We Need To Do Something About Society’s Fat-Shaming Problem

I don’t know what it’s like to be a fat girl. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hungry. I’m the product of a rocket-fueled metabolism that kicked in when I was thirteen, shredding my baby fat and making it next to impossible to put on weight. My body naturally drops as many pounds as it can, which is both a form of privilege and a source of frustration. I’ve dealt with disordered eating habits most of my life — a feeling that I didn’t deserve food and wasn’t good enough to eat — and it made me unhealthily skinny.

I used to fluctuate between eating all the time to stay full and punishing myself to stay empty, and in old photos, I look tired and pained, as if I’m fighting something without knowing what exactly. During this time, I never told my family about my food issues, and I was too ashamed to tell them about my problems with metabolism in the first place. In my family, you don’t admit that things are a problem. You deal with them yourself, while you smile and pretend everything’s fine. In those pictures, I look for that dizzy-eyed and all I see is hunger. I see someone hoping for a way out.

While I struggled with forcing myself to eat, my family would often joke about my waifish frame and slim weight, telling me to “fatten up.” Everyone in my family is overweight, and it’s not just that they wanted me to reach a healthy size: They wanted me to fit in with the group. My grandparents have long struggled with their size, especially during old age, and for my grandmother, “eating right” is a starvation diet. Balancing out the household’s collection of Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos, my grandmother keeps a daily dieting schedule on the fridge, which primarily consists of grapefruit and coffee, barely even a diet at all. When she gets tired of going hungry, she goes back to Hostess as usual. She feels powerless.

If it sounds like I have an issue with their size, I don’t. Seeing my grandmother’s struggles has given me insight and empathy into what big-bodied people go through every day, the pain of not being the person society tells you to be. However, her battles also makes me wonder how things would be different if I weren’t born male. Would my family still encourage me to join the club or would they let me stay skinny, looking at my tired eyes as a source of pride? During my freshman year of college, I could fit into a friend’s size 0 pants. I was exactly the size we tell pretty women to be. When a woman is good-looking, we tell her that she could model. She could be a zero, just like me.

I often think about the discrepancies in the behavior we promote among men and women — where fat-shaming disproportionately targets those who are female, femme and female-identified. Men also struggle with weight issues, but it’s normal and acceptable for men to be big and tall. If you go to any department store, you’ll find a number of plus-size options for men, whereas some of the big girls I know had to start making their own clothes because they couldn’t find anything that fit them. You have to have it specially ordered or go to your own store, separate from the rest of the pack.

For men, beauty’s allowed to be internal. In television and movies, we’re told that just about any guy can get the most attractive girl he wants — and a 10 like Alice Eve will happily settle for Jay Baruchel’s 5 — but we rarely see the opposite. Where’s the portly lady with the hot husband? When big women are allowed to be sexual or romantic, it’s always played for laughs, like Megan seducing Air Marshall Ted with a bear sandwich in Bridesmaids. Even poor Melissa McCarthy’s TV show can’t tell a love story between two plus-size people with a straight face.

Last week, a weird Twitter trend celebrated fat-shaming week on the internet — which is a holiday I didn’t know any of us voted for. What I find particularly notable about the trend is that it didn’t seem to target “fat folks” as a whole — just women, whether or not they are actually of size. A fellow writer on this site who has been vocal about her experiences with an eating disorder wrote about getting fat-shamed on Twitter, despite the fact that few people I know would label her “fat” to begin with. It’s not necessarily about size at all — but controlling female self-image. It’s using female body issues to create a world where shame creates disempowerment.

A recent article on Return of Kings perfectly encapsulates this. I won’t link because I don’t want to feed them the hate clicks, but in the post, contributor Christian McQueen pens an “open letter to fat girls worldwide” to inform them of their worth. The essay is titled “5 Reasons Fat Girls Don’t Deserve Love” and is so horribly written that it barely deserves commentary. Typos are one thing (and happen to all of us), but if someone wants me to take their work seriously, they probably shouldn’t confuse “flour” with “flower” or “conscious” with “conscience.” At least that terrible Ask Men article on “dumping your fat girlfriend” had the decency to be coherent.

Because the post was perfect click-bait, the internet quickly descended upon Return of Kings to voice their vengeful wrath, and it’s nice to see that other people think fat-shaming is disgusting. The problem is that I wonder whether that anger toward misogyny will extend past the comment board or past an easy target that we all know is like shooting fish in a barrel. It makes us all feel better for being more enlightened than some random person on the internet, but at the end of the day, we haven’t really achieved anything — except preaching to the already converted.

It’s something I struggle with as a writer every day, feeling like it’s impossible to get through to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you, where the internet becomes a giant echo chamber sounding back our own easy anger. I recently read a great essay over at the Socialist Worker about the problem with call out culture and why asking folks like Christian McQueen and Return of Kings to check their privilege isn’t enough. It’s easy to say that people like McQueen are the problem, but then we miss the root of the issue, the societal expectations that allow such mindsets to proliferate. McQueen is a symptom, not a cause.

Calling this a “strategy of passivity,” SW contributor Ryne Poelker reminds us,

“The individualistic politics of “checking your privilege” don’t come out of struggle. They come out of the academy during a period of retreat for the left…The “personal is political” not only became a nice catchphrase, it also became the limit within which the left challenged inequality. We seem to have forgotten that the structural is also political. Oppression and exploitation were no longer seen as material realities that resulted from systematic origins. Rather, in the age of postmodernism, they were seen as born from bad ideas — and all we had to do was just educate others on their bad ideas.”

Poelker’s post, which is actually a pretty spot-on criticism of something I wrote, is a sound reminder that armchair criticism isn’t enough, especially when the problem is so much bigger than the personal of the individual.

A couple weeks ago, a friend misread a Facebook status update of mine as attacking plus-size folks. She wrote to me to say that she was disappointed, and I responded that the joke was meant to comment on the societal views toward “fat people,” rather than actually shame them. She said she understood but reminded me to be careful with my language, as big-bodied people just expect to be made fun of and someone might take it the wrong way. She explained that she often has a hard time watching TV — because everywhere something’s telling her she’s not good enough.

Of course, she was asking me to check my privilege, but she was impelling me to do more. She was asking me to remember that this isn’t just a singular problem. This is an issue she faces every day, one that won’t go away when a status update leaves her feed or a terrible article gets trashed. There is no passively hoping for a way out. This is the way the world is, continuing to feed into itself. The real question we then have to ask is: When will we stop waiting for the world to change and start fixing it ourselves? TC mark

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