You May Not Be Fat, But You’re Still Fucked Up

Ever since I started these posts, people have been flocking to me, wanting to talk about their own experiences of weight. Many of them have BMIs* in the “morbidly obese” category (a BMI greater than 40), but just as many of them are what I think of as a “media-normal” weight, that is to say close to the size and shape that people in the media tend to appear.**

When thinner people want to talk about fat, the conversation always starts out the same way: “I lost a lot of weight, and…” But drill down on what “a lot of weight” is, and it almost always turns out to be 30 pounds or less. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fucking HARD to lose weight, and 30 pounds is a considerable accomplishment. Anyone who’s lost 30 pounds has a great deal more sympathy for those still struggling than people who cry about wanting to lose “that last 5 pounds” but have never had a BMI above “normal.”

What’s sad to me is that even those 30 pounds are enough to make many people panic, and to have friends and family begin the cycle of well-meant advice and snotty, skinnier-than-thou remarks. To these folks, those 30 pounds are often admitted to like a dark secret (as though people who saw you in the past could see how your thighs touched or your upper arms wobbled or whatever your hallmark of fat was), and I suspect the reaction they’re looking for is “NO! YOU?” That would reassure them no one could see the moral stain of excess weight. As though knowing they weighed more in the past would make me think any different about them than I do in the present. As though 30 excess pounds is the equivalent of murdering kittens.

It breaks my heart to hear how those people who’ve had a few excess pounds and shed them often talk about the unpleasant things they did to lose the weight. “I gave up all starches.” “I exercised three hours a day.” “I ate nothing but celery for a week.” “I fasted for 20 hours a day.” None of them say “And the whole time, I felt like Superman!” But they did it because they felt they had to suffer and sacrifice, not just to lose weight, but to atone for having gained it in the first place. And the more extreme and unhealthy their dieting journey, the more skinny people laud them for having endured it to re-enter the Company of the Comely.

Weight fluctuates for such a huge variety of reasons, from a slower metabolism due to aging, to the body’s need to conserve resources when it thinks it’s in crisis. People should be kinder to themselves about their bodies’ own changes. Love yourself, not by ensuring that you look attractive to someone else, but my making sure that you feel healthy, strong, and at peace. And if you feel those things at 30 pounds more, you’re fine.


*I use BMI here only because it’s a commonly-used metric. Please remember that both the entire notion of “body mass index” that supposedly measures your lean/fat ratio and the labels attached to various numbers on that index are utterly arbitrary.

**I say “tend to appear,” because we all know that anyone who looks “normal” on television or in the movies is likely a miniature stick figure in real life. I’ve seen Jane Fonda in person. She’s 5′ 8″ and weighs 4 pounds.

Thanks For Your Concern

“I just want you to be healthy.”

“You look so uncomfortable.”

“You’d feel so much better.”

I’ve heard it, usually coupled with some kind of advice that I’ve heard a thousand billion times before. Advice like “get more exercise,” “eat more vegetables,” and “drink more water.” I’ve done those things, and was probably still doing them. And I’ve lost weight. And then gained it back. And then lost it again.

And people say those things as though I might not have thought these things myself – as though I hate myself with such intensity that I’m committing suicide by cheese (although if I were going to off myself, that would be my choice).

But they’re not saying it because they’re actually concerned. They’re saying it to signal disapproval without sounding actually mean. “I just want you to be healthy” is code for “I feel disgust watching you eat.” “You look so uncomfortable” is code for “I feel uncomfortable when I look at you.” “You’d feel so much better” is code for “I’d feel so much better.”

But none of these barbs disguised as concern or advice help, because that’s not how it works. If it were as easy as “eat less move more,” everyone in a wheelchair or hospital bed would be obese, and everyone who ate vegetables and exercised would be skinny. But I’ve been obese my entire adult life (with occasional flashes of thin), and I know as well as you do that it’s so much more complicated than that.

Environment is a factor. Hormones are a factor. Psychology is a factor. Genetics play a part. If your family is heavy, you’ll be heavy. My mother’s family is from Scotland, and that side of my family is typically short and sturdily built. We totally look like the kind of people who can throw telephone poles and carry a sheep under each arm. My father’s side of the family are Mexican, and are generally taller and thinner. I started out with a 50/50 shot. Guess which I got (cue sad trumpet).

Long before I even considered surgery, I ate a healthy diet and got plenty of exercise, and seethed whenever someone expressed “concern” about my size. So I just stopped listening. I cordially invited those people who felt the need to comment to shut the fuck up.

If you were really concerned about me, you would tell me you love my dress. You’d tell me you read that story I got published. You’d tell me you think I’m smart. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t want me to feel like crap about myself by not-even-subtly telling me that you feel bad looking at me. That’s your problem, not mine.

 

 

You’re Making Me Uncomfortable

Uncomfortable.

It’s a word that went from private and innocuous to a public excuse for bad behavior almost overnight. When I was a kid, if you felt uncomfortable, you either fixed whatever it was, or you shut up about it. Discomfort wasn’t seen as a thing so awful that no one should be made to endure it for more than a millisecond – people were uncomfortable with all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons.

But around the time that self esteem policing (the impulse to ensure that no one is ever unhappy for any reason, and brought about such idiocy as participation trophies, third grade graduation ceremonies, and the kind of apps that take away your wrinkles and put makeup on your selfies) really got going, someone decided that the worst damage one can inflict on a human being is to make them feel “uncomfortable.”

The problem I have with other people’s expressions of discomfort is that the word “uncomfortable” is a vague, unhelpful word, and when placed in the sentence “You’re making me uncomfortable,” it asks the listener not only to decode what this particular person means by it, but also puts the burden of relieving that discomfort on the listener. Sometimes that’s absolutely appropriate, but not always.

What does “You are making me uncomfortable” mean? The answer to that varies greatly, and can give insight into who should be changing their behavior or attitudes.

You are making me…

Experience Physical Discomfort

Sometimes “uncomfortable” can be literal. Someone’s standing on your foot. Someone is invading your personal space, forcing you to stand or sit in an awkward position. Someone is touching you in a way that hurts. In that case, it’s absolutely okay to use the word “uncomfortable,” and to specifically call out what’s happening. “Can you back up? You’re pushing me against the wall and it’s uncomfortable.”

Feel Threatened

This one is trickier, and one that causes no end of argument between men and women. A man will say something personal to a woman – “You look really nice in that dress.” “Nice ass.” “Smile.” The woman responds with “You’re making me uncomfortable,” and the man comes back with “I’m just trying to pay you a compliment! I’m being nice and you’re being rude!” (Or worse.)

What men don’t take into account is that most women have had this experience before, and the way it plays out is almost never good. A man makes an observation about a woman’s body, she fails to respond with warm enthusiasm, and the man turns abusive – sometimes physically. And if the woman were to say to the man “you’re making me feel threatened,” the man would scoff at the idea.

It doesn’t even have to be as overt as an inappropriately personal comment. It can be someone staring at you the way they would stare at a product in a store window, or someone obviously talking about you to someone they’re with. Anytime someone is treated like they are not a human being with thoughts and feelings, but instead an object that exists for others’ amusement or approval, it’s easy to wonder where that objectification stops. It’s hard to call someone’s attention to the fact that they aren’t acknowledging your humanity without making that person feel defensive.

Using the word “uncomfortable” allows the speaker to introduce an element of ambiguity that lets the speaker off the hook – “I may have misinterpreted this, I understand that you had the best intentions,” rather than “We do not have the kind of relationship where your behavior is appropriate, and you should know that.” Because they should know.

Confront My Inherent Biases

This is the one that makes us all crazy. White people calling the police on Black people without provocation. Trans people abused and humiliated because some people freak out when they don’t know how to classify someone based on their appearance. Asylum seekers being detained and tortured while people debate whether they’ve broken any laws. Sometimes people are uncomfortable because they have opinions about entire groups of people that have no basis in fact. It’s easy to exist in the echo chamber of social media and formulate opinions about groups of people you have no direct experience of. If your only exposure to cultures other than your own is on television or social media, you can’t say you know anything. Media consumption is self-selected – you watch things you enjoy. If you’re a KKK member, you’re way more likely to be watching Fox and Friends, which reinforces your racist views, than Dear White People, which does not.

It’s human to be afraid of what we don’t understand, and when confronted with a set of social cues and conventions we don’t understand, it’s natural to feel awkward. But it’s only recently that people have gone from “I don’t exactly understand what’s expected of me in this interaction” to “I’m angry that I’m being confronted by my own ignorance.” And it seems that it’s increasingly true that just the presence of an Other whose culture might be different from one’s own is enough to make a person uncomfortable. It’s a vicious cycle: see an Other whose culture you’re not sure of, demand that Other explain their presence, be (rightfully) denied that explanation, get angry that the person Other isn’t conforming to your expectation of their behavior, demand validation from an authority that your mistrust of the Other is justified. But just because the systems of power in our country support narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes doesn’t make those attitudes correct. It just means that we have to work harder to confront our own narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes, rather than ask those we’re hurting to do the work for us.

What do you mean when you tell someone they’re making you uncomfortable? I would suggest that it’s time to remove “uncomfortable” from your vocabulary. Not permanently, but maybe let it go on an extended vacation. Do the work of drilling down on why you feel uneasy around certain people or situations, and then do the work of figuring out the right way of expressing it. It could be by saying “I’m not looking for your approval” to someone who makes personal remarks about you. Or it could be by introducing yourself to someone you don’t know and getting to know them better. Or it could be by shutting your mouth and walking away.

A Tree Falls In Brooklyn

There’s been a bit of a flap at my daughter’s school lately. Some of the kids are having trouble in one particular subject, and some of the parents are having trouble communicating with the teacher of that one particular subject. This is a small school – just 18 kids in the class – and at the monthly parent meetings, we bring stuff like this up, and invariably, one parent turns to the other parents and says

“But my kid isn’t having that problem.”

Your kid doesn’t have any allergies. Your kid is able to effectively organize their time without reminders. Your kid is willing to call all his/her relatives and guilt them into buying stuff for a fundraiser. Your kid was not injured during the last hike. Your kid is perfect and your kid is never the bottleneck or the problem. Good for your kid.

But somebody else’s kid is. And not just somebody else’s kid, but likely more than one somebody else’s kid. And when your entire contribution to the discussion is “my kid isn’t having that problem,” you’re effectively saying “since it’s not happening to me, there is no problem.” They are not there to hear the tree fall, so it couldn’t have made any noise.

To be blunt, that attitude is at the heart of what’s going wrong in this country. “I’m not having a problem, therefore no problem exists.” It allows people to believe that anyone who is having a problem has brought it on themselves. Meanwhile, institutional racism, misogyny, income inequality run rampant. But people think to themselves “it’s not happening to me, so it’s not a problem.”

But I have a friend. Another mom in my kid’s class. Her kid isn’t allergic to anything. She does have some problem in some of her classes, and she could be a little more organized, but her mother keeps her on top of things. And her mother also sees that she’s not the only kid in the world. That her kid is part of a class, of a school, of a town, of an area and that other people’s problems matter. She’s always got “a friend” who needs something – who’s out of work, who’s sick, who’s alone in a crisis, and she’s always working to fix it. This woman has a husband who makes a great living, she’s got a big, gorgeous house and a lovely daughter and goes to Italy or for ski weekends, etc. This woman is in a perfect position to say “I’m not having a problem, therefore there is no problem.” Except that she’s not that kind of person.

Thank God that someone, somewhere is not that kind of person. We need many more of not that kind of person.