THE STRESS OF STIGMA
There is a simple realization to which I came about two years ago. I am fat. Now, I've been fat almost all of my life. I have been on every kind of diet that has existed, and at the end of each of them, I gained back all the weight and then more. I used to think this was a moral failure on my part. I wasn't good enough. I wasn't disciplined enough.
I am a disciplined person. I wrote a 350-page dissertation in a little less than 15 months--that's the total time from when I proposed the idea to when I defended it, including all the little steps in between. I actually did the writing itself in less than three months. When I have a goal, I usually accomplish it. I know how to approach a project, and I know how to complete a project. I can do so with little supervision.
So I knew that my yo-yo weight losses and gains being about my laziness was a load of crap. I'm a perfectionist, and I have done every diet I've ever done with the same enthusiasm with which I approach any other project. The most I ever lost was 130 pounds, which at the time was half my body weight. I did so with diet pills, and after being on them for over a year, I found I couldn't quit them. A doctor gave me valium to offset the diet pills, and I became addicted to the valium as well. I lived a crazy life of not eating and drug abuse, and I did so with the approval of my family physician. Despite the fact that he and every other doctor to whom I had been at that point in my life had said that I was healthy, it was more important to lose weight than it was to enjoy the healthy body I had. I walked or rode a bike almost everywhere I went. I went dancing for hours every weekend. But I was "overweight," and that meant I had to lose those extra pounds or my world would never be right. So I did. I'm even a success story for some bariatric clinic in New Orleans. I'm not sure if they still have it, but I submitted before and after pictures and a testimonial.
But then the drugs started ruling my life, and I decided I had to get off them. Once I was off the drugs, I started gaining back the weight. It took me 18 months to lose it. It took me three years to gain it back. I was determined to lose it again, but this time in a healthy way. I exercised and ate next to nothing, but I gained weight. During this time, I was introduced to the idea of fat acceptance and even joined NAAFA. But I still dieted. I still kept hoping that somehow I'd lose the weight. But now I couldn't lose it. If calorie charts were anything more than a reflection of a few lab experiments, I should have been losing rapidly because I was eating 1000 calories a day. Instead, I remained hungry, grouchy, sickly, and I maintained or gained weight. I thought maybe my metabolism was fucked up from the previous dieting, so I read that exercise was a way to increase metabolism. I exercised fiercely. I also read about herbs and took some of the more dangerous ones. I stopped taking them in the summer of 2000 after experiencing what I thought was a seizure. All of this effort just made me sicker.
My last diet was TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly). I put on ten pounds eating sensibly. In February of 2001, on the way back home from a TOPS meeting after having gained three pounds in one week, the thought occurred to me that I was fighting a battle that couldn't be won. What if I could never be thin again? This thought was depressing at first. Then it was liberating. If I really could not be thin, if it was somehow about my body type and not about my willpower, then I could let go of all this dieting stuff and learn to be myself. I realized that I am fat.
There are few words in the English language to describe this experience. That is why fat people use analogies to ethnicity or homosexuality. But it is true that doing so is inadequate. Being fat has aspects that are unparalleled. It also has a lot of cultural baggage that makes talking about it difficult. Two very large multi-national industries exist on the basis of describing my body as ugly (beauty industry) and pathological (medical industry). I have a phenotype that supposedly denotes an aesthetic that demands redecorating, denotes an illness and demands a cure, denotes an immorality that demands contrition. Because of this ugliness, this sickness, this sin, I am given few words to express what I know about my experience and my body.
It is an experience of liberation to accept oneself as one is. But being fat comes with a burden as well. If I were fat and quiet, I would be accpetable. But now that I understand that I am fat and I talk about it, I invite conflict and criticism. Complete strangers believe it is okay to tell me things about my body. Friends are standoffish. A couple of people have written comments at Big Fat Blog and Fatshadow that fat is about choice and storage of energy. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps being fat comes from having an efficient body that stores energy well. Starvation and deprivation triggers this mechanism even more. But this understanding of fatness is irrelevant to the discussion of culture. It doesn't really matter why I am fat when I interact with other people. What matters to others in this social interaction is that I have not done something about being fat. Until I do something about being fat, I am supposed to keep my mouth shut, period.
Stigma is defined as follows: "a symbol of disgrace or infamy. ... Synonyms: mark, brand, stain"
This symbol or mark is visible so that others can see it and react.
Fatness carries a stigma. I live with the stress of that stigma everyday. I know that when I walk out the door there is a better-than-even chance I will be ridiculed in some way. Of course, I may never know for sure. Is that person laughing at me? Did I hear the comment of the couple at the next table correctly? Did the hostess seat me in the back of the restaurant because she thought I looked gross? Part of the problem with being stigmatized is that you are never sure if the social interaction you are having is tainted (stained) by the marking. Sure, there are lots of people who treat me like a person. But even close friends have said to me that they were surprised to find out that I was smart. Colleagues have made comments about how it is a shame that someone so talented can't lose weight. Despite all my accomplishments, I live with the fact that the first thing someone notices about me is that I'm fat. That fatness colours everything they learn about me afterwards.
Then there are the structural boundaries that hold me back. I can't go to a theatre or an office without having to ask for a chair without arms. There are places where I am simply not welcomed -- the bus, the subway, the airplane. Up until a few years ago, I couldn't get swim suits and exercise clothes that fit well. I couldn't dress for success because fashion and fatness were incompatible. Some of this has changed, but I still live with the stress. I can't find clothes that fit in second-hand shops, so I have to pay full price no matter how limited my budget. I have to arrive early at theatres to ensure that I have a place to sit with which I can live, and it is a humiliating process to make sure of it. I have to grin and bear any comments made at the poolside when I arrive in a swimsuit ready to exercise. I have to bear the brunt of idiotic people yelling things at me when I ride a bike or walk in public. I'm discovering I can't even be fat in cyberspace without ridicule.
As long as fatness is something that is regarded as merely needing willpower to change, then it will be regarded as okay to treat fat people this way. But the evidence is building that diets don't work and that fatness may not be a simple reflection of food choices and levels of activity. If fatness is something about which most fat people cannot do anything in any kind of long-term manner and if fatness is more about their inherent physiology than about how they choose to behave, then the stigma attached to fatness is prejudicial and mean-spirited.
I know the party line at this point. Obesity is a disease, and it is the responsibility of the afflicted to make every effort to find a cure. Not dieting is a way of giving up on oneself. Fat acceptance is okay as long as it doesn't critique beauty standards or medical standards. Fat is unhealthy. Everyone just knows that. Fat people deserve to be fat because they are lazy and unfit.
The bottom line to all of this is that I have come to believe that being fat is a part of who I am. It is not something that I could change healthfully or naturally. Despite this realization, I must live with the stigma afforded fat people. I put up with the subtle ways that people tell me I'm ugly, I'm sick, I'm immoral. Any attempts on my part to suggest otherwise are met with stringent objections from people who think they know me, my history and my body better than I do. I am supposed to do something about the ugly, sick, sinful me before I speak.
The original question for the week was why I felt sad when other people talked about their own weight loss. In part, it is because dieting evokes all this in me. Dieting is rarely successful, often harmful and always contextualised by this stigma. I don't blame people for trying to lose weight. Why live with this pain if you don't have to do so? But the painful, yet liberating, realization to which I came is that I don't have this choice any more, if I have ever had it. When I dieted and tried to fit into these impossible standards, most of my pain came from within me. I hated myself and my body. At least now, most of my pain comes from without. I now have a confidence about who I am that helps me deal with the oppressing fallout of stigmatization. From my point-of-view, this is a better life than blaming myself. But it is still painful, pervasive and largely outside my control. That is why I speak out.
THE STRESS OF STIGMA