Girl Talk Can We Please Stop with the Fat Shaming Already? Julia Gazdag

Almost two years ago now, I developed a severe GI condition practically overnight (don’t worry it was all complex, you’re not going to wake up with it tomorrow or anything). Within a few short months I lost 30 lbs — it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Until people started telling me how amazing I looked; I was pale, waxy, and clearly ill, but I was a size 4! Priorities! Seeing my otherwise intelligent and reasonable friends lose all rationality when it came to waist size – “You’re so lucky!” “I’m so sick” “I wish I was that sick” – was scarier than knowing that a simple caprese sandwich could reduce me to a pile of anxiety ridden exhaustion (graphic experiences omitted for your benefit – nobody needs that visual). It was like drowning while everyone on shore yelled out, “your hair looks pretty when it’s wet!”

Without a second thought I would gladly be a size 14 again if it meant eating what I want without being violently ill. Because there’s nothing wrong with being a size 14. But there is something wrong with me not being able to have a muffin for breakfast. Or cake on my birthday (it doesn’t even count if you don’t have cake, technically I’m still 26) . Or even whole-wheat-local-organic-low-calorie-artichoke-and-sun-dried-tomato-on-feta-pizza, because it doesn’t matter how healthy something is, if it’s not eggs and yams, I don’t get to play.

But this isn’t about me, or the fact that I haven’t had a birthday cake since Taft was president. This is about the warped ideas people seem to have about what it means to be fat or skinny. And I don’t even like to use those words, because what is fat? Everyone has fat. Fat is healthy – if you have no body fat, you need to take care of that or you’ll end up like Rob Lowe in the Parks and Rec episode with the flu (if you haven’t seen Parks and Rec, what’s wrong with you).

Being overweight or obese is what I guess people refer to when they use the word “fat.” And It seems like people have gotten so self conscious that they feel the need to not only grapple with their own body issues, but fix everyone else’s, lest they get infected with extra pounds by “fat” people. If you’re intent on saving the mascots of America’s obesity rates from diabetes, then at least do it without trying to destroy another person’s dignity and sense of self-worth. Assuming you still feel it’s your responsibility to poke your nose into everyone else’s business in the hopes of saving the world, in which case I’d be happy to provide you with a list of current genocides that may warrant your attention more.

In Georgia, there was recently a big to-do over Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life campaign, aka Let’s Put Fat Kids on Billboards and Hate on Them (they also ran TV ads!). Now, to be fair, Georgia does have the second highest obesity rate in the country. But black and white photos of obese children with slogans like “it’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” and “fat kids become fat adults” with a giant red “WARNING” label may not be the way to go. Because this isn’t just about big meals or people who can’t stop shoveling food into their mouth, though I’m sure caricatures are just as great for tearing down self esteem as seeing yourself in a giant photo full of shame and impending doom. And as we all know, trampling on a person’s self esteem is the best way to get them to change!

The problems that get overlooked are a weak nutritional education (at least we’re not teaching the food pyramid anymore, though we stopped so recently that effects won’t be fully felt for years) and the amount of Americans living in food deserts. Just think about that term – food desert. There are so many people living in neighborhoods with no available fresh produce or unprocessed food that we had to come up with a label for it. It’s legal for fast food chains to target children and put addictive substances in food, even though cigarette companies can’t advertise anymore (somewhere Don Draper is weeping – j/k he’s smoking a cigarette and looking quizzically handsome).

Processed food with high fat content and low nutritional value is cheaper than buying fresh food to cook, though I recently saw a study that said they were about equal (I wasn’t quite convinced). That still doesn’t give working class Americans the time and energy needed for cooking (not to mention going out of your way to get groceries if you live in a food desert), and having a fully equipped kitchen isn’t cheap either. It’s actually more difficult for people in certain areas to eat well than it is to kill themselves on an unhealthy diet, but it’s clearly Fatty McObeserton’s fault for over indulging; let’s take out some ads so s/he can hang a head in shame and go find a salad.

Maybe before we go off and try to combat fatness with a torch and pitchfork, calling obese people diseased (obesity = medical condition) and saying we’re just concerned about their potential for diabetes, we can stop for a second and think. We can ponder the social and economic circumstances surrounding people who we’re so ready to berate and condescend to educate about what we know their problem really is (that they were unaware they were overweight, clearly). We can also take a step back and think about what is driving this immense concern, because frankly, I think it’s fear. We live in a country of unrealistic extremes – on the one hand we do have a problem with obesity rates, and on the other, we’re the number one retailer of warped body image (thank you, media!). Of course, whether someone is obese or bulimic, they can take comfort in their special connection: malnutrition. Sharing is caring — and thus world peace is reached!

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  1. I know my opinion is probably very unpopular, but, I see the epidemic of childhood obesity as a severe and major problem in America. Maybe we don’t have all the answers of exactly how to tackle this situation, but maybe it’s easier for someone to read a billboard than have their Mom, friend, cousin, whatever tell a kid to put down the McNuggets. I am much more fearful of children getting diabetes than having their feeling hurt.

    Anonymous | 4/10/2012 05:04 pm
    • Your opinion isn’t unpopular at all, it’s the prevailing opinion in our culture. Our culture is extremely opposed to visible adipose tissue in any place other than women’s breasts, and it builds its fat hatred on myths and assumptions. One is that the worst thing that could happen to you is to be fat. Try telling that to my very thin friend who is ill with Type 2 diabetes. Try telling it to me; I am “obese” and well, and in fact at zero risk of developing diabetes. It’s a little obnoxious to me that someone thinks she ought to get to decide for me that it is better for me to “have my feelings hurt” than to get diabetes, as if it’s a binary thing. It’s not. And PLENTY of damage has been done to me by people whose ostensibly good intention was to let me know that my fat body is bad and I need to stop it. That damage took the form of low self-esteem, depression, and disordered eating. I suffered for a long time, not from my body itself, but from bigots and bullies. My fat body has never been my enemy. People like you, sadly, are.

  2. Just to be clear, Bulimia does not necessarily mean you are underweight. In fact, due to the nature of the disease, it can make for a wide variety of sizes, often overweight/obese. It can be damaging to those trying to recover from such illnesses to read that people believe Bulimics are always small, because it indicates that they do not have a “real” problem, when Bulimia in anyone of any size, is immensely dangerous.

  3. I don’t know how any study can claim that a meal like McD’s and buying fresh food cost about the same. You can get a meal at McD’s (or KFC or most other fast food places) for under $10 – in Australia at McD’s you can get for example a quarter pounder meal for $6. If you want to buy food to make even a simple meal of meat and veg it will costs you probably about $10 for the meat alone (depending on what meat you are buying, but if you ant decent meat then it is expensive), let alone the veggies and seasoning to go with it.
    When I started high school, I was wearing size 12-14. Yeah, I was a little chubby, but I was not exactly fat. Throughout high school (during which time I also took dance classes) I was constantly called fat. At dancing I would be left out of things because I was “too fat”. I remember someone telling me that the head of the dance school had to swap the dances for our class and another class for our end of year production because the costumes she wanted to use for our class “wouldn’t look good on the two “fat” people in the class” – ie me and one other girl who was also not that big). As you can imagine, this did wonders for my self esteem and the more I was teased, the more I turned to food for comfort. By the time I started Uni I was obese and I am still struggling with that now. I do exercise and I actually like going to the gym, but food and eating healthy is still a struggle – especially if I am feeling stressed or down on myself. People (especially adults) need to think sometimes about what they are saying and how it affects other people. I know teenagers can be dumb and insensitive, but when you have adult teachers changing things because 2 people in a class are not stick figures it’s just wrong. (Side note, when you see what some dancers do to their bodies re food it’s pretty sick. I know there were a couple of anorexic/bulemic girls at the dance school, and they were the ones who had a chance of making it their career).

  4. This is the best post I have read on HelloGiggles. Your reference to “your hair looks pretty when it’s wet!” comments are particularly poignant. I think this article really emphasizes that the root causes of obesity or rapid weight-loss (illness, depression, eating disorders, economic status, etc.) should be targeted; not body image or “indulgence.”

  5. I am almost totally off topic, but can I ask.. What were you diagnosed with?? I am having a similar problem right now and have lost about 10kg (is that 20 pounds, I’m not sure) and having all these tests and no one knows what it is!! I’m also only 26 cause my birthday was last Monday and I didn’t get a cake either!
    Help and thanks,
    Fiona

    • I was diagnosed with small bowel bacterial overgrowth — after months of no clear answer, the wikipedia entry read like a revelation to me (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_bowel_bacterial_overgrowth_syndrome). right now I’m still recovering and trying to replenish my probiotic flora — things I’ve found helpful is avoiding sugars and food that is hard to process (gluten, dairy and soy are top of the list). I have also found that working with a natural doctor has helped me more than a western doctor simply because they have a stronger foundation in understanding the digestive system. Supplements that have diminished symptoms best are grapefruit seed extract (super bitter but potent) and peppermint oil capsules (the bad bacteria hate it and my breath tastes minty all day!). I hope this helps!! Feel better :)

  6. I agree with everything said here, but somewhere there needs to be a change in how parents feed their children. It really is a big problem in Georgia, I’ve seen toddlers drinking orange soda and eating french fries for lunch. Those kids may not be heavy now, but when you look at their parents or older siblings, they all are already. But it really comes down to those who are working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet don’t have health insurance, or can’t afford it, so they tend to have larger families, and their kids don’t go to the doctor.

    Some people have naturally larger structure, and thats fine! I’m all for being healthy and happy in your own skin, but some of these kids are not naturally heavy or “big boned” and they should be at a healthier weight. Someone needs to be protecting these kids from diseases like diabetes, as well as bullying, and I think thats more of the aim of the billboards than you might think. Its someone pointing out to parents that the food they feed their kids (and themselves) has long term repercussions and that maybe they should think twice before loading their kids up on sugar and fatty foods. 5 year olds should not be drinking coke, or any other soda. But some of the American population honestly doesn’t think twice about it because they haven’t been educated otherwise. That is where the problem lies – and encouraging healthy habits is the way to get these kids the help that they need so they can grow up without being overweight and bullied, or getting diabetes.

    • I agree. I think the other commonality that both obesity and anorexia/bulimia share is they when they hit people who are still developing (and they often do), they can cause long-term damage. Feeding junk food to a child with a developing metabolism can throw it off balance long-term. Developing anorexia in high school, when a lot of people still have baby fat (for a reason, you need it!) can also cause all sorts of health issues long-term. I don’t think a lot of people realize how important health is at a young age.

  7. Julia I would encourage you as well as everyone that commented on this article to take a better look at what Strong4Life is doing. It would appear that you didn’t do a great deal of research on the program. I also have to assume that none of these people are from Georgia. I am. No statistic can make you understand what a huge problem we have here. The organizers of this campaign are well aware of the socioeconomic problems fueling this epidemic and are actively working through the campaign to provide solutions. The fact that you are looking from afar at this campaign, assuming they are just poking sticks at fat kids and encouraging them to look like supermodels is pretty ignorant. This campaign is doing a great deal of good in Georgia communities and the “fat kids” from the billboard will tell you so themselves, as they have in several interviews. They may not be helping the problem in the exact way that you would but I can tell you that blindly shaming others’ efforts to provide solutions doesn’t help at all.

    • Libby, I don’t have to live in Georgia to know exactly what it is like to be shamed for being fat. And you’re wrong that the backlash against the Strong4Life campaign is a “blind shaming” (ironic choice of words, that.) It’s based in real experience about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such “help”. I’ve lived it all my life. It hurts you. You are taught to identify with that and come to hate yourself. You obsess over food and develop eating disorders. You go on diets that make you weak and depressed and fatter in the end. You don’t do the things that you really want to do because you don’t feel you’re worthy or allowed. You’re treated like a second-class citizen and suffer discrimination in many ways. You develop health problems from the stress of it in itself. That is what it is like. And that’s why the Strong4Life campaign is bad and why it is going to fail. ::: There *is* a health crisis in our culture, and it is due to malnutrition *which hurts people no matter what size they are*. It is, in fact, not only possible but common to be thin or “normal”-sized and have an unhealthy lifestyle and be sick or getting there. The Strong4Life campaign is about fat-phobic hysteria, not health. Their strategies for getting people to not be obese are laughable and naive — eating vegetables and going for walks — as if fat people just don’t do those things!, and doing them will make you not fat, it is *that* easy! That’s so wrong it’s offensive. Almost worse is that Strong4Life paints the issue as a social one; the message of the billboards is, essentially, that if you’re fat then you’re ugly and miserable and nobody likes you. But that’s true only so long as people keep believing it (and keep being encouraged to believe it.) As hard as it may be for you to believe, I am “obese”, do yoga and strength-building exercises, eat mostly organic whole foods, and have perfect blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. I have people who love me, friends and children and my lover, I take pride in my strong, beautiful body, and generally have a very good life. Being “obese” does not have to be a death sentence or even a crappy life sentence. It all depends on how you look at it and what you do with it. And part of what I’m doing with it is rejecting the cultural assumption that I have a bad body and therefore a bad life.

    • Hopefully current and future prevention programs will begin to change the tide of childhood obesity in Georgia and nationwide. I do know though from personal experience that shame and embarrassment is not the solution and for many of us it was/is part of the problem. I wish Georgia chose billboards that shared helpful education information… a picture of a child and Mom jumping rope together with the caption, “Did you know? You can burn 200 calories with 20 minutes of jump rope” or picture of a family sitting around a dining table with the caption, “Eating together is a chance to model healthy behavior” versus the exploitation of children, shaming families and providing fuel for bullies.

    • Libby, you’re right, I am looking at the issue from an outside perspective, and that limits my understanding of it on a firsthand level for sure. Thank you for your respectful words and sentiments. I didn’t want to go into the work that Strong4Life is doing because I felt it would have been a digression, but I also didn’t just want to say “some people threw up billboards.” I do think that obesity is a serious issue and take it seriously, but this article is more about the way people view it and how we respect or disrespect one another. I also feel that a lot of our readers, just by the nature of how vast and diverse the American population is, also lack the firsthand experience that many Georgians, for example, share, and I feel strongly that no matter what the issue, approaching and dealing with it respectfully is always an option. I wanted to share this sentiment, especially since we’re becoming increasingly obsessed with weight as a culture — obesity is a serious condition, but being fat should not be a fear. Women should not be afraid of pregnancy because of what they’ll look like in maternity clothes, but they increasingly are. So really, the issue I tried to tackle wasn’t so much obesity as the perception and stigma surrounding its aesthetic.

  8. This is wonderful. Well written and right on! I’m not a size 4 I should not be ashame of that. I cook every day, eat healthy food and try to take care of my self, but I’m not a size 4 and will never be. I’ve learned to live with that and be fine with it, but it gets harder and harder.

    Thank you so much for this.

  9. I thought that I had all of my self-confidence issues under control…and then I hear or see something that shakes my perceptions. Yesterday, I was eating lunch (in all honesty, it was a hot-dog place…but it’s just plain delicious) and I heard this group of guys talking about what they found attractive in a girl…and a guy said that he couldn’t date a girl that was over 150 (I’m 10 pounds over that). All of the sudden I start thinking of how I shouldn’t be eating that hot dog and how I should work out more…and I didn’t even know this guy! It takes constant reminders and re-hauls of our negative processes to redefine what is good and healthy for us, not for others.

    • About guys who say those things…lots of times, they don’t mean them or even really think that. They are afraid to admit to their guy friends that they’re actually more turned on by a woman who’s a size 14 than a size 4. It’s a ‘i’m so tough, no I’m so tough’ thing. Just imagine them saying, “I’ll only date a girl who’s a size 8!” “Oh yeah, well, I’ll only date a girl who’s a size 6! So there!” It has little to nothing to do with their actual preferences. I’m not excusing the things that they can say, but it’s important to remember that not all, or even most, men are actually turned on by only thin girls. In the book “A Billion Secret Thoughts” two researchers studied the large amounts of data that is out there on porn, and just one of the many fascinating things they found is that male users watch more porn with overweight women than underweight women by an almost 2-1 ratio. I just had a guy friend say to me the other day, “He says that she’s pretty, but she’s not really pretty, she’s just thin. It amazes me how many guys think that thin and pretty are the same thing.” It becomes a status thing, like finding a rich guy with a snooty job can be for women, even though the hot poor guy in the garage band is really what does it for you.
      OK, this was long and rambling, but my point is that you should be yourself, and exercise cause it feels good, and eat right most of the time, except weekends and holidays and any time you don’t really feel like it, be confident and happy and interesting and many, many guys will want to have sex with you, no matter your ‘size.’ LOL

      Anonymous | 4/09/2012 01:04 pm
    • It’s horrifying. I read an article that polled men and more men said they’d rather date a woman who was 20 years older than they were than 20 pounds heavier than they are! I weigh more than my husband and he has never had a problem with it. I feel sorry for anyone who dates a man who won’t date anyone over a certain weight. Clearly, he’s not looking for what’s on the inside.

    • Weight also depends on your height and your build — I’m overweight for my height category even now, but I also have more boobage than the average person in my range. A guy who dismisses you for a number on a scale (what, does he carry one around and make girls stand on it for his approval?) is a douche. There are a lot of idiots running around in the world, and guys like him make it easier for you to pick them out and focus on the wonderful and intelligent people instead.

  10. Whilst I agree that campaigns should be far more focused on nutritional health rather than weight loss, I imagine the campaign in Atlanta was targeted at the parents who feed their children junk food. That said, I imagine it also encouraged bullying of overweight children.

    I do think there should be far more focus on giving nutritional health awareness to children and adults alike. There should be much more awareness of illnesses that affect weight as well.

    • Agreed. Whoever the campaign was targeted at, it was also seen by children. Everyone gets made fun of for something at one point or another in school, but not everyone has a billboard backing up their teasers.

  11. Thank you for this blog entry. I’d hate to be an overweight or obese child in Georgia right now. I can hear the jeers and bullying on the playground now, “You should be one of those kids in the ads.” I’d probably go home and eat away my pain. Having been both morbidly obese (most of my life) and now a healthier weight (my before and after http://www.theworldaccordingtoeggface.com) I was very aware of the sideways glances, not so quiet whispers, sneers, stares. I am now privy to the nasty comments because people have no idea I once was morbidly obese. I hear them on line at the coffee-shop, in the market, on planes, in doctor’s offices from doctor’s and nurse’s (should be a safe zone)… it’s sad and wrong. I’d just add that since more than 2/3 of adults (that’s like 190 million people) are overweight or obese, chances are your mom, sister, granny, pop, your favorite uncle Frank, are one of those 190 million. Think about one of them being on the receiving end of a comment or action and challenge it when you hear or see it.

  12. Thank you so much for this well-written and thought-provoking articles. People really should learn about the Health at Every Size movement. As a fat actress and activist, I have been very much abused by ignorant strangers because of my body, and I appreciate strong voices like yours who stand up for the truth and kindness.

  13. I totally understand what you are talking about Julia! I suffer obesity and, though my mom cooks really healthy meals, I kept putting on weight. Everyone at school would laugh at me and label me as a glutton, when I wasn’t. Recently, they discovered I have Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) which is known to cause of obesity. Doctors are running some more tests to check on my metabolism as well. I dislike it when people meddle and try to give you “advice” by humilliating you. I honestly think there are other ways…

    • PCOS is actually caused BY obesity, not the other way around. While underlying hormonal issues that could possibly be out of your control, it’s far more likely that being overweight is throwing your hormone levels out of whack to the point that it’s causing the PCOS. I have been dealing it with half of my life so I speak on some authority. If you’re not active and don’t exercise at all, the healthiest home-cooked meals aren’t going to be enough to keep your weight down.

  14. I’m not the type of person who ever posts comments on articles I read online, but I felt pretty compelled to do so on this one as it’s pretty close to the heart. All my life, I’ve struggled with body image and body dysmorphia. By the time I reached high school, I was completely consumed by anorexia. Despite the fact that I was becoming increasingly transparent in every way, I had guys come up to me and say, “You look so much better now that you’ve lost some weight!” This kind of back-handed compliment only sent me more deeply into my eating disorder. I know they didn’t mean it how it came out, but I still took that as, “If I lose just a few more pounds, maybe I’ll look even better.” We’re so obsessed with obesity in this culture, we sometimes forget about how our words and actions can affect those struggling with their weight. It can even drive those we deem overweight and obese into starving themselves and compromising their lives. These kinds of tactics just scare me as we’re now targeting the budding generation, and calling them out in a public and nasty fashion. Yes, something needs to be done about it; being overweight or obese isn’t healthy and can lead to a slew of problems. But do we really need to shame children for this? Nutritional education is the way to go here; raising a child to partake in fat-talk behavior is not. The child’s weight and health is something that should be left to a parent, a doctor, or a school nurse. Not for the society in which that child is raised.

  15. I think this article is on the right track; I’d like to have more of this information get into the hands of people perhaps much older (but not less uninformed) than the HG target group. I agree, people are extremely judgmental of others’ weight. I do truly believe that the American (and perhaps other) society has not set up people of a poor economic class to eat well or healthy. It is much cheaper to buy fast food than it is to buy vegetables and organic meats. That statement is just the beginning of the reality that we are a class society. Having eating healthy be something only middle class or higher can easily achieve is heart-breaking.

    Also, another note on economic situations – having grown up in a single-mother household, I know it can make one accustomed to fluctuating money situations. Somehow, my mother was able to provide much of what my brother and I needed. However, there are others who grow up in similar situations where full meals are not enjoyed or expected on a daily basis. This kind of conditioning allows many children who then become adults to “eat a lot” whenever the opportunity presents itself–a factor of a poverty mentality. Sometimes, when an adult who experienced this as a child grows up and carves out a “better life” for themselves where food is not scarce and is always around, their minds may not have caught up yet–meaning they still eat a lot for every meal because somewhere in their psyche, they are unsure if there will still be enough food here tomorrow…

    Again, all of this is just the tip of the ice berg, but educating all parties involved will make for a kinder, healthier society mentally, emotionally, and physically. I hope people continue to want to be better informed regarding the plights of others and somehow we can move toward a “sharing is caring” true mentality to make sure everyone knows what it is like to have enough.

  16. And then people why teenage girls and young adult ladies have eating disorders. I grew up with a step gramma that wouldn’t let me eat or drink anything after 6:30 pm (not even water), threatened to discipline us with a ruler on our hands if the inventory count of little drink pouches or snacks were eaten. After years of living away from her made me realize I’m beautiful inside and out and still learning to control my eating habits. It’s hard.. it’s a battle.. but it’s ultimately up to me, so keep fighting. A year ago I was like 190 lbs… now I’m like 130 lbs… portion control, will power, and eating foods that keep you full longer I think is key, and limiting meat in take.

  17. this is awesome

  18. Very, very well said. You don’t need to be “thin”to be healthy. Also, when did weight become such an issue? I’ve heard more women being catty about other women and their weight than ever before. Its a non-issue, women should be supporting each other and not dwelling on what we perceive as other’s faults. Life isn’t a competition of who can be skinniest.

  19. At age 16, I wore a size 8/10. I thought I was obese, and my best friend helped me keep thinking that. I was diagnosed with leukemia that year, and her big concern? “Now she’s going to get all skinny, and the boys will like her more.”

  20. This was great. Thank you for sharing it. I’ve also noticed a trend in children’s cartoons that come out now: Who’s the bumbling, ignorant, goofy side kick to the “normal” main character? Well, a “fat” kid of course! Complete with freckles, glasses, maybe bucked teeth. You know, because ALL fat kids look like that. It’s not bad enough that society and media are creating hate and stereotype with the older generation…they’ve decided it was a good idea to brainwash little children into thinking the same thing. “Fat” people are less than human…they aren’t normal and they CERTAINLY can’t be creative, active, or intelligent!

    Sorry…you’ve kind of hit a sore spot here. In a good way, though. Thanks again. I hope you’re feeling better soon.

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