“They almost treat me like a leper, really. Like I don’t deserve a place in society because I’m obese. You know, I must be so fat that my heart doesn’t break when people say things.”
~Jean Marie from “Fat Doctor,” Series 3 Episode 1
Weight discrimination: It’s real. It’s happening.
And I’ve been guilty of it.
I used to be one of those people who said, “They just need to have more control. They just need to eat healthier.”
Just because it was easy for me.
But once I fell into the pit of food obsession, once I endured the overwhelming cravings and seemingly never-ending restrict-binge cycle, and as I’ve gained weight despite every intention to try to lose weight again, I feel as if I’ve had a glimpse into the world of an overweight person.
Not only have I not endured the physical disabilities that come with being obese, but most of all I have not faced the torment, the never-ending weight discrimination that haunts many people for the rest of their lives.
It’s the new buzzword in the diet/health paradigm–weightism. After years of bashing the overweight, it’s time to show more sympathy for those who struggle with their weight; it’s time to give them a voice. We need to recognize that this is not a lack of willpower, but that obesity and eating disorders are illnesses, and they need to be treated as such.
Unfortunately, try as I might to break away from weightism, an unconscious switch in my brain often lights up the moment I see a large person. I hear the voice in my mind say, “She needs to work on eating better” or, “He needs more control.”
And then karma bites you in the butt. When you’re the one gaining weight, you hear those same comments from that negative voice within–or perhaps worse, from others. Weight has become a moral signifier:
Fat? It’s because you’re a “bad,” lazy person eating crap.
Thin? It’s because you’re a “good” person who has control and discipline.
I was brainwashed from childhood to see the overweight as people who were lazy, undisciplined, and stupid. (“Well duh, just eat less and exercise more.” “Well duh, get off your butt.” “Well duh, just eat healthier.”) Yes, I thought anyone who was overweight lacked self-control, didn’t care about their bodies, couldn’t see how fat they really were.
So now we’re assuming they are blind? We’re assuming they don’t think about their weight or notice that other people stare and call them names?
I was lucky to grow up in a household that emphasized exercise, that ate relatively healthy (especially compared to other families), and I have “thin-favorable” genes. I assumed that if others really wanted to be thin that badly, they would just do it. It didn’t help hearing from family members about how “that fat person looks terrible in that dress” or remembering how we used to smirk at some heavy-set people breathed heavily as they walked by. We were skinny, yes, and it was easy for us, yes, so we assumed everyone could be just like us if they tried hard enough.
On an episode of “Fat Doctor,” Series 1 Episode 3, a morbidly obese woman named Amanda Beere goes grocery shopping with her son. The show states that “she rarely leaves the house because she’s terrified of comments from strangers.”
“You get people shouting from cars. I get kids throwing eggs at me,” she says.
Her 17-year-old son chimes in: “We have people like shouting and calling her names: ‘You ate all the pies, fatty, lose some weight you stupid bitch.’”
Not only do these obese citizens experience torment from their own internal criticism (you know how much harder we are on ourselves), but also from strangers and even family and friends.
There are many obese people who suffer from food addictions and may self-medicate due to emotional trauma. Some try in vain to make changes, only to fall back into their addictive behaviors no matter how badly they wish to get out (doesn’t this sound familiar to anorexia?). The outside appearance of obesity should not indicate morality (a “good” or “bad” person, or someone who is “in control” or “out of control”), but that there is something inside of them that is hurting, that has endured a difficult circumstance.
Before operating on his next patient in “Fat Doctor,” Series 3, Episode 10, bariatric surgeon Shaw Summers points out the scars lining the patient’s body once she is asleep: “What you can see–she’s got a lot of these little lines across her and she has been so distraught and distressed by her situation that she’s resorted to deliberate self-harm and it’s a cry for help, really, that she’s just so upset and distressed by her predicament […] and it’s not unusual that patients who are so big are in a state of absolute distress and despair at the fact that they can’t get out of this trap. And this is a true addiction, a true medical problem. It’s not just a cosmetic thing.”
“But I’ve been through crap too,” you say.
Don’t we all deal with our pain differently? Some turn to drugs, smoking, cutting, or in this case, food. Some hold in the pain, only for it to come out in their negative actions toward others. We all find some sort of outlet; and for our society, food is the easiest to access as a “drug;” especially with the kind of processed food being marketed and sold everywhere. And because it is so accessible, and because we all must eat, once the addiction begins, it is difficult to stop.
People who medicate with food do not choose this path; it comes down to upbringing, past traumas, and habits. Guy Poindestre states in “Fat Doctor,” Series 2 Episode 5, “I am at my wits end with my eating problem. It is a problem that yes, some people could say is self-inflicted But is smoking or is being an alcoholic or being a crack addict something that is self-inflicted? I consider my addiction to food the same way. I have a food problem. I am addicted to it.”
Little do we recognize that there is more that comes into play than just “calories in, calories out.” Our bodies are more complex than a simple math equation. Bariatric surgeon Shaw Summers says this: “The reason why some people are big and others can eat the same amount of food and not get big is wrapped up a whole host of different factors–from things you can’t influence like genetics and your metabolism, to things you can influence like your mood, your habits, your environment, your upbringing–all of these things impact on how you relate to food and how food forms part of your life and we still don’t understand fully how we influence that apart from to do something to the intestinal system that makes it difficult to continue doing it. It would be lovely not to have to do this kind of operation [bariatric surgery] on people.” (“Fat Doctor,” Series 3 Episode 7)
Obesity is not a measure of control. It is a disease, an illness. It can be classified as a mental illness; a result of a difficult past, abuse, trauma, or simply a way of growing up. After trying to overcome emotional or physical abuse from the past, these people have to endure more emotional abuse from their outside criticizers. Can you imagine trying to lose weight through all of that? How would you feel if you were dying of cancer, only to have people to pointing fingers and telling you it’s your fault, that you put yourself in this position, that you just need to “buck up and get some willpower”?
That is the kind of message we are sending in society.
A Voice Unheard
As much as others try, some will never reach the “right size” that our nation deems acceptable for our bodies. And perhaps that in itself–that unattainable goal–starts the binge-purge, restrict-binge cycle of eating disorders also happening (but not as well recognized) in larger people.
The thinnest bodies are not always the ones with the eating disorders. In “Fat Doctor,” Series 3 Episode 1, morbidly obese patient Jean Marie signs up for bariatric surgery and explains her relationship with food to the therapist: “If I hated anything in life, it would be food. My relationship with food is bad,” she says. And when she goes in to talk to a therapist, she admits to her own past of dealing with an eating disorder:
“Well I would starve myself–“
“Throughout the day?”
“Well it would be for two or three days and then I would binge, and then I would purge, I would want to be sick. And as I got older and older, I would get good at hiding it from everyone.”
Eating disorders don’t always come in packages of 85-lb girls. What makes an eating disorder perhaps more difficult for the obese, is that we discriminate against them in a way that connects their plight to willpower and discipline. The same way we may tell an anorexic to “just eat more,” plays out the same in an obese person when we say “just eat less.”
Summers says this of the weight discrimination: “The general attitude in society is that obesity is a self-created problem and that people could and should lose weight by themselves if they put their minds to it. I think that indicates a complete failure of understanding. The prejudice that these people feel is extreme at times.”
This is what made my eating disorder embarrassing to fess up to. I didn’t want to admit that I hoarded food, that I stole it, that my “discipline” (anorexia) turned into disaster (binge eating) when I was alone with food. How could I be so disciplined in so many aspects in my life, know so much about food, and still not be able to turn away from that extra cupcake, to be able to stop eating “so much,” to get my appetite under control? Wouldn’t people just tell me to “get my act together”?
Shame into Sympathy
I think that if I hadn’t gone through my eating disorder, if I hadn’t gained back the weight, I would not have understood part of the plight of the overweight. I guess it’s true when they say your own shame will help you to sympathize. I think what makes weightism such a passionate subject for me, is not only realizing the discrimination I’ve projected onto others growing up, but also using those same negative comments toward myself.
I have been my own bully.
I cannot say that I know exactly what it is like to be overweight, but I feel like I understand what those people are saying when they talk about how they feel food controls their life, that they would do anything to get out of it. And while I feel like people are staring at my weight, appalled, in reality, as a “normal”-sized woman, it is most likely not true. I have not experienced first-hand weight discrimination.
But my eyes have been opened.
All that I ask is for us as a society is to see any issue–depression, obesity, cutting; any method of self-harm or any outward appearance–as not something we ask for or put upon ourselves, but as something we deal with to rid ourselves of internal pain. This is our pain. The overweight have endured it, and are left carry this pain in a world that is still coming to grips with the stigma and misconceptions of mental illness and eating disorders.