Social media have the power to connect people, to spread knowledge and information, to allow communication across cultural and other barriers. I have seen such things happen during my time on Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, I have also seen the dark side of social media, and another perfect example reared its ugly head this week. Under the hashtag #FatShamingWeek, tweets like the one above (which is one of the less offensive, I’m sorry to say) attempt to make overweight women — because most of the tweets are aimed specifically at women — feel unattractive, ostensibly “for their own good.” (I’m happy to report that there is now a counter-movement and many have posted tweets under the same hashtag expressing pride in their bodies and respect for others regardless of size.) I don’t know who started the hashtag, or how they think this will give anyone motivation to lose weight (when in reality, fat shaming more often leads to gaining weight), or why they believe someone else’s body size is any of their damned business. What I do know is that reading it as an overweight woman myself was still hurtful, even after years of trying to work through my own body image issues. I refuse to give more attention to people behaving so cruelly, so I won’t link to specific tweets (which can be found under the hashtag above anyway), but here are direct quotes from a few of them: “The fatter you get, the less you will be loved.” “I’m fed up with visiting popular restaurant chains that resemble overrun troughs full of sweaty, obese pigs.” “Ever seen a fat girl with a hot boyfriend? Me neither!” “Overweight women do not deserve the love of a decent man. All they will get is ugly, wimpy males.” There are others that imply raping a fat girl is okay because they are so desperate for male attention that “fat means yes.” And another is too horrible for me to even quote (I pray no vulnerable overweight teens read it), in which a man suggests suicide as an option for those who fail at weight loss. Part of me wishes I had never stumbled across this incredibly hateful group of tweets. On the other hand, it did make me reflect on my own reactions to being called “fat,” and that is something I must continue to do if that word is ever to lose its power over me. There are certainly more important things going on in the world, but I do not feel like enough of an expert to blog intelligently on the government shutdown or the situation in Syria or other such headline-worthy topics. Having been fat-shamed for most of my life, however, I do feel that I have the authority to write about this one.
The first time I can remember being called fat was the first day of kindergarten. That was over thirty years ago now, but I can still see the little boy’s sneer as he told me, “You have a fat baby belly!” How is it that at age five I had already learned that fat was a terrible thing to be? I spent the rest of our playtime crying quietly in a corner of the classroom. Probably not long after that, my little brother figured out that “fat” was the most hurtful insult he could hurl at me, and he used it often. Over the years, I was taunted with that word by many schoolmates and neighborhood kids, and not all of them were boys. Some of the most shame-inducing comments came during a fifth grade slumber party, when the girl hosting the party brought out her bathroom scale and insisted that each of her guests take a turn on it. I was the last holdout, but eventually I let the other girls bully me into stepping on to the scale. I regretted it a few seconds later, when the numbers came up and I heard gasps of, “Oh my God! I didn’t know you were that fat!” Even one friend’s quiet assurance, “Don’t worry; maybe you can lose weight,” was cold comfort. Of all the girls there, I weighed the most. And I knew already that the numbers on that scale were more than a measurement of what I weighed. They were a statement on my worth as a human being.
How did I learn that? And how the hell do I unlearn it? Even today, though grown-ups are generally less likely to say such things than children, when someone makes a comment about my weight, I hear so much more than that. A new friend (who sometimes has no filter between his brain and his mouth) told me this summer, when I was complaining about the heat and how much I was sweating, that it would help if I lost about 40 pounds. Once I recovered from the shock enough to speak, one of the first things I said was, “I’m a good person!” In a very confused tone, he replied, “I never said you weren’t.” But that is what I heard. I have been so programmed, so conditioned by our fat-shaming culture that whenever someone points out in any way that I am overweight (a fact that is never far from the front of my mind, I can assure you), I believe they must also think that I am lazy, gluttonous,
unattractive repulsive, irresponsible, weak, out of shape, embarrassing — in a word, worthless. Lately, I am either at the gym, cycling, or running at least four times a week, and a lot more of my meals originate at the farmers’ market than the drive-thru or frozen food aisle. But the very fact that I feel the need to tell you that, to justify myself by proving to you that at least I am making some effort not to be fat, means that I am part of the problem. It means that I have judged myself and other people in ways that are horribly unfair. By not properly loving either my neighbor or myself, I have dishonored God. I have sinned.
I believe, as it is written in Genesis, that people were created in the imago Dei, the image of God. We have a tendency to spiritualize that, to live within a Platonic duality in which body and soul have nothing to do with one another. But I have come to understand that our entire being — physical and spiritual — bears the stamp of imago Dei. I have often told myself that friends and family don’t really see my body, because I couldn’t wrap my head around how anyone could see me as both fat and worthy of their love. In attempts at improving my self-image, I sometimes heard and said, “The physical doesn’t matter; it’s who you are inside that counts.” Of course I would rather be remembered for my kindness or creativity or intelligence or strength or compassion or a hundred other qualities than for the way my body looks. “I am more than my body,” I tell myself. And yet . . .
As a Christian, I also believe in the Incarnation, the idea that God, in Jesus Christ, became a human being, body and soul. During his time on earth, even after his return from the grave, Jesus was a physical being. Were there things he didn’t like about his body? Did he go through an awkward adolescent phase, wishing that he could be shorter or taller, fatter or thinner, with different hair or less acne? Part of me thinks that since he was the Son of God and all, maybe he had more important things on his mind. But part of me can’t imagine a fully human existence that didn’t include some body image insecurities. Don’t we all go through that at some point? In any case, through Jesus, the Word made flesh, God said a lot of things, and one of those things was that bodies — all bodies — are good. It isn’t just our souls that God cares about, because it wasn’t just soul-Jesus that left the tomb. It was also body-Jesus, scars and all. One of my favorites, Frederick Buechner, had this to say about it in his book, Wishful Thinking:
“As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of man is not that he has a body but that he is a body. When God made Adam, he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul. Thus the body and soul which make up a man are as inextricably part and parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire. . . The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn’t is an idea which implies that the body is something rather gross and embarrassing like a case of hemorrhoids. . . The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention. . . All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made him the particular human being he was and which he needs something like a body to express: his personality, the way he looked, the sound of his voice, his peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense his face. The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of man’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love.”
God’s love was made manifest, Christians believe, in the body of Jesus Christ, a body with thirtysomething years of wear and tear on it, a body broken and scarred by human violence. Can I believe that everybody I see — every body I see — is also loved by God? Even the ones called ugly? Even the ones affected by illness or injury? Even the ones damaged by their own choices? Even the one I see in the mirror each day? I am trying. I hope that one day I can hear, “You’re fat,” and have the same emotional response I would if the person had said, “You have brown hair.” I hope that with a lot of time and prayer I can someday believe not only that I am a good person, but that I am a good body, no matter my shape or size, and can extend that same grace to everyone I meet. I have a ways to go. Shame takes a long time to heal. But I have hope that we’ll get there. By God’s grace, I hope that some future generation will have no concept of shaming people for the way their bodies look or function, but will see the potential for goodness and love in every body. Lord, hear our prayer.