Here we are, Round 2 of the Weight Stigma Blog-A-Thon. They’re calling it a carnival, but until I can get some cotton candy, I’m not buying it. You may recall, the Binge Eating Disorder Association is putting on Weight Stigma Awareness Week, with a monthly topic for writers, bloggers, etc to talk about to get the discussion going. It’s being hosted by my friend Kendra over at Voice in Recovery, where you can see all the other write-ups.
Anyway, Augusts’ topic is: How Doe Weight Stigma Increase Body Dissatisfaction? At first I a little daunted by the topic – I think it’s a difficult one to discuss in a broad sense, because it will be different for everyone. I know I’ve experienced it in my own life, especially in my adolescence. Because of my experiences growing up, I’m particularly concerned about the anti-obesity initiatives targeting children, the effects it will have on the rising generation, and the way they understand and view their bodies and health.
I try to avoid using words like “overweight.” I think they get thrown around a lot but that there’s no clear definition, especially outside of a medical context. In the absence of a clear, agreed-upon definition, combined with the negative connotations that society has attached to the term, I think it’s misused as a catch-all to evaluate and label people based strictly on appearance. Common consensus deems that that kind of thing is inappropriate for other kinds of surface judgments, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, but for some reason weight discrimination is treated differently.
I’m reminded of Margo Maine’s Body Wars, where she makes liberal use of the word ‘fat’. In the chapter discussing children being discriminated against in schools by students and teachers alike, she repeatedly uses sentences that start with ‘Fat kids have reported…’ When I first read it, the way she used the word ‘fat’ caught me off guard, and my initial impression was that it seemed insensitive. I brought this up to a reading group I arranged a few years ago and it became clear how a word like ‘fat’, which for all intents and purposes should be a neutral descriptor, just like tall or short, has become a scarlet letter.
The more I analyzed my sense of insensitivity in her word choice, the less sense it made to me. ‘Overweight’ seems to be treated as a euphemism, but I don’t know if truly serves that purpose, since our weightist culture attaches negative attributes to pretty much all descriptors for being fat. Heavy-set, plus-sized, thick, big-boned… what’s wrong with just being fat? Better yet, why be defined by appearance or body size at all?
Reflecting on her word choice some more, I decided this subtle reclaiming of the word was important, and challenged me to really detach from the heavily-ingrained negative attitude that ‘fat’ usually stirs up in so many others.
See, I was a bit of a fat kid. Pre-puberty, I had a quite noticeably higher body fat percentage than most other kids in school, and some of my classmates made sure that it was brought to my attention. It’s a rather unfortunate consequence that my 1st name rhymes with ‘fat’, and the two were often used interchangeably.
In 5th grade, my family moved to a new school system, and I was hoping things would be different there. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. It seemed that being new or fat were both grounds for kids to bully you, and I was both. But I also made plenty of friends, and became pretty good at ignoring the kids who seemed intent on making me feel bad about myself.
But it wears you down.
Weight stigma didn’t just increase body dissatisfaction – it increased overall dissatisfaction with myself. Instead of encouragement to try or get better at things, it seemed as though other kids would just assume I wouldn’t be good at something. Other than a small, dependable circle of friends, I often felt like an outcast.
Oddly enough, after I had a few growth spurts, I stretched right up and reached a fairly average body size. Having endured ridicule for so long, though, the damage was done, and I remained a fairly self-conscious person for a long time. It’s not that I ever lacked confidence in myself, but I seemed to always anticipate that others lacked confidence in me as a person. One of the greatest gifts of recovery is the objectivity I’ve learned for myself and others, along with the ability to meet difficulty in a realistic way. To quote Greg Graffin, “To be better than you is impossible to do!”
Years later in high school, I even became friends with some of the kids who used to bully me, complete with apologies from them for being so mean so long ago. As kids, they were just emulating the example set by who or whatever else was in their lives – the media, friends, family. Running into each other six years later, we were totally different people and had grown more into who we were becoming, and I know for at least one of my former bullies, it hit them hard to see me and reflect on all the cruel things they used to say and do.
It just goes to show how fleeting these superficial judgments can be. When the people who had judged me before saw the person that I was, they seriously mourned for the way they had treated me when we were kids. Sometimes I think that’s all that it really takes – putting a face and a name to the issue, and seeing the person contained within the body, regardless of how big or small that body may be.
Has your own body satisfaction been effected by weight stigma, even if you weren’t the target?
Don’t forget to check out the other write-ups for this months topic over at http://www.voiceinrecovery.com/blog/!