeries and bariatric surgeries often don’t make the people who undergo them “feel” normal. Many intersex people who underwent early surgeries often sense that something is different about their bodies and many large people who lose significant amounts of weight still report feeling fat or feeling uneasy in their bodies, sometimes because they still don’t feel “good enough” (read thin enough) or because they actually miss being larger because it’s all they’ve ever known.
  • That parents often don’t feel better after these treatments either. Parents often experience anxiety, regret, and other complicated emotions about their role in a child’s visits to the doctor (which children often resist), how their child feels about his or her embodiment, or even just what it means to consent to having certain procedures performed on one’s child. And if the treatments fail to make the child “normal” by social standards, then both parents and the child can be left wonder what it was all for. Children often confront parents with difficult questions about treatments, and sometimes children aren’t satisfied with treatments as they grow older. These and many other factors can lead to many parents feeling worse rather than better about trying to normalize a child. I know that as an adult who has accepted my fatness as part of me, I’ve asked my mom some very difficult questions about why she put me on so many diets when I was a child.
  • That parents of children who are in any way different have a tough row to hoe, as we’d say in Appalachia. My research on fatness and children, and literature on parents of disabled children, shows that many parents feel guilty and somehow to blame for their children not being seen as “normal” by social standards. Part of what I’m researching now (and again what disability scholars have already noted) is that the whole identity of being “a good parent” is renegotiated when you have a child who is seen as different. Many times, parents (especially mothers) are blamed for having fat children. People imagine that mothers of fat children have bad parenting skills or somehow caused their child’s size. Due to this pressure and desperation to help their child and also to alleviate their own guilt and anxiety, many parents choose questionable treatments for their children, such as fat camps and/or weight loss surgery. This is, of course, what ISNA has been saying about childhood genital surgeries for years: that many times decisions about treatments are made, at least in part, to make parents feel better and not children.
  • That having a different body isn’t always a medical emergency. Although it’s true that fatness is a medical issue for some people, there’s a substantial body of evidence that being fat, in and of itself, isn’t a medical problem for many people. Many fat people who eat well and exercise regularly are just as healthy as their thinner counterparts. Similarly, not all intersex conditions require medical treatment. Some do, but many intersex people have perfectly healthy bodies.
  • That both fatness and intersex are constructed as social emergencies. Both fat bodies and intersex bodies challenge certain cultural ideals. Intersex bodies threaten a very dichotomous gender system that so much of contemporary Western culture holds dear and depends on to help structure our society. Just think about how many categories are dependent on knowing someone’s definite sex; it’s everything from which bathroom folks should use to who is straight and who is queer. Currently, fat bodies are also positioned as social emergencies for many reasons. For example, fat bodies are often closely associated with poor people and/or people of color and that makes them socially undesirable (for more about this topic, see my article “Collateral Damage from Friendly Fire?: Race, Nation, Class and America’s ‘War on Obesity’”). Further, fat bodies are often seen as undesirable because they literally don’t “fit” social standards. Fat bodies need bigger spaces and cause us to rethink how the “standard” size seat on an airplane, for example, excludes certain people from participating in our culture (for more on this topic, see my article “Disparate but Disabled: Fat Embodiment and Disability Studies.”
  • That despite the stigma and shame attached to both fat and intersex bodies, many people come to love and cherish those bodies provided they find support. As a fat woman, I know it’s not easy to walk through the world in a body seen as so different (even though statistically I’m much more the norm these days!), but I also know that as I came to understand fatness as part of me, I became very comfortable in my body. Many intersex people report similar experiences.
  • That people’s bodies should be their own. Although I’m not a fan of dieting and have solemnly sworn never to succumb to the pressure to do it again, the truth is that I have to respect the decisions of those large people who consent to dieting or to weight loss surgeries once they know all the risks. And, if people with intersex conditions understand all the risks and still want to undergo genital surgeries or hormone treatments, then that is their decision. It doesn’t mean we can’t advocate for better care, or support people so they can be more accepting of their own embodiments, or work to end the oppression of people seen as different; we can and should still agitate for all those things. We can agitate for those things because those are the very things that make it easier for folks to make fully informed decisions with as little social pressure as possible. Understanding that people need and deserve some autonomy, however, means that at some point we must recognize that the final decision belongs to the individual.

If you’d like to read my published scholarship about fatness, please see:

Herndon, April. “Disparate But Disabled: Fat Embodiment and Disability Studies.” NWSA Journal 14.3 (Fall 2002):120-137.

Herndon, April. “Collateral Damage from Friendly Fire?: Race, Nation, Class, and the ‘War Against Obesity’.” Social Semiotics 15.2 (Aug 2005): 127-141.