Saturday, October 12, 2013

Just how bad is obesity stigma?

So, yesterday a friend shared a story about the obesity stigma surrounding gay men. In it, he explains how the teasing he endured relentlessly, and the comments he continues to receive today are overwhelmingly about weight, not his sexuality.

This got me thinking--what's worse? What's the most painful? I've been through plenty of trauma in my life.* From severely ill children, abuse, loss of a sibling, depression, the one trauma makes the most impact on a daily basis, and always has, is that I am fat. As painful and difficult as everything else has been, I don't get blamed for them. On the contrary, people empathize--there is no expectation I can undo any of those. Even depression, in more recent years, is more widely understood. But obesity? That problem is one I should simply undo, that it is a trauma I deserve because I have brought on myself.

It's not that obesity stigma is worse than the pain of other losses and experiences, it's that obesity stigma is wholly different, not even comparable in it's effect. The umbrella of blame and the effect of the stigma has woven itself into every aspect of social culture. There is an "us" vs. "them" characteristic where the experiences rarely cross. If you've only ever been part of the "us" group, it's difficult to understand why anyone in the "them" group could say something like I did--that it's the worst thing I've experienced.

Let's be clear here--I'm a well-educated woman who understands obesity better than almost anyone in the country, and I understand obesity stigma nearly as well. I also understand myself better than most people understand themselves--years of therapy and many life experiences have given me insight many people don't have an opportunity for. But even for me, obesity stigma is something that hurts, not just that I see.

It culminated this week, soon after "Weight Stigma Awareness Week" with the birth of #FatShamingWeek. Of course, most people do not think this way. But enough do that when you put that on top of the "kind words" suggesting some weight loss "for your health", the constant images of beauty that involve only thinness, and an ever-growing array of diet products, and stir that up with the beliefs about being fat that fat people have about themselves. Well, it's a recipe for disaster.

How can fat be the worst thing I've ever experienced? Because I can reconcile all of the other things. I can understand what loss is, and I can recognize the things I've learned and gained from all my traumatic experiences. But it's a daily internal conversation with myself about what I'm supposed to look like and what I actually do, how I'm happy and comfortable with myself despite constant messages that I'm should change myself, that I'm an obesity researcher who wants treatment and acceptance simultaneously. The cognitive dissonance of being fat in this world is overwhelming. If someone like me can't figure out how to reconcile it, why should be surprised when others live a daily struggle--disguised as a struggle WITH their weight, but truly a struggle with the MEANING of their weight, and the meaning of their life.

This stigma is not bad--it's overwhelmingly, heartbreakingly,  inescapable.

*I think it's important to note that I've also had lots of wonderful things, great luck and blessings.

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