Megan McArdle has written a couple of intriguing blog posts arguing that obesity wrongly has become the new boogie man for everyone to get worked up about in the name of public health and lowering the costs of health care. She and the author she interviews assert that all of the "data" warning about obesity's dire health consequences and the impact on health care's bottom line are bloated, false charges.
Some day I might write about McArdle's posts, but now I want to approach this from the perspective of being a formerly morbidly obese person living in a world of obephobes: people who dislike, fear, and/or discriminate against fat people.
As of today, I have lost 92.9 pounds. When a reporter asked the first Survivor winner Richard Hatch why he lost so much weight, he allegedly said, "because being fat sucks." Having weighed nearly 250 pounds at 5'1, I can attest that indeed, it very much does.
I am nowhere close to thin, but if I never lost another pound, I'd be happy in my current body after inhabiting the morbidly obese one for so many years. I went from truly standing out in a crowd and barely being able to buckle my seat belt on an airplane to being just another average, overweight American. The difference in how I was treated at 250 pounds and how I am treated at my current size is pretty stunning.
"Fat" in this culture is synonymous with or represents lack of self-control, gluttony, and laziness. No one speaks up when fat people are humiliated for their weight. In a Washington Post review of Fox's new reality show More To Love, which is simply a super-sized version of The Bachelor, the reviewer refers to the plus-sized contestants as "porkers." This astounds me.
Frankly, the existence of the show astounds me, and further proves my point: when we're not busy ridiculing fat people, we're busy gawking at them. Note the 15 or so rotating shows on Discovery and TLC that offers you an hour's glimpse at the super-obese. These shows do nothing to educate or help either the subjects or the viewers; they exist merely as a kind of gross cultural pornography.
Obephobia is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination in this country. In fact, Washington, D.C., is the only province in the U.S.A. with laws to protect employees from being wrongly discriminated against because of their weight. People routinely denigrate and shame overweight people with no social consequences. It reminds me of my mom's stories of growing up in Memphis at the height of Jim Crow. Please do not tell me that black people are born black but "fatties" choose to be fat; I'll decimate that argument in another blog post. This one is already too long.
I could write for hours about the embarrassment that I endured because of my previous size, but I want to point out a select few:
1. Calling a restaurant that advertised the need for a hostess. On the phone they were enthusiastic and interested, and when I showed up for the interview about an hour later, the boss looked at me from head to toe and told me the position already was filled.
2. There are all these scam charities in D.C. where canvassers approach you on the street asking for a donation to "help save the children from violence." They get cagey and defensive when you point out that they have no non-profit status or address. Once when I was approached downtown, I said, "I'm sorry, I don't give money to this type of charity." The canvasser replied, "You need to be spending your money on Metabolife."
Sometimes obe-phobia is blatant, like the examples above, but I think the more socially acceptable form is the kind McArdle writes about; people justifying ludicrous behaviors that punish obese people in the name of public health. A junk food tax? Please. Under its Customers of Size policy, Southwest Airlines, which I still haven't forgiven for this, began requiring obese people to pay a discounted rate for another half seat if they're large. I just sat on hold for 11 minutes to verify that this policy is enforced. See what I do for my readers? I asked the rep at SWA how they'd handle it if you did not book the extra seat for whatever reason, and she told me that if you were really in the way of another customer they would require you to buy the extra seat on the spot if you wanted to complete your flight. The Rep tried to stress that it's not really an obephobic policy; she said her brother is a professional body builder with huge shoulders that creep into the neighboring passenger's body space, and he has to buy the second seat. I actually see the rationale here, but those types of policies really devastate fat people; I just wish the airlines could deal with this more delicately. One of my husband's super-obese relatives hasn't flown in decades because she's afraid of navigating the airlines at her size. I haven't been on a full flight in years; is it that hard to rearrange people, so maybe a fat person ends up with an empty seat next to him? Reading SWA's forums on this topic, people seem to have no compunction referring to overweight folks as "hippos." If this doesn't remind you of racists referring to black people as "monkeys" or "water buffalo," it should.
I want to close with a quote attributed to Plato, James Barrie, and a dozen others: "Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." This is so true. Obese people know they're obese. They are embarrassed. They know they're taking up too much room on the train, plane, or stadium seating. They have probably spent thousands of dollars on dozens of diets trying in vain to lose weight and feel hopeless. A warm smile from you goes a long way.