Victims and Blame
I've made two posts on two different lists in the last 24 hours on how much control we have over our lives as fat people. Thanks to Stef, I thought I'd share them here:
I’m not sure what was meant by “victim mentality.” But I decided to look it up on the net (via google) just to see what other people think the word means. Apparently it is meant to suggest that a person sees their life as being the fault of someone else. All their troubles are because of someone else’s actions and not their own.
After spending 30 years of my life dieting and feeling like a failure because everything I tried to lose weight only left me fatter and/or sicker, I have a hard time accepting the premise that I blamed other people for my troubles. I spent most of my life blaming myself for my genetics. I spent most of my life absolutely certain that everyone else was capable of maintaining weight loss and that I was the lazy, no-good freak who couldn’t make it work.
To be honest, it is still my first response to the world. I have to spend a lot of time and effort remembering that the prejudices of others have led to a war on fat people and not my being fat.
I would also venture to say that every other fat woman I know whether they are in the “size acceptance movement” or not and really whether they are that fat or not, spends a great deal of time and effort learning how to be okay with themselves and to understand the extent to which the health and beauty information they have been given was false, or at best, misinformed.
I do not blame other people for all my problems. It usually takes me months to even figure out that I’m being shunned because of my size or my disability. The worst case of harassment I ever experienced on the job involved a coworker who made snide comments and created an atmosphere of stress for me at my work. I kept a journal for nearly three months in which I recorded these incidences along with a bunch of other information. My original intent was to try and understand what I was doing wrong at the job that left this person so hostile. I was in a new city in a new country when this happened and so I kept chalking it up to culture shock. When I finally decided something more sinister was going on, I typed out the list of incidences from my journal. There were 8, typed, single spaced pages of incidences, including rude comments about my walking with a cane or walking too slow or taking the elevator, neglecting to tell me about meetings or passing along memos from our boss (and it was her job to pass communications along to me and other staff members—I found out on a number of occasions that we were having staff meetings from coworkers who had received her memos), degrading me in front of senior staff, and so forth. If they hadn’t happened to me and I was talking to another person I would have looked them straight in the face and ask why they endured this kind of treatment for so long. Daily for nearly 3 months I lived with this stress thinking I was doing something wrong.
I know that thousands of other fat people can tell similar stories and that many of them have just decided that it was their fault and have lived with whatever crap they’ve been given.
I hate hearing something like “victim mentality” because it cuts off all productive discussion. It is a discursive stopper. There is no way to answer this criticism. If I protest and say, “no I’m a real victim” then I look like I’m engaging in such a blame game (sorry to evoke dubbya at this point). If I agree, then I’m right back to the painful game of looking inward and trying to change things over which I have no control.
I’m sure there are people in the world who blame everyone else for their troubles. But I do not accept that there is no such thing as a victim of prejudice. Stigma is real and it limits the life chances of those stigmatized. It is not the job of fat people to end fat stigma. It is the job of those who practice bigotry. I may have to learn how to respond to stigma in order to live my life, but I cannot will it away or change it in other people. I can challenge it. I can stand tall against it, but in the end, I am a victim to it.
I remember an African American friend telling me a story about her grandmother having a stroke. They went to a doctor’s office without realizing the symptoms of what was happening. They were made to wait an extraordinary amount of time in spite of the fact that her grandmother was getting worse. Finally, after all other patients had been seen, the nurse looked at the grandmother. She immediately told the doctor to order an ambulance and started yelling at the staff because they did not pay attention to her grandmother sooner. Her grandmother survived with minimal damage, but if she had been seen earlier (upon arrival to the office after being told that she would be “worked in”), she would have probably had no damage at all.
My friend said it was a full two weeks before it occurred to her that they were the only African-Americans in the office and that fact might have something to do with why her grandmother was ignored. Understand my friend is a fellow sociologist and had been a university administrator for years. She was highly educated and very sensitive to issues of race, class and gender. But at the time, she was kicking herself for not realizing the symptoms and taking her grandmother to the ER.
I don’t think most people who suffer from stigma think of themselves as victims. They think of themselves as human beings. But when they act like human beings and stand up for themselves, they are dismissed as whining too much or blaming others for their problems.
Size acceptance is about confronting that “less-than-human” treatment received by most people of size. I think that is a positive mentality and about as far from a victim mentality as one can get. Understanding whose fault something is does not always indicate a victim mentality – especially if it really is the other person’s fault.
I am a great believer in being positive and confident, but I am concerned that we not forget that we are not wholly responsible for the consequences of other people’s actions. People do bigoted things and bigoted things hurt people. People make decisions on all sorts of criteria that have nothing to do with who we are or how we handle ourselves. This includes deciding that we are too fat to do the work or to do business.
I walk with a cane and I weigh around 300 pounds. There was a time not long ago that I was a lot thinner and more able-bodied (not to mention younger). I am more confident than I’ve ever been in my life. I have a Ph.D. I know my stuff inside and out. I have an extensive portfolio. But I have more trouble now in business than I’ve ever had before. Yes, I often win them over with my assertiveness and confidence. But not always. And I refuse to believe that it is my fault that this is true. If I had so much power that others would bend to my will just because I am strong and think positively then the world would be a much different place, believe me.
The answer isn’t just in doing your own thing either. I have three different businesses right now and I am promoting my book. All of these activities are uphill battles and I find that when I go to networking meetings, discuss things with clients, or do business with vendors, I run into stone walls all the time.
I’ve heard several people say that when an employer discriminates against a fat person, it is their loss. In a sense this is correct. Judging people for something other than merit is stupid in business and it will lead to the downfall of the business person who uses such criteria. However, it is important to remember that on another level, discrimination is everyone’s loss. If we do not have the best people for the job doing things in our society, eventually we will suffer consequences.
The brain drain and dumbing down of organizations leads to a lack of innovation, flexibility, creativity and crises responses. Witness the events of the past two months with hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the aftermath. No matter who’s politics are involved, the one thing that can be said for certain is that the people in charge did not display good leadership. We needed people who knew what to do before, during and after the storms. It appears that few were available. People have paid with their lives for this lack of leadership. It is this kind of thing that happens when organizations make poor decisions regarding people. So when an employer turns down a fat person for a job they are clearly qualified for and hires someone else on the basis of looks alone, then we all will suffer because it is a breakdown of the way things need to work in order to have a smooth social system.
In my seminars, I teach that leadership is not being in control, but being “response-able” so that you can do what is needed to succeed. It is good when you are on the job market to prepare yourself well, to know who you are, what you want and what you have to offer a potential employer. But it is also good to know how to recognize discrimination when you see it and to know what to do about it when it occurs. Such knowledge of the mechanisms of the power relationship between you and a potential employer is necessary to be a “response-able” player in the organizational game. But it is important to remember that you may be able to respond to bigotry, but you are not to blame for bigotry. If someone treats you poorly because of how you look or how old you are or how able-bodied you are, then you are more powerful if you know how to respond to that poor treatment. But you are not the bad guy. The one practicing bigotry is.
Victims and Blame