(Note: Possible triggers for weight and body issues.)
Meta note the first: this essay largely refers to the hypothetical overweight person as “she,” because what I know is being an overweight woman. I welcome the perspective of overweight men, because I do believe that while we share some experiences, we don’t share others.
Meta note the second: I am well aware that no experience, feeling, or attitude is universal. I know there are exceptions to everything I’m saying here. If you, as an overweight person, wish to add your perspective, I welcome it. If you, as a thin person, want to tell me that I’m totally wrong because your cousin did XYZ…well, let’s just say proceed with caution.
Meta note the third: I’ve waffled quite a bit on the tone of this piece. On the one hand, there’s the whole flies/vinegar/honey thing. On the other hand, if parts of this sound irritable, well, frankly, I’m irritated. I could go into detail about why, but I’m pretty sure you can imagine why a 5’2″, 245lb woman in our culture might be just a tad annoyed about attitudes toward fat people.
Okay, end of meta notes. I know, I can never say anything in a single sentence.
Last spring, when I was doing massive amounts of training (kind of like now), I observed that the more progress I make in my fitness, and the better I feel about my body, the angrier I get about fat hatred and its attendant issues. I mean, it’s not that hard to suss: I was/am feeling good about a body that is still an object of at best concern and at worst outright scorn by much of my culture. The changes all my labor has produced are not trivial, but they’re not particularly visible, either, unless you’re paying very close attention.
What I wrote then was basically a rant about judgment and toxic thinking, but what I have here is something a little different. One of the most frustrating aspects of fat hatred is how much of it is couched in the language of love. It’s not hard to imagine how many of the things fat people are told are uttered by family, friends, partners, loved ones. Some people really, genuinely believe that they have an obligation to be cruel to fat people, who really seem to believe not just that fat people deserve scorn and shame, but that treating them with scorn and shame is in their best interest. It is only being cruel to be kind. Because hey, if we let fat people forget that they’re bad, lazy, sub-human people, they might stay fat.
I know I am never going to reach the people who are genuinely cruel and are just using concern as an excuse to exercise that cruelty. This is for the friends, family members, and loved ones who genuinely want to be kind, want to help us, want to find the right tactic to make us understand why we must lose weight and how to do so.
In a word: don’t.
I probably need to explain more about that, don’t I? Okay, let me break it down.
The first principle, and the one most of the others stem from, is that we’re not stupid. “Ignorant” might be a better term, but you get the idea.
What do I mean by that? Well, first and most importantly, we know we’re fat. No matter how many advice columnists suggest you voice your concern about our weight (Abby, I’m looking at you), we really don’t need you to tell us we’re overweight. We live in these bodies. We dress them, bathe them, see them in the mirror both clothed and naked. We know them better than anyone in the world. Trust me: we know we’re fat. We know we’ve put on weight in the last year. We know we’ve gained back what we lost through that last diet. We know. We don’t need you to point it out.
Also, we know the effects our weight has on our health. And I am phrasing that very carefully, because (a) the correlation between weight and health is more complex than most people think, but (b) I’m not particularly prepared to get into a debate about it here. The real point is this: unless you are not only a medical professional, but our medical professional, we almost certainly know what effects our weight is and is not having on our health better than you do.
And yes, we know being fat is socially undesirable. You really, really, really don’t need to tell us any of the ways in which our lives would be easier if we were thinner. No overweight woman who has walked into Target and seen the clothes in her size reduced to a couple of racks and a few feet of the back wall needs to be informed of the ways in which being overweight makes life just that much more complicated, or that people will judge us for our size, will consider us less attractive, lazy, sloppy, and a whole host of other bad things. We’re not stupid. We live this experience daily. We don’t need you to point it out to us.
The second principle is that you should not assume that just because you know one thing about us (that we’re fat), that you know everything about us. And yes, I am specifically thinking of our eating and physical activity. Obviously this one is more contextual, as someone who lives with an overweight person, be it a spouse or parent, probably does know these things, but generally speaking, unless you live with someone, you don’t know their habits. And while I have no hope of convincing the concern trolls or genuinely hateful people to strike all variations of “stuffing your face” or “put down the fork,” I am assuming that people who are actually friends and loved ones don’t want to cause pain.
You really cannot discern a person’s eating or exercise habits by their size. No, you can’t. I had an epiphany once that most thin people assume that if a fat person just ate and exercised at the level they themselves to, that fat person would lose a lot of weight. And while I’m sure there are exceptions, for most of us, it is simply not true. That thin person is eating enough and exercising enough to maintain their current weight. A fat person who ate like them and exercised like them might lose a few pounds, but would most likely…maintain their current weight. True weight loss requires consuming less fuel than you burn. It requires deprivation, no matter what terms the diet industry uses. And yes, I’m sure you had a great experience with Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or South Beach. That doesn’t mean I will have that same experience. But most importantly, there is only one person aside from me who sees how I eat on a regular basis. You cannot discern that just by looking at me.
And even if you see me eating a donut, you don’t know if that’s the first donut I’ve had in four months, or the fourth donut I’ve had today. And even if it is the fourth donut I’ve had today, you don’t know why I’m having that fourth donut. And if your response is that there’s never a good reason to eat four donuts in a morning, well, I guess you’re a paragon of restraint who has never overindulged, never coped with a bad day less than perfectly (and let’s face it, on the scale of bad things you could do to cope with a bad day, donuts are pretty far down the list), never felt like you just couldn’t face another yogurt and granola breakfast. And even if I’m eating those donuts for the “wrong” reasons, do you really think making me feel worse about myself for it is the answer? Because I guarantee, the most likely response is that I’ll say, “Well, fuck it, if I’m going to get judged anyway, I might as well have another donut.”
As a side note, because it’s a pet peeve of mine: this principle is especially true of friends and relatives you only see on special occasions. Yes, I eat too much at Thanksgiving. That’s what Thanksgiving is for. Yes, I can eat a lot of LaRosa’s pizza when I visit my mom, because that’s the only time I get LaRosa’s. Don’t judge someone’s eating habits by how they eat at a birthday party. Better yet, don’t judge them at all.
This same principle holds true for physical activity. Yes, believe it or not, there are fat people who exercise, and exercise a LOT. I do fairly intense interval training and resistance training 5-6 days a week. If someone told me that oh, if I’d just walk 20 minutes a day, it would make such a difference, I don’t know whether I’d laugh myself sick or punch them. (More on this in a second.)
Moreover, if a person isn’t exercising, don’t assume you know why. The best example of this is the overweight person using the scooter in the grocery. I bet when you see that, your first thought is, God, to be so fat that you can’t even walk around the grocery. I admit: I’ve had that thought. Except, there’s a funny thing: turns out that when you have a disability that prevents you from being physically active, sometimes you gain weight. And even if the only thing preventing the person from walking is weight, do you really think she needs you to tell her that life would be easier if she lost weight? Do you really think she doesn’t know that? Do you really think it’s a kindness to make her feel worse?
Which brings me to the third principle: don’t offer unsolicited advice. If you happen to be a nutritionist or personal trainer, and someone asks for your advice, that’s great, but for everyone else: trust me. We’ve heard it. See above. All of these principles, but particularly the one about thin people assuming eating and exercising like they do would cause a fat person to shed 100 pounds, are why unsolicited advice is bad. Because again, you don’t know what you think you know. That person you’re telling to walk 20 minutes a day might be jogging 3-6 miles regularly, might be a competitive dancer, might just be doing the best they can to exercise regularly. Or they might have an invisible disability that makes even 20 minutes of walking impossible. Or they might be struggling with body image related depression, and your comment will trigger them. Or they might just not want to hear it one. more. time. Because trust me: we’ve heard it.
All of this adds up to a final principle: you can’t lose the weight for me. I know that you love me. I know that you’re concerned. But my life is not a Lifetime movie, and I am not one gentle, tearful intervention and a training and cooking montage away from a size 4. My life is real, and complicated, and most of all mine. I have made certain choices about how I deal with my weight. Another person might make different choices. But they’re our choices, and it’s us that will have to do the work to follow through on those choices. And speaking only for myself, very little will sabotage the good feeling and momentum I might have at any given moment like having other people focus on my weight.
If you really want to be kind, then be kind. It’s really not that hard to treat a fat person like a human being, like a person instead of a fat person. It just isn’t.