Bodyshaming prejudice

Why do we hate on the overweight?

Why do we hate on the overweight?

Its not easier to be on the bigger side. Not only are you seen as not fitting in with socially accepted beauty norms/rules but your defect is seen to be somewhat of your own fault. Weight gain is widely seen to be a weakness: a weakness of character and a weakness of willpower. Gluttony, after all, isn’t exactly the sexiest of the seven sins.    

As someone who has fluctuated in weight over the years, I have a little bit of insight into how it feels to be very thin, overweight and, well, bog standard. I understand both sides of the coin, so to speak. When you are noticeably thin, friends will jovially make jokes about your flat, sunken chest and will describe you as boyish as if you might see this as a compliment. You don’t. You will long for a hint of a curve or definition than isn’t just the jutting of bone and will stuff your empty bra cups with loo roll. To be overweight though is a different story, although the feeling of being unfeminine still prevails. There is a special look of repulsion that people have for the overweight, especially, dare I say, overweight women. Women are expected to cultivate their figures like a well pruned rose garden. We are supposed to exercise restraint, know our limits, curtail our appetites.

I can still remember a flatmate that I had in my third year as an undergraduate; a vintage high school style bully with protein shake for brains. I was at my largest at this point and he would look at me with a disgust that bordered on violent contempt. This person wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier to put it delicately and judged the worth of girls to be completely based on their physical appearance. The fact that I was a nice enough person who would smile politely through his various misogynist ramblings was a factor that flew straight over his head. I was therefore at peace with the fact that he would naturally view me as pretty damn useless, invisible even. However, what I was not prepared for was the primal anger that my appearance seemed to light in him, like a red cloth to a rather slow, confused bull. This of course is an extreme example. There aren’t many people who are so blatantly nasty. However, I got to thinking about how many, more ordinary people were dismissive of me during my fat times, albeit in more subtle and articulate ways.          

I can testify from first hand social research that when you are a bigger girl, you will find that less men will hold doors for you, even the nice ones. Women will talk to you in that patronizing way reserved for the fat friend, where they are internally patting themselves on the back for including you in their gossipy conversations and making you feel like “one of the girls”. Strangers will push past you more roughly in the street; tutting and huffing as they go, as if they are infuriated at how much pavement you are taking up. People will have less patience with you and much less interest in what you have to say. Most of all, people will try and fix you. They will offer you healthy lifestyle tips when you haven’t asked for any. They will try and psychoanalyze you using magazine problem page psychology. I have had friends scour my old facebook photographs and ask probing questions such as “but you really looked after your figure back then… what happened?” (genuine word for word quote…).          

Weight is inextricably linked to your sexual desirability and therefore is viewed to be indicative of your sex life. There are certain groups of individuals who fetishize rounded bellies and rolling folds of flesh, but these are seen as a break with the norm. There aren’t many serious fat girls in popular culture. There are fat girl comedians who base comedy routines about the fact that they are fat, usually linking this to humorous anecdotes regarding their failed romantic lives. I sincerely wish that they wouldn’t do this. Only fat girls will understand that unique look of surprise that people get when you make a subtle allusion to your sex life, as if they didn’t realise that you could get a set of genitals over a size 14. However, I completely understand the fat girl comedian impulse to be self detrimental. I do know what it’s like to feel the need to joke about your thighs and your undesirability before anyone else can. It kind of feels like wrapping yourself in a fairly flimsy layer of bubble wrap.  

Traditionally, fat girl side characters in comedy films who exist primarily as the punchline. I for one have been delighted at the number of talented and hilarious bigger girls in comedy movies in recent year. In particular funny ladies such as Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy who steal the show no matter what film they appear in, and refuse to just be the butt of the joke. Music is of course a different matter. The singer Adele dared to be both slightly overweight and to create serious, soulful music and has been made fun off to the point where it’s become somewhat of a bad comedian cliche to make an Adele-is-fat joke. To be fat and beautiful is seen by many people to be a paradox. If you are a bigger girl with a pretty face then you are seen to be an unfinished, imperfect product. This is despite the growing number of mainstream plus sized models in the fashion industry. Tess Holliday is the largest model ever to be signed by a modelling agency at a curvy size 26. She also has a mane of shimmering auburn hair, a gorgeous smile and huge dark eyes that seem to go on forever. She is beautiful in a renaissance oil painting type of way, in a way that transcends simple everyday prettiness. And yet, she will inevitably be viewed as different to other “normal” models, with the plus sized label always acting as that barrier for her difference.      

Weight is seen by many people as a barometer of success. People often view weight gain as symbolic of failure. There are many things wrong with this stereotype, despite the fact that it isn’t true. Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest film directors of all time, was notably overweight and was known for his late night binge eating where he would systematically eat just about everything in the kitchen. For me, this doesn’t take away from his talents or indeed lessen my opinion of him personally.

Perhaps I am a bit old fashioned, and moreover Im pretty much the opposite of a perfectionist. Growing up, all my heroes were either writers or characters created by writers in novels. Therefore the qualities that I admired about them wasn’t necessarily their list of achievements. I loved how their language could convey a sense of humour and passion. I loved how their vulnerabilities and insecurities could be woven through words, and made into art. As an adult, the discovery of writers such as Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham who talk candidly and humorously about their weight issues without letting this define them has been a wonderful revelation to me. Perhaps if I was a different sort of girl with a different set of heroes then my view on overweight individuals would be much different. Perhaps if I was a hyper competitive athletic type, worshipping the fastest and the strongest, or a ruthless business type fetihizing efficiency and a slick, cultivated image things might be very different. Maybe then I would have much less sympathy for those struggling to lose weight.           

There are many reasons why a person might find themselves being overweight. First and foremost, perhaps they are just built this way, the way that some of us have big feet or sticky out ears or gap teeth or any number of wonderful differentiating human characteristics. This doesn’t make them unhealthy or lazy. I for one spent most of my childhood attending ballet classes but still had chubby cheeks and a stubborn little pot belly. Health reasons however can lead to significant weight gain. Thyroid problems, polycystic ovarian syndrome and restricted mobility issues are all medical reasons why a person may be overweight. Mental issues such as depression and compulsive eating disorders could also lead to a dramatic increase in weight.
Long term issues aside, maybe a person is just going through a bit of a rough patch and just wants to sit about eating ice cream with their feet up. This doesn’t make them evil, this makes them human.  Perhaps there may be no reason at all. Perhaps they do eat a lot because they enjoy it. Maybe there overeating could be considered to be a character flaw by some, but again this doesn’t make them a flawed person. Exercise can also be a minefield. I must admit that as a former high school nerd, the gym is just a little bit too reminiscent of tortuous high school PE lessons for my liking. I think that this goes for a lot of my fellow geek survivors. I much prefer taking my dog for a long walk in the fresh air, which keeps me healthy but will admittedly never give me a washboard stomach and toned arms. To be athletic, motivated and slim is brilliant. However, there are many other ways to be brilliant and a few pounds either way does not detract from that.  


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