When I was asked if I would be interested in writing this blog post I thought, “no sweat.”After all, how hard could it be for someone with obesity most of her life to recount experiences of weight bias and fat shaming? Well it turns out that it isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s easy to make a list of things that were said and looks that were given, but that seems to be just scratching the surface. What I think really matters is why these aggressive acts happen, and their ramifications.
So I started thinking about the times, places and people connected to these behaviors, and what I realized is there are different forms of bias and shaming. I think the two most obvious are the blatant “you can’t miss it” type and then the more subtle and less obvious variety. Both bring their own pain and suffering; cumulatively, they often end up defining how people with obesity perceive themselves.
I began my journey of obesity at the age of 2½, and from my earliest memories I was painfully aware that my weight was not OK. Fat shaming has no boundaries – from strangers to loved ones, hurtful behaviors are perpetuated. And my life was no exception. It was clear I was supposed to eat less than anyone else. Perhaps more importantly, I was not supposed to have the desire to eat. So, I struggled with weight and eating for as long as I can remember.
In elementary school I was first “initiated” into the fat kid world of bullying or shaming. My maiden name was Katzman and it took all of 30 seconds for one of the boys to come up with “Fatzman.” Looking back, I must have thought about this insult, and come out on the other side with the decision to simply ignore it and pretend it meant nothing to me. I also think this was the beginning of my public fight to prove I was as good as a thin person. The persona people saw was one of self-confidence, strength, determination and style. However, a lifetime of messages telling me, in one way or another, that being fat was not OK gave rise to my inner, less confident self that didn’t believe its own press. And so I lived with these two very different views of myself.
Interestingly, other than the “Fatzman” thing, and being the last one picked for any sports activities, I don’t remember any other direct verbal insults. Rather, the things I remember are a bit more subtle and in many ways, much more devastating. Shopping with my very thin mother was a humiliating nightmare. First the salesperson would give a “how could you let yourself get like this” look, then bring out clothes to try with an obligatory “this should fit” comment, and finally the horror of the clothes not fitting. The inevitable trip to the “plus-size” clothing store was like a neon sign on my forehead that read, “You’re too fat to wear normal clothes.” I was never quite sure who was more mortified – my mother or me.
One summer there was fat camp, which despite the stigma associated with it, was OK. But even there the lines were drawn – there were the really fat kids, and then the rest of us. Even in an environment where you would have expected empathy, compassion and support, campers couldn’t escape the temptation to do their own version of fat shaming. To be honest, I really don’t know if I acted poorly or not – I truly hope I was kind. The other unexpected behavior was an intense competition to lose the most weight. The drive to be the “thinnest” was stronger than the desire to be supportive of others, particularly anyone who might be approaching a thin status. Basically, fat camp was a microcosm of our fat shaming society. In retrospect, it is a sad commentary on how ingrained the behaviors of weight bias are.
Fat shaming is the last bastion of public humiliation and it is considered just “good clean fun.” After all, who doesn’t like a fat joke? But there is nothing funny about being given looks of disgust when you sit down on a subway and your body spills onto the seat and person next to you. And there is nothing funny about a physician blaming your being fat as the cause for any medical concerns – not to mention the snickers heard when placing an order for food in a public place. Fat shaming definitely left its mark on me, and regardless of my weight, the residual damage is woven into who I am.
Melinda J Watman is the President and Founder of THE F WORD FAT, dedicated to improving how the world views, perceives and acts towards those affected by obesity. Melinda creates interactive presentations to meet the specific needs of each individual, group or organization.
THE F WORD FAT was born from both professional and personal awareness of weight bias and the need to change how those with obesity are treated. Melinda is on the National Board of Advisors for the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), chairs the OAC Weight Bias Committee and does public policy and advocacy work on the state and federal levels. She also consults to the media on obesity-related issues.
Prior to THE F WORD FAT, Melinda’s career included clinical practice, healthcare IT and entrepreneurial endeavors. She was a faculty member of the USC School of Medicine and a founder of the Mass General Hospital obstetrics service. After leaving clinical practice she worked with several Healthcare IT companies with expertise in launching innovative healthcare solutions. In addition to THE F WORD FAT, she also does consulting for healthcare startups.
Melinda is an advance practice nurse and a Certified Nurse Midwife. She received her BSN from Duke University, MSN/CNM from Medical University of South Carolina and MBA from Boston University.