Feb. 9, 2017
Let’s be honest, this is a blog. It’s not an academic research journal. It’s not Time Magazine. It’s my personal weekly spiel, so it’s both my take on things big and small and a refection of my own evolution as a woke humanoid. If there are some fools that want to hold something I did or said in the 1980s over me, let them. That person was. Even the cells in his body are long gone. If I share my journey, maybe others (perhaps you, my beloved reader) will reflect on theirs. We are on a path, trying not to be dragged backwards by the trolls tweeting at our heels. The key is intense self-reflection. Sometimes you don’t like what you see.
Some of the big ticket items of oppression come through pretty clearly for the people that are ready to see them and the impact on their world; racism, sexism, homophobia, even Islamophobia. People might even be able to make it from there to discussions of white privilege, intersectionality, and queer identities. But start talking about fat people and things fall apart quickly. “But…. But… But…” Suddenly there are lots of reasons not to practice empathy. It’s still safe to look down on the large.
I’ve been one of those people. Like Donald Trump, I’ve been on three sides of a two sided issue. Obviously, America (and Donald Trump) has a weight problem. I noticed it when I lived in Europe. You could pick out the Americans in any crowd by their waist size. According to the CDC, 36.5% of Americans are obese. Those folks suffer all kinds of medical woes, including early deaths and their health issues are a part of are swelling health care costs that get folded into our insurance premiums. In 2008, the CDC pegged the medical cost of obesity at $147 billion. So it’s right to get angry at fatties, right?
If anyone knows this anger it’s a heavy person. And that’s the problem. The sociological causes of high obesity rates is one discussion (as well as what is defined as “obesity”). How we treat heavy people is another discussion. And why there should be anything close to a “perfect” weight is a third. I’m going to ignore the first discussion, and only say that scones are not supposed to be the size of your head, to focus on the other two.
She’s a perfect 10
It’s no shocker that we want women to look like “girls.” I mean, just ask why we demand that women shave their armpits. What’s the function? You can look like a pre-pubescent girl maybe into your early twenties if you work at it. But after that, it’s a losing battle. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! And there are several industries to help you out.
In the early 1990s, I religiously assigned Naomi Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. College women were suffering from record reports of eating disorders and American women were dying from botched liposuction surgeries and it just seemed like the right book at the right time to put in front of female and male people. It’s based on the staple of gender socialization that boys are raised to be judged on their actions and girls are raised to be judged solely on their looks. I’m certainly going to write more about this complex issue, but their is one easy way to fit it into this topic; the perfect 10.
Is your butt too round or too flat? Are your boobs too big or too small? Are you too short or too tall? What about your nose? And how is your skin? While these questions might impact males, they define females very worth from an early age. There is a narrow window where each characteristic is in the acceptable beauty zone. But there are a hundred moving parts (Maybe your ass is fine but your knees are knobby) and it’s a constantly shifting matrix (Is the thigh gap in or out this season?). It’s enough to cause a girl to lose her mind and that’s the point, according to Wolf. Drive females crazy with anxiety and keep them away from the thrones of power.
The women in Trump’s beauty contests are held up as the “ideal,” but they all look very similar in their proportions. A gold medal swimmer, like Missy Franklin, wouldn’t have the body to compete for the Miss USA crown. Neither would comedian Amy Schumer for that matter. How dare they not at least try to be a Trump 10? “It makes me so angry. Amy Schumer would be so hot if she lost like a hundred pounds.” Every woman should do everything possible to make it to TEN and if they don’t there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’re “lesbians.” (Because any female who doesn’t rank her evaluation by men’s gaze first and foremost must not like men. Right, bros?)
Forget the fact that even the “perfect” women don’t actually look like that. Can we get some non-airbrushed pictures of Ivanka Trump up in here? I bet even supermodel Gigi Hadid has parts of her body she hates. Self-hate is the goal of the beauty myth. It’s not what you’ve accomplished in life, it’s how the guys rank your hotness. And after about age 21, it’s a losing battle. Better fit Botox into your budget.
Add the majority of women who are not a size zero into that anger at the imperfect. Here is the genesis of fat shaming. “How dare you be fat? What’s wrong with you? I have to look at you!” So it’s not about the issues of the looker, but the issues of the looked upon. Sociologists call this attribution theory. We can make up a whole story about people we define as somehow deficient. “I bet she goes all in for Venti Caramel Frappucinos.” Fat people are lazy, gross, ugly, selfish (and, oddly, self-hating), unhealthy, but, hey, they’re funny as hell.
This topic reared its ugly head after last month’s Women’s March. I saw a meme that tried to make a joke that Trump got a bunch of large ladies to do some walking. Because 1) feminists are fat, 2) liberals are fat, and 3) hot skinny chicks would never waste their time marching when they could be getting their boyfriends buckets of fried chicken before the big game. Let’s put aside the reality of who is heavier, liberals or conservatives (here’s a link) or if your are more likely to see an abundance of plus-sized women at a NASCAR event, and focus on the message. Women who stand up for their rights are fat and any women who is not this week’s definition of a “10” is to be devalued. Those fat, hairy lesbian feminists are barely people, let alone women. Right, bros?
The emotional impact on the women we love
Devaluation and dehumanization are the most accessible tools of oppression. Calling a grown black man a “boy,” or a person with disabilities a “retard,” or a woman a “bitch.” It’s all the same. The perpetrator might say, “It’s just a word. Lighten up!” But to the recipient there is a cumulative effect that is emotionally and psychologically devastating. The constant message that you are “less than” erodes a person’s self-worth. Plenty of research backs this up. Just ask a fat person. I did. There are women in my circle that have struggled with their weight and, being an ethnographer (and someone who has probably made a few fat jokes in his life), I wanted to shut up and just listen. What does it feel like to be shamed because of your weight? I got so many responses, I just had to sit with them for a while. Some had me in tears. And some said they were in tears while they wrote their answers to me.
Many were first fat-shamed by their mothers and then by other women, showing how these values become internalized, like one group of slaves being used to keep watch over another group of slaves. Some became fat after the birth of their children or injuries, and for some the shame was there as long as they could remember. Some were body-shamed for being “too thin,” but continually felt fat. All were people I cared about. Suddenly I wanted to write a book on the topic. But for now, listen to some of their truth.
I was a size 6 until at age 40 I had another baby and then 2 years of surgeries. I am an 18 now. The people who hurt me are actually acquaintances and old friends that haven’t seen you in a while. I’m sure they aren’t trying to hurt me, but when someone says something like oh my god what happened to you? Or you’ve gotten so big I wouldn’t have known you. I have literally stopped being social over this I am terrified of being in public and someone saying something like that even if they don’t mean it to hurt me. (S)
Before my 48th birthday my mother announced with a huge sense of glee that she knew what she was going to give me for my birthday. I said, “What?” She said, “Liposuction.” To be honest, I’m about 15lbs over the weight I should be. (C)
“If you could see yourself from behind, you’d shoot yourself”….My mother to me at 13 years old. 25 years of therapy later, and 2 Master’s in Mental Health…here I am living that moment. (A)
I am told I look better than a 25 year old and I am 45, but when I look in the mirror I see an overweight, blob of laziness. I try to challenge my thoughts of myself but when I continuously get praised for my physique I cannot help but hang on to it. I don’t agree with what others see but I know I do not see my body how it is so I trust that others do. Its like being in prison and I am unable to break free from it. (M1)
I can’t imagine living in a world where I actually feel good about my body. I watched some clip of an athletic, slim woman walking on a beach in a bikini and thought “I can’t imagine putting on a bikini and walking on the beach. What would that be like? What would it be like to walk so confidently, openly, unafraid that you’ll be trolled or insulted, content in yourself?” (M2)
When I was younger, I was always on the heavier side. I dealt with bullies my entire life calling me “fat” and saying just awful things. From the age of 7 on. My own father used to fat shame me and say awful things. “If you would get your fat ass out of the refrigerator, maybe you’d be able to finally listen to me!” I always struggled with being heavy. My thighs always touched, my ass was always bigger and I got boobs earlier than all the other girls. One second, a guy would call me a “slut” for having big boobs and then next, I would be called a “cow” because I was big. (C2)
This is just a tiny slice of what I received. Women who work in the media got it in email and Facebook comment form and women who stayed at home got it from the family members who loved them. The body shaming came from friends and strangers because everyone has permission to comment on a woman’s body and where it is in relation to Trump’s 10.
While there is a parallel narrative of men who are fat shamed, men have the privilege of plugging into the patriarchal power structure. When I was a kid, many overweight boys found refuge on the football team. It’s surely a struggle for larger men in the competitive GQ work world, but there are infinite messages that still tell them they are their accomplishments, not their belt size. You can even become president!
There is a ton of research on this subject I could cite but the message I got was how many women I know suffer in silence. Heartbreaking silence. The internet is on fire with fat shaming “humor,” but we tolerate the suffering of people we love. Why?
Can I be a part of the solution? I’ve certainly made comments about the obesity issue that were cloaked in concern about health issues (and insurance premium rates). But I have to wonder if I’ve avoided relationships out of fear of fatness. I’ve always been pretty slim (even when I played high school football) and been dedicated to healthy diet and exercise. I know I’ve thought of heavy people as not caring about those things. In many cases, it’s the exact opposite – they care and engage more. The fat = sick assumption is hugely problematic. It’s so much more complex than that. But stereotyping is so much easier than wading into the complexity. (Just ask a Trump fan about Mexicans and Muslims.) And liberals are just as guilty. Spend some time on the People of Wal-Mart website for a good dose of liberal fat and class-shaming.
It doesn’t do any good to tell a fat person they are fat. They know, believe me. In fact, it’s likely to have the opposite effect. It’s not like someone hears a comment and thinks, “Oh, shit, I might be obese. I’m going to cut carbs out of my diet today!” These are life long struggles, fueled, at least in part, by the belief that there is some perfect body size that will get you back into the “fully human” category.
Think of the human potential that has been lost because of the impact of that shame, of people who hide their talents because of one category of evaluation. And think of people who just gave up on their own health because it is impossible (impossible) to ever truly reach this socially constructed ideal of perfection. And think of the woman who really deserves some Ben & Jerry’s and the simple joy a mouthful of ice-cream can bring, standing in the check-out line next to air-brushed magazine cover models, diet books, and the National Enquirer beach bodies issue with the teaser, “Whose disgusting fat ass is this?”
I want to write more about this issue, but for now I want to just say we are all fully human with a right to be here. It doesn’t matter what your size is. But we need to hear the stories because anyone who cares about a person who is suffering should care about why they are suffering. Things are changing. People don’t care as much about beauty pageants as they used to (Sorry, Trump.) Real people have stretch marks and bounce around on the scale and have days when they feel like not leaving the house. We’re probably more ready for the Rosie O’Donnells (Trump’s “fat pig”) and the Alicia Machados (Trump’s “Miss Piggy”) of the world than the Ivankas and Melanias, but there’s room for all to exist without being placed under our microscope of evaluation. Your ass is fine.
To be continued.