**POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING IF YOU STRUGGLE WITH NEGATIVE BODY IMAGE AND BODY SHAME**
We’ve ushered in a new year. I’m sure you’ve seen some articles, commercials, and news segments emphasizing good practices for abiding by new year’s resolutions, especially around the issue of fighting fat. Apparently about 45% of people in the United States make new year’s resolutions, and, statistically, the top resolution is losing weight.
As you know, I’m writing this particular post for Women in Theology, which is a well-known feminist theological blog. I have also written in the past on how ridiculous our obsession is with (women) losing weight and striving for some (ever-receding) “ideal” of thinness. You can therefore infer how I feel about the weight loss mania that descends upon us come the turn of every new year, especially how it seems, inevitably, to plague women at rates noticeably higher than it does men.
However, I’m not simply going to tell you to opt out and forget the whole thing altogether. It’s not really my jam to say “screw resolutions!” The turn of the new year provides us an opportunity to reflect constructively on our lives, and that’s a good thing.
So I have a counter-resolution to offer. It’s phrased as a prohibition (and may therefore seem “anti-resolution” altogether) but it is an actual challenge that is probably damned hard and is going to take some effort. It’s a real thing unto itself.
Stop looking at people through the lens of their size, shape, and/or weight. Stop looking at yourself that way. Stop assuming that women who are more petite are morally superior and inherently more desirable. Stop equating health and thinness. Stop cursing your cellulite and your love handles. Stop reassuring insecure female friends, whatever size they may be, that they are “totally not fat.” Stop asking other women to feed you such toxically framed reassurances.
Stop coveting thy neighbor’s small waist. Stop looking at thy neighbor that way.
If you’re reading this, I hope you’ve already opted out of this nonsense. I mean, I’m not saying anything particularly new (though I do think it would be revolutionary if it were more thoroughly executed.) Many feminists and scholars of color are doing some excellent consciousness-raising about this problem (and fat feminism has been around for decades and is still going strong. See the hyperlink for a bibliography.). So I’m repeating something that keeps being important, and my hope is that you all are already on board and even ahead of the level at which I am pitching this post.
At the same time, I imagine that there is another group of people reading who think that voicing negative value judgments about fat and fat people (/women) is at the very least Part of The Way The World Works and at most something that’s important to safeguarding the social value of “health” so thick people don’t get all out of control and ruin the country with their obesity. Seriously, I was recently out in a group with a guy I just met who was spewing that exact vitriol (“I just hate fat people. Meh.”). It’s worth mentioning, too, that there is actually a lively feminist debate about fat acceptance and weight loss going on semi-recently. (However, in general, many of the people who think this way do not consider themselves feminists and have not given a lot of thought to how the condemnation of fat functions as a noxious weapon of patriarchy. So.)
To that first group of (more explicitly allied) readers that I named, I still really want to emphasize that I think many of us are in really deep with this issue. It’s an obvious point to say we shouldn’t fat-shame, but I’d venture that many of us still trend in that direction without the conscious and ongoing intervention of a feminist awareness that helps us unlearn that crap. And even then…
And then, to the second group I named, I’d rather hold off on making the tiresome clarifications needed to carve out some meager ground of legitimacy for my counter-resolution.
So here’s a story that will perhaps resonate with women who have been subject to similar body-scrutiny and that will also perhaps illustrate my point more clearly than a series of clarifications in the abstract ever could.
I spent Thanksgiving with my family (and, in what follows, names and relations have been altered in order to respect my family’s privacy). We are fortunate enough that many extended family members can congregate in one place. This Thanksgiving, some cousins had a party that included such vast familial expanses. I would venture to say that, in general, I’m good with my family. They’re a loving and welcoming bunch. That is why it is all the more unfortunate and yet necessary that I tell.
Before I explain what went down at this party, here’s a bit of backstory. This past year, partly out of boredom and partly out of concern for how sedentary the scholarly life can be, I started running a whole helluva lot at night. In an obvious way, I hated doing it but I immediately noticed the benefits: a clearer head, better sleep, and being immersed in something entirely different from reading/writing. I had never been particularly athletic, but I thought, “Well, why can’t I develop some athleticism in this way?” So I did. I started that about seven months ago. I don’t know if I will always do it but it’s working for me right now.
Along the way, I also lost a small, basically negligible, amount of weight. I am in no way saying that people’s decision to live in a healthier way will necessarily result in the loss of weight. That’s just what happened to me. I would be lying if I said that this outcome had not crossed my mind at the outset as something alluring, but I want to add immediately that I think I did get over it and teach myself to focus on how my body felt rather than how it looked. (I at least made progress in that direction, and I think that’s the right way to go.)
Logically, then, I did not discuss the weight loss really with anybody because something inside me rebelled against such a conversation. In fact, I feel a bit uneasy even putting it in this blog post. I have a history of struggling with my body image and trying not to hate my body. I have only started to shed some of this in the past few years, and I didn’t want to give any power to looking at myself this way (or having others look at me this way). Luckily, none of my friends who saw me during this time said anything either. I was relieved.
Back to the party. When I entered the room to greet my extended family members, my mother’s cousin Joshua (a self-confident–and generally supportive but not effusive–man of “the older generation”) exclaimed, “WOW. You look AMAZING.” He meant it. I could tell.
I felt the hairs on my neck bristle. I intuitively understood that this meant: “You look less fat.” When you have grown up with body image issues that center around your size, you learn to discern the code behind certain remarks about your appearance. I muttered a staid thanks and moved on.
Shortly after that, I ran into Joshua’s wife Marie in the kitchen. She hugged me and proclaimed joyously, “YOU HAVE LOST SO MUCH WEIGHT.” No cryptic code to discern there, at least…And yet, we have to keep in mind that losing weight is often encoded with the promise of success and happiness. So at a deeper level I suppose Marie was telling me how happy I was.
“Um, no I haven’t.”
‘Well, whatever you doing, parts are getting rearranged and put back in the right places.”
Soon after, we sat down for dinner. My MO by this point was about Getting Away, so I was glad to move on.
Joshua and I ended up being seated at the same table in the dining room. After dinner, when people were starting to get up, shift around, and help clean up, we were still seated. He picked up where he had left off.
“So what is your exercise routine?”
I minded this kind of conversation less, so I explained that I had been running most nights. I went on to talk about how this suited my nocturnal tendencies better. Joshua then talked about his morning walks. I felt okay enough while this happened.
Things took a sour turn when Joshua’s daughter, my second cousin Andrea, happened to walk by while we were conversing. Andrea is in her mid-40s with children, and we are of the same familial generation.
Joshua stops her and gets her attention. He speaks slowly and meaningfully to her but loud enough so that I can hear.
“Andrea, this one right here [nodding to me] runs at night. Just all the time. Runs.”
I feel slightly awkward but don’t yet understand what’s happening. I volunteer, “Ha, yeah…I am just really not a morning person. Can’t exercise then at all.”
Andrea nods slowly and purses her lips. I then realize what’s wrong as she walks away. I remember what I had once known but forgotten: Joshua’s perpetual vigilance about her weight, his constant beckoning of her to “slim down” and get “trim” so as to not “set a bad example” for her daughter. I remember that he has been commenting on what she eats and monitoring her size for years and years. I remember how hard she has always taken it and how she has struggled with low self-esteem for much of her life. And, at that party, I had been conscripted unknowingly into her fat-shaming.
I will not describe to you Andrea’s size, because there is no size that justifies Joshua’s behavior. It does not matter.
I felt sick about this and about my unwitting participation in reinforcing a woman’s patriarchy-induced hatred of her own body.
A couple days later, after some deliberation, I contacted Andrea and told her that I thought her father was acting weird and that she seemed/looked great to me. She seemed to appreciate that I did this, and she told me how hard it had been for her to have him constantly monitoring her weight even though his heart was supposedly in the right place. I suggested that he was projecting his own weird issues about women’s weight onto her. I left it at that. Who even knows if my contacting her had any lasting point. But I had to try.
As for myself, after this party I felt a bit depressed for a couple days. Something that I had started doing for the sake of loving myself (namely, running) had been celebrated, but for the wrong reasons: ostensibly, it somehow made my body more appealing because it was slightly smaller. Though the comments from my family were supposedly positive, they reinforced a pervasive body-optic that I was trying to escape: namely, the patriarchal one, the optic that says, “Your thighs are gross. Your hips are too big. Oh, and is your face getting fuller? That’s probably because you ate that brownie yesterday. You have to tame your flesh and bring it under control, under discipline, under punishment, in order to gain approval. It can happen, and you’ll be loved if it does, but you better work and not think for a second that your body is fine the way it is.”
My family’s compliments to me made me feel like this stupid lens that I had battled in my own head for so long was in fact actually the optic that everybody used on my body, and that, at this point in time, I was just fortunate enough to enact the appropriate amount of punishment to stave off the grossness that is my particular female figure. But I better watch out. The offer of love, of being celebrated and cherished, can be revoked if I get complacent.
I felt myself being pulled back into this toxicity, into an absolute noise that had made me intermittently miserable in my young life. I felt afraid and trapped within flesh that would eventually disappoint and betray. And I’ve been studying feminism and feminist theology for years. So.
My point in telling this story is not to demonize my family, but neither is it to trivialize the damage that they unwittingly cause. (And should these things happen again when I see them again in person, I will hopefully be ready to respond.) And even if many of us do not fat-shame in as explicit a manner as my extended family members did, we may still be implicated in the more subtle and diffuse modes of belittling each other’s bodies that happen every day.
And, by the way, what do you see when you look in the mirror?
Just try being mindful of the way you talk casually about weight and size and attractiveness and see what becomes apparent about your worldview. Not what you perhaps want to believe, but what you actually believe.
My read on the situation I experienced is that, in general, my family members are regurgitating and perpetuating the patriarchal BS into which they were indoctrinated, and they are doing so via the media of casual conversations and back-handed compliments that are not well thought through.
And it’s all very ordinary. Even the way Joshua monitors Andrea seems like the logical, benevolent (/malevolent) continuation of our cultural fat phobia. They seem like “ordinary people” to me, and that’s precisely to my point. This is therefore all the more pernicious since the way it all goes down makes it seem like it’s part of the normal fabric of everyday existence.
I would not claim that every family is this way, but I feel confident that my family is not unique.
A bit of time has passed since then, so I have some distance from this event now. I can resume the work of viewing my own body as a blessing and a presence, something to care for. Something that is already given its fundamental goodness, whatever my shape.
Lest you think I’ve slipped into blithe serenity, let me add that I try to be in this emotional space. I try. And, in and through this, I try to approach other people with a mindfulness of their ineradicable embodied dignity. I’ve tried to stop measuring human flesh.
Hey, that sounds like a good new year’s resolution. To 2014.
This is an excellent post and your point about fat-shaming is spot on. However, how would you balance addressing health concerns vs. fat-shaming? Obviously there’s a difference, but I think (and worry) it’s a very thin line that can be crossed inadvertently. Can you address health concerns about someone’s weight without being accused of fat-shaming? I think it’s very important to be able to somehow address those health concerns. My husband and I talk, for example, about the large sugary beverage ban that happened in NYC. His argument is that it was a stupid removal of freedom, but I pointed out that ultimately we are ALL paying through increased health care costs for the obesity epidemic, so why shouldn’t we ALL have some say in the problem?
I am a woman who was been moderately to very overweight my entire life. Luckily I come from a fat family and don’t catch too much flack for it, but my fiancé is also overweight and his family constantly brings weight up to him “for health concern reasons” and are constantly inquiring into his health and holding other people’s fitness up as an example. Members of his family smoke or don’t wear sunscreen, but he takes the most flack out if legitimate “concern” for his well-being.
And in my life as a fat person I can say, “health concern” comments about a person’s weight are almost NEVER from a good place. They are nearly, I’d say 99% of the time, actually linked to disatisfaction with the person’s appearance. I know a woman who smoke literally four times a day who will say things to people about their weight out of “health concerns”. And maybe inside she really believe the comment is about health, but deeper down inside it’s actually that she is disgusted by fat.
No fat person alive today in the west is ignorant of the health risks of fat. Not a single one. There’s almost nothing you can say to a fat person about the health risks that they haven’t already heard on TV or read in a magazine or heard from their doctor. And anything you say is going to recall the shame that they most likely already feel about their bodies.
If you are a physician with an overweight patient with high blood pressure and high cholesterol and you want to suggest some of the risks of weight gain, I think that’s fine. But outside of that context I truly can’t see a lay person’s unsolicited comments about the health risks of weight being helpful.
I’m open to correction on this, I really am. If someone has been reminded of the health risks of weight gain by a loved one and felt that it was good and helpful I’d like to know. Because all I’ve ever seen is someone say “you know your risk of heart attack increases” and the fat person says “I know I know” and tries to change the subject because it’s embarrassing and shame inducing. I’m just really struggling to see how someone telling you that your weight gain is a concern to them could be positive.
Short answer: you don’t. And as for the premiums… I pay for a lot I don’t approve of through my taxes, premiums and the like. I’m willing to bet you do, as well. It’s part of the price of living in a functional society.
Sorry, my comment wound up in the wrong spot.
Jen, for some reason I can’t reply directly to your comment, but are you saying that there’s no way to express concerns about someone’s health without fat-shaming? So are you saying that we just can never say anything to anyone about their weight ever? There’s obviously a difference between my telling a random stranger and my telling, say, my parents or siblings that I’m concerned about their the way their weight might affect their health. I think that the idea that you can never say anything to anyone about their weight period is a little too extreme and I think a distinction can be made between expressing health concerns for someone and fat-shaming and a lot of it depends on context and relationship.
I think if we start looking at it in terms, “well, what other people weigh affect health care costs for everyone, so we should have a say in what people do,” it’s hard to know where the line gets drawn. Pregnancy can be expensive – do I get a say in when my neighbor has a baby because it affects my health insurance?
We have made some decisions as a country to intervene in private health decisions, most notably with vaccinations. However, the evidence in favor of vaccination is much stronger than the evidence about what obesity means and what problems it causes. It is a quite legitimate argument that medical issues related to being overweight or even obese have been somewhat exaggerated. There is also evidence that doctors are simply biased against the overweight. Paul Campos has done some work on this issue if you’re interested – his stuff will have links to the actual studies that have been done. I’d imagine some of the links E. provided in her post also address this.
If we’re going to look at where most heath dollars in the US get spent it is on end of life treatment. That is, if we’re going to make significant cuts to health care spending it’s going to mean thinking more carefully about the care we give to our parents and grandparents. I think it’s much easier for society to just say – fat people suck and raise health insurance costs (not that this is what you specifically said), than to have a serious and difficult conversation about the ethics of how we spend health care dollars.
(To Elissa’s initial comment/question) I think a better question for now might be: under what conditions would you feel good broaching the topic of somebody’s (over-)weight with them? (Like, it was not only permissible but actively helpful and necessary, above all other considerations, that you do so?)
Another question is: are you prepared to monitor everybody’s health and broach the topic of every possible health threat they might be facing through their behavior? Contrary to popular belief, thin people may also incur a host of health problems (and many thin people were also partaking of those large sodas, so at the very least I don’t think it’s helpful to equate the large soda issue with the issue of the “obesity epidemic.”)
A relevant point here is that there isn’t a direct causal relationship between obesity and increased shared health care costs, also.
Another relevant point is that acts of fat-shaming, namely, practices that make heavy people feel inherently gross and like they should disappear, is also a “health” issue in that it contributes to increased unhealthy bodily practices stemming from low self-esteem. At the very least, we must recognize this as a pressing concern before we proceed any further.
The soda example was really just a random example I was using to talk about how we all pay for health care costs for other people’s bad decisions, whether that be sugary beverages or smoking or whatever.
In terms of talking with people about their weight, I would feel comfortable talking to people about their weight in certain situations and with people that I have close relationships with: close friends and family members primarily.
The words “fighting fat” at the beginning of your post signal my unease with this situation. Did you mention the: “you’re fat but you have a nice smile” line? (It’s very early here and I might have missed it). Besides, who wants to “lose” anything? Loss is loss. I’m not a “fighter” or a “loser”.
I have arthritis. I discovered that eating certain foods triggered it. I started eating better so, like with running for you, I would feel better. Hopefully, people will learn that it’s important to love ourselves and act out of love. How can we teach that, instead of shaming and fighting?
Haha yes I hate that line about the smile so much. And I think your final question is really kind of the key to rethinking all of this. Thanks for reading!
Thanks so much for posting this — I’m still a novice to feminism/feminist theology in general, so it’s interesting to hear this issue in connection with patriarchy.
Looking forward to hearing how you respond the next time someone makes a comment about your appearance. I’m always dumbstruck whenever I visit home, and the first words out of someone’s mouth are, “Wow, you’ve gained weight!” (Never mind that I barely even know this person.) I end up spending the next few hours mulling over how I should have answered, and wishing I had just punched them in the face. All I know is, now that I have a daughter, I am a lot more motivated to learn how to affirm and praise her in ways that have nothing to do with her appearance.
Jgap, I’m sorry people at home greet you that way. The immediate response I imagine myself giving is: “And that is important to you because…?” [Smiles.] But that’s just me. A punch in the face sounds glorious.
Best to you as you raise your daughter. I hope you keep reading and that this blog can be of service to you.
PS–I looked at your blog. You work at a large parish in northern Virginia? I’m from Manassas and attended All Saints growing up!
Isn’t this whole idea of talking to loved ones about their health – in relation to weight – a mimicry of organised surveillance and control (and I am well aware that there are extreme examples of life and death)? Inevitably, the ‘cost to the community’ becomes a convenient green light to zero in on the individual and forsake the more complicated questions about ethical eating, commercial power, and, as this post points to, our displeasure with those whole fail to comply with alleged superior aesthetics (when in fact, fat shaming is an integral part of the production of the billion dollar weight loss industry. So taking leave from conversations around the individuals’ health – read weight – seems like a necessary step in reframing the conversation).
Your response is perfect. People use this “cost to the community” and “health concern” thing (as Jezebel would call them, “concern trolls”) as an absolute go ahead to then question someone’s weight, habits and food choices. Like what I eat for breakfast is communal intellectual property, it’s not.
I think this: any legitimate health discussion concerning weight (and A LOT of them are illegitimate since the ties between weight gain and bad health have been proven exaggerated) cannot in anyway be extracted from the shame culture surrounding fat. (And I also thinks this is an answer to E’s point above about WHEN is it absolutely necessary to say something and how). As such, any genuine conversation about the potential effects of weight gain should happen with someone who actually has the credentials to determine that weight gain is harming a person. Which is another way to say, if you’re not a doctor just don’t say anything. You will be shaming someone from a place of ignorance (for example if your partner gains weight and you are concerned, do you have any basis for assuming s/he is unhealthy apart from the weight gain? Did you check his/her cholesterol? Blood pressure? Did you administer an EKG? If the answer to those questions is NO, then you don’t actually have a basis to assume a lack of health). And your comments will bring more shame than any sort of motivation to get fit.
My uncle once weighed 600lbs and was dying from the weight on his chest crushing his lungs as he lay in bed. My other uncle begged him to please please lose weight and stop killing himself and my uncle did and lost hundreds of pounds and also was able to walk. To me, unless there is concrete proof that fat specifically is causing immediate harm (as my uncle who was slowly suffocating himself from his own mass) you probably shouldn’t offer up your concern about weight gain and maybe just leave it to professionals (who are also, unfortunately, biased against fat people).
And you also just have to ask yourself and honestly answer: am I saying this because I’m genuinely worried the 50 lbs my loved one is going to significantly damage her health or do I just dislike how it makes her look? And I think upon very critical and honest reflection, most people (myself included!!) would have to admit the comment was at least partially if not totally motivated by distaste with how the person looks.
M (and Janice)–Totally agree. Thanks for contributing to this conversation.
I am finding myself really hating this time if year, “resolution season” is what I call it. Everyone is on a diet, talking about diets, shaming dieters for just starting diets instead of starving themselves year round. It gets to me more and more each year.
Fitness goals don’t bother me though. Anyone can have a fitness goal. I have a goal to be able to ride my bike to work. But when I tell people that, a lot of them assume it’s about weight loss. Nope. It’s about me fucking loving to ride my bike! Also, it’s for environmental reasons. I think it’s also surprising for people to hear that fat people also have vales and morals that don’t revolve around how we look.