Let me tell you about something that’s been bugging me. The other day I was reading a blog by a writer whose work I generally like and respect. This woman is smart, funny, a good writer…and so what I found took me completely by surprise.
The writer was describing a woman she’d seen in a public place—an obese woman, wearing cheap clothing that failed to hide her ample flesh. She described the woman’s lack of bra, and the fact that her breasts jiggled when she moved; she described her poor dental hygiene, and added a few details that left the reader in no doubt that the woman not only had the bad taste to be obese in a public space, but worse, she was poor. And not even bothering to hide it.
The sad part? The blog post wasn’t even about the fat woman—she was just a bystander. The post was about the writer’s own sense of having “let herself go,” of no longer caring what she wore in public. The fat woman was merely a foil, someone whose truly disgusting appearance somehow comforted the writer, making her feel better about her own lack of grooming that day. Because no matter how crappy the writer might be feeling, she could tell herself, “At least I’m not her.”
This blatant fat-hatred hit me in a very sensitive spot: for most of my adult life, I was morbidly obese. Not just a few pounds overweight—I was lugging around more than 100 extra pounds. And believe me, I know very well how those who aren’t obese feel about us fat people. We’re lazy, stupid, unmotivated, slovenly, ignorant, and ugly. And that’s on a good day.
I know how it feels to be stared at, to be judged, to be mocked. I know what it’s like to always be on the outside of a really great party, nose pressed up against the glass, wishing I could join in.
I know that when you’re fat, it doesn’t matter if you’re smart. It doesn’t matter if you’re loving or kind. It doesn’t matter if you’re funny, if you’re loyal, if you’re generous or understanding or artistic or a wonderful parent or good at doing home repairs. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you will always have one defining characteristic: your excess flesh.
That’s all people see, and it’s all they need to see. From that one characteristic, they know exactly who and what you are.
As for how fat people dress—squeezing into too-tight pants, wearing cheap print tunics or droopy t-shirts, or even failing to find a bra that fits without chafing or making things even worse than what nature gave you—well, good luck with trying to fix that. We fat people learn to take what we can get.
And if you have the misfortune to be fat and poor? Tough luck, tootsie-roll—you get what you can forage in the sale bins at Walmart or the local charity shop. Unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford the high-end shops, you’re stuck with the dreck of the fashion industry.
When I was obese, I was always conscious of my appearance. I was painfully aware of the fat-woman stereotype—slovenly, poorly dressed, possibly even smelly—and I went out of my way to defend myself against it.
I found a great hairdresser, I bought the best clothes I could afford, and I never, ever went out of the house without makeup. Even so, I knew I was a target.
I knew it that day in line at the grocery store when I stood behind a thin woman who was buying some kind of diet food. The cashier commented, “You don’t need this!” And then she pointed at me and said, “Now, her! She definitely needs it. But you don’t.”
Even writing that now, 13 years later, I’m crying again. The shame never leaves, you see. Even though I’m no longer obese—just a bit overweight—the shame, and the memory of it, lingers under the surface waiting to ambush me.
And when I run across fat hatred, whether online or in person, it all comes rushing back, and I want to shake the person and tell them, “That fatty you’re laughing at? She’s a person! She’s a wife, and a mother, and a sister, and a daughter, and she has feelings, just like you! How dare you try to turn her into a nothing? How dare you?”
I’m sure most of the people who denigrate fat people wouldn’t dream of calling a black person “Sambo.” They’d cringe at the idea of mocking a person’s sexual orientation. It wouldn’t occur to them to call a Jew cheap. You couldn’t pay them to insert a sexual or racial stereotype into their writing.
But apparently when it comes to mocking the fat, it’s open season.
Maybe it’s time we started trying to turn that around.
Karen blogs at http://afterthekidsleave.com/ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org