This post has been rolling around my head for a couple of years now, but I’m glad it was the long, lanky and lovely Michelle L. who laid down the genes card first.
In her post last week, Michelle asked several questions. I’d like to respond to a couple of them from my perspective.
Do you see bias against overweight people?
According to the world, I am a misfit (see any cute plus-size clothes at Old Navy or The Gap?). I don’t belong (a survey out last year reported that people asked how they felt about working with the “handicapped” were most uncomfortable working with fat people). I shouldn’t dare be successful (remember Jordin Sparks?).
But when I look at photographs from one side of my family, I know exactly how I fit in. And I know I belong. I look at each of my similarly shaped aunts and cousins (not all—it takes two sets of genes and some people get lucky I guess) and I see wonderful loving, giving successful, happy people.
Yet I know from experience what I see is different from what others see.
At least twice in the past several months I have been preached to over the pulpit in ways that, in essence, accused heavier-built people of not living their religion or obeying the Word of Wisdom. Of being less worthy.
Many of the assumptions people make about what I like to call “the horizontally challenged” have been quite evident in the comments sections of recent Segullah posts about body shape and image.
Studies suggest that the overweight are treated differently even by their own doctors, who label their patients as “awkward,” “unattractive,” “ugly” and “noncompliant.” Another study reports that health professionals strongly associate being overweight with being “lazy” and “stupid.” (from the Washington Post)
Yet things are not always as they appear.
Two friends of mine offer an interesting study in contrasts. One is tall, slim and gorgeous. She works out occasionally. Yet her nutrition plan consists of eating food prepared at McDonald’s. Another friend of mine works out regularly. She could run miles and miles around many of us. She competes in more than a dozen half-marathons and marathons every year. Yet she does not at all look like a runner. Or even someone who works out. Her size and shape completely belie her activity and fitness level.
Sometimes it’s the heavier people themselves (or rather the former heavier) who perpetuate the stereotypes. I see it as a real disservice to the people who aren’t eating entire large pizzas and half-gallons of ice cream or six Big Macs in one sitting when the handful of people who do tell their respective stories as if their habits are universal.
The causes of the weight of the world are no more simple or universal than “the cure.”
Recently I sat at a dinner table with some friends. Some of the children in that particular family resemble their mother—long and lean. To be honest, “incredibly skinny” would be more accurate. The children who take after their father, however, resemble him so much they are sometimes mistaken for him. But that side of the family is not so lean. During the meal, I noticed one of the daughter’s rail-thin arms as she raised a spoonful of food from her full plate and listened as she told another relative—one who was not so lean—about an acquaintance who had recently lost a good deal of weight. While she didn’t come out and say it, the message was clear, “It really was that easy. You should totally do that.”
The truth is, for those who struggle with the weighty issue of extra pounds—whatever the reason–taking it off is not as simple as “put down that chocolate.”
Think about the most powerful woman in the country. Her power of persuasion can influence people on what to buy, what books to read and even what politicians to support. The mighty O can buy and build anything she wants. She has a entire staff (what I wouldn’t give to have my own staff!) at her beck and call. But even with all her power, there seems to be one thing she still can’t conquer. Over the years she continues to struggle with her weight. If she and her staff of cooks and trainers find it difficult, it’s a miracle mere mortals like the rest of us even try. (But most of us keep trying anyway.) If that should tell you anything it should tell you that it simply isn’t that easy.
Why do you think the Lord gave us unique situations rather than a more uniform life experience?
In a recent discussion about women and their bodies, my friend Courtney suggested that our physical bodies (whatever type they are) are somehow connected to our missions on this earth.
I’ve been pondering her statement. I don’t have any answers, but I have slowly come to realize the challenges we face from inside our very different shaped bodies can be quite unique.
I watch my teenage daughter, who, I am proud to say, has never heard her mother say one disparaging word about her own body. At least at this point, she resembles a side of her father’s family. Part of me rejoices in the hope she may never know some of the pain I have known. Yet already I notice that having natural beauty and a great body is not without its own challenges. I watch as she sometimes struggles with vanity and pride, between the difference of superficiality and substance. I see the difficulties that can arise when one is noticed, judged and treated differently—even objectified—because of looking good.
Perhaps the blessings are unique as well.
Recently I bumped into a friend of mine who has lost some weight. While we were visiting, people kept coming up to her “I didn’t recognize you.” “You look great!” (I said that, too. And I meant it. But I always said that to her and I meant it before she lost weight.) “You look so beautiful now!” I couldn’t help but saying out loud at least once that she has always been beautiful. Because to me, she has. Granted now she looks different, but I have truly never defined her beauty by her physical appearance.
It pains me to know that there are people—even people I love, who equate beauty and worth and even worthiness with a certain body type. After putting everyone else first for oh, so long, I currently find myself in a position in which the stars of everyone else’s schedule, finding the right workout partner, and—at least on a good day—a break from injuries and arthritis have lined up enough that I’ve recently returned to the gym. I don’t care about being thin. I will never—unless I get very sick—be thin. (The only times in my life I have been average were either when I was obsessed–riding my bike from way south of BYU campus up to my gym in Orem for back-to-back classes of aerobics–or depressed–through a period of anxiety during my mission in which I couldn’t eat and my stomach was so sick I lost 10 pounds in less than a week. I don’t care to revisit either again–trust me, I’m a much nicer person when I’m not obsessed.)
But I do want to be more fit.
It’s likely that as I continue my current course I may shed a few pounds.
But I’ll be honest with you. If people treat me differently–suddenly becoming more interested, more friendly or more affectionate with me–or if someone happens to say, “You look so beautiful now,” it’s going to sting a little. Because even a few inches smaller on the outside, I will still be the same person on the inside as I am right now. Just as smart, sometimes snarky, compassionate, loving, deserving of being loved and worthy.
On your body: Do you think the physical appearance and characteristics of your body are tied to your mission on earth? How so?
On biases and stereotypes: What biases do you have about heavier people? skinny people? do you think your kids pick up on your ideas about body image and weight?
On relationships: Do you feel a person has an obligation to remain fit for and attractive to his or her spouse? Does that spouse have an obligation to love that person “for better or worse?”
On vanity: Do you feel you are more preoccupied (or obsessed) with your physical appearance when you are out of shape or when you are in good shape?