She’s back, again. According to 32-year-old mother of three Maria Kang, whose claim to fame is a Facebook image that went viral, and the American media, people who are overweight have no “excuse.” The image shows Kang in revealing fitness clothing, surrounded by her three young sons. Printed above her is the question, “What’s your excuse?” This was followed by a non-apology and a rant about body acceptance that resulted in Kang’s banning from Facebook.
Those who spoke out against the image were further assumed to be overweight—only “fatties” speak up against stereotypes about the overweight. Her defenders say image is innocent. Yet the word “excuse” has specific connotations that are ignored. “Excuse” tells the accused they did not try, there’s no valid reason for their condition, and their sin must be, but will not be, “excused” by society. But as an obese woman, I may not have the right to point that out. In defending myself against intrusions strangers routinely make into my life, or even calling out those who intrude, according to a CNN article, I become a bully.
If a stranger told a person of colour that they would look nice if they bleached their skin or straightened/dyed their hair, it would be racist. If someone told me to turn straight because being a lesbian is nasty, it would be unacceptable. But it’s socially acceptable for a stranger to say similar things about my weight. If it bothers me, society tells me I’m uncomfortable with myself, not the way people treat me and make assumptions about my life based on an outward trait; I deserve the treatment, and if I don’t like it, I should change.
I do not have to make excuses. No one but me knows my life story, what led to the point of my obesity. It is, frankly, no one’s business—and yet, the looks and comments I receive from strangers show they believe it is, and the media participates. I’m judged at the grocery store based on what I have in the cart. Each item I place in the cart, regardless of its ultimate purpose in my diet, is weighed and judged by the eyes of strangers who believe they know more about my body than I do. I’m judged in restaurants for similar reasons, and avoid them when not in the company of friends. I carefully consider how I dress when I leave the house, and find myself internalizing fat-shaming by judging how other overweight people (especially women) dress. I bully myself for being hungry seven hours after a meal, mistreating my body by not eating with regularity out of the misguided subconscious belief, borne of fat-shaming, that punishment will make me lose weight.
Practically a quarter of Americans are obese, and far more research is being done into the causes of obesity, including genetic. One might assume the harmful stereotypes and treatment would abate based on much of this research. Instead, people tune in to The Biggest Loser, which teaches if one is obese, one must attain extreme weight loss at all costs, even if it destroys the rest of your body and your psyche along the way. Americans watch that abuse on television, and consider desperation to be thin normal. Extreme surgical measures, like gastrointestinal bypass or lap-band surgeries, also exist to attain extreme weight loss, yet they can lead to death and health problems far more severe than obesity.
I have faced the stigma associated with weight my entire life. As a child I was called “chunky,” despite being an active kid engaging in sports and eating the same foods in the same quantities as my peers. My life revolved around the assumption that everyone is naturally the same body type. From a young age, I was cautioned by family that my weight is a strike against my character. At family functions, my food intake was judged and I was at times “banned” from eating by family members whom we referred to as the food police. They were family members who had never struggled with their weight and thus had misconceptions about ours.
Indeed, society has stereotyped me based on my weight, no matter what I have done in my life. Only weight matters in the eyes of fat-shamers. I’m not permitted to accept my body and move on with my life; I must accept punishment. I have been told at interviews there’s no job available after all, with the assumption my weight must be due to sloth and gluttony. From a young age, I have endured bullying that included physical violence and even sexual harassment verging on assault.
As many professionals and a recent Guardian article note, fat-shaming does not have the impact of inspiring weight loss. It can, in fact, cause weight gain. The woman in Fargo passing out shaming letters to “fatty” trick-or-treaters claims to be concerned with their health—but she’s handing out unhealthy foods to thin kids. The young man who yelled “suey” at me from a passing car on a college campus when I was 23 was not concerned about my health—to him I’m inferior, nothing more than an animal. This behaviour is considered socially acceptable; according to society and fat-shamers, it’s my fault if it bothers me.
Obesity is often caused by matters unrelated to food intake. I didn’t move from being a bit overweight into obesity until I became severely depressed. That’s not a condition that can be seen, while the symptom of my obesity can. Often it’s easy to ignore the unseen issues and imply they are make-believe. Or, as Kang and other fat-shamers put it, “excuses.” As a society we fail to accept psychological health as legitimate—or at least as legitimate as physical health. Yet psychological health has physical ramifications. Certain foods—often fatty foods, and foods stuffed with artificial ingredients that have been linked to obesity regardless of food intake or exercise habits—can act to stimulate the pleasure centres of the brain in much the same way that certain narcotics do, producing chemicals like serotonin in the brain. A recent study concluded Oreos have the same effect as cocaine on the pleasure centres of rats. I didn’t turn to cocaine; I turned to food. Food was my self-treatment for my depression, something that allowed me to avoid having to find the money to afford psychological care and medication, or the strength to deal with the social stigmas also attached to psychological disorders like depression.
When food becomes an addiction, it isn’t like other addictions. When you’re an alcoholic, with the help of counselling and helpful programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, you can wean yourself off of alcohol and avoid it entirely. However, all human beings must consume food to survive. It’s our source of energy. Someone who is obese cannot just quit eating and become a Transmetropolitan-style Breatharian. Those who attempt this through bulimic purging or anorexia gain another major health problem due to the stigma society places on them. A close friend became anorexic and attained that “perfect” weight, but is unable to work and struggles with getting enough nutrition to survive—you can’t just turn it off. Maria Kang herself struggles with bulimia, and yet her message tells “fatties” they should follow her example.
Often it’s not as simple as giving up chocolate or a “danger” food, which is what weight loss programs like Overeaters Anonymous concentrate on; even if we did, the “dangerous” components of many of those foods are not confined to one food. High fructose corn syrup is in virtually everything and is known to be a more dangerous and more addictive form of sugar. Foods which use certain additives and products we formerly considered unfit for human consumption are often much cheaper than healthier alternatives (unavailable anyway in food deserts), and easier to prepare for people who are busy, say, working multiple jobs to get by. Thus fat-shame crosses over with stigmas regarding poverty. Where previously obesity was a sign of wealth, something only the upper echelon of society could afford, in America it is a sign of poverty, which is also seen as a character defect. Is it coincidence I spent part of my childhood on food stamps and eating free lunches at school—meals often prepared on a dollar per student per day?
I do not owe society an excuse, nor does any person who is fat. However, society owes us treatment as human beings. The fact that Kang struggled with an eating disorder makes her bullying all the more disappointing; I would love to say fat-shamers have never struggled with weight, have never struggled with food, but they have, as Maria Kang has demonstrated. The bullied are being construed to be the bullies to allow for further marginalization—especially if they happen to be “fatties”—and those bullies often used to be the bullied themselves. Their fat-shame, their hatred of themselves for having been overweight, manifests in more than self-destruction; it becomes perpetuation of prejudice rather than the eradication of it.
Read more on this topic in LOVE YOUR BODY: An analysis of Eve Ensler’s Dramatic Activism>>