If you are a woman, you are no stranger to body policing. No matter how beautiful, or successful you are, people will always look for a flaw and suggest ways that you can change to better conform to the straight male gaze. Stars like Katie Couric, Demi Lovato, Salma Hayek and Lady Gaga, have all been very public about their struggle with body image and disordered eating. Tyra Banks famous response to the fat shaming that she received, when critics felt that she was letting herself go, is but one example of a woman having to stand up against the belief that there is a size standard to which we all must conform. If you happen to actually be a fat woman, the pressure and the scrutiny intensifies in proportion to your weight.
Jennifer Livingston is a morning news anchor for WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wisconsin and recently she was sent the following letter from a viewer, which her husband later posted on his Facebook page.
It’s unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years. Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.
Thankfully, Livingston was given the opportunity to respond by the station and she said in part:
“Yes, the truth is, I am overweight. You could call me fat and, yes, even obese on a doctor’s chart. But to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don’t know that?”
“You don’t know me. You are not a friend of mine. You are not a part of my family, and you have admitted that you don’t watch this show. So you know nothing about me, but what you see on the outside. And I am much more than a number on a scale.”
Her response went viral for one simple reason, it resonated with people. All of us at some point have been judged and the more outside of the supposed norm we are, the more likely we are to have experienced this sort of abuse.
Fat is a very stigmatized identity and it is considered by many to represent a moral failing. Fat is associated with gluttony, a lack of control and slovenliness. These negative attributes attach themselves to fat people regardless of how active, engaging or beautiful they are. Fat is deemed so negative that women are starving themselves, and binging and purging to avoid the label of fat. I think that it is fair to say that this is extreme, but in a world in which fat people are largely erased, policed and shamed, is it any wonder that we have pro anorexia sites littering the internet? Before young girls know how to do long division, they are already considering dieting. The reason that diet products, fat free foods etc., are largely aimed at women, is because some women live perpetually on a calorie restricted diet for fear of gaining any weight all.
One of the things that bothers me about the supposed concerned intervention, is that it never comes from a good place. It’s all about shaming the person and objecting to their right to take up space. There isn’t a single fat person walking around in ignorance that they are fat or obese. Society does not make it easy to be fat and believe it or not, we all own mirrors. A small thing like trying to buy a simple article of clothing can be an absolute nightmare. Eating in public can be an adventure in shame because of the well intentioned suggestion that we should be stuffing ourselves with salad twenty-four seven , until we lose weight. It is not unheard of to have people reach into your shopping cart and pull things out they think you shouldn’t be eating. If you happen to go the gym to work out (you know, the place you are supposed to go to get in shape), be prepared to be subjected to stares, as well as suggestions that you don’t belong there. And yes, as a fat Black woman, these are all things that I have experienced. There isn’t a single space in the social sphere where one can go and avoid fat shaming.
The continual stigmatizing of fat is just another level of social discipline. Pointing out that someone is fat, is not about the fat person per say, it is about making the critic feel good about themselves. As humans, we are obsessed with getting power and wielding power. Power is at the root of most of our interactions, even at time when it appears invisible. When someone decides to attack a fat person, they are not only reveling in their thin privilege, they are wielding a coercive form of power. As we all know, power, even when it is used to harm, leaves the wielder with a sense of pleasure. Quite simply, people bully because it feel good.
It disturbs me that people can see fat and assume that someone is unhealthy and lacking of control. The greatest predictors of fat are genetics and poverty and these are two factors that are out of a person’s control. When a skinny person is pounding back a double cheeseburger and washing it down with fries cooked in lard and a jumbo size pop, you can be sure that they won’t be subjected to stares and rude comments. This doesn’t mean that they are not walking around with high blood pressure, clogged arteries, or diabetes. From the social tendency to fat shaming, one would believe that skinny people don’t get chronic life threatening conditions. Not even a doctor can look at a fat person and determine immediately that they are unhealthy. If that were the case, no one would need to bother with things like a yearly physical or getting the blood pressure checked.
Watching Livingston respond to the abusive bully brought tears to my eyes because I know that even with all of the grace that she displayed, it had to hurt her. When the critic implied that Livingston is defective and not deserving of the right to be visible, or heard, it was a direct assault. Words mean something and we can either use them to create, or to cause great harm. No one should be subjected to the kind of treatment that Livingston was. When you sit to judge someone, and shame them, the only person you are benefiting is yourself. We need more women like Livingston on television, because it is time that world understand that beautiful, intelligent women come in all shapes and sizes.