Sticking up for ourselves

19th May 2008

Sticking up for ourselves

posted in Fat Bias |

I’m a mobile journalist which means I rarely go into our paper’s downtown office. It’s probably a good thing I’m not office-bound because on those days I do go into the office, I usually spend half my day’s pay shopping at downtown stores.

Last Friday I stopped into a boutique while on my lunch break. The boutique offers consignment-quality used clothes benefiting Dress for Success, a non-profit program that provides low-income women with professional clothes so they can land professional jobs, but the shop itself is open to all shoppers. Clothing for in-betweenies is rare there, but they do have lots of cute shoes, retro handbags and vintage jewelry for awesome prices that benefit a good cause.

As I shopped, four black women and one white woman — of different ages but all of whom were varying degrees of fat — browsed the racks while talking and laughing with one another. It didn’t take long though for their conversation to veer towards the weight-loss and calorie-counting and general body disparagement talk otherwise known as “fat talk.” (I mention the womens’ ethnicities only because I feel this shows how “fat talk” transgresses age, ethnic, and class lines as a way for women to bond with one another.)

One of the women struck me as newly fat, that is, her weight gain must have been relatively recent, perhaps after having children or as she aged. She expressed great surprise at the ways in which people now related to her and treated her as a fat woman compared with her experiences as a previously thin woman. Her anecdotes especially intrigued me because often, people (like me) who have been fat for an extended period of time become impervious to or unconscious of the discriminatory treatment hurled their way as the result of their fatness. This is not to say these fat people are ignorant or unfeeling of weight-based oppression, but that time and long-term exposure to discrimination may lead one to become immune to it.

The woman brought up her experiences using public transportation, noting how people often give her dirty looks and how despite her age (I’d guesstimate between 40s – 50s) wouldn’t offer her their seats or even move to make room for her.* Another woman, the largest of the group, had this sage advice to offer to the slighted woman:

“Honey, I just look at ‘em and say, “Move over, I’m SITTING down!’”

I nearly dropped the shoe I was looking at and bowled over in laughter. Could you imagine if all similarly marginalized people boasted this same degree of self-confidence and assertiveness and fought for their civil rights and personal dignity as this woman did?

I hate confrontation and can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve confronted someone face-to-face on their weight-based treatment of me or others. On those few occasion I’ve done so – read about one here - my hands shook and my legs quivered, but I left the experience with a feeling of superwoman empowerment like none other. How about you? Have you ever stood up for yourself or others in a similar way? Any tips for others on how to best stand up for themselves?

* The issue of fat people and public transportation is one that has been covered recently by the Boston Globe’s Miss Conduct here and related conversations here and here at Shapely Prose.

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There are currently 11 responses to “Sticking up for ourselves”

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  1. 1 On May 19th, 2008, Lisa B said:

    I have been fat a long time as well and perhaps am not as sensitive to the looks and comments of others as someone newly fat. I have experienced it, however. How I react depends on who is doing it, for example, a child. I once had a boy come up to me and say with a triumphant glitter in his eyes, “You’re fat!” my reply was “I know, and its okay with me” because he was too young to pounce on, like 10. Mostly, I reply in the “That’s your opinion, and you’re stuck with it, unless you get some brains” If it were to defend another person, I would focus more on how the victim was feeling that the others.

  2. 2 On May 19th, 2008, Lindsay B said:

    Gah. I really hate how not only “Okay” it is to talk about stuff like Organ Mutilation(sorry- Gastric Bypass) and dieting and whatnot, but an acceptable mode of bonding with friends- “We’re in this together, we’re losing weight, we’re struggling together”. Which inevitably leads to friends being jealous of one another if one plateaus while the other skyrockets down, or gains.

    I work in a plus-size clothing store, so I get a LOT of women who put themselves down while buying clothes. “This color calls too much attention to me,” “Why would they design these in horizontal stripes? That just makes things look worse!” “I can’t go sleeveless. It’ll show off my arm-fat.” “I shouldn’t buy any more clothing- I’m trying to lose weight, and should save all my money for smaller clothing.” and so on, and so on, and so on. The most painful thing for me to listen to is nonsense about people getting gastric bypass, and how much emphasis they’re putting on it.

    This one woman commented when I asked her about it doubtfully, “Well, *I* need it. I have diabetes, and this will help make that go away.” Talk about misinformation! But I couldn’t say anything but, “Well….good luck with that…” (because I was working and don’t want to be fired for being “rude” with a customer). It’s very frustrating, this culture of ours.

    When I’m NOT on the job, I spend lots of time standing up for myself and others. My cousin, someone studying to be a nurse, insisted that since she was “Studying Medicine”, she knew better than i did about health. That may be so, but as much valid information is out there, there’s also misinformation. She, I, and her husband argued for a while over the nature of fat and its inherent evil. I felt better by the end of it, though, having at least convinced them not to label ALL fat as “unhealthy”.

  3. 3 On May 19th, 2008, twilightriver said:

    There are many forms of assertiveness. My mother is the kind of person who flatly tells people to make room because she is sitting down.

    I’m a little more subtle, but equally straight forward. I politely ask people to make room when I need it. I question people about the thinking behind bigoted comments or offer alternative interpretations of situations.

    My mother simply says, “God! That’s so ignorant! Don’t be such a jerk!”

    Both tactics are effective. The difference is that she is a very friendly and talkative person and I’m a very quiet person.

  4. 4 On May 19th, 2008, Lisa B said:

    Regarding LindsayB’s comment, I was also in a great plus-sized clothing store in San Francisco and a mother and daughter were there searching for clothes for a wedding. Daughter says to the employee trying to help her “I need something that will hide my arms and stomach!” I felt I had to say at that time “If you focus on hiding things, you’re not focus on showcasing your good parts.” She had great legs and beautiful hair.

  5. 5 On May 20th, 2008, Sherie S said:

    It gets easier with practice! I used to be that way, shaky knees and such. Then something happened! I started confronting people and now I kick myself if I DON’t confront people. I remember one time I was fanning someone’s smoke away. Didn’t ask her to move, didn’t say ONE WORD to her, was just fanning it away because I am very allergic to smake. She started a verbal altercation and thought a weight comment would be the ultimate cut. You could tell by her body language she thought she just delivered the knock out punch. I said something incredibly vicious to her in return! It could tell it affected her. She got all wimpy and sheepish! The power dynamics immediately changed. She was the one who left with her tail between her legs. I look at it this way. I bet she will think twice about a weight comment again. Do I care more about a person like her, or the next fat woman she might come in contact with who is not as thick skinned as myself? No question in my mind. Sometimes it is them or us and I chose us. I used to believe every situation could be handled with kindness. Maybe that is still true but assertiveness sure expedites things!!!

  6. 6 On May 20th, 2008, Jackie said:

    I’ve been a tomboy since I was a girl, so I’ve had relatively no problem standing up to myself, because I wasn’t indoctrinated with the “Women should always please, be quiet, and not make waves” message. Actually, I realized after watching the Rainbow Brite & the Star Stealer movie, that alot of that probably came because Rainbow Brite never backed down for anyone.

    I tend not to engage people in discussions of fat though, because their statements back to me tend to be so juvenile, that it makes my brain hurt just to process them. Like, saying “I can eat whatever I want, when I want, and that’s none of your buisness!” I’ll usually get back, “haw haw but your fat”.

    Alot of times I feel that trying to educate some people about size acceptance, is like trying to educate a schoolyard bully on why what they say hurts others. Most of the time if I bring up size acceptance in chat rooms, I’ll usually be either ignored, or told I’m being off-topic and that’s simply not important there. It’s hard not to want to give up, when it seems nobody wants to have a real discussion about the issues of fat discrimination. I also find it difficult to not bring up issues of fat discrimination, when someone starts in about fat talk. Then I’m usually seen as some sort of joykill, cause I’m not participating in traditional self-desparaging women talk.

    The only time I really sucessfully helped someone not loose weight, was in high school. A girl named Rhiannon, who I thought was gorgeous, said she was going to wire her jaw shut to loose weight. So I freaked out and thought, hmm what could deter this. I said to her, “Well if your jaw is wired shut, and you puke, what will you do then?” The next day she said she decided against it. I think it’s a bit weird that the only way I felt to solve the problem was to bring up the issue of puking. However, I also feel that most women wouldn’t have felt it was their position to bring up such a disgusting thought, to save a friend’s life.

  7. 7 On May 21st, 2008, Christie said:

    I am never been fat but I am always a feminist that’s why I liked this post (and its comments too!). I grew up with a friend who is always a few pounds heavy. I always admire her on how she would come up with quick comebacks with people commenting about her weight. She would go like “I am fat because my mom is a better cook than yours!” that sort. Not a single day I heard her felt bad on her weight. That after sometime, people around us hardly notice her few pounds and just see her creative personality. I am still amazed on how she was able to change people’s initial perception about her because of her weight by being able to stick for herself with creativity added.

  8. 8 On May 21st, 2008, Kristie said:

    I didn’t really feel discriminated against because of my fat, but after I lost 50 lbs. (all through exercise), I was stunned by the attention and the privileges that seemed to come with suddenly being visible that way. Instant upgrades to my car rental by cute counter boys was one of the big pluses, as I was traveling a lot for work back then. Not all of it was good attention, though. If I dressed to accentuate the positive, there were men who stared at me in this predatory way I’d never experienced before, and now the women looked me up and down, as if I were competition. I realized that fat is social camouflage, for better and worse. But that’s not why I’m fat. I’m not afraid to be thin; I’m afraid to not eat, and refuse to make working out my additional part-time job, because that’s what it would take to overcome my body’s natural way of being.

    FA has been so good for me. I’ve been feeling the mental weight slide off as I accept my physical weight as a fact and not a commentary. I relate to the gals in the plus-size shops not wanting to accentuate their fatness. I am now wearing sleeveless shirts and whatever, because I realized “I don’t have to hide my fat because I CAN’T hide my fat.” I was never fooling anyone into thinking I was a thin girl through my cunning use of sleeves. The only one I was fooling was myself.

  9. 9 On May 22nd, 2008, Links that may amuse » Manolo for the Big Girl! said:

    [...] woman, the largest of the group, had this sage advice to offer to the slighted [...]

  10. 10 On May 22nd, 2008, Melissa said:

    Mmm, Lindsay, often, losing a substantial amount of weight DOES improve overall health, and can alleviate or even eliminate chronic conditions and the need to medicate them. It’s unfortunate that anyone ‘needs’ to consider self-mutilation, but for a few folks, it’s really a last resort, and preferable to dying a far-too-early death from heart disease and diabetes. Natural, healthy weight loss and maintainence, though challenging, is ALWAYS preferable. One of my fellow teachers had a revelation when, after not weighing himsef for over three years (too heavy for regular scales to calibrate), he stepped onto an industrial scale at a farm supply store to which he had driven his father. Shocked to learn that he weighed over 400 pounds, and suffering from multipe chronic illnesses, he joined Weight Watchers out of a genuine fear of premature death (he’s 40). He embarked on a plan of sensible eating habits and a little bit of walking each week. In two years, he’s lost about 220 pounds, the healthy, safe way. He no longer requires meds for diabetes, hypertension, and elevated cholesterol. He also reports many fewer daily aches and pains, and energy levels that are through the roof. Draw whatever conclusions you choose.

  11. 11 On October 28th, 2009, You can lead a woman to body-positive messages, but you can’t make her believe them. » said:

    [...] office this afternoon on my lunch break — it’s the same boutique I blogged about here.  The boutique offers consignment-quality used clothes that benefit Dress for Success, a [...]

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