At my school, one of my requirements this first semester is Qi Gong class. Qi Gong is a movement practice that comes from the large and dynamic body of theory and practice that we call Chinese medicine. It has to do with energy, electricity, meditation, and a lot of other things that I am just beginning to understand through studying them in acupuncture school. I love it so much and it also makes me nervous all the time. It’s not that I have qualms about taking Qi Gong—in theory, it’s really exciting. I just have qualms about group movement* class, what it means to be a fat person in group movement class, over and beyond what it already means to be a fat person in acupuncture school in a world that systematically equates health with weight loss. One of my learning-to-love-my-body practices is figuring out how to incorporate movement in my life that involves as few other people as possible (or making sure I time my lap swimming with water aerobics classes—universally one of the movement classes I have witnessed that contains the largest diversity of differently-sized bodies).
Group movement practice is something stolen from us fatties by a society that has decided there is one kind of acceptable body, and it’s not ours. I’ve been to a million yoga classes in my life, and still every time, the teacher without fail assists me too much or not enough. Or I get weird looks—sympathy, pity, anger. If you are not fat, you might be surprised how much maliciousness people feel towards fat people in group movement settings, like we are their personal internal enemy, which I suppose, when the diet industry frames weight loss as a battle, is true.
There is a deep-seated cultural myth that tells us fat is the opposite of health. This just isn’t true. Not only are more and more evidence-based biomedically legit research studies coming out that question this widespread assumption, but most of us could spend five minutes and find ample anecdotal evidence to counter this rampant and destructive belief. Saying that fat is the opposite of health implies that all not-fat people are healthy, implies that “healthy” practices (a whole other bag of worms, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it some combination of taking care of ourselves in ways that work best for us, having love and support, time with people we care about and time by ourselves, food that gives us energy and nourishment, sleep, water, movement) change our weight or the size of our bodies, that health is about appearances more than internal experiences of wellness. I am a relatively healthy person and I am fat. I’m not a paradox or even an anomaly. It’s just that you can’t tell by looking at me how well or ill I feel, despite institutionalized attempts to the contrary.
We didn’t always think this way. We know that there are times, whole systems of medicine and wellness that understood health as something attainable by people with a wide diversity of bodies, that didn’t create some fake epidemic in order to hide the fact that it is the stress and trauma of oppression or corporate pollution that makes people more prone to the “lifestyle diseases” of Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, heart disease.
In my Qi Gong book, interwoven with a history of this particular movement practice, is a brief history of vitalism-based movement in the West, how it was informed and augmented by Qi Gong practice. It talks about the history of gymnastics, how over time western scientific materialism (read: nothing exists but what you can put your hands on, no spirit, no emotional body, etc.) replaced a system of movement based around cultivating energy, life force, vital energy, what have you, with one that was based on the appearance of that hard-to-name quality via the trappings of stamina, flexibility, strength. It’s a profound difference: movement that is based on feeling better as opposed to looking better, like we know work towards. Though Gymnastics as a sport is now far from its vitalist roots, this means we all have something to go back to, a place in our collective embodied memory when we moved together to feel better, not to look better.
I want to move with other people, and I want to do it in settings in which movement is about building together, collaboration instead of competition, in which different bodies are respected for what they can and can’t do, more than that maybe that different bodies’ capacities aren’t even the point. What it feels like individually to do the movement as more important than anything else.
In the post-industrial capitalism of the Global North that I live in, group movement practices have been stolen from almost everyone by the institutionalized systems of oppression in place, which include fatphobia, and also ableism, patriarchy, white supremacy. Moving together to move towards health and wellness has become a luxury commodity as opposed to a basic necessity. It’s a far cry from what it should be, could be: movement for wellness as a way we build solidarity with each other, as a way we come together in embodied community that doesn’t ask us to leave any of our selves behind, as part of the creating of other kinds of dynamic movements. Qi Gong was banned from public practice in China during the Cultural Revolution, which tells me that there are many points in history when group movement practice, when growing our collective wellness together, has been considered subversive. Maybe it’s because it’s related to the building of strength, the building of armies, guerilla forces ready for uprising. Maybe it’s also because when we are well together, we have it in us to build the world we need, no matter the forces against us.
It’s not just group movement that has become more about cultivating a look than about cultivating an internal experience of health. The history of colonialism on traditional medicines is one that is constantly shifting the focus to practitioner’s diagnosis and away from client’s experience. Just think about this taken to an extreme: one thing it might look like is almost complete reliance on technologically sophisticated diagnostic tests and then practitioners spending five minutes with clients, mainly reporting on the results of said technologically sophisticated diagnostic tests. Sound familiar?
All of this makes me realize that part of the goal of me writing this blog is accountability: over the next four years, I will be schooled in how to diagnose people. It’s a useful skill, and also a slippery slope. Healthcare schooling teaches us to disregard people’s experiences for our own external perceptions of them; sure acupuncture school probably does this less than med school, but it’s still covertly and not-so-covertly part of the curriculum. It’s my third week of school and I can already see how it can sweep over a person—I’ve already heard numerous teachers and students rant about how Fat people are automatically unhealthy. This systematic silencing of peoples’ experiences of our bodies is a slippery slope and yet those of us who dedicate our lives to learning how bodies work do have something to offer, if we can combine that with listening and shifting the power dynamic ever towards empowerment of those we treat. Fat is just one of the ways that we are taught we know about a person’s health just by looking at them, by using our far-from-objective observation skills without any sort of dialogue with the real expert in the room, the person seeking healthcare .
And one more thing: fat healthworker friends, where are you? The first day of qi gong class, my teacher rhetorically asked, “who would want a 200-pound overweight chain-smoking doctor?” In my head I automatically answered, that’s exactly who I want to be my doctor, and I realized that I have a lot of friends who do healthwork and none of them are fat. I can imagine a million reasons for this, but I also know you are out there. Fat healthworker friends, come to me. We have some things we need to talk about. In a body shaming, fatphobic culture, we are doing something powerful, transformative, even revolutionary—we would do it better if we were doing it together. Doing health and doing movement together is part of collective liberation: it’s how we get to the world we need.*I have used the word movement instead of exercise throughout this rant. Partly that’s because the word exercise makes me think of all the ways white supremacist capitalist patriarchy frames the ways we move our bodies: that it is more about the appearance of health than the experience of health. There is no monolithic experience of health. Partly because as movements for collective liberation, what are we working for except broadly, a world in which everyone gets to live well and healthy, whatever that means for them? Isn’t part of that learning how to move together? We march and we dance and we eat together, sometimes we sleep together and we care for each other. There is another basic pillar of wellness, and I want us to do it together, in anti-oppressive spaces that are working towards access and safety for all bodies. I want vitalist movement practices together, as part of the world we want to create.