Fat (or, I’m an A**hole Too)

Men pointing at a chubby woman
The Utica Boilermaker 15K was last weekend. I read a story about a female participant who was mocked by a stranger for her unshaven legs. Normally, the asshole might have simply made his remark to a companion asshole, but maybe the surging tide of testosterone after running all of nine (more likely three) miles prompted a confrontational impulse. Or maybe it was the beer at the finish line. But what else is new? American men are great at insulting women they consider unattractive.

Jennifer Aniston wrote about body shaming in a recent Huffington Post essay.

“I resent being made to feel ‘less than’ because my body is changing and/or I had a burger for lunch and was photographed from a weird angle and therefore deemed one of two things: ‘pregnant’ or ‘fat’.”

It’s a good point – no matter what a woman accomplishes, she’s expected to do it while being conventionally attractive. If Aniston feels “less than” when people call her fat, imagine how millions of women who aren’t Jennifer Aniston feel.

This American Life released an episode on June 17, 2016 called Tell Me I’m Fat (#589). In it, writer Lindy West says,

“The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state. You’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently for your whole life.”

So, not only are fat people unattractive, it’s their own fault (similar to poverty.) Ira Glass continues:

“[If you’re fat] the entire culture is organized to point out how wrong-headed you are…complete strangers walk up to you on the street and tell you to lose weight. They shoot you dirty looks when they see ice cream in your shopping cart. They talk down to you like you’re stupid about nutrition and calories, as if pretty much every fat person has not been around the block 500 times on that one already.”

Then I realized: I’m an asshole too.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m overweight. Also, I shaved my head recently and got to experience random public disapproval in a pretty immediate way. For several weeks after church, people came up front to ask when Chris was coming back. This, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure my voice hasn’t changed and I’d just been singing for the past hour. When I said I’d gotten a haircut, one woman hissed “SHAVED is what you mean! I hope it grows back soon.” But I have been one of those people who thinks that fat people just need to get their shit together.

Lindy West is the author of the terrific book Shrill (2016). In it she writes,

“At the same time that I was tentatively opening to the idea that my humanity was not hostage to my BMI, the rest of the nation had declared a ‘war on obesity.’ They’d whipped up a host of reasons why it was right and good to hate fat people: our repulsive, unsexy bodies, of course (the classic!), but also our drain on the healthcare system, our hogging of plane armrests, our impact on ‘the children,’ our pathetic inability and/or monstrous refusal to swap austerity for gluttony (like thin people, who, as you know, are moderate and virtuous in all ways). Oh, and our ‘health.’ Because they care. They abuse us for our own good.”

Ira Glass continued on his program:

“Fat people are told all the time they’re choosing to be unhealthy [but] the causes of obesity are way more complex than just eating too much. According to the National Institutes of Health, they include physiological, metabolic, genetic, psychological, social, and cultural factors. Also, we haven’t invented a way to make fat people thin long term. Fewer than 1 in 100 obese people get thin and keep it off, according to one recent study, which tracked over a quarter million people for nine years. So we’re in this situation, where a third of all Americans are classified as overweight, another third of us are obese. Can it really be that so many of us are just weak and choosing to be unhealthy?”

Lindy West points out, “You’re not concerned about my health. Because if you were concerned about my health, you would also be concerned about my mental health, which has spent the past 28 years being slowly eroded…”

That spoke to me. West is a funny, generous writer, fearless about loving who she is, and translating that into something useful (not to mention enormously entertaining) to her readers. On an earlier episode of This American Life, she confronted an Internet troll who’d been relentlessly cruel to her. She called him on the phone, and by the end of the conversation they, as well as the audience, were in tears.

How did I develop such a blind spot, I wondered? I freely judged overweight people, just not out loud. Still… The easy answer is that I don’t like being overweight myself, so I’m transferring my own self-loathing. But that’s a dodge. I think most of us like to give ourselves credit for what’s going well in our lives. If we have a good job, if people find us attractive, it’s because we’ve worked hard. If somebody else isn’t doing as well, it’s because they’re lazy.

Here’s the real problem: I lack empathy (in addition to being a hypocrite and an asshole).

Lack of empathy is, arguably, the true national health crisis. How many problems could be mitigated by empathy? I’ll leave that hanging, but I’ll bet you’re thinking along the same lines I am. So… I listened to a radio program that changed my mind. That led me to a book I enjoyed, which further opened my eyes. Check ’em out. Also, it’s nobody’s concern who shaves their legs, or even their heads. Later, if we ask, “Why doesn’t anybody find us attractive?” you can share your opinion. Please be gentle.