I’ve caught a lot of flak recently for a few things I wrote on facebook about obesity. Things that are objectively true, but are offensive by virtue of the fact that some people wish they weren’t true. I got attacked, in fact, for being cruel or heartless. A couple of people were shocked, shocked, that I would say such a thing considering that I used to be fat myself.
They don’t seem to realize that it is precisely because I was fat myself that I’m in a position to point out how reality actually works for fat people.
The first was a week or so ago when I posted a pic of an overweight older woman surrounded by protein that said something to the effect of “You can trust me: I’m the manager.” Holy crap you’d have thought I was Paula Deen describing Gone With the Wind from all the blowback I got for that. The main complaint seemed to have been that I was ridiculing that woman in particular for being fat, and/or that I was ridiculing fat people at large by proxy. Let’s set aside for a moment how preposterous that idea is on its face considering my recent posts about the ridicule of fat people…
What is the image meant to convey? That it’s bizarre for this woman to be giving out health and fitness advice. There’s a reason that the fitness industry is populated by fit people… because we want to listen to people who look like they know what they’re doing (There’s nuance there, of course, as I’ve already talked about, but bear with me). No one wants to go into the gym and pay $40, $50, $90 an hour to get advice from a fat trainer. And no one really wants to take health advice from someone who looks as unhealthy as the woman in the picture. People got angry at the image though, exclaiming “how dare you belittler her because of her weight!” At the heart of this objection, I think, is a sense that fat people should never be made to feel bad about being fat. Fine: I can, in general, accept that premise. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad: that’s not the point of any of this.
But let’s be real: image counts. As I say to people in my own business, “the body is the brand.” If you are in fitness, you are expected to look a certain way because what you are selling is visual more than anything. Sure, range of health and psychological benefits accompany fitness, but the first glance you get of physical fitness is, obviously, the physical. If you’re a fat trainer or a fat health food salesman, you aren’t sending the message people want to hear. What is that woman’s brand?
It isn’t even really about them being fat. That is to say, it’s not a moral or even physical judgment. It’s a professional one. You’re not going to a dentist with bad teeth, or a hair stylist with bad hair, and you’re not going to a trainer with a bad body. People seemed to object to the idea that there were any consequences, socially or professionally, to being fat and tried laying out all the scenarios in which that old fat woman was perfectly qualified to give me nutrition advice. But is that really helpful? What are we really getting by indulging in this fantasy that there are no consequences for being fat? It doesn’t change the reality. It doesn’t change the fact that no one is going to an obese trainer for training. Why should they? No one was asking my advice when I was 300 lbs, even though my knowledge is roughly the same… But that’s nothing to get my feelings hurt over. I wouldn’t have asked my advice either!
The second dustup was actually just today when I wrote “When people ask me why I made a change from fat to fit, I say ‘fat girls don’t get phone calls’”. Apart from the fact that this is a clear reference to a series of posts I’ve done right here, the post caused a bit of stir. Again, people telling me I’m insensitive and I should be ashamed of myself for perpetuating awful ideas etc and so forth. And again people showed up trotting out all kinds of scenarios in which, yes, fat girls do indeed get phone calls and I’m horrible for suggesting otherwise.
When it comes to being fat, people seem determined to sail right on past legitimate points.
Again what we’re seeing is a denial of basic reality: that there are negative consequences to being fat. Of course there are! This blog wouldn’t exist if being fat was some neutral, much less amazing, experience. People treat you differently if you’re fat. Guys/girls aren’t as attracted to you if you’re fat. You are less likely to be popular if you’re fat. This isn’t rocket science, but it seems to be deeply taboo… as if saying it out loud somehow validates it. It doesn’t, but it’s reality. Growing up fat is awful, and as an obese, 25 year old virgin, I could tell you that “fat girls don’t get phone calls” was an especially powerful idea to me. It was a particularly painful point that really did motivate me to get started here.
Let me tie in something one of the commenters on my thread said: that I should focus on the positive reasons for getting fit. This was said by a person who was already fit, by the by. Let me tell you why that’s completely unhelpful. There are all kinds of beautiful, wonderful reasons to get fit… But the obese do not believe them. No one who has spent the last 10, 20, or 30 years seriously overweight believes all the crap about feeling good and being healthy. They have no reference point for it if they’ve been huge all their lives.
You know what they do remember? Rejection. Pain. Loss… Moving away from the things that hurt is what will, at first, be the main motivator for the seriously obese. “Fat girls don’t get phone calls” isn’t objectively 100% true… But it isn’t supposed to be. Anyone who has grown up obese understands what I mean though when I say it. For us, it feels true. And that’s all that matters.
What escapes me is this impulse to try to wish away the bad consequences of being fat. To silence them or brush them under the rug or pretend them out of existence. Claiming 1000 reasons why an overweight trainer might be perfectly qualified doesn’t change the fact that 99% of people don’t want advice from him. Telling stories about all the lovely dates and marriages that your overweight friends have doesn’t change the pain of being a fat adolescent who is always “the funny one”. Telling the truth doesn’t make the truth right. The truth can be pretty ugly. But I constantly fail to see who is served by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Far better to face an ugly truth, harness it, and use it to motivate.