November 2014

Until people get it

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

By now, you’d think I would know better than to read articles titled “Shamed, flamed, harassed: What it’s like to be called fat online.” But, I did reason that it appeared in the New York Times, and I reasoned further that the headline was sympathetic.

The article itself made many points, from salient (“shaming is not a solution”), to the “hmm, really?” variety, as when interview subject Virgie Tovar told reporter Anna North the “cultural anxiety” arising from women gaining autonomy is driving weight prejudice. (I wouldn’t say that this isn’t a factor, but I would say it’s a reach to lay it all on some kind of pushback from the patriarchy.)

The article on the whole was positive, particularly when Tovar said she would like to see people treat what she calls fatphobia for what it is: abusive behavior that merits resistance.

Then I waded into the comments, apparently, because I was feeling masochistic. Many of the initial responses indicated people were either unwilling or incapable of grasping the point.

A sampling:

• “People’s lives are restricted, people are dying, costs are enormous and rising. To focus on people getting their feelings hurt in the face of these realities is bizarre…” • “People should be told, politely, to drop the weight…”

• “Are we supposed to celebrate obesity and the many concurrent health issues, morbidity and social costs? I don’t believe in being mean to individuals, but I also don’t believe in saying that every poor choice a person makes is acceptable… there are good reasons why sloth and gluttony are deadly sins.”

• “…overweight people are mostly gluttons… should they be bullied? Of course not. Are they making themselves targets of harsh judgment? Of course.”

• “This generally self-inflicted problem… does not produce any compassion on the part of the general public and is compounded by the media always looking to provide other reasons which are convenient for ‘overweight, obese, fat people’ to avoid personal responsibility for the problem.”

• Fat parents with fat children = “child abuse, no different to second-hand smoke.”

• “Not all shaming is necessarily bad. . . But especially now that we all pay the costs of the poor health choices of others (when the overwhelming majority of overweight are the result of personal choices) some shaming is warranted.”

• “While fat shaming is terribly harmful to those who are obese, it does have a deterrent effect on those of us who would otherwise give in to temptation.”

• Comments asking why it is OK to shame smoking and excessive drinking, but not OK to fat-shame. One acknowledged that it is hard to lose weight, but immediately after said: “Many don’t want to put in the effort or make the life changes required to achieve a healthy body. … And let’s not stifle the voices of condemnation that rightly point out the unappealing nature of the condition.”

• “…females have a strong instinct to compete on the basis of appearance.” (And what could possibly be the reason for that?)

• It’s OK to shame racists, so it is OK to shame fat people (the gist of one remark). It goes on: “…Well, when I see an obese person, my immediate reaction is, I will pay for every ounce of your excess flesh, either by paying increased insurance premiums to cover the cost of treating you for the illnesses your obesity is sure to bring, or through the lost productivity caused by your sick leave and inability to perform at maximum capacity. … If you don’t want to be the target of fat jokes, start showing some personal responsibility.”

• It is disgusting to see fat people on airplanes and to have to fly with them. (Paraphrase).

The NYT’s standards no doubt shut off the sewer channels, so we probably were treated to the milder opinions. More than that, though, a fair number of comments took the bigots to task and called out those who were making sweeping assumptions. (I was among them and will soon repeat some of the points I made.)

Here’s a handful of the basic assumptions I see, and continue to see, even as people push against “fat-shaming.”

1. “It’s common sense! If you just eat less and exercise more…”

Wow! Thanks, I’ve never tried that before! Because, you know — I’m fat! And that automatically means I am stupid and lazy, and I dine solely on Twinkies stuffed with hot dogs and topped with nacho cheese, plus I guzzle French fry drippings instead of water. All the time!

2. “I lost weight, so anyone can!”

Good for these folks if that makes them happy. But they can be happy about it without dragging others into it. Also, I can’t help but think that if people of this mindset were truly comfortable in their skin, they wouldn’t be so concerned with mine. Besides, if I became thin, they would have one less person over whom to feel superior. (Also, if the stigma of being fat were to be taken away, they might feel “cheated” of accolades.) I should know — I feel superior when I see someone heavier than me. It is wrong. I need to stop it. So, I am calling out myself on this one.

3. “You just don’t like being told the truth.”

Yes, that’s totally it, because I have no idea that I am fat. Never mind that it is impossible not to know I am fat when I exist in a thin-obsessed world that has no trouble condemning me for not fitting in.

The problem isn’t the word “fat.” The problem is that it is freighted with moral judgment and assumptions. The short list: irresponsible, pathological, bad parent, bad spouse, unproductive worker, selfish, greedy, gluttonous, smelly, ugly, dirty, couch potato, disgusting, uses food to “insulate” from problems instead of dealing with them like a proper adult. Oh, and if we object to that kind of judgment, then we are crybabies. The reason I would call this intolerant and self-righteous is precisely because it is. Countering prejudice is not the same thing as whining over hurt feelings.

4. “Fat people are driving up healthcare costs.”

Size is not synonymous with health. Everyone gets sick. Everyone dies. It is simplistic and inaccurate to declare that a fat person’s health problem in every case “must” be the result of his or her weight. Also, fat people pay insurance, too, which is a shared risk. They don’t enjoy subsidizing others’ “lifestyles,” either.

Speaking of “lifestyles,” smoking is a lifestyle choice. Eating poorly and being inactive are also lifestyle choices (as well as socioeconomic ones), but the thing is, not everyone who makes those choices is fat, nor is every fat person necessarily inactive and eating poorly. This is but one reason why comparing fatness to smoking does not fly. (And judging smokers as reprobates is wrong, too.)

5. “If you don’t want to be ridiculed and discriminated against, lose weight.”

That is the most pernicious and entrenched of justifications for bigotry, as well as the most infuriating. Demanding that fat people conform to the standards of those who are abusing them in order to stop the abuse puts the onus on the wrong party.

6. “You’re just looking for excuses.”

Nuh-uh. Don’t even go there. I’m looking for people to understand that they don’t get a say in my body, because my body is not public property. (And neither is a slender person’s, so stop making assumptions about that person’s “anorexia.” No more body-bashing. Period.) Also, fat people don’t need an “excuse.” There is nothing to excuse.

Now, it is true that not everyone loathes fat people. It is also true that people can think what they please of fat people; there is no obligation to “celebrate” anything.

There is an obligation, however, to remember that fat people are people; to not stereotype; to not assume; to not abuse, to drop the idea that fat people have to justify our existence and — as I have said before — that we should change our bodies so others don’t have to change their minds.

My notion appears to be the “radical” one.

And that’s the problem.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.