There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about recent instances of gay teens who committed suicide after being bullied by their peers. But gay teens are not the only ones who are being bullied to the point of suicide (although they are the most at risk for it: four times as likely as straight teens to commit suicide). Salon.com recently printed Rebecca Golden’s account of the bullying she received as a fat child, of her thoughts of suicide by the age of 12 and the continuing cruelty she has had to endure into her adulthood.
The thing is, I know some people are going to read that first paragraph and think, “Big deal! How does that compare to what gay teens go through? And besides, being gay is not a choice but being fat is.” And that attitude makes me crazy. People are fat for a variety of reasons, most of them complex and, without outside help, out of their control. The jury is out on whether or not fat people are more likely to commit suicide than normal weight people. Some studies have even suggested that they are less likely to do so. I’ve even heard it said that fat people have trouble committing suicide because of their weight. (Ponder that for a moment.)
But if the link between obesity and suicide is tenuous, the link between obesity and depression is not, at least not in our society. Fat people know what “normal” people think of them and that knowledge contributes to their depression. Maura Kelly, a blogger for Marie Claire magazine, only came right out and said what most people think when she wrote:
I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine addict slumping in a chair.
Kelly caught a lot of flak for her comments and she later apologized in an update. But it was too late: the cat had been let out of the bag. When fat people read her words, they knew that she was speaking for most of the (non-fat) people in America. And it hurt.
It always hurts, no matter how thick your skin. Even when people are well-meaning, their remarks can cut deep. “You can do it. All you have to do is eat a healthy diet and get more exercise.” If it was that easy, there simply wouldn’t be that many fat people. Fast food and hours in front of the television or computer don’t completely explain why people are fat. It’s not that simple. But slim people don’t believe that. And the media merely reflects what most people think.
The bullying that Rebecca Golden endured as a child was merciless. I’m amazed that she is a functioning adult today, let alone an articulate and sensitive writer. But that just goes to show you that people don’t realize how strong most fat people are. They have to be just to walk down the street when they know that people are judging them harshly. No matter how normal their actions are, people see them as freaks. They can’t get married, hold down a job, have a baby, drive a car, without people speculating about how they can possibly do those things, as if being fat was a handicap.
The truth is, fat people would be better off if society did view them as handicapped. Because people treat the handicapped better than they do the obese. And maybe being morbidly obese should be categorized as a handicap. But it never will be because the general consensus is that fat people can help it. All they need to do is eat less and exercise more. True handicaps are conditions that you cannot help; you were born with them.
Not only that, but a lot of people think that making special accommodations for handicapped people is a form of “coddling.” As if the person would stop being handicapped if we would just treat him or her normally. I agree that it’s not helpful to think of yourself as a “victim,” but does that mean that you shouldn’t seek aid to help you to manage your problem? Or that you shouldn’t demand treatment equal to what is offered to “normal” people?
And now we come back to bullying. No parent would look the other way if their children were bullying a mentally handicapped person, or a person in a wheelchair. But would they come down as hard on a kid who is being mean to a fat child? After all, they think, what do fat children expect? They let themselves get fat, so they deserve the taunts and ill-treatment of others. Maybe it will even be good for them; it might motivate them to lose weight. And to be honest, we have the same attitude about fat adults. They somehow deserve everything bad that happens to them and if they don’t like it, they should just stop being fat!
As if that could happen overnight or just by willing it. What we refuse to recognize is that people get fat for many complex reasons. Some people are just naturally heavier. Some have had health problems. Some are on medications that cause weight gain. Some have low self-esteem, a deep sense of self-loathing, or a fear of living life. You can’t just overcome things like that through willpower.
I’ve recently noticed some references in the media to “food addiction.” This could very well be a valid condition and ought to be treated like any other addiction. As it is now, not that many private insurers cover weight loss treatment programs and even Medicare won’t pay for surgical procedures that facilitate weight loss unless the weight is the side-effect of or complicates another disease, like diabetes. (Not only that, but the patient has to be on a medically-supervised weight loss program for six months before Medicare will approve it. [Source.])
We need to start facilitating every means that exist to help fat people determine why they’re overweight and what they can do about it. Until we do that, we’re just adding to the problem. Because as long as we hate fat people, they’re going to hate themselves.