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Weight Stigma

BEDA (the Binge Eating Disorders Associations) is dedicating a week to raising the awareness about weight stigma, the first of what they anticipate to be an annual event. Specifically, the focus this year (from September 26-30) is on "Healing Myself First: Challenging Weight Stigma from the Inside Out”, which means being honest with ourselves about prejudices we carry about weight.

To achieve this, the CEO of BEDA suggests that we asks ourselves questions like, “Do I contribute to 'fat talk,' such as, 'I need to lose 10 pounds,' or, 'You're too fat to wear that,' or, 'You look great! Did you lose weight?'"

The beauty of this approach is the inward assessment – including my own. I will freely admit that when I see people who are heavy wearing certain clothes, I cringe: bikinis; Speedos; shirts that are too small and ride up to expose the person’s stomach; skin-tight outfits that seem to be at least two sizes too small; etc. I don’t generally think of this as weight stigma, though, more simply a matter of what I feel to be in good taste. I feel the same way about people wearing pants that are too big and fall halfway down so you see their underwear. It just comes up more with people who are heavy because it’s harder to find clothes that fit well if you fall into that category.

And if I know someone is trying to lose weight, I may comment that they look good, primarily because I know how nice it was to hear that for myself. On the other hand, I try to say that to people in general when they look nice, regardless of how much they weigh, because I also know how much I missed that when I was overweight.

Otherwise, when I see people who are heavy, I more often feel sympathy for them, remembering how difficult it was for me. But my own experience has made me more in tune with that – I think many people carry weight stigma without even being aware of it. Or they may try not to show it, but it can still come out.

For instance, I remember in gym class that even if the other kids didn’t actively make fun of me (although they sometimes did that), they certainly didn’t want to be near me. During those horrible times of forced group activities like square dancing, it seemed to me that anyone who had to actually touch me did so only after overcoming an instinctive recoil. I don’t know whether that was real or in my imagination, but I suspect that for at least some, it was all too real.

Or when I was spending the night at someone’s house, and the woman of the household commented, “I hope the bed works for you, since it’s just a twin and you’re a such big girl.” As I wrote in my journal: “I didn’t say anything to that, because it was her house, and I know she meant well, but I can’t tell you how upset I was about it. Nothing so drastic as fleeing in tears, but just a sort of sick helpless anger inside that nothing can quite cure. Honestly, what are you supposed to think of that? Yes, I know I’m overweight – I’m not stupid.” I still remember that fourteen years later.

I therefore urge people to follow BEDA’s suggestions, so that such words get a second thought before they slip out. Because contrary to the popular rhyme, while sticks and stones may break my bones, in the end, words may hurt me even more.

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