Zap the Fat Shaming
“Fat shaming doesn’t need to end. It needs to make a comeback.” So said Bill Maher on Real Time last week in the final part of his regular “New Rules” segment. For anyone who doesn’t watch the show, each episode ends with a series of jokes under the heading of “New Rules,” and Maher spends several minutes ruminating on whatever the final topic is. Last week that topic was the “real” problem with the American healthcare system, which Maher identified as: “Americans eat sh*t, and too much of it.”
As a regular viewer of the show, I’m not terribly surprised that Maher decided to go on a rant about the need for fat shaming in our society. He often references Americans’ poor eating habits and doesn’t shy away from fat jokes. It’s very clear that he sees fatness as a big (pun intended) problem. My question is this, Bill: When did fat shaming go away? Spoiler alert, it didn’t.
Fat shaming is alive and well in our society. Sure, there’s a fair amount of anti-fat shaming comments and body positive accounts on social media, but you know why that is? BECAUSE FAT SHAMING EXISTS. The thing about fat shaming is that it manifests in many different and often subtle ways. It doesn’t always involve pointing, staring, or overt comments. Sometimes fat shaming takes the form of stores that only carry smaller sizes or that intentionally mislabel clothing to make it seem like they’re inclusive of larger people when they’re actually not. I wrote about this two years ago when I barely fit into a bridesmaid's dress that was a size 8 but labeled “XL.” Sometimes it’s doctors who can’t see past the numbers on a scale and just tell patients to lose weight rather than exploring other causes of ailments. And sometimes it is pointing, staring, and hurtful comments—there's plenty of that.
There’s a lot I could say about what Maher got wrong. I could talk about the multiplicity of factors behind the high rates of obesity in our society. I could talk about the studies that show fat shaming only makes people feel worse and does nothing to help people lose weight. As James Corden noted in his response to Maher’s piece, if fat shaming worked there’d be no fat people.
Interestingly, in his segment, Maher didn’t address gender. For women, and anyone female-presenting, our value is directly tied to our physicality. Therefore, when women are fat-shamed, it is our worth to society, and specifically to men, that is being articulated. How many little girls grow up being told they’ll never find a boyfriend or husband if they’re fat? How many women adopt extreme diets and exercise regimens in the hopes of being more attractive to men? For women, conversations around weight oftentimes center around how we’re perceived by men, and because we live in a patriarchal society, if you’re not of value to men, you’re not of value.
I’m not saying that there’s no relationship between weight and health. What I am saying is that we can’t have that conversation in a vacuum.
Turning to my own experience, I was always overweight as a child and teen, and while I’m in a better place now as an adult, I will always struggle with my weight and my relationship with food. If you looked at my family tree you’d see that I’m not alone in this, and besides living in the United States where food plays a much too prominent role, food is overly processed, and portion sizes are out of control, I’m also a product of Jewish culture. I’ve never heard someone say, “Oh you’re trying to lose weight? Have you tried the Jewish diet?” I’m pretty sure pastrami and kugel with a side of inherited trauma never helped anyone trim down.
We can look at this from the other side, too. Fat women are told they have no value; thin women are told that’s their only value. A good historical example of this is none other than Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr was an actress who became known as the most beautiful woman in the world. She was also a scientist who patented what became a key component of wireless technology, but many don’t know about that or don’t believe it because of her famous beauty. Later in life, Lamarr underwent countless plastic surgery procedures in an attempt to maintain her signature looks, the thing she was most known and valued for. In the end, she became a recluse. She didn’t want anyone to see her.
To put it lightly, the messages articulated to us by society have very real effects.
At the end of the day, the part I found most disturbing about Maher’s piece was when he said this: “[Shame] is what goads people into saying, ‘Maybe I can do better,’ as opposed to ‘I’m always perfect the way I am, how dare you.’” It is actually quite possible to not hate yourself and also want to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Self-acceptance and striving for improvement aren’t mutually exclusive. Shaming people doesn’t help us solve anything and only serves to perpetuate harmful attitudes about the relationship between size and worth.
And let’s be honest, Bill. Trump is president and our planet is dying. Sometimes I need to eat some damn ice cream.