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An empowered message to recipients of sizeism

As a woman of size I have realized that many people in our society feel at liberty to comment on my weight. It could take the form of a “concerned” family member reminding me of diets and procedures at my disposal, or that I need to exercise and eat less. It can come from a doctor focusing on my weight when I made an appointment because I’m sick. I’ve also experienced doctors that try to use fear as a motivator to lose weight; for example: “you are healthy now but you won’t be as you get older.” People in the media criticize celebrities simply on the merit of their weight. These comments may even come from a cruel stranger in public. Whatever the source, making comments about another’s weight is a gross overstep of that individual’s boundary. In fact, I liken it to bulldozing over a person’s dignity. I say that because there is a lack of respect or care for another’s feelings in this type of interaction, whether well-intended or not. There is an assumption that an individual who is large wants to hear others’ opinions of why they look as they do, or how they should fix it. I’ve often wondered if the other party thinks I’m somehow unaware of my weight, and thus feels obligated to inform me. Other times I’ve wondered if being considered overweight is a universal signal that places me in a special category where I deserve to be critiqued at whim. What I am trying to expose is the de-dignifying of a person when we make an assumption that we can comment about someone’s appearance.

As a therapist I understand the psychological dynamic at play. Our society has been trained to fear fat and view fat as the scapegoat for many things that can go wrong in life. I cannot count the number of times I was told that I would never find a man, get a good job, make friends, be healthy, or amount to anything if I was fat. If that’s the mentality about fat it makes sense, then, that there would be concern, fear, or anger directed toward a person of size. The person of size physically embodies all those fears, at least outwardly. However, just because the response makes sense doesn’t make it all appropriate. It is a projected response, meaning, it is a response to the anxiety about fatness that is transferred to the recipient in the form of the comment made. The anxious person can then feel better because they “did their duty” to help, while the recipient is left holding shame.  The shame is a natural response to sizeism, a very common form of discrimination. (Learn more about sizeism here.)

Based on my conversations with women of size, most have been the recipient of incredibly painful comments. And what’s worse is that they have held onto those comments as the truth of who they are rather than discarding them for what they are, which is someone else’s anxiety. I, myself, have struggled with this same thing. If you find yourself as the recipient of these sorts of comments, see if you can essentially give back the anxiety to the person it belongs. There are many ways to do this. You can actually name in the moment that a comment was inappropriate and remind them that it’s their issue, not yours. For those who are less bold you can remind yourself of this principle and refuse to take an unsolicited comment to heart. And it’s important for everyone to find support and talk through these instances so that the shame doesn’t find a place to hide and take root. Let’s treat one another with respect and not assume we can take these painful liberties any longer.

– Erica Daudt, MA, LMHCA is a milieu therapist at Opal and co-facilitates the Health at Every Size outpatient group.

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