Breaking Down Fat Stigma: Shame

Published August 20, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I talk about fat stigma a lot here on Fat Heffalump.  It’s the biggest problem fat people face and clearly the most damaging.  Far more damaging than being fat is, that’s for sure.  I want to start breaking down some of the components of fat stigma and talking about strategies to overcome those as a fat person.  Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of posts along this theme.

Tonight I want to talk about shame.  For me at least, and I know my experience is not universal but I am sure there are plenty of you who feel the same way, the shame placed on me as a fat person has been the most painful aspect of fat stigma, the hardest to overcome, and very much the one that has done the most damage to me.

Fat people are shamed at every turn.  We are shamed for being fat.  We are shamed for not being healthy enough (regardless of how healthy we actually are).  We are shamed for not being active enough, but if we are publicly active, we are shamed for that too.  We are shamed for being sloppy dressers, but if we do manage to find nice clothes and take pride in our appearance, we are shamed for that as well.  We are shamed for wearing shapeless sacks, and we are shamed if we wear anything that reveals any skin.  We are shamed for eating “junk” food, but should we be seen eating “healthy” food we are shamed for that as well (I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that “It will take more than salad to fix you, fat bitch.”)  We are shamed if we hide ourselves away from the world, and we are shamed if we appear in public.  We are shamed if we do not work, and then we are shamed if we dare to want a career and be treated the same as everyone else.  We are shamed for needing health care (and it is implied that we require more than others), but often we are shamed once we get health care for not getting it sooner.  We are shamed if we make no mention of our fatness, and yet if we do, if we are proud of ourselves and own our fatness, we are shamed for that as well.

No matter which way we turn, there is always someone waiting to heap shame on our shoulders.  Many people will say that they’re “Telling it like it is.” or somehow trying to help us when they put shame on us.  But there is one stark fact that we know for sure:

You cannot shame someone for their own good.

You just can’t.  Shaming someone has absolutely no benefit for them at all, just damage.  And shaming someone isn’t about helping them, it’s about making them feel bad, shutting them up, oppressing them and quite often, making the shamer feel better about themselves.

But what does help people, is letting go of shame.  Is empowering them to advocate for themselves, and to feel like they are able to deal with whatever life throws their way.  Empowering them to live their lives to the fullest, within their personal circumstances, that they can.

Every day of our lives, we hear, over and over, that fat people should be ashamed of themselves, for a myriad of reasons.  When you hear so many stories of fat people who are unhappy with their lives, it is so often because they feel worthless, ashamed of themselves because they are fat.  They loathe themselves because the world around them has told them they should.

People who feel worthless and unhappy don’t take care of themselves as well as they can.  When someone hates their body, they’re not going to treat it well and care for it the best they can.  Instead they are going to punish themselves, deprive themselves and look for ways to change who they are.

However, when someone has strong self esteem, and doesn’t carry that forced shame on their shoulders, they are able to do so much more for themselves in their lives.  They cope better with adversity in their lives (which none of us can avoid, we all go through tough times), they are able to focus better on their work and other life matters, they feed themselves better, are more likely to be active and to seek out quality health care.

So, as people who have shame heaped on us from every quarter at any opportunity, what can we fat people do to let go of that shame, and not carry a burden that is not ours to carry?

I can only share what has worked for me, but perhaps some of you have strategies and methods that you would like to share as well.  For me, surrounding myself with positivity helps.  Be it online or in reality.  I have found that the people I have in my life now are far more positive and progressive than when I was in that dark place of shame and self loathing.  I read different things and watch different movies/television shows.  I don’t read magazines or newspapers that indulge in shaming any more, and I am far more selective about which movies and TV shows I watch.  When it comes to my online reading, I find things that build my self esteem and confidence, rather than tear it down.  The same goes for the friends I surround myself with.  When I look back now, I was the whipping girl for so many of the people I called “friend”.  I was the fat girl they used to make themselves feel better.  That’s not a friendship, that’s abuse.

Self care is really important too.  Making sure that I take time to look after myself, be it just a pampering in a nice hot shower, time to read or relax some other way, making myself a nutritious meal, or just finding a way to de-stress when things get a bit much for me.

What also works for me is thinking of the shame as a metaphor.  Mine is kind of gross, but I like to think of the shame people try to hand me about my fat body as a big steaming turd.  I didn’t make that turd, and it’s not mine to carry.  When people try to hand me that steaming turd of shame, I metaphorically hand it right back to them and think to myself “That is yours to carry.”  Sometimes you might get a bit on yourself and have to take some time to clean up with some self care, but it’s still not yours to carry.

I know, it’s gross, but the metaphor works for me!

So how do you work your way through shame?  Has letting go of shame about your body helped you in any way?  Or are you still carrying around some that you need help shedding?

19 comments on “Breaking Down Fat Stigma: Shame

  • the thing i do to cheer myself up when surrounded by judgement and stigma is that everyone moment I am in the world being myself (being sick, or working, or exersizing or eating or wearing a clingy top) that I am incredibly strong because I push back the tide of the world. I PUSH BACK the tide of the world by my courage in leaving my house and being exactly who I am. I took a twenty minute walk to the bank this morning and a woman actually slowed down her car to yell something at me (i was wearing headphones so her insult was garbled) – and it wasn’t to compliment my short skirt, no doubt. We are so strong – we have great courage and strength to be who we are and no constantly try to fit in with the lies.

    The other things that have helped: watching less tv and movies and mainstream media. that has helped an incredible amount! tv is mind-poison. When someone tries to stigmatize me by saying something nasty I smile broadly to myself like life is wonderful and pretend not to hear them; sometimes when I get judgemental looks on my appearance, I say to myself “i get power from your hatred”.

    Great topic and passionately written essay, thanks.

    • You do indeed push back, and you are indeed strong for doing so. Every one of us who pushes back against the tide of fat shaming is strong, even if we can’t do it all the time.

  • This is so beautiful a post, I am so touched by it….I feel my soul shaking with the Truth of it. Bless you…..
    I live in a group-type housing. This morning, after breakfast, “Super Freak” came on the radio, which was playing in the dining room. I let myself dance, and dance I did. I moved my hips, I swayed, and smiled. There happened to be a little girl in the dining room. She is beautiful, a year old now. And there you have it: a FAT chick dancing with abandon with a one year old beautiful child.
    Was it fun? Oh yes!
    Did I experience shame afterwards? Oh yes.
    “People” were watching. What did they think of me? Were they horrified? ~~
    I am sure I was giggling my hips, and backside, and breasts…….
    But, for me, I CHOSE TO LET IT GO.
    I chose to look at the beauty of the experience, and the fun of it.
    More and more, that is *my* way of working with the shame I often feel.
    Thank you for listening. Bless you all.
    And, onward.

  • One thing that has helped me on the way to self-acceptance is to not allow myself to judge others on appearance. I’m not so afraid of being judged myself now that I have taken a concious stand that it’s not acceptable behaviour.

    Another thing that really, really helps is reading blogs like this. ❤

  • My biggest thing about shame is regret. I got fat in my mid 20s and I spent the next 12 years – the best years of my life – being ashamed of myself. I thought nobody would ever find me attractive. Looking back, it was obvious that plenty of people did! But I couldn’t see that. What a total waste of time and energy.

    I tell you what I used to hate, and that was thin people telling me that fat didn’t matter, the person did. Obviously people who cared about me picked up on my low self esteem and were trying to help, but I found their efforts patronising. “Yeah, but you’d die if you got fat, wouldn’t you?” I used to think to myself.

    Except that they were right.

  • I couldn’t agree more, Kath– what the hell does shaming accomplish?

    I refuse to be bound by shame anymore. I’d rather tune those assholes out (as difficult as it can be sometimes) and enjoy my life. Whether it be when I’m strength training, playing computer games, cooking delicious meals or getting takeout from my favorite local joints, going to shows and playing guitar….fuck, there’s just too much good stuff in life to care about asswipes that want to try and tell me I cant enjoy those things because I’m fat.

    Fuck that. Too bad for them if they put those limits on their own lives, I refuse to put them on mine.

  • You are so right. Shaming accomplishes nothing and helps no one. I also have regret about all the times I felt ashamed of myself, not because of what I did or who I am but simply because other people made me feel like I had to be.

    Instead of wasting my energy on feelings that bring nothing helpful or positive into my life I try to focus on the good. Not in an unrealistic way but in a damn it, I am awesome no matter what my size way.

  • Shame. Powerful thing that. I can’t write much, but I share all the above experiences and wanted to say that the woman who danced with the child, I would love to have seen that. That is who I want to be. And yes fuck all those who have a problem with it.

  • I still carry some shame to this day, if only because, again, a lot of the shame originates not just from being not thin enough, but generally from not being good enough, and my body was just one more thing that didn’t measure up.

    For me, it’s a little harder to let go of the shame since I’ve been living with it since I was five, and body shame was just another thing to be ashamed of on top of the other stuff I’m not supposed to like about myself, but it’s a process, like letting go of the shame for all the other stuff.

    As for the metaphor thing, life is a video store and Shame is a cheap knock-off…of an edutainment series. Some misguided or malicious person will get this DVD for you because it’s “good for you” or something to that effect, but as you watch it, it becomes painfully clear that the one who gave you this DVD was someone who either clearly guessed way off the mark, or clearly hated you.

    Or something like that.

    • Rubyfruit I think we all still battle shame at some time or another, no matter how entrenched in Fat Acceptance that we get. We’ve had it battered into us for so long, most of us since we were children, that it’s a constant task to work past it. We just keep working as best we can, and support each other in the process.

      And I like your metaphor!

  • Oh dear, once again you have made me cry. Unfortunately I am sat at my desk at work which makes me look like a crazy person but hey ho!! This is so resonant for me as yesterday i was witness to some horrific fat shaming by my very oldest friends concerning another friend and her husband who weren’t present at the time. They’ve just got married been on an awesome honeymoon and have put on some weight and three of my friends were saying that they have gone down hill since the wedding, one of them commented on how they would hate their wedding photos in the future for not having lost weight and then they started on how how they should lose weight to start a family and one of them said what because they are too fat to do it… and those were the tamer of the comments. I was so angry that I actually couldnt speak, all my FA facts and figures went out of my head and all i could do was lock myself in the toilet and have a little cry… When i mentioned how upset i was by this to my best friend i phrased it as I hate to think what you all say about me when i’m not here and she said “oh i never talk about you as you say your happy… well you say you are.” I have known these people since nursery school so thirty years and i thought they loved me no matter what but now i just dont know what to think. I’m feeling a little inclined to email them a link to your site but it worries me that they wouldnt even get why i might do that.

    • Ugh, I have times like that too Kelly. These days I get a bit snotty with people and say things like “Guys, what business of yours how anyone looks or lives their life?” or even “Can you not talk like that in front of me, it does my head in.”

      But honestly, mostly now I cut people like that out of my life. I don’t treat others like that and I’ll be damned if I waste my precious life with people like that!

      Big fat hugs!

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