I can wrap both of my legs behind my head. My triglyceride level recently registered at 62. My favorite food is kale. And in addition to all of these glorious qualities, I am overweight.
In American culture, weight is one of the most frequently used and faulty indicators for beauty, happiness, wellness, and success. It is a part of me that I can't hide, nor would I want to do so; therefore, my mere presence provokes unsolicited reactions -- both negative and positive -- from friends and strangers alike. These reactions have varied from being called a "giant marshmallow" by a pre-tween visitor while walking my college campus as a body image-conscious student to a former boyfriend who had an almost neurotic fondness for my Rubenesque figure which, while a welcome antidote to the damage done by others who were less appreciative, similarly left me feeling judged and objectified.
Yet many other people view me, and my size, within the range of normal. A good friend, who I have known for nearly 10 years and with whom I often do yoga, was in total shock when I recently said something about being overweight. I have received several sincere compliments about various body parts, and the whole package, throughout my life. My own self-perception echoes the full range of what I have been told about myself, the insecurities, vanities, fears, and judgments of others which I have internalized in addition to their openness, love, and appreciation for aesthetic diversity.
This post was provoked by a recent conversation in which a self-proclaimed sensitive man asked if my stated weight was really accurate because I sure didn't look it. Was this a backhanded compliment? A condemnation of other lovely women of impressive stature? Or a revelation of a particular form of ignorance that has occupied the collective conscience of western men and women alike, destroying our sense of common decency and furthering an all too common tendency to divide and conquer?
It is natural to respond to the world around us by evaluating what we see in comparison to prior and anticipated experiences; this phenomenon is part of the learning process. But when we make a judgment about another person or situation based on immediate observations, we have stopped learning; in fact, we are asserting that our gut reaction is all that could possibly be good and true. And when we take it a step further by placing a label on another person, derogatory or otherwise, then we have infringed upon that person's humanity in a fundamentally harmful way.
There are many stereotypes about people who are overweight, reflecting the accumulation of these reactions over time. Being overweight is often viewed as a fault in character, a lack of self-control and discipline. Women who are overweight violate the quickly dying arrogant assumption of a social agreement that women ought to serve men in blissful subservient docility. Weight is a means of control and oppression, an expectation for all genders to conform to a sometimes unrealistic norm. It serves as the basis for a huge money making scheme that generates $20 billion in direct economic activity each year in the United States alone. It is also a political issue, as people may be denied opportunities because of this aspect of their appearance.
Last week, I went to see a brilliant community theater production of The Full Monty. This play, adapted from the popular 1997 movie, demonstrates the power that weight-related assumptions hold over people in our society. The build up to the strip scene at the end is provocative, not just because of the public nudity, but even more so because those who are going to remove their clothes do not perfectly represent social expectations for body size and shape. People who are overweight are expected to feel ashamed and to hide those supposedly undesirable features from public view. During several trips to the beach, I have heard comments about people who reveal themselves, along with their cellulite, ripe bellies, and gravity-affected breasts, by wearing a bathing suit. "She shouldn't be wearing that." These comments are almost always about women. Overweight people are expected to deny themselves of the pleasures taken for granted by others so that those others may enjoy their day without the inconvenience of viewing and sharing their space with people who do not reflect mainstream ideas about our bodies.
We have a lot of words to describe the body parts of people who are overweight, like muffin tops, thunder thighs, saddle bags, and love handles. We also have a lot of euphemisms to describe people who are overweight, such as chubby, pleasantly plump, and full-figured. A fellow student in my high school had a shirt that simply stated, "I'm not fat, I'm fluffy." The language we typically use to describe weight, and all of its manifestations, is not very advanced. We rarely talk about strong, healthy women who passionately indulge their desires. We forget to think and talk about people in a holistic way that celebrates the totality of their human existence.
Rather than directly confront people who are prejudiced, I prefer to provoke deep, meaningful thought and then offer my love and support to others when and if they choose to confront their own demons. I anticipate getting a few "you're so brave for talking about this" messages upon publication of this post. I sincerely appreciate the acknowledgment and support of others, I really do. But please save your accolades and continue the conversation instead. Nothing will change unless we destigmatize this topic by normalizing an open, honest, fair, and thoughtful discussion.