Sisterhood Blog

A Too-High Tolerance for Hate Speech Against the Obese?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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In recent months, there has been much ado over media smears, slights, and attacks on Jews, African-Americans, gays and other minorities. Journalistic careers have taken a hit in the wake of comments that have caused offense — Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, Juan Williams, etc. — and spirited arguments regarding the fine line between free speech and political correctness seem to be continually taking place.

But the most recent furor over hate speech is unique because it is involves a group that is regularly disdained, ignored, discriminated against and insulted, but rarely fights back: the obese.

It all began with a post by Maura Kelly on the blog of women’s magazine Marie Claire. Called “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room? (Even on TV?),” Kelly, whose blog focuses on sex, love, and dating, was asked by her editor to consider the acceptability of obese couples in romantic situations on television. She confesses that as far as she is concerned, fat people should stay out of the public eye altogether, let alone claim the right to on-air public displays of affection. (Obviously, she was never a fan of “Roseanne.”)

Yes, I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine (sic) addict slumping in a chair.

Thus began the infuriated reactions across the Internet, attacking Kelly — (who later apologized, and said she was as disturbed to see an anorexic person, as a morbidly obese one — and Marie Claire for publishing it (as if a women’s fashion magazine making people feel bad about their bodies is a first…?)

Yet, while nearly every pundit condemned Kelly’s nasty high school cheerleader tone, some asked whether there might be a benefit in keeping some of the shame in being plus-sized. After all, they say, smokers are often openly scorned, and it is presumed that this social pressure heightens their motivation to quit.

There is a corresponding fear that taking the shame out of fatness — tolerating and embracing the significantly overweight as full-fledged members of society with the right to publicly live and love — could be dangerous to public health. It could represent a subtle endorsement of an unhealthy, costly, and dangerous condition, at a time when many health professionals are concerned over obesity rates.

As someone who has lived most of her life on the wrong side of the scales, I can say with authority, that while the above argument may make some sense, it simply doesn’t work.

Human rights activists John Sharyar has it right in his Huffington Post column: shame, pain and humiliation won’t make fat people thin.

The first step towards losing weight is not putting your mind to it. It is not making a list of things you will absolutely not do. It is not locking up the fridge. It is knowing that even if you fail at losing weight, people will still love you for who you are and not the number of pounds you’re packing. That people will judge you by your character and not because you are unhealthy weight-wise (and some people are perfectly healthy even when they are overweight). It is that feeling that you are doing this for yourself not because you have to fit a mould created for you….

To that end, I urge everyone who finds size-ism in the media as a menace to view this as a watershed moment. It’s time to come together and fight this bigotry to the bitter end. Change does not come without someone pushing for it. If we want this to change, if we want for us, overweight or not, to not be judged by our BMI, we need to not let this fire die down.

Amen. Disdain like Kelly’s leaves the obese feeling defeated, depressed and filled with self-hatred: Instead of sending them to the gym, it will push them straight to the refrigerator.


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