Fat-shaming: you can’t tell if I’m healthy just by looking at me

photoFat people face discrimination in many ways and many settings. It often feels like the last form of sanctioned discrimination – people are comfortable publicly shaming, criticizing, putting down and harrassing fat people in a way they never would when it comes to race, disability or sexual orientation. Part of the problem is that naysayers claim they’re doing it for our “own good”. Fat bodies have become pathologized and synonymous with lazy, gluttonous and unhealthy. Why someone would want to bully someone else into “good health” is beyond me. Plus, stigmatization of obese people actually threatens health and creates health disparities. The thing is, you simply can’t tell someone’s health status just by looking at them. A thin person could chain smoke and eat junk food all day. A fat person could run marathons and be a vegan. And yes, a thin person could be healthy and a fat person unhealthy. Health assumptions, fat shaming and stigma becomes especially problematic in the medical establishment. In a study of 620 primary care physicians, more than 50% of them perceived obese patients as unattractive, ugly and non-compliant and up to a third found them to be weak-willed, sloppy and lazy. Most fat people could tell you of times when a physician prescribed weight-loss as the answer to symptoms and conditions that were not weight-related, while ignoring the actual cause of the problem.

When I was living in the UK  I went in for a routine appointment to renew my birth control prescription with a doctor I had never met before. Dismissing me as I asked for the prescription renewal, she looked me over and declared that I was too fat. She recommended that I take pills that would block by body’s absorption of fat. I asked her what the side effects of these pills were – she said she wasn’t sure. Wonderful response from a doctor recommending you put drugs into your body.  A quick google search reveals that fat blocking drugs result  in a whopping 5-7 extra pounds lost a year and that they cause anal leakage (fun!), abdominal pain and headaches. At no point did this doctor ask me what my eating habits were or what my exercise regime was. If she did, she would have found out that I was a vegetarian eating mostly a whole foods diet full of veggies and fruits, was going to the gym 3-4 times a week and was walking to and from work every day. Imagine that! She also didn’t take my blood pressure, or do any other tests to determine that I was, in fact, “unhealthy”.  It was bad medicine. Luckily, I didn’t let her intimidate or silence me and I walked out of there with a firm no to her unwanted and unwarranted weight-loss advice. It upset me to think what would happen if a younger or more impressionable fat woman was in my seat. Would she have just said yes to the recommendation of weight loss drugs? Would she have felt ashamed of her body and wanted to avoid going to the doctor? If she stopped going would she get the birth control she needed or help for other health issues or concerns she may have? Would she have internalized that advice to mean that thinness was always better, even if achieving it meant doing things that damaged her health? Being treated with dignity by healthcare practitioners should be the norm, regardless of body size.

There is no proven way to make fat people thin. If there were, the US diet industry  wouldn’t earn an annual revenue of 20 billion dollars. Weight watchers long term success rate – the number of people who reach and maintain their goal weight –  wouldn’t be less than 1%. Yet most doctors don’t tell patients that the vast majority of people who lose weight end up gaining it all back, plus more within 5 years. Or that studies show little support for the idea that diets lead to sustained weight loss or even health benefits. This isn’t an issue of widespread, collective lack of will power. Diets don’t work. Weight loss pills don’t work. Fat shaming doesn’t work.

I practice a Health at Every Size approach to my health. I believe that the best way to stay healthy is to put my energy into healthy habits for their own intrinsic value, not out of an effort to be thinner. I have wasted too much of my life going down that miserable path. I ride my bike to work, do yoga, walk every day and eat wholesome food because it makes me feel good, because I like being active and because it helps keeps me healthy. Ultimately, my health is no one’s business but my own, so other people’s opinion is irrelevant. It is not for us to pass judgement on anyone’s health. It’s frustrating to even have to write posts such as this – defending myself and other fat people for just wanting to live our lives free of shame, discrimination and oppression.

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What Louis C.K. got wrong about fat girls

Last week this clip from comedian Louis C.K’s semi-autobiographical’s sitcom Louis about ‘fat girls’ was making the rounds on the internet:

I’m generally a fan of Louis C.K.’s brand of comedy. He’s funny in a self-deprecating, relatable and dry sort of way. His bit ‘Everything is amazing and nobody is happy’ is a personal favourite. Now, I’m all for generating dialogue on fat discrimination and for greater representation of fat women in the media, but I didn’t like the way he depicted fat girls in this episode. I think he got a number of things flat out wrong about us fat chicks:

“What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us?”

This is a bullshit statement. All these things – happiness, feeling sexy, beautiful and loved and having men pursue us – absolutely happen to us, and not in the exception to the norm kind of way, or only by dating ‘chubby chasers’ kind of way or by tricking someone into dating us with our wicked personalities (that make up for our ‘sad and socially unacceptable’ fat bodies) kind of way either. Fat women date, fall in love, marry and live happily every after all the time. Every single day. Routinely – just like all other women. I’ve dated a veritable mixed goody bag of men, some of whom chased after me and fell in love with me. Last summer I married a wonderful and handsome “normal” sized man who won me over with his warmth, intelligence and offbeat sense of humour. I feel loved, attractive and happy. My story is not an anomaly. I know plenty of other fabulous fat ladies with similar stories of their own.

“You know what the sad thing is? It’s all I want. I mean, I can get laid. Any woman who is willing can get laid. I don’t want that. I don’t even need a boyfriend or a husband. All I want is to hold hands with a nice guy, and walk and talk – “

This makes fat girls look pathetic, as if we’re willing to take whatever a balding, middle-aged divorcee will throw our way. Or any man for that matter. All we want is to hold hands and hang out with a guy who is willing to be seen with us in public? Wrong. So, so wrong. We want the same things all other women want when dating – great chemistry, fun dates, good sex, humour, intelligence, respect and if we’re lucky finding someone who could be a real life partner (if that’s what we’re after). We’re not fish food for the bottom feeders of the dating pool.

“It sucks to be a fat girl.”

You know what? Yeah, it can suck to be a fat girl. There are a lot of things that can make being a fat girl really difficult: being bullied, having less access to fashionable and economic clothing, having to repeat over and over again that yes you can, in fact, be healthy and fat. Oh and there’s also having to face everything else that comes from fat discrimination. Yet arguably the worst of it is that people go around believing and spreading falsehoods about us – that we’re desperate, that men don’t really want to date us, that we don’t get a chance at happiness and love. The tragedy is that so many fat girls and women internalize this propaganda. When I saw through the smokescreen of these lies I realised that being a fat girl doesn’t have to suck – at all. So what if my body happens to be bigger than other people’s? I’m not going to go around apologizing for my size, and I’m definitely not going to let other people’s perceptions of my body affect how I live my life. These days I am rarely conscious of being fat. I love my body and appreciate the way it allows me to go on long hikes with my puppy, ride a bike or do yoga. I am grateful that it sustains me and works to keep me healthy. I’m a fat girl, but it doesn’t suck. Most days it’s pretty awesome.

I do give Louis C.K. some credit – I think his intentions were good. He was throwing his views into a debate about dating, weight and the unfair struggles of fat chicks. He was trying to be on our side. All he managed to do though was to show how misguided and offensive most of these views are, which isn’t that surprising given that the scene was written by him. So really all this is, is a white, straight, middle-aged guy’s perception of what it’s like to be a fat girl. More than anything this scene from Louis shows us what many men unfortunately assume life is like for us. Even more unfortunately, perhaps, is their reluctance to give fat girls a chance. It would have been more bold and powerful for Louis to just go ahead and date the fat girl on the show, without making any mention of her weight at all. That is something we need to see more of on TV.