The Media’s Making My Friends into Jerks

The media is doing its best to make my friends and family into total jerks.  We talk a lot about how the rampant fat stigma, bullying and shaming hurt fat people, but it also harms our relationships with our friends and family when they act on all of the false information and bad ideas the media feeds them about how to interact with us.  Some examples:

Being Thin Makes you an Authority on How to Be Thin

Since the media says that being fat is completely the “fault” of the fat person, thin people often erroneously get the idea that being thin is all to their “credit” and that they therefore are experts who should be dispensing advice.  This is stupid on a number of levels.  The first being that body size is about much more than just choices – it also includes genetics, environment, metabolism etc.  Almost everybody knows a thin person who eats a ton of food but never gains weight – while that person is often treated poorly, typically people accept the situation as true.  But let a fat person say that they eat moderately and don’t lose weight and people can’t call us a liar fast enough. People come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and just like being naturally blonde doesn’t give you the ability to teach other people to be naturally blonde, being thin doesn’t give you the ability to teach other people how to be thin.

Every Fat Person is a Walking Stereotype – Make Assumptions and Freely Give Advice Based on Them

The number of people who have told me that I just need to start an exercise program – not as a question but as a statement – is astronomical.  When I explain that I am a professional dancer they express complete disbelief. A fat vegan friend of mine who cooks all her food from scratch mentioned that she constantly has people tell her “you just need to cut out the fast food and eat some vegetables.”  The media goes to great lengths to give only a single portrayal of fat people and often the repetition works and people believe that they know everything about our life and habits  from our body size.  What they don’t show us is that fat people have as wide and varied health practices and life habits as thin people.  The only thing that fat people have in common is our body size, other than that when it comes to variety of health practices, eating, exercising, habits or anything else, we’re just like thin people, only bigger.

Every fat person wants to be thin – encourage them

The tendency of the  media to use e-barrels of e-ink telling the stories of fat people who want to be thin lends to the belief that all every fat person wants in the world is to lose weight. Oh the joy of being congratulated on starting an exercise program (though I’ve been lifting weights since I was 12), being asked how much weight I’ve lost “so far”  (lest I make the mistake of thinking that however much weight I’ve lost is enough), or being told that I just need to keep it up and the weight will come off.  Then there are those who treat my ordering a salad as if it’s my first day of sobriety.   Here’s a little rule of thumb about people’s bodies and health – don’t guess.  Also, unless someone is asking for your opinion, keeping it to yourself is a spectacular idea.  Which leads us to…

Fat people need “tough talk” from you to make good decisions

We’ve all seen the stories in the news where the formerly-fat person thanks their friend, partner, or whoever for giving them the “tough talk” about their weight and health that they needed to lose weight. Then the “tough talker” praises the former fatty like they just cured cancer.   The reason we read these stories is because the media likes to tell them – not because it’s a good idea, or because it typically works.  What we don’t read about are the people who had a relationship destroyed because their friend, partner, or whoever couldn’t respect their boundaries and treat them like an adult capable of making their own decisions. What we don’t see is the awkward conversations that happen when, like almost everyone, that former fatty has gained the weight back and is a fatty once more.

A fat body is public property and a cry for help

Pictures of fat people without heads, fat people discussed as “epidemics” and “cost centers” leads to many people forgetting that fat people are, in fact, human.  This leads to people getting the idea that it’s ok to comment on fat bodies like they are cars, and that debating about fat bodies as if they are inanimate is cool.  Wrong on both counts. My body is also not a sign that I am incapable of making decisions for myself.  It’s not a cry for unsolicited advice.  This is not a tree, I am not a kitten.

You should abuse and shame fat people for their own good

Around this blog we call this “Pulling a Jillian” since Jillian Michaels has made a career out of being proud of abusing fat people. Shows like The Biggest Loser are teaching our workout partners, personal trainers, and fitness instructors that fat people need to be screamed at and treated like petulant children and that any amount of abuse is ok because you are “saving our lives.”  The only life to save here is your own – and you can do that by never treating any person like this.

If fat people say they don’t fit your stereotypes, they are liars

The media is full of stories of formerly fat and fat-but-trying-to-lose-weight people who admit to eating in secret and lying about their habits, and dieticians saying that it’s impossible to be fat if you “eat right.”  Again, they print this not because it’s the dominant experience but because it makes “good news” in the sense that people read it because it makes them feel somehow insulated from the possibility of ever getting fat if all the fatties are lying about what they eat and how much they exercise.  So people feel free to replace our actual experiences that we share with them with experiences that they make up in their heads based on stereotypes.  The truth is, people’s habits are nobody else’s business to begin with and if there wasn’t so much shame and stigma around being fat and eating (which we all have to do to survive) people would be less likely to eat in secret and assume that whatever amount they are eating is “too much” because they are fat.

If fat people ask for the same things you have, they are asking for special privileges

Thin people expect that when they get on the plane there will be a seat that fits them, that when they go to a mall they will be able to find clothes that fit them, that if they go to the hospital there will be a bed that fits them, that however much space they take up in any situation is a completely appropriate amount of space. But when fat people suggest that everyone else has a seat on the plane that fits them, so all we are asking for is what everybody else has; or when we suggest that the amount of space we take up is just as appropriate as anyone else, we are told that we are wrong and that we don’t get to make that determination.   The media perpetuates this idea with articles about how fat people are making people miserable on planes (rather than asking why the airlines aren’t accommodating all of their potential passengers), or how we have the audacity to suggest that the hospitals that have taken on the job of providing healthcare to the community have the proper equipment to take care of the fat people who live in the community (rather than asking why the facility was created as if they didn’t know that fat people existed when they built it.) Asking for the same things that other people already have is not asking for special privileges.

As a thin person you are better than fat people

The media depicts fatness as a moral failing, social irresponsibility, and a drain on society.  In contrast they tout thinness as a moral superiority and proof of social responsibility. In this way the media works to make fat people into second class citizens, assuring us that we can tell if people are good or bad by looking at their body size. I submit that any time we’ve ever attempted to categorize and judge people based on the way they look it was a massive mistake, and so it is with judging people based on their body size.

Speaking out against the media’s treatment of fat people isn’t just for fat people, it’s also for the people who know fat people and who are taking their queues on how to treat us from the media.  Of course you are never under any obligation to do any kind of activism, but if you are interested there are activism opportunities in commenting on stories and sending letters to writers who are perpetuating this nonsense. There are also activism opportunities talking to our loved ones about this as a way to stand up for ourselves and others.  We can help others to avoid following the media into a pit of fat bashing fueled by stereotypes and sensationalism.

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Become a Member and Get Special Deals from Size Positive Businesses

I do size acceptance activism full time.  A lot what I do, like answering over 4,000 e-mails from readers each month, giving talks to groups who can’t afford to pay, and running projects like the Georgia Billboard Campaign etc. is unpaid, so I created a membership program so that people who read the blog and feel they get value out of it and want to  support the work I do can become members for ten bucks a month  To make that even cooler, I’ve now added a component called “DancesWithFat Deals” which are special deals to my members from size positive merchants. Once you are a member I send out an e-mail once a month with the various deals and how to redeem them – your contact info always stays completely private.

Speaking Schedule 2013 – I am now working on my speaking schedule for next year.  If you would like me to give a talk at your university, job/company, or organization just e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org and we’ll talk about the options to make it work for your situation and budget.

Published in: on November 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm  Comments (29)  

29 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think a lot of people get treated as inconveniences whenever they deviate from the “norm”. If you are not an “average sized” person, either taller, shorter, wider, fatter or the “other” gender (for a given activity), you are “inconveniencing” the service supplier. My guy is 6’5”, and regularly has to cram himself in to undersized seating in public venues. We pay extra when we travel to get hotel beds that fit him, which also limits the hotels we stay at. At least men’s clothing acknowledges there are large men (that’s a “manly” thing to be). I’m 5’10”, & have regularly been treated as inconvenient since I don’t fit into a lot of women’s sizes, in clothes or other gear, & men’s gear sometimes isn’t shaped right for my curvy bod. (Not a euphemism.) My 6’ & counting stepdaughter’s going to have an even bigger battle.

    The general attitude is that since we can’t fit, we should bow out. This is the gear, we don’t fit it, we don’t get to play.

    While I have often felt excluded, I have only occasionally been shamed, and that is totally transferred from being a woman who is large in ANY dimension. (It’s “unfeminine”.) Like I made a bad decision to be tall. I cannot Imagine the crap someone who is fat must put up with, especially women.

    I will say, there have been a few places that were just clueless, rather than exclusionary. When we pointed out that we couldn’t use gear X, they were surprised, and apologetic. Some of these places have even made a point of getting bigger gear (even just one set) for us for future visits. Those places gets serious loyalty from us, and glowing recommendations to friends.

    You’d think that would be selling point; happy, accommodated customers are LOYAL, & spread the word!

    Question; do fat men get the same shaming as fat women? I don’t see many male commenters on the blog, but I’m curious. What’s the male fat experience like? Is it very different?

    • I can tell you yes they do , my dad was a bigger guy ( he had surgery done) but my mom and I would joke about the fact that they just wanted him to run around naked. We could never find anything in his size , it got so bad we had to order clothing off the internet cause we couldn’t find anything locally . The store that used to carry things in his size , stopped (the reason is unknown to this day). He had to get the extended seat belt on planes ,and was uncomfortable going out because I believe he felt ashamed . I love my dad and don’t think he was the problem , it was everyone else and a world that feels it is okay to exclude ,and shame people based on size . My family was even awful they would call my parents Mr. and Mrs. Clause ,and buy my dad 2x shirts every year even though we told them several times he was a 3X and they would make comments summed up basically as well he should lose that weight to fit into the shirt we bought him. extra long waits because he didn’t fit in booths.. and so on he did the diets and what not , and was very psychically active he loved playing sports ,but kept gaining weight . So the short answer is yes men deal with the stigma too .

      • My father-in-law was told by his doctor that if he moved more than just going from couch to fridge to bathroom and back, the pounds would come off and his health concerns would resolve themselves. At the time, FIL was the full time caregiver for MIL, ate maybe twice a day and was lucky if he got to sit down for an hour a day total. This was the first time seeing this doctor since his old one had been transferred (yay VA medicine).

    • Oh I hear that– as a fat AND tall girl (I’m 5’11″) I get an interesting mix of comments. I mean, I’m still fat and woman, so my body is still considered public property. But other big friends of mine often make comments about how my tallness means my fat is more proportionality spread out over my body, or that I “carry it well,” which I think is strange since I have no butt (seriously– my pants won’t even stay up without a belt) and no breasts and all my fat goes straight to my belly. They say this, but I’m not treated any differently than any other fat person I’ve encountered. Everything Ragen says here rings so true…

      But if people are going to be idiots, I’m more than happy to inform them that my body and what I do with it happens to be none of their business.

    • I would say that variations in fat male experiences depends a lot on how they carry their weight. Variables like extreme pear shape, big legs, huge belly (even worse if it hangs), thick fatty neck and moobs all can increase a guy’s fat bias level.

      That being said you do not even see many tall apple shaped fat men with relatively flat chests on the beaches only in swim trunks.

      I am a guy with very large man boobs that are more conical than flattish and I rarely get any fat bias. Helping this is that I do not go topless in public or wear tight or clingy tops.

      I feel that in place of the fat bias that many fat men do not get Society makes up for by attacking fat men’s masculinity. Fat Acceptance itself even accepts some of Society’s views on the fat male gender. Choosing to view fat men as more feminine instead of being viewed as less masculine by Society. They are not the same thing..

      At the same time Fat Acceptance has embraced fat trans-women ignoring all the gender bias that Society lays on them. Interestingly fat trans-men are also kind of ignored and under supported by Fat Acceptance.

      I hope the last paragraphs helps explain why the participation of fat men in Fat Acceptance seems to be declining.

  2. The latest salvo we are dealing with here in the Cleveland Ohio area is a new radio commercial from Kaiser Permanente, complete with loud military-urgent sounding music and a somber woman’s narration about the WAR on childhood obesity we must all be fighting right now. I get triggered every time I hear it (I was one of those obese children). Any suggestions for an action plan to address this evil?

    • Holy crap! There are lots of ways you could go – letter writing campaign to the radio stations playing them outlining the issues, letter writing campaign to Kaiser Permanente, petition.

      ~Ragen

    • Those commercials drive me insane. *scary voice* “Obese children become obese adults”

      Uh…not necessarily. I’m fat as an adult, but was skinny as a child. Likewise, my roommate was a fat child, and is now a skinny adult. Have they got a magic wand that predicts the future for every child out there?

  3. I just met with a new doctor yesterday to discuss some hormone imbalance issues that I’ve been dealing with for years. Over the course of our discussion, I mentioned that I eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet, and am very physically active, work out most days of the week, and have completed nine half marathons and counting. He offered to photocopy a magazine article for me, about…. food addiction. He thought I should know that some people are addicted to fast food. So your point about Every Fat Person Is a Walking Stereotype really hit home. I would like to send this article to every person I know, and certainly every doctor.

  4. My personal favorite? (NOT!) The attitude that wanting to be seen as a human being rather than a number on the scale is a misguided and dangerous attempt to “normalize” fatness. Doesn’t help when this kind of prejudice in sheep’s clothing is posted on websites that purport to educate the media.

    http://www.reportingonhealth.org/2012/11/09/does-normalizing-obesity-do-more-harm-good

    Of course obesity bias is rampant among health care professionals, but that’s another topic.

  5. O, the stories I could tell. Not only am I 300 lbs, but I’m also 6’4″. I have people saying all sorts of terrible things to me on a regular basis. And the medical industry has been some of the worse. They really need to start making heigh charts for women that are taller than 6’2″.

    I worry for the slings and arrows my daughter is going to face. She’s eight and already five feet tall.

    Any road, I’m a fan of your work and wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your advocacy. Thank you, thank you!

    Battle on!

    • Your daughter will be lucky in that she’ll have the rarer physical traits which competitive sports demand at the highest level. I’m 5’2 and the only sports where that isn’t a major disqualifyer is gymnastics, football (soccer), track athletics and sailing. Swimming, volleyball, basketball, field athletics, water polo, rowing, tennis…basically, she’ll have a major genetic hand up should she want to play most any sport, even at a recreational level- college scholarships if she’s good…

  6. One more: Fat People Must Only Date Other Fat People and are Not Allowed to Find Anyone Unattractive.

    A friend fixes you up with someone. After talking to him for 10 minutes you realize that the ONLY thing you have in common is you are both fat. You don’t feel any attraction to him. Maybe there are even some turn-offs. You later thank your friend but tell her you’re not interested. And your friend — gets mad. She’s actually angry. She assumes you rejected the fix-up for his fatness. She starts to lecture you on how she thought “you of all people” wouldn’t reject someone for his appearance. After all, he is a “nice guy.” The implication is you don’t deserve a partner who is thin or medium-sized, even if there is a mutual attraction on a physical, emotional, intellectual or psychological level. Even if your politics, religion, work and hobbies all line up. Instead, you must partner up with the first fat (or otherwise flawed) person who will have you, and be damn grateful about it and spend the rest of your life watching TV and eating junk food together.

    Throughout my life I’ve often dated men whom the general society has found handsome, sexy, or dynamic because I would talk to them in ways that differed from the dumb things other girls said. I can’t count the number of scowls I’ve received from women who were either completely puzzled or actually enraged. I once had a waitress “accidently” dump a small bowl of salsa on my white skirt after giving me a look like that. It probably irked her even more that I was gracious and sweet and assured her I knew it was an accident. I asked for a wet towel, cleaned myself up and went on with the date as if it were no big deal (impressing him, by the way).

    • *laugh.* That works the same way with more than one prejudice, I can tell you. Not only am I fat, I’m black. My husband is thin, white, and conventionally attractive — the looks I get when people see us out together and notice the rings are interesting. Often we’ve had clerks at stores and hosts or waiters at restaurants assume that even though we are standing together, we are not *actually* together, and they should attempt to seat us at different tables or ring up our purchases separately. My adult friends know better than to try fixing me up with anyone (and I was thin until after my third child was born, so it wasn’t an issue in my younger years) but even after you’ve negotiated that hurdle, the fun of “I know who you deserve for a partner and that isn’t it” doesn’t end.

      • Okay, THAT is completely unacceptable. I get the fat stigma, fat judging, etc. I think it sucks outloud, but I understand it when I see it and know how to combat it.

        But a white guy and a black girl together as a couple?? WHO THE *&*&# CARES?? WHY is that STILL an issue? I have the same reaction when people talk about gays/lesbians/bi/transgendered as being the moral downfall of modern society. Are you THAT threatened by how others live their lives and the personal choices they make?

        GRRRR…

        • America seems way more bothered about interracial couples than the UK. I don’t think most people would raise an eyebrow let alone accuse them of being traitors to the race…

          However, I’ve had nasty comments yelled at me from cars when out running, passers by and from a woman at her window. Where I live, a single female out running seems to be rather threatening to some.

          I think being a younger (looking) female has something to do with it, regardless of size or shape. During the summer, I had the remains of a bottle of water thrown at me from a passing car of young men while I walked past with my mum and dog…And if it happens to one person, it’ll be happening to very many. Sad.

          My sister’s more ample boobs, despite a sports bra, also had a group of young men make a rude comment. Alas, I made an extremely rude comment back and then ran off as fast as I could due to embarrassment at myself…

  7. This –> “But let a fat person say that they eat moderately and don’t lose weight and people can’t call us a liar soon enough.” <– That, is so, so true! I passionately wish people could know that! I also wish people could know that it's possible to restrict food and GAIN wait – it's possible people who are heavier than you eat less than you. I wish people could know this stuff so badly. I am a therapist in training and I try to make sure I teach this stuff to my classmates (and HAES stuff and all other kinds of things that you talk about. I actually got some of my professors to start reading your blog!), and people just have such a difficult time believing that one could eat little and weigh a lot, eat a normal amount and weight a lot, or eat a lot and weight a lot. People have such a hard time believing that you can't tell how much a person eats based on what they weigh!

    • It is super awesome that you are introducing your classmates to this information, though it’s a shame that it’s necessary. Thanks for the work that you do.

      ~Ragen

    • I see that alot too, I am fat and do eat a fair bit (have to or I get really sick) and people are constantly astounded and think I am lying when I say I am not Gaining more weight on eating “so” much.

  8. Your post really struck a chord with me. I discovered FA a few years ago and immediately wanted to share it with my friends, fat and thin alike (though not one of them considers themselves “thin”). A few months ago a person I considered a very good friend sent me a letter in the mail telling me she didn’t want to be my friend anymore and that she was moving on to “new things and new people.” I was shocked and hurt and confused. The letter didn’t contain an explanation. I found out later through Facebook posts as I was unfriending her that she had recently started a diet and was getting rid “unhealthy” influences in her life. Of course I know that’s not proof she stopped being my friend because I’m fat but it sure feels like it. I hope the (probably temporary) decrease of 4 pant sizes was worth it. So I get to feel like crap because the media likes to write stories of how diets work and fat is unhealthy. Sometimes reading posts like this is the only thing keeping me sane.

  9. Ragen, have you ever watched the brilliant ‘Miranda’? Its a British BBC sitcom starring Miranda Heart who’s 6’1 and larger than average. Her acting is great, and her love interest- the lovely, handsome Garry never, ever has to justify why he loves her. Something a bit different, even to Mike and Molly.

    • Oh my gosh, I cannot second this enough. Miranda is my absolute favourite tv show. And Tom Ellis is to die for.

  10. One of your best pieces to date. The media has a certain narrative it perpetuates about fat people (the walking stereotype, thin people being an authority on being thin, the importance of “tough talk” if you love the fat person, yadda yadda) because it’s what THEY WANT TO BELIEVE. It absolves them from treating it like a complex issue, and it keeps the narrative simple and mindless. Then our friends and family members pick up on it and feel they have to elaborate on it to us. Ugh.

  11. The line about “salad – sobriety” took me right to the hallway outside the school cafeteria where I was teaching. My principal saw me with a salad in hand and without saying hello or missing a beat said “Oh! are you on a diet?” I replied “No, I just like salad.” The interchange was a bit surprising to me since I had most of the teachers trained to not talk diet talk with me, but it was her first year and she took longer to get it. Thank you as always for your cogent and well – organized thoughts!

  12. I just found this post via a link on an eating disorder support site I frequent, as I’m in recovery from anorexia and am still somewhat small though no longer emaciated. I just have to say firstly THANK YOU to you and anyone else out there who is brave enough to stand up and say enough. As someone who has been at various stages of thin down to scary, I have frequently been the beneficiary of praise and esteem from strangers, friends, and family alike for my superpowers in the weight loss arena. Nevermind that the losses have come from horribly unhealthy and occasionally nearly fatal methods. One thing I’d love to hear about is how people who are thin can respond to others who make comments to us when they assume we are in a special club of the healthy elite when in fact we are not. I frequently hear comments from the person in the seat next to me on the plane about their gratitude that I “Fit In My Seat” or some such nonesense as if my size automatically means I’m a bigot who will enjoy and participate in their fatist drivel. I’ve been in the line at a grocery store buying loads of celery and lettuce to indulge the worst of my disease and had to endure the guy behind me, two young daughters in tow, remarking on the somewhat larger woman ahead of us in line purchasing (gasp) a bag of chips or a bottle of non-diet soda. Last time I went to McDonald’s to buy an ice cream and was purchasing two, one for myself and one for a friend, the guy behind the counter delivered a remark that “these probably aren’t even for you are they?” Usually I am so horrified in the moment that I am paralyzed, and later am so angry and regretful that I just couldn’t come up with something to say in retort-I would like to know how to handle this in a non-confrontational way that won’t automatically shut down the other; I really want to make them stop and think about their asinine assumptions, whatever they may have been.

    • Hi Cheryl,

      First of all, congratulations on your fight against an eating disorder, it’s not easy work. Second, thank you so much for asking these questions, it’s not easy being an ally and it’s awesome that you want to know how to do it better. I wrote a blog about this, you can find it here: http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2010/10/22/what-to-say-when-youre-a-thin-ally/

      Let me know if that answers your questions, if not I’ll take another stab at it. Seriously, thank you for asking :)

      ~Ragen

  13. I, and presumably other thin allies, can attest that the “expert” label for skinnies is contingent on towing the party line. Thin people who are hostile to fat people are given every microphone and credence, but those skinnies who dissent are immediately told, including by some fatties, “You’ve never been fat; you don’t know what it’s like”. Maybe, but I know what I see. I see people being tormented and tortured, but if I’m not going to tell everyone how to have a body like mine then I need to shut up and let the “good skinnies” have all the airtime!

    That brings up the fact that the “for your own good” thing is one I’ve long associated with 1984. This is the “War is Peace” part. The idea that fatties free to choose what they eat will become food addicts? “Freedom is Slavery”. And of course you should never listen to people who say weight loss doesn’t work, they are unhealthy influences on you. You guessed it: “Ignorance is Strength”. I wonder to this day if George Orwell sensed the discourse on fat people that was to come: a comment by Winston Smith that a washer woman who Julia described as “a meter across the hips” had “her own style of beauty” was his second to last statement before the though police arrested them.

    “We are the dead”. “We are the dead”. “YOU ARE THE DEAD!”


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