Let fat people speak for themselves — that’s the way you end ‘fatphobia’

I wish The Liturgists’ recent podcast episode had not just talked about fat people, but talked with fat people. I am, however, grateful for the conversations it has sparked.

Photo by AllGo/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Early last week, I left a Facebook comment for a popular podcast expressing my hope that an upcoming episode on fatness would feature fat voices. I am a Christian fat acceptance advocate and embodiment theologian. The episode went live with the title “Fatphobia, Diets, & Self-Worth.” The three speakers were all thin, and the episode description included that it was a discussion on “our culture’s obsession with body weight.”

I tweeted out both a thank you and a question:

“Dear @TheLiturgists @hillarylmcbride & @michaelgungor: glad you did an ep on fat-phobia. Why is everyone a thin person? I’m thankful for thin professionals who fight against fatphobia. But you need to include the voices of fat people, especially fat ppl of color.”

I wasn’t expecting to then spend the rest of my weekend on Twitter. But, it turns out, there were many others also upset by the absence of fat people on the episode. 

The Liturgists, hosts of the podcast, describe themselves on their website as “lifting up traditionally marginalized people as full and equal members of humanity.” When that is your stated goal and you release an episode about marginalized people without giving them an equal footing in the conversation, you are perpetuating the problem. 

This was the crux of the complaint. Fat people weren’t centered. Those of us long exhausted by privileged groups (such as thin people) discussing the lived realities of marginalized people have no interest in listening to that conversation again. 

My goal in speaking up is the same as it has been for years: to encourage people within Christian spaces, especially progressive or justice-oriented Christian spaces, to see fat people as made in the image of God and to question how our anti-fat biases hurt both fat people and the church. 

As the Twitter conversation continued over the weekend, I saw so many others show up for fat people and stand in solidarity with us in ways I have never seen within Christian spaces before. Hundreds of people of many sizes shared the message and joined the voices of those calling for the lived experiences and voices of fat people to matter. Numerous people engaged with a tweet thread listing fat people who work in Christian spaces.

We were centering and elevating the lived experiences of fat people in real time, even as the podcast episode failed to do so.

While Hillary McBride responded with an apology and a resolution to do better, Michael Gungor’s first response was a stream of tweets that began with impatience and snark and moved into defensiveness.

He tweeted dozens of times over the weekend, maintaining the quality of the episode and listing the reasons he had not included any fat voices. Among them, time and logistical constraints (such as having asked “more than oneR21; fat person to be on without them responding). He focused on his right to speak. He worried about his ability to maintain his platform if he followed the “rule” that marginalized voices need to be centered. And he accused me of leading “a mob of cancel culture” against him.

Most bizarrely, he claimed someone on their team had uploaded the podcast with the wrong title and seemed to argue that his intended title “Does fat=bad?” would have made this better. (To be clear: I maintain that fat people need to be part of the conversation if we are deciding if fat is bad or not!) 

Let me say, I agree it would have taken time to find fat people for the podcast. I disagree that should have been prohibitive. It takes diligence, intentionality, time and planning to walk to the margins. We are not top of mind because we are rarely offered the platforms to become so. But we are out here. We are not hiding. We want to talk about our lives in order that fat people may flourish.

Second, it was never about the people who actually were on the podcast. Christy Harrison, for example, is well respected among fat acceptance advocates. To my knowledge, not a single person asking for fat voices to be centered had an issue with Harrison being on the episode. We are asking for fat people to be included, not for thin people to be excluded. 

This was not a call to cancel The Liturgists or Michael Gungor. I’m grateful they broached the topic — I said as much in my initial tweet. I want large platforms to discuss this issue! I also want them to do it well. 

Being alerted to the fact you made a misstep on the way to your stated goal is not cancel culture. It is kindness. 

When privileged people take on the work of centering those on the margins, it is risky because we will make so many mistakes. I say “we” because I am also a person with numerous aspects of privilege. I make mistakes and when I do, then it is my job to seek to listen without defending myself and to ask those whom I have hurt what will make it right. People always have an answer for me.

If Gungor would like to make this right, my answer would be for him to stop defending or explaining himself and work to amplify the voices of those marginalized through his platforms. Not ideas about the marginalized, but the actual people.

The Liturgists officially responded briefly on Friday and then a longer update came late Monday evening. It mostly conveyed the same message Gungor’s tweets had earlier, though it acknowledged the way the episode perpetuated structural anti-fat bias, that they did not take the needed time with it, and committed to an episode in Season 6 of the podcast that will “feature a marginalized person who has the lived experience of being fat discussing that experience.”

I’m grateful The Liturgists are committing to an episode that centers the experiences of fat people. I hope they choose someone who is actively working for fat liberation and has done the work to interrogate their own internalized body-shame. 

Author J. Nicole Morgan in 2017. Photo by Faryl Ann Photography

At the end of the day, I am grateful that this discussion is happening. That my inbox is filled with people who are finding freedom by discovering other fat voices who say our fat bodies are not wrong. That our fat bodies are made in the image of God. That our fat bodies are worthy of telling our own stories and asserting our own humanity and dignity. As a human made in the image of God, my fat body tells the church part of the story of who God is. I want leaders to learn to listen. I want these conversations to happen in ways that don’t perpetuate the stigma and marginalization they claim to address. 

(J. Nicole Morgan is the author of “Fat and Faithful: Learning to Love Our Bodies, Our Neighbors, and Ourselves” (Fortress Press, 2018). She is also the co-host of the podcast “Fat & Faithful.” Nicole earned her Master of Theological Studies from Palmer Seminary at Eastern University. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jnicolemorgan. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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