The Fat Squad

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Tired of being ignored and judged, The Fat Squad was formed as a community advocating for fat people.

Every time she steps out of her home – whether it is to go to work, the mall or the park – Farizah Ahmad is filled with trepidation. As a fat person, Farizah says the outside world is daunting and cruel.

When she’s outside, people take photos or videos of her, laugh at her or even approach her to ask her about her weight.

“Going out is like walking into a battlefield for fat people. The moment I step out of my house, I am very anxious about where I am going and what’s going to happen because once I am in a public space, people take photos or videos of me. It happens all the time.

“I feel like I am in a circus,” says Farizah.

“It’s dehumanising,” says Jaskirath Kaur Sohanpal.

The Fat Squad

Two years ago, Jaskirath, Farizah and three of their friends – Ratnadevi Manokaran, Dorian Wilde and Preamiitha Prakash, formed My Fat Squad (Instagram: @myfatsquad), a community for fat people. My Fat Squad offers fat people a safe space to talk about issues they face and also get information on fat-friendly spaces, doctors, services and so on.

“There are many things that we can’t talk to non-fat people about because they would not be able to relate. The community has helped us feel like we belong, that we are seen, heard and accepted. And, we also do clothing swaps because in Malaysia it’s almost impossible to find clothes that fit us,” shares Jaskirath.

Farisah adds, “Another wonderful thing about being in this community is we get to see how other fat people move, and live their life. We don’t get any representation and a lot of times navigating the world feels very lonely. My mum and dad are not fat so growing up it was very hard.”

When you are fat, says Jaskirath, strangers think they have the right to offer advice about our weight or ask us very personal questions.

“I have had taxi drivers tell me that I need bariatric surgery. Once, I was going for a walk near my house, and a lady who was plucking flowers outside her home told me I should try yoga. I was literally doing exercise but she thought it wasn’t enough.

“Because I am fat, people think they can comment on what I eat, what exercise we do and what we buy,” she says.

Farizah, nodding, shares: “A lady approached me in a public bathroom and asked me if I had done anything to reduce my weight. I asked her, ‘What makes you think I want to?’ Would she approach someone who is smoking and ask them about their health concerns? Or anyone else who is not fat?”

Jaskirath adds, “People see fatness as an easily solvable thing. They think that if I put my mind to it, I can become thin. But that’s not how fatness works. Fatness has so many underlying factors – genetics, your race, and so on. That’s just how our body is, for some of us.”

Meanwhile, Ratnadevi says that most fat people would have tried their best to lose weight at some point in their life.

“In 2020, when my mental health was at its worst, I found the courage to see a psychiatrist for the first time. I paid RM250 an hour for the session and the first thing she asked me was if I’ve tried to lose weight. I told her that is not a question you ask fat people because most of us have tried or been forced to lose weight.

“Maybe it’s different for the younger generation who have more support but for us, we’ve tried it all,” says Ratna.

Farizah shares how she saved up money when she was 14 to buy slimming teas to lose weight.

“And when I was 16, I lost a noticeable amount of weight because I was severely bulimic. Everyone complemented me and asked me what I did…I was forcing myself to throw up every time I ate something.

Farizah Ahmad

“This is why fat phobia is so dangerous. It’s not just about making fun of fat people – which is also bad – but it can do so much damage,” she says.

It’s not just the public shaming and hurtful comments that fat people have to deal with. It’s discrimination that keeps them from accessing their basic rights, such as healthcare, the women say.

“The most discrimination is in the healthcare system. This is really ironic because a lot of times people think fat people don’t care about our health, which is why we are fat. But the truth is we are often neglected by the healthcare system. When I’ve gone to see doctors, they immediately judge me, which affects how they treat me.

“Last year I saw a doctor for my bad back and he gave me an injection (to alleviate) the pain. After that, he told me the needle wasn’t long enough and so, the procedure didn’t work. He blamed me and said how frustrating it was working ‘with someone like me’. He said I was very lucky that he was willing to ‘take the risk and work with me’.

“He also suggested bariatric surgery (for weight loss) and when I said I will not consider it he blamed me for my condition. I was crying in the room and, like most of my doctor visits, it left me traumatised,” shares Farizah. Fortunately, when she shared her story on social media, she was approached by a doctor at a public hospital who asked her to come to their rehabilitation centre.

“I have been going there now for a while,” says Farizah.

This, the three ladies say, is actually what the body positive movement is about – advocating for fat people to not be discriminated against.

“The body positive movement has given visibility to fat people and platformed us. It isn’t really about learning to accept your insecurities about your body.

I mean it’s good that you can love yourself in whatever shape or size but the movement is really about how we make a change towards the systemic oppression of fat bodies. It’s about giving access (to services) for fat people.

“I had a friend who was recently diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Five years prior, she’d gone to the hospital because she’d been bleeding non-stop for two years. They told her to lose weight. Five years later, she felt that something was still wrong, and she was diagnosed with cancer. We lose people every day because fat people are not getting proper healthcare and diagnoses,” says Ratna.

The body positive movement, the girls explain, was started by fat people for fat people.

The movement was built around the fat acceptance movement, which started in the 1960s in the United States by the National Association To Aid Fat Americans, later changed to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

The aim was to advocate for fat people who face discrimination in their daily lives, whether in employment to education to healthcare. From finding chairs that fit, to compassionate medical care, the movement aims to bring about change.

“However, the body positive movement has been co-opted by thin people or small-fat people and has become only about accepting your body for what it is,” says Ratna.

Living as a fat person, says Jaskirath, is “extremely stressful”.

Jaskirath Kaur Sohanpal

“Imagine going to a restaurant and not being able to eat there because there are no chairs that fit you. Imagine having to think about whether a place that you want to go to is accessible to you,” she says.

“Or your workplace or university. Or hospital. You will have to think if these spaces will be fat friendly. Would people see me differently because I am fat?” adds Farizah. “For some time, I had to bring my own chair to work. At university, I had to tell the administration office to prepare a chair that fits me. And at the hospital, I am still trying to get them to have seating for fat people like me,” she says.

Instead of judging fat people or buying into stereotypes – that fat people are lazy, unhealthy, unproductive, undesirable – society should advocate for fat people.

“Just because we are fat, does that mean we don’t have rights?” asks Farizah.

“If you have a fat friend and you see them being discriminated against, speak up. If people talk in fat phobic language, shut them down. We let too much slide,” says Jaskirath.

“Include fat people in all activities, give them space, bring them in conversations, humanise fat people because they are multifaceted humans who are more than fat, get to know fat people but don’t make them your project to help them lose weight,” says Ratna.

Ratnadevi Manokaran

“And the next time you talk about accessibility, think about fat people. Everyone can sit on chairs for fat people but fat people can’t sit on every chair,” says Farizah. – The Star