June 22, 2022
The balance sheet of Fat Shaming: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If only this old adage had more truth! As a child, this idea was forced upon me many times as I was bullied at school. The more I protested, the more my teachers and parents insisted that I should ignore my classmates’ verbal provocations. After all, I was the “smart one”. It was a tall order for a little girl and a very confusing message.
Since my high school days, I have never lost my desire to explore why people act the way they do. And, since that time, I’ve done a lot of self-exploration. Time and again, I’ve concluded that bullying isn’t really personal. It’s more about the psyche of the bully than the target. But, in the moment, a bully’s words can sting, especially if they strike a chord.
The toll of big shame as a child
As a child, I was ashamed. I still can’t understand. When I look at the old school pictures, I was a bit heavier than the other kids, but just enough to pinch my cheeks. In my mind, however, I became huge and monstrous. Remembering the “wisdom” of my parents and teachers, I learned to internalize the words of my bullies. Although the adults in my life have been thrilled that I no longer complain about being bullied, my once curious and outgoing personality has become shy and constricted. Gym class has become a terrible nightmare. Eventually, something clicked inside me and I started using verbal sneers as a form of motivation. But, in the meantime, I lost a lot of life and suffered a lot of emotional torment. Let’s be honest, words are very important.
When an overweight client recently talked about fat shaming, I paused. It was something I knew very well, despite the fact that I had never been obese. It’s no secret that our society as a whole puts fat people to shame. And, just like the adults in my life at the time, our society is sending mixed messages from all directions. We are told to love our bodies and to love ourselves with certain caveats. Love your body, IF it’s the “right” size. Love yourself IF you fit a certain mold.
Being thin is society’s desire
At first glance, it seems that our society values fitness. When we look more closely, we see that physical appearance and more particularly a slender silhouette are valued. Whether or not someone is “fit” is a secondary consideration. Someone could smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, get drunk to oblivion every night, and never exercise. As long as they look thin, they are “desirable”. Aesthetics reign supreme; our priorities are out of balance.
During my career I have worked with people who have been shamed for being “too fat” and “too thin”. And, I’ve also worked with people who have been shamed for countless other things, such as height, speech, intelligence, career, marital status, race, gender. The list continues.
As humans, we are wired to want to be part of a larger group. For survival reasons, we need each other. Being humiliated for certain personal qualities, such as body size, can feel overwhelming and isolating. But, if we are honest, we realize that most people with a conscience have something they are ashamed of. And, most people in our social media and entertainment-driven culture are embarrassed by some aspect of how they look.
Shaming overweight people only aggravates pre-existing feelings of shame.
The perception of overweight people is laziness
The instinctive perception of overweight people is that they are just lazy. The more educated and empathetic perception takes into account other factors. Overweight people can have a number of physical and/or psychological challenges that impact their height. For example, certain medical conditions and medications can contribute to weight gain. Psychological trauma and abuse can promote the development of eating disorders. Even financial factors, such as the inability to buy quality whole foods, can contribute to weight gain and encourage an addiction to cheap junk foods. The old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover seems more apt than the short-sighted adage of “sticks and stones.”
If you’re bullying someone about their weight (or anything else, for that matter), please step back. You may think you are helping the person in some way. You are not. Unless the adult asks for your help with their weight, this does not concern you. If you are the target of such bullying, please consider the quality of a person who dishonors others in relation to his appearance. Bullies have their own unresolved issues.
The Toll of Fat Shaming Summary
Consider your own feelings about your weight and appearance. It’s important to love your body, no matter its size. If you are trying to lose weight to improve your health and fitness, your height will change over time. Your body is your temple throughout your life. Honor and appreciate him for all he does for you. Use all “sticks and stones” thrown at you to motivate yourself. Don’t waste precious time and energy focusing on bullies’ antics.
Jenn A. Nocera, MA, MFT, CLSC, CPFT is a Life and Wellness Coach, Psychotherapist and Personal Trainer with www.FormulaForExcellence.com