Once upon a time, society told me that my worth began and ended with my body. More precisely, I, like everyone else in my context, had been born into a society where other people thought that a designated-female person’s body held the beginning, the end, and everything in between when it came to her value.
I grew up in a particular version of Purity Culture where more was less in terms of how much of your body you revealed; the more you covered your body, the better of a person you were assumed to be. Women and girls were judged by the fit of their dresses, the opacity of their leggings and tights, the arch of their brows, the polish on their fingernails. Their faces were scanned for traces of makeup and religious teachers consulted about the Sharia legality of brown eyeliner on brown skin. A secret point system existed that was used to assess the merit of female human beings and decide how they were to be treated: Avoided, Befriended, Befriended Closely, Befriended Closely Enough to Ask for Marriage to a Male Relative.
Once upon a time, someone asked me why I hate going out to clubs and meat-market-style bars. I answered honestly: I am not a fan of draining my bank account to acquire the overpriced drinks necessary in order to make hanging out with people with whom I have little to nothing in common more tolerable. She laughed at me and asked me why I was “stupid” enough to pay for my own drinks when men would buy them for me. Again, I was frank: Men I don’t know don’t tend to buy me drinks at bars because I’m not the type of person they see as desirable in that setting. She proceeded to tell me that it was my fault for not knowing how to “work it” and for not having “confidence.”
How “confidence” and “working it” would have stopped the many men over the course of my dating experience from saying some variation of “I like you a lot but just not…. physically. Do you have any smaller friends?” (and those were the ones who were being kind), to give just one example, I don’t know. Continue reading “Self-Esteem Is Not Weight-Stigma-Ending Magic”→
I am a “good fatty” in the sense that I haven’t engaged in long-term unrestricted eating in many years and I make an attempt at an exercise regimen. I am a “bad fatty” in that I occasionally take breaks from my restricted eating plans, don’t engage in physical activity on a consistent basis, and am unapologetic about the fact that health can be attained even by those dubbed overweight or obese based on the BMI.
I can put on a short skirt, a deeply-plunging neckline, appealingly “natural” make-up, high heels, and a sweet smile; wander in alone to a bar filled with allegedly-prowling men; and be left alone. I’d call it my superpower were it not for the fact that, the one time I’ve stayed until closing time, a man who had previously insulted me to my face and laughed about it with his buddies that night told me that I was going home with him (I didn’t).
Since I am not a fan of the bar and club scene, especially not for meeting people, it’s not a huge deal for me. In fact, it wouldn’t bother me at all… if it weren’t for other people. More normative-type people can’t understand why I would call a night out “expensive” because “you’re a girl!” MRAs declare free drinks to be “female privilege.” Even articles that debunk the notion of “female privilege” assume that free drinks are a universal female experience.
I constantly hear about all the free stuff women automatically get just for being women — free stuff I’ve never gotten. Pointing this fact out leads to people engaging in some rather ridiculous mental gymnastics in order to avoid acknowledging that lookism and fatphobia exist.
A lot of people had Thoughts and Feelings about the “So Did the Fat Lady” episode of Louie. Here’s the part that made me fist-pump the air and exclaim “yes!”.
You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? “You’re not fat.” I mean, come on, buddy. It just sucks. It really really sucks. You have no idea. And the worst part is, I’m not even supposed to do this. Tell anyone how bad it sucks, because it’s too much for people. I mean, you, you can talk into the microphone and say you can’t get a date, you’re overweight. It’s adorable. But if I say it, they call the suicide hotline on me. I mean, can I just say it? I’m fat. It sucks to be a fat girl. Can people just let me say it? It sucks. It really sucks. And I’m going to go ahead and say it. It’s your fault.
Look, I really like you, you’re truly a good guy, I think. I’m so sorry. I’m picking you. On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys. Why do you hate us so much? What is is about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us? Nope. Not for us. How is that fair? And why am I supposed to just accept it?
The cruelty regarding my weight started when I was very young and only got worse as I got older. It seemed to me that social interactions were all opportunities for people to be mean to me about something I didn’t know how to manage or control. Before I had learned to count high enough to track my caloric intake, I was certain that, by merely existing in my body, I was asking for poor treatment.
Others’ reminders that I was fat did me no favors not only socially, but also medically. Although I do appreciate the data about the harms of fat stigma — it’s a metaphorical glove by which I can more aristocratically slap the anecdote police — my health history bears witness to how anti-fat stigma can lead to adverse health outcomes.
I knew other women and girls who thought they were fat. Others would tell them that as long as their doctors said that they were healthy, they shouldn’t care. I, on the other hand, was medically overweight, and later, obese. To make matters worse, the ways in which my doctors handled the matter were not quite as professional as you’d imagine. For example, when I was twelve, my doctor pointed out that she, a mother of three who was two inches taller and two decades older than me, weighed twenty pounds less than I did. I needed to get my BMI in order, she chided, while I was still young.
To my relief, moving away from the area a few months later meant that I could I stop seeing Dr. Smug Comparison. To my chagrin, I was to find that other doctors weren’t much better. Even if the doctor didn’t shame me using herself as a counter-example, doctor’s visits were a minefield. I would have to be weighed by a nurse who wouldn’t announce my weight aloud as she did with the other patients my age, then led to a room where the entire conversation would be about my fat body while I shivered in a thin paper gown. As you might expect, incredible amounts of anxiety built up in me in the days leading up to any doctor’s visits.
During one such visit when I was fourteen, I produced a rather high blood pressure reading. Assuming that I must be gulping down copious quantities of unhealthy food, my doctor told me to eat less food, especially the salty kind. If I didn’t shape up, she warned, she’d have to put me on blood pressure medication. That my period had stopped around that time allegedly corroborated that my fat was out of control. I spent a lot of time freaking out about it, obsessively exercising and monitoring my food intake.
A few months after that doctor’s visit, I stayed in London for a month. After I returned home, I got my first period in eight months and my follow-up visit yielded a normal blood pressure reading. My doctor briefly praised what she assumed had happened — that I’d lowered my salt intake — before issuing an even-more-frantic version of her usual “lose weight” refrain. This was because, hilariously, I had stopped fretting so much about my body during my trip thanks to the intervention of a sympathetic cousin — and had actually gained weight eating saltier foods than my usual. I found out later that though amenorrhea and high blood pressure can be associated with being overweight, they’re also associated with stress.
More frighteningly, when I was fifteen, anti-fat bias nearly impeded a correct diagnosis for the issue with my right knee. My doctor claimed it must be a minor sprain upon which my overweight body was putting too much pressure. My insistence that I could definitely feel something moving inside my knee led to her reluctantly order a CAT scan. The resulting images clearly depicted symptoms of synovial osteochondromatosis, a rare chronic disease of the cartilage.
This story has a happy ending because I no longer believe doctors to be unquestionable authorities on all things. As an adult, I’ve managed to find excellent doctors, caring medical professionals who I consider part of my team rather than stern figures unhelpfully lecturing me. Sadly, too many others’ stories have quite a different outcome. There are plenty of fat people who avoid going to the doctor to avoid shaming — and the ones who do go can be misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed. I’m sure most doctors mean well and I doubt that there was an intention to harm feelings and health outcomes in the case of even Dr. Smug Comparison. If we actually want fat people to become healthier, though, we need to consider the fact that doctors are people and don’t always behave in the best interests of their patients’ health.
The trouble I find with talking about weight stigma is that, like many other forms of societal oppression, its very existence is nigh incessantly denied. There are those who believe that any kind of anti-fat behavior can be explained away by the poor attitude of the fat person in question despite all evidence to the contrary, evidence that points to spreading worldwide stigma. The denialism can go as far as to reject the fact that misused medical tools can be used to discriminate against fat women. Institutionalized, society-wide oppression doesn’t disappear because a fat person decides to, say, smile more and stand up straighter.
Another problem with talking about weight stigma is that thin women sometimes claim that they are as equally discriminated against for their body size. While women of all sizes no doubt have their bodies policed, fat women demonstrably face discrimination of the kind that thin women simply do not face, from the doctor’s office (no, really, there could be a reason besides fat that fat women experience poor health outcomes) to the courtroom (male jurors are more likely to hand a guilty verdict to fat women) to the office (overweight women are paid less). There are countless anecdotal lists containing examples of thin privilege at places such as Dances with Fat and Everyday Feminism. It’s not that fat women win some imaginary competition against thin women in the Oppression Olympics, it’s that we need to pay attention to the harmful ways in which they are discriminated against, ways that are particular to their body type and not simply a product of generalized misogyny.
It helps no one, least of all fat people, to enforce weight stigma. It’s about time we admitted that fat-shaming isn’t the same as encouraging health, cruelty doesn’t help people to become thinner, and thinness isn’t always the best course for all fat people.