Being extremely overweight isn’t something you can hide. At best you can minimize it, wearing clothes with slimming designs and colors, and having good posture. Perhaps this constant visibility is why strangers seem to believe it’s okay to publicly comment on weight.
This happens all too frequently. Much of the time we don’t hear about it, but a couple of recent news stories highlighted this fact. The first was about Jennifer Livingston, an overweight news anchor. She received an e-mail from a man who said that as a public figure and therefore role model, it was Livingston’s responsibility to rethink her weight and promote a healthier image.
Another was more local, about a Maine woman named Amanda Tyson who got many hurtful comments about her weight when she was in middle school. Only recently has she been able to lose weight and gain the confidence to speak out about the bullying she received. But even now, 70 pounds lighter, when she posted a picture of herself in a bikini, she got some negative responses, including some suggesting that she kill herself.
I wish I could be surprised by this, that these sorts of incidents are rare and unusual. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. I certainly suffered my share of insults and bullying in high school because of my weight, and I know many others do as well. Even when comments aren’t not as vitriolic, such as when a woman said something to me about being “such a big girl”, or when someone offers unsolicited advice on weight loss, it’s insulting and off-putting and usually hurtful.
In thinking about this, I remember Mary Pipher’s comment in Reviving Ophelia that the are obese are social lepers. And she’s right - being overweight is generally considered a moral failing, indicating some deficiency. I suspect that is why others think it’s okay to express their negative reactions so publicly and intensely.
Except it’s not okay. Being overweight has enough challenges and usually brings its own share of self-doubt and lack of confidence; hearing such reactions adds exponentially to that.
It’s also challenging to know how to respond. While it might be tempting to say something equally harsh and negative, I like the approach Livingston and Tyson suggest: to remember that those making such comments are often hurting themselves, perhaps severely, and that the best response is kindness and compassion.
Note: I wrote a Letter to the Editor regarding the story about Tyson, which can be found here, the fourth story down.