One of my good friends, an awesome lady in her mid-30s, is severely obese. Walking down a single block or flight of stairs causes her to hyperventilate to the point where it’s terrifying; it generally takes several minutes for her to recover. (Suffice to say, she drives everywhere.) From an emotional standpoint, she is severely depressed, places no value on her worth and engages in emotionally-abusive/negligent relationships with fat fetishists that leave her feeling even more worthless when they’ve ended. (Not generalizing the entire fetish community, just the ones that my friend interacts with.) There’s a clear correlation between her size and her happiness, but she refuses to do anything about it. Her dinners tend to be in the extreme – it’s not uncommon to see her consume two Big Macs, fries and a milkshake in one sitting, then grab a bag of chips at home – and gentle suggestions that perhaps she could start walking in little bits and build up to that one-block stroll have been immediately shot down. It’s a tough situation – my friends and I are at a loss as far as how to approach it without coming off as fat-shaming. I mean, we’re all about fat acceptance, but she’s so visibly unhealthy/unhappy. Any thoughts?”
I wish I could tell you what you want to hear. I cannot.
There are three separate issues which need to be teased apart. You are concerned, because 1) your friend’s physical health is in danger, 2) your friend’s mental health is suffering, and 3) your friend is fat. We must separate these out from the get-go; although you see them as inextricably intertwined, they aren’t. They are not.
One of our duties as friends, partners, family members, and loved ones, is to care for those that we love. And that’s what you feel like you are doing – being caring, and trying to make her situation better. I think your heart is in the right place, but I also think you are very much in the wrong.
Fifteen years ago, when I came out as bisexual, the buzz word was “tolerance.” I have always hated that word, although it is touted by many as being something admirable. The reason I hate it is because the very idea of tolerating somebody different than you is just gross. The term is dripping with condescension, laden with a sense of superiority. Tolerate. Yich.
I bring this up because, to be honest, this is how your fat acceptance feels to me. Yes, you believe fat shaming is wrong. And you are concerned about her health. But your concern is covering up what you really feel, which is that she is fat, she is at fault for it, she is and should be suffering for it, and that you can fix it by pointing it out to her. I imagine that as you read this, you think that I am mistaken, that you simply want the best for her. Take a look back over your words.
“She refuses to do anything about it.” “Her dinners tend to be in the extreme.” “She’s so visibly unhealthy/unhappy.”
Let’s start with the last part. She’s so visibly unhealthy. Health, as much as we believe it can be, is not something that can be measured visibly. It just isn’t. You have mentioned other effects – the hyperventilation from walking down the stairs – which may be an indication that something is wrong. Something like asthma. Or allergies. Or it could be correlated with her size, although if so, it is more likely correlated with exercise, which has absolutely nothing to do with how much she weighs. The problem here is that illnesses that are correlated with fat are just that: correlated. Not causal. Fat has not been shown to cause health problems. Correlation is not causation. Correlation is not causation. Correlation is not causation.
So what you are really trying to say, I think, is that she is physically unfit and you are worried about her. Let’s take size out of the equation, though. If she were thin and wheezing, would you assume that this is a problem she should be doing something about? Would you feel an urge to talk to her about her habits? What if it is asthma, and not something that she can easily control?
Because, even if it is related to her size, it likely isn’t something she can control. Studies show again and again that those who attempt to “do something about it” fail, and that constant attempts to lose weight are bad on the body. So your “gentle” words of encouragement, should she take you up on them and realize that what you think is important is a small body, will actually be detrimental to her health.
But let’s pretend that she’s unhealthy because she is fat, and that she can change that at any time if she wants to. These are not quantifiably true, but even if you pretend that they are: health is incredibly personal. If it’s not something she wants to talk about with you, it’s not something you should bring up. Even if you care about her. Especially if you care about her. It’s just not your business.
Which brings me to the part of your letter that has made me feel physically ill for a few days. Your friend sounds like she has a low self-esteem, and you feel like it is connected to her size. In a way, it is, but not because fat people are inherently depressed.
It is because of you.
Not just you, of course, but I have your attention, so it’s a good place to start.
We are constantly, constantly fed messages about how a certain size has worth and anything above that size does not. Fat people are ruthlessly shamed, as you well know, because you mention wanting to avoid it. But shaming doesn’t just mean “making fun of.” Shaming means scrutinizing somebody’s meals, acting like their body shape is a moral failing (that they “refuse to do anything about”), and relentlessly pitying a person based on their size. I know that you think you aren’t doing any of this, but I urge you to think about how you really feel, and what kind of messages you are sending to your friend.
I’ve eaten two Big Mac meals before, and then topped it off with chips. I generally do it when I am feeling really worthless, and need to fill up my body with calories, to try to fill the empty place where self-esteem is supposed to live. As I type this, my face is flush with shame, thinking that some of my friends might be watching me, counting up what is going into my mouth, using it as evidence that they need to intervene. You don’t need to intervene. All of your concern is reinforcing the idea that if she wants to have value as a human being, she has to become thin. Which is impossible for the vast majority of people who attempt it. What you are saying to her is that she needs to change, and if she can’t, that only makes her feeling of worthlessness grow. The logic is that she is depressed because she is fat, and that she is fat because she won’t change. Thus, it is her fault that she is fat, and it is her fault that she is depressed.
And telling a person in the grips of depression that it is their fault is nothing short of cruel.
She’s seeking out abusers in her relationships not because she is fat, but because society has taught her that fat people are inferior. Your gentle nudging is a part of this. She cannot gain self-esteem while there are people around her assuming (with no clear evidence) that her health is failing and that she needs to “do something about it.” She cannot be loved by others until she learns to love herself, and she cannot love herself as a fat person while her friends are judging her for her body shape.
I do think that you mean well. I urge you to read this article. If you don’t have time, here are a few suggestions from the article for how to talk to somebody you are concerned about:
“Are you OK?
You don’t seem like your usual self, is everything all right?
Can I help with anything?
If you want to talk, you know I’m available for you, OK?
How are you coping with [insert illness or injury they have told you about here]?”
It is wonderful to be concerned about those who we love – that is what our social fabric is made up of. But in this instance, trying to convince a fat person that they should change for their own good is cruel, and feeds into feelings of worthlessness. It’s not like your friend doesn’t know that she’s fat, or that exercise is good for you. If you want to be there for your friend, be there for your friend, and let her know that you love her as is. Otherwise, stay away from her, because you are only making the problem worse.