Ragen has a new post up on combating holiday weight shame. This is really timely for me, because I’ll be spending Thanksgiving with family members, a couple of whom have been all about the “fat=lazy/stupid” memes on Facebook lately. To their credit, neither of them has given me personal grief about my weight in years, but the generalized comments are irksome all by themselves.
I will admit, fully and freely, to being oversensitive about other people’s crappy, thoughtless comments. If someone makes a vague, general statement, and there’s a way for me to take it personally, I’m probably going to do just that. That’s my own issue to work out, and not anybody else’s problem. But at the same time, it’s also not my job to take comments that are explicitly nasty toward fat people in the best possible light, and jump straight to “Oh, they didn’t mean it in a *bad* way.” or “Oh, they think that way about fat people in *general* but I’m sure they make a special exception for me.” I’ve said before that I’m pretty convinced that if you’re an asshole online, you’re an asshole in “real life” too. You may be an asshole with more tact in some situations than others, or an asshole with a good sense of what you can get away with, or an asshole who’s good at compartmentalizing, but that doesn’t make you not an asshole.
I’m still working on whether it’s worth saying something, privately, when people spew ugliness on Facebook that implicitly insults me. Commenting to the post itself is pointless; I’ve learned that many times. In addition to immediately putting them on the defensive, it usually means you get a ration of crap from *their* friends too.
Fortunately, people tend to have better manners in face-to-face interactions than online ones, but not necessarily by much. In Ragen’s post, she mentions a poll where 42% of people 18-24 would hesitate to tell a loved one they should lose weight, for fear that they’d hurt their feelings. So, this means that 58% of 18-24 year-olds are sufficiently lacking in tact that they think unsolicited inexpert medical advice is not just acceptable, but that they’re doing the recipient a *favor.* Admittedly, they’re only believing what they’ve been told. They live in a culture that preaches 24/7 that fat is the worst thing ever, while simultaneously pretending that it’s possible to be fat in that same culture for ten minutes and somehow be unaware of it. They live in a culture where articles like the one Ragen cited can actually say ““if someone close to you has a large waistline then as long as you do it sensitively, discussing it with them now could help them avoid critical health risks later down the line and could even save their life” with a straight face. Well, six different kinds of diets didn’t work, but now that you’ve *mentioned* it, that will magically make things better. You’re also totally the first person who’s ever told them this. Sure, you are. You might be the first person who’s told them *today*, at least if they haven’t watched any television or flipped through a magazine.
I think the answer, online or off, is boundaries—what Ragen refers to as the Underpants Rule, where you accept that other people get to make decisions for their own lives, regardless of whether you like those decisions. And, another thing people get to choose for themselves is what they’re willing to put up with. Frequently, if you actually enforce boundaries, people will back off. They don’t necessarily mean to be rude; they’re just living in a culture that tells them that as long as they mean well and are “sensitive” (whatever that means) that giving you grief about your appearance is okay.
And the awesome thing about culture is that, as much as people are affected by it, they also create it. You can’t, all by yourself, rewrite the cultural narratives about fat, but you can add your own message into the mix. It’s not always much. Sometimes it’s like throwing pebbles into a huge lake, but the ripples do spread.