The Problem With Fat People

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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.

Published by

Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

21 thoughts on “The Problem With Fat People”

  1. I have been overweight for the majority of my life. I have tried many things to lose weight, including trying to starve myself or throw up and I’ve joined gyms. No matter where I go I am ashamed of who I am. I don’t like to eat in front of pepole, even if it’s healthy, because I feel like people give me dirty looks. Like I’m not allowed to be hungry because I’m fat. And I’m scared to walk the neighborhood for exercise because I’m worried about getting dirty looks or mean comments. Same at the gym. I’ve been getting them my whole life. I work at a candy store and I constantly worry the customers judge me being a fat person in a candy store. Everywhere I go I’m told Idon’t belong, I’m disgusting, worthless. Maybe not in words all the time, but in dirty looks or the like. Everything in society tells me I’m disgusting. I have feelings too. I am a person and I just want to be treated like one. People don’t know how hard it is to lose weight especially when all of society is judging you the whole time you do it. Analyzing everything you eat and do. if I’ve been really good with my diet the whole week and want to reward myself with a sweet, how dare I? I’ve been called a fat hungry hippo. as if I gorge myself on food every chance I get. In high school someone told me I needed to walk home from school and not ride the bus because I could use the exercise. So now I don’t even deserve to use public transportation because I’m fat. most of the mean comments I’ve heard though are from my own parents. They don’t say anything directly to me, but I’ve heard their harsh comments about other fat people they see. Do they think I don’t know they think that about me too, just cause they don’t say it about me? They’ve seen a fat family going into a restaurant and joked that they would eat all the food. My mom praised a fat lady she saw riding a bike because ” good for her getting out there and exercising”. why can’t the woman just be enjoying a bike ride? My mother has never said anything similar to a thin person riding a bike. Although it’s just as good for a thin person to be getting exercise. People don’t think our feelings matter because we’re fat. I’m not a person because I’m fat.

    1. I’d like to be able to tell you that you shouldn’t let other people affect how you feel about yourself, but I know how difficult it is to ignore what other people think. However, I do think it helps to recognize that people who judge you for being fat are just bigots. They’re just as bad as racists. Unfortunately, we live in a society that rewards thinness, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right. Keep telling yourself that it’s none of their business and that it’s their loss if they don’t want to look past what they think is wrong with you in order to get to know you as a person.

  2. I am overweight and used to walk the track at a nearby park. One day while on my daily walk, someone screamed out of their car “you’re still fat”. I immediately went home and didn’t continue my walking after that. I was so discourage, it’s like I was trying and still some random stranger had to put me down. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s very hurtful when people think it’s their right to tell you you’re fat or not trying hard enough. Most people don’t understand the lifelong struggle many overweight people go through and when you are the victim of bullying it makes it that much harder. You just want to crawl under a rock. Being fat is the last legal discrimination, no one seems sensitive to our plight. I am sure no one would have screamed something so rude if I suffered from a disability or was a different ethnic group, but it’s okay by society’s standards to put fat people down. And all that does is discourage people, it’s hard to will yourself thin. I have since lost 40 and am still losing but it’s hard and I wish people had a little more empathy.

  3. (sent that too soon) I was an obese child and am obese now and I do hate myself. I’ve starved myself, but only gained weight, dieted, and done just about anything to lose this weight; to no avail. I’m 20 now and I have absolutely no motivation to try anymore. My body is beyond repair and so is my self-esteem. I am afraid to go outside, because of the ridicule I face, so often I just hole up in my room until night time, then I go for a walk. 
    This is jumbled, and I’m sorry for my annoying sob story; but I do believe your article is correct. It’s often not a choice. You need the motivation, but with all the jeering it’s very hard to maintain. When people tell you, you should kill yourself because of your weight. When you own family; whom themselves are overweight say that. It’s hard to get the will to even move. I’m not a strong person. I can’t handle that. But i do not want to kill myself. People say that the bullying should cause motivation, but that isn’t true. People show more support for drug users than they do fat people; and that too is a choice. 
    Again I apologize for this mess of a comment. Thank you for this post. 

    1. Amelia, I want you to know how much I appreciate that you wrote this comment. It was NOT a mess–Hardly! It was from your heart. I ache with you, because I know how much pain being fat in this society causes. Have you gone to counseling to help you deal with your feelings? It might be helpful–at least it’s worth a try. And if you don’t like the first counselor you go to, keep trying to find one you feel comfortable with.

      I saw a psychologist several times when I was trying to get on top of my overeating and poor body image and it did me a world of good. It’s not the whole answer, but could be one piece in the puzzle of how to learn how to be overweight in an anti-fat society.

      Feel free to write again. If you want to write to me privately, use my email: ellen [at] femagination.com.

      I wish you the very best.
      Ellen

  4. I have been fat my entire life. It wasn’t from eating too much, because my family barely fed me. They too are fat though and it’s been through depression I believe.

  5. I think all of us overweight/obese (yes, downright fat) people know to a certain extent that others don’t like seeing us wearing certain things or doing certain things.

    I was an overweight child and was teased for it. I was teased for a lot of things coming from a different cultural background and being overweight. Sometimes I’m hurt by the teasing to this day, and at other times I feel anger — not with the teasers, but with myself for not being more firm and not standing up for myself. I was alone though, and that’s the sad part that most bullied kids have to face daily: kids don’t have a choice about going to school every day, and if they are being picked on, they will have to face their oppressors every single day. Most parents are working parents and can’t keep the child home from school. So food consoles. It became my consolation after being teased. The irony is that during summer vacations away from school, I tended to lose weight by naturally being away from that environment. When the school year started again, I would gradually gain my losses back.

    I don’t know that there really is a blanket solution to the whole problem, but from what I’ve gathered, many children who tease other children have their own issues going on and so they seem to take it out on other people. Perhaps they are self-conscious of themselves and don’t really like themselves; sometimes they are having problems at home and are taking it out on others at school; and sometimes they’ve been taught to abhor certain traits in others by their parents/guardians/older siblings.

    Whatever the case, I do believe that karma exists. I don’t think a single bully grows up to have a wonderful life of continued pleasure from bullying –at some point, all that hatred will attack his/her own heart, or remove him/her from the pleasure of love and companionship.

    For all those who are overweight, obese, or fat, know that the people who despise those traits despise many more in others. Fatness may just be the trait of the moment that is being discussed, but fill-in-the-blank with a number of other issues and you’ll find there’s contempt there as well. If there is hatred in a heart for the outward appearance of a person, know that he/she isn’t looking beyond that, and is often not worth being looked at beyond his/her exterior either. The real us isn’t who we are on the outside, but who we are on the inside. When we’ve left this world, we won’t have this body with us any longer, but the part of us that we do take may be refined with great beauty.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. You make some excellent points. Have you ever noticed that people who have suffered at the hands of bullies are often more understanding and accepting of others than those who have never suffered? You certainly exhibit a lot of wisdom. I really appreciate your sharing it with me.

  6. Handicap vs. no handicap: well anorexia and other eating disorders obviously could just be fixed if the person would just eat and exercise the correct amount…but why is it that there is such a lack of empathy and compassion for being overweight. There were times in the past when another society felt that all should be blond haired and blue eyed with no gays or disabilities. Are we becoming a society that is predjudice against heavy humans, ridiculing them and enslaving them to our sense of perfection. When other body conditions are corrected by surgery and the owner of these undesirable social features are treated with hate, predjudice and exploited many feel that the “bullies”, have the problem not the one with the physical condition.

    1. I think you partly answered your own question. People are unsympathetic (and worse) toward fat people because they assume that it is just a matter of eating and exercising the correct amount. There are complex reasons why a person gains weight, not the least of which is how hard it can be to lose it once it’s gained.

      I agree that the “bullies” are the ones with the problem. They lack empathy and human kindness. All the rest of us can do is show them the right way to act. We may not understand or condone fat people, but we can stick up for them as persons.

  7. I’m overweight, but my story isn’t like those of other overweight people. I wasn’t overweight as a kid. I was a slim girl, and my weight gain occurred during two main time periods: fifth grade, when I stopped participating in sports to fit in with the other private school girls, and ninth-tenth, when I had went on an extreme starvation diet to lose the 25 pounds i had gained in fifth grade only to mess up my body and metabolism and gain 67 more. I’m only 18.

    I don’t like food that much. It’s not the main reason for my existence… it’s not even close. At this point, I want to lose weight, but not only is it hard- I just don’t have the willpower any longer. Why? After the last period of rapid weight gain I experienced, my body has become permanently scarred. My skin has lost its elasticity, and I have stretch marks from head to toe. Before, I was just a bit chubby, but my skin was perfect, and my body wasn’t UGLY. Now, I look hideous. These are not excuses! I have already begun losing weight (23 pounds), but I’m still not happy, because my body is gone forever.

    I HATED fat people when I was young. I once didn’t play with our neighbor because she was fat. I shouted “well, you’re fat!” at two overweight girls in 2nd grade. And guess what? Those girls’ bodies look 100x better than mine today.

    So I guess now I can understand that being fat doesn’t mean you stuff your mouth every second and refuse to exercise, because I am a contradiction of that- I love exercise and sports, but I’m not allowed into many sports teams anymore because of my weight. I had to quit basketball because I couldn’t run as fast as the others. It killed me inside.

    Anyway, I don’t know if being fat (or having permanent bodily damage from being fat) makes someone more likely to commit suicide, but I am contemplating it deeply myself. If I do carry out my suicide, it will be done before prom, so I don’t have to go through that awful night looking like this.

    I hate myself.

    1. I tried to write you directly, but your email wasn’t valid. If you’d like to write me privately, please feel free to at miteypen [at] ameritech [dot] com. It sounds like you need someone to talk to.

  8. They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. Well, in 2003,I had found the EMPEROR of my heart. (an emperor is much higher ranking than a prince or even a king) This sweet gentleman was kind, affectionate, loving. He was also very large-sized (which I thought just made him look cuddly) and people would stare at him, whisper remarks, and one time, we were in a restaurant and a little girl MOOED at him. I wanted to cry. I wanted to shout that my boyfriend was HUMAN and had no right to such treatment. Sure, the little girl who said MOO to my boyfriend was just that — a little girl and didn’t know any better, but surely her parents — who were adults — should have said something.
    Unfortunately, my sweetheart lost his life in a car crash but I still sympathize with the rights of the large-figured, in honor of his memory.
    Maybe large people choose to be large, maybe they don’t, but the point stands that every human being, regardless of body contour, is entitled to be treated with R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

  9. Powder,

    I don’t think it’s a handicap either, but it nevertheless hurts a lot when people treat us like crap. You can’t possibly suggest that it doesn’t hurt, and you should think twice about saying that we deserve it to hurt.

    -Jay

      1. Oh I totally agree. I am taking meds that make it *very* easy to gain weight. Anyway, thank you for your blog. I enjoyed reading it.

    1. It’s not a handicap, but neither is it necessarily a choice. There is no validity to a sweeping statement like that. For some people it is “just” a matter of diet and exercise, but for not so for many others. I recently saw a short film about obesity among poor inner city dwellers. They had almost no access to fresh vegetables and all the fast food junk was significantly cheaper than eating healthily, and surprise surprise they were horribly overweight. I live in the country, fresh produce is cheaper than processed “food”, and I walk a lot. There is no comparison. Also I am sickeningly naturally slim. But I would never dream of judging someone else for their weight. I am lucky enough to have a good metabolism and healthy circumstances, but I have friends who only have to look at chocolate in order to gain weight. You should have a little more compassion for other people, instead of judging them.

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