British businesswoman Martha Coupe was sitting in an almost-empty train car on the way back from work. Suddenly, someone screamed “You big fat pig” before physically attacking Coupe, leaving her with forty bruises and one eye swollen shut. The attacker was restrained by another passenger, but got off at the next stop before the police could arrive. Coupe’s crime? She was taking up two seats.
An article on BBC News and a subsequent commentary by Kate Harding explore the implications of hate crimes committed against fat people, abuse that is both generally unnoticed and socially accepted. Some people, Denise Winterman writes for the BBC, would be surprised that Coupe’s attacker was another middle-aged woman. But Coupe herself was not.
“Fat people are fair game for everyone,” said Coupe, who weighs around 300 lbs. “Yes, I’ve had beer cans thrown at me by youngsters, but the abuse doesn’t just come from the obvious places. The normal rules about behaviour, respect and common courtesy don’t apply to us.”
The reasons for the alienation, abuse and open criticism of people who are significantly overweight stems from many causes, and Winterman’s article goes into these in depth. Susie Orbach, the author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, thinks it comes down to society’s all-consuming pressures to be slim: “Often,” she says, “it’s not the larger person’s excess weight that is the problem, it’s the other people’s obsession with being thin.”
Still others blame fat people because of the common perception that their weight is their “fault,” or that people are overweight because of laziness and a lack of control. This ignorance is not something that many go out of their way to correct. And although genetic makeup has a lot to do with weight, the dialogue around personal health has created a significant stigma around being overweight, even though weight is not always the best way of determining health.
“The government and the press have created an atmosphere where people think they have a legitimate right to go up to an overweight person and tell them how to live their lives,” said Coupe. “To them we are all the anonymous pictures of fat people they see in the papers and are the cause of all society’s ills, as well as a drain on the NHS. We deserve what we get. We’re not people with feelings.”
Winterman also posits the idea that people have innate negative reactions to people they find unattractive, and that dislike of excessive weight often provoke even more negative attitudes. However, Kate Harding is right to point out that we can’t excuse ourselves so easily on this point – as she writes, “Noting that negative reactions to “unattractive people” are not completely within the average person’s control…is one thing. Implying that this means we all have an instinctive aversion to fatties is quite another. The idea that fat people are categorically, universally unattractive is a function of fat hatred, not a reasonable explanation for it.”
This incident happened just days before the release of the new issue of Glamour, the one that has the much-touted spread of plus-size models. Many hope that the move toward models that actually look like real people in major fashion magazines will open up a necessary conversation about body image, one that can dispel some of the sizeism promoted by the mainstream media. But it’s also hard to see the Glamour spread as a huge step forward.
Ximena Ramirez wrote a great post for Care2 about this a few days ago, and she rightly points out one of the more interesting aspects of Glamour‘s coverage: the fact that “plus-size models aren’t all that ‘plus.’” Turns out, “plus-size models” can actually be as small as a size 6. One model in the photo shoot even had to pad herself out because she was too small for plus-size clothing. And although it’s encouraging that Glamour is trying to convince designers to produce clothes in larger sample sizes, moving up from a 4 to an 8 is less significant than the media buzz would lead us to believe. The “average American woman” is 4-6 sizes bigger than that, and a woman who is a size 8 would never experience the emotional and physical abuse inflicted upon people who are significantly more overweight.
This is something that filters into even the most liberal bastions – Cintra Wilson’s now-infamous article about Manhattan’s new J.C. Penney published in the New York Times last August is a case in point. Yes, there was a huge online outcry about Wilson’s snobbery and prejudice, and she was forced to issue an apology (although it was resentful and qualified), but what about the editors who let that article through? And the people who said that it wasn’t so much sizeism as it was classism?
Mulling over the abuse that was inflicted on Coupe, Harding writes, “We can’t pretend that such abuse is somehow separate from the moral panic over obesity, the fiction that looks-based hatred is hard-wired, the way our collective guilt about overconsumption is projected onto fat people, the automatic equation of fatness with laziness and greed, and a million little fat jokes that people “didn’t really mean anything by.” And it’s true that sizeism is still one of the most acceptable prejudices (think about all the fat jokes you see in mainstream films) – and although Coupe’s story is extreme, it’s far from abnormal.
This is something we can change, starting with our own relationships to our bodies and the way that we discuss weight generally. Don’t crack that fat joke – or obsess loudly over the number of calories in your lunch. Don’t make the assumption that weight is directly correlated to laziness or greed. It’s hard to do, because our society makes sizeism and fattism so normal, but it can start with us.
What do you think? How can we expand the discussion about sizeism so that anti-fat hate crimes – and smaller emotional abuse – become unacceptable?
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.