I remember several years ago, I was visiting my mother’s first-grade class and I gathered her students on the rug to read them a book. As I lowered myself to the floor to sit with them, one of her students asked me, “Why are you so fat?”
I can’t really recall what happened after that. I probably reddened and mumbled something incoherent and just went about reading the book. But I’ll probably never forget that question. I can’t really get angry at the child for asking that because maybe she just had never seen someone as heavy as me (that was pre-weight-loss efforts when I weighed about 289 lbs.). Maybe she really was just curious, like children are when they meet someone who doesn’t look like them or talk like them.
Or maybe someone had taught her something. Maybe she had learned, by example, that being overweight is bad. That someone who is overweight can’t control themselves. That fat people are lazy, never exercise and are riddled with health problems.
I watched today, as many people online did, a video featuring a news anchor from La Crosse, Wis. Jennifer Livingston received an email from a viewer who, while never having watched her show before, felt the need to express his “concern” about her weight, calling her a bad influence. She responded with such bravery, such professionalism, that I began thinking about how I’ve reacted, internally, when someone has called my weight to attention.
Not too long ago I encountered a man in a Target parking lot who had the nerve to call me “fatass.” It crippled my self-esteem that day, yet it also angered me. It fueled me. Because just like the man who criticized Jennifer Livingston, this man in the parking lot didn’t know me. He knew nothing about my weight-loss struggles, my fitness level, my health condition. He looked at me and made a judgment based on opinion, not fact.
The truth is, many of us form opinions about people simply by looking at them. I’m sure I’ve done it many times, and for that, I’m ashamed. Because I know what it feels like for someone to look at me and only see a fat girl. To look at me and see someone who must overeat. Who must never exercise. Who probably costs the healthcare system thousands of dollars and makes others pay for my cholesterol pills or diabetes meds.
Let me tell you this. I am more active, I pay more attention to what I eat and am in better health than many thin people I know. I know people thinner than me who have high blood pressure or who take cholesterol medication or who never, ever exercise.
But that’s not the point. The point is judging a book by its cover. The point is making assumptions about a person that you don’t even know. The point is that when we do this, when we allow society’s supposed norms cloud our judgment of the person before us, without ever having met the person or gotten to know the person, we pass these preconceived notions on to the next generation. We perpetuate a cycle of bullying.
It’s not so much that calling me fat is in and of itself bullying. I know I’m fat. By every doctor’s definition out there, I am overweight, chubby, fat…call it what you will. The point is that calling someone fat is riddled with the notion that there is something wrong with me because I am heavy. That I am somehow flawed, as a human being, because I am overweight. I may be in the middle of a weight-loss journey (as long and up-and-down as it sometimes is), but the person bullying me doesn’t know that. And would that matter to him/her? Probably not. Because a bully only sees the surface. They don’t see the human struggle underneath. They just insensitively point out that your character must be damaged if you are a heavier person.
Show me someone who doesn’t have character flaws. Show me one person.
My character is not my body. My character is the kindness I show to others, the love I show to friends and family, my desire to help those in need, my silly antics when joking around with my friends, my compassion for someone when they are upset. My character is many things, and sure, it has flaws, but it is not solely defined by what I look like on the outside.
So to you, Jennifer Livingston, I send many thanks and congratulations for being so brave as to stand up for yourself and address this type of bullying head on.
And to you, dear readers, please think twice before you judge someone by his/her appearance next time you’re faced with someone with supposed “flaws.” I’ll make the effort to do the same.