Someone I hardly know has just had a go at me on my facebook page for daring to mention that I’m sick when I also happen to be overweight. Fat shaming is pretty endemic in our culture, and random attacks from near strangers are often the price I pay for the public way I’ve chosen to live my life. Being open on a public blog and willing to ‘friend’ strangers unfortunately means that every now and then a kind of critical mass builds up and those who have been silent in the wings decide now is the time to speak out. It’s happened before and it will happen again. It always hurts, it always makes me angry. There’s a sense of betrayal about having honesty and openness rewarded with judgement. But every time I’m also so aware that I’m actually okay. This kind of bullying is now reasonably rare in my life. I don’t let the bigots and the bullies near me anymore. People who scare me, shame me, put me down, or abuse me don’t get to be part of my inner circles! How many of us can’t say this? How many of us suffer because this happens, not with a stranger over the net, but at the dining table every Christmas, or in bed with our partners? I’m pretty tough, and I’ve got great friends. I’m not drowning anymore in negative messages about myself. I’ve escaped those environments and left those people. Every now and then I just have to cull my online networks a little to prune out the people who don’t get it, and who think my patience is a free ticket to hurt me. It’s not such a big deal for me, but it’s a huge deal for so many of us.
Sometimes I’m harassed for being openly gay, and that can range from daft to really frightening. Sometimes it’s about my alliance with some kind of minority group. Today it’s ostensibly about my weight. And of course, I can argue. I could justify myself in so many ways. I could talk about how I suffered severe joint pain back when I was a healthy weight, in fact much worse pain than I do now, pain so crushingly severe I was in a wheelchair. Exhaustion so debilitating I could not raise my arms over my head for more than a moment. I needed assistance to wash my hair, at times even to dress or eat. I could talk about how my weight is partly the result of medications I have to take to manage another chronic pain condition. I could talk about how my health is actually better now, at the weight I am today, than it used to be when I weighed less, how my blood cholesterol is lower and my diabetes indicators have gone away! I could talk about our lack of understanding of the relationship between weight and health, how our assumptions are wrong and profoundly unhelpful. I could talk about my history of an eating disorder and how tender and sensitive my relationship with food and my body can be, how vulnerable someone like me is to shame and self loathing. I could talk about how my weight went up during periods where I was homeless, on the run from domestic violence, and doing intensive, exhausting, terrifying caring for a suicidal family member. How issues like weight become so irrrelevant when you don’t have anywhere to sleep, when you’re sitting up late again eating service station food because you don’t have anything to cook on, and the person you care about needs to be watched so they don’t try to kill themselves in the night.
But really, so what? So what if my extra weight was simply because of my lifestyle? So what if all my medical problems stemmed directly from my weight? I don’t actually need all these justifications to say that fat shaming is wrong. I’ve worked in Eating Disorders. I’ve worked with people who starve, binge, cut themselves, dissociate, and put their lives at risk. I’ve worked with people who were beaten as children when they gained weight at the weekly weigh-in. People who were starved through deliberate abuse or chronic neglect. People who spent parts of their childhood stealing food and eating out of bins. People who tried to cut out their own fat at 12 because they were being bullied. People who compulsively hoard food because they so often went without. Forget about weight being a health issue for a moment. There’s some grey area about how exactly all that works. What I can tell you, is that shame is lethal. It kills people. It profoundly distorts our sense of self, of being an okay person. Fat shaming makes people hate their bodies. It makes us embarrassed to eat in public. It makes us burn our skin. It makes us hide food in secret stashes that we consume with the guilt and craving of an addict. It makes us starve ourselves. It makes us refuse to be naked with our partners, or unable to imagine we might one day have a partner. It makes us settle for terrible partners who fat shame us and abuse us, who make us feel worthless and lucky that someone is willing to put up with us, and even to have sex with us. Even if sex hurts, even if it makes us feel degraded and scared. It makes us scared that we’re being passed over at work, constantly judged as lacking in self control or self respect. It makes us obsess over the weight of our children in ways that shame them also. It makes us kill ourselves.
So, if this is about health and caring for people, don’t shame. Don’t make someone’s weight the first or second ever conversation topic. Don’t assume that those of us with health problems and illness have them caused by our weight, it’s often more complex. Don’t assume laziness and self indulgence. If you want to demonstrate your caring, be open, listen, openly reject shaming. Acceptance and compassion are the places where people might open up to you. Public struggles like weight can be exhausting and leave people tremendously vulnerable and isolated. Be friends. Be vulnerable yourself. These are the places where people feel safe enough to share and ask for help. These are the ways we can start to have conversations about what’s going on and how you might be able to be a support. Not all of us who are overweight have shame issues, other things can be at play. Sometimes a kick in the pants for a person who thinks they’re immortal can be a help. But many of us are vulnerable. So unless you know us very, very well, and know how to pull off a kick in the pants without shame, don’t ever kick. Reach out.
Fat shaming isn’t about caring. It’s partly about making yourself feel superior to a clearly visible group of people. It can be about narcissism, it can be about insecurity, it can be about shame! All the traumas I’ve just described can make people engage in fat shaming too! Whatever the cause, it leverages your own sense of being okay at someone else’s expense, and that’s really the heart of bullying. In this case, I think it’s also about silencing people with disabilities. I have often been told that I’m not supposed to share my bad days. People are uncomfortable with hearing about things like chronic pain, sickness, vulnerability, incapacity. It’s scary to think it could happen to us. It’s awful to feel bad for someone and not be able to fix it. Being exposed to someone’s disability can leave us almost vibrating with this urgency we can’t manage. We want to fix it or run away, and often we manage this by blaming the person or shaming them into silence. I share so much that’s positive. So many good days, so much about my thoughts and ideas that are hopeful and excited and full of healing. The ratio is a very good one, far more positives to negatives. But sharing that I suffer from chronic pain can still make people tremendously uncomfortable. It’s hard to walk alongside those of us who have been forced to become living reminders of everyone’s mortality and fragility! Silencing becomes a way to maintain cultural denial. It keeps things comfortable if people like myself don’t share. If we’re still shut away in back rooms, or locked up in institutions. In some ways it’s almost worse if we can be articulate about our experiences, if our sharing evokes a kind of unwanted empathy. It’s painful. People who don’t know what to do with that pain can cope with it by lashing out. I get that!
But we need people like me to talk. In fact, we need everyone to talk! We need to listen to each other and hear the tremendous variety of life experiences out there! We need to know that we are mortal and fragile, these are things that make us kiss our children before bed every night, that makes us hold our tongue when we want to spit cutting words at someone. We remember that we’re human and that life is often painful and overwhelming, as much as it is also beautiful and amazing. None of us need more shame. None of us need to feel alone, afraid, trapped, less than human. We all deserve to live our lives as openly as we wish, to share our experiences and be known, to be vulnerable and to love with courage. Don’t shame each other. Don’t let those who do shame you into your heart. You have the right to feel worthwhile, you are no more, and no less, than any other person. In our imperfections are the seeds of our humility. We can meet each other with love.