Dr. Pattie Thomas and her husband Carl Wilkerson wrote a book called Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life that is just really awesome. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth investing in.
The first chapter of the book has 10 fat myths. As I read them, I had so many ideas and thoughts and things I wanted to say about each one. I contacted Dr. Thomas and she said that it would be okay for me to use her list to talk about each of the myths here. So–welcome to a 10-week series.
Myth number ten on the list: Fat is ugly.
This is the last of the myths in Taking Up Space. And, in my opinion, perhaps the biggest. In fact, I’d like to make a case for the idea that all of the rest of the myths stem from this one.
When it comes to the current war on obesity and culture of fat hatred in the Western world, beauty and health have combined for a one-two punch that is particularly devastating to women. Perhaps if we were being told that we needed to be thin only to be beautiful, breaking away from that myth would be easier. But we are also bombarded by the message that our fat is going to kill us and makes us bad mothers.
The current culture of fat hatred hits us where it hurts the most, in our softest, most vulnerable places.
This is a message that isn’t going anywhere any time soon, either, unless we make a concerted effort to get rid of it. Because the billions of dollars we spend trying to keep the ugly and death at bay line the pockets of people who are highly motivated to keep us believing that there is only one way to be beautiful, and if you don’t fit that mold you will die. Worse, if you don’t meet it, you’re probably killing your children and are definitely causing the rest of society a lot of trouble.
The war on obesity takes our vanity and tells us that it is a matter of life or death. It ties beauty up with civic duty and responsibility. It is so entangled in parental love that many believe it is irresponsible not to crush their children’s self-esteem in the name of keeping them at or helping them reach a “healthy” weight.
Occasionally, I’ll see someone write somewhere the opinion that it’s wrong to say that everyone is beautiful. That theory goes like this: we don’t say everyone is rich or everyone is tall, so why say everyone is beautiful when clearly everyone is not. The giant hole in that theory is that rich or tall are not subjective. Beauty is.
Sure, there are some people people who fit a model that many, many people consider beautiful. I don’t need to list the qualities that land people in this category. All you have to do is turn on your TV, go to the movies or open a magazine. But does that mean that everyone else is ugly? Is beautiful even a continuum like that, where some people are and others aren’t?
I know that in my “no bathing suits in public” years (and there were a LOT of those), I never once thought that any other fat person looked hideous in one.
I used to have a friend whom I really cared about, who had a giant list of things she couldn’t do. She couldn’t go out without a sweater to cover her arms, even in the summer. We took a trip to Washington D.C. together one July and she wore a sweater the entire time. She wouldn’t wear a light color on the bottom, never a swimsuit without clothing over it and there was some rule about shoes that I don’t remember now.
Her insecurity messed me up. Every time I was around her, she talked about her rules and I got all self-conscious. Did my ass look bigger in khakis than in dark blue jeans? Am I scary without a sweater on? Oh, my God, what about the shoe thing? It had something to do with ankles looking fat.
She always said, when I told her how upset I was, that she wasn’t talking about me. Even though we were roughly the same height and weight, she didn’t think I looked bad in a swimsuit at all. We eventually grew apart because I couldn’t bear her insecurity, and she couldn’t bear mine either.
But I do believe that she didn’t think my arms were ugly or that I looked bad in white pants. Her self view was so skewed that she couldn’t see herself clearly anymore. Why did she think she was so ugly that she needed a whole platoon of rules to follow before she subjected the world to herself?
Because she’s fat. And fat people are indoctrinated to believe that we are ugly and that it’s our responsibility not to force anyone to be in our presence. Of course, we have to be in some people’s presence, some of the time, so we’re taught to do what we can to blend in and not make a spectacle of ourselves. And we are indoctrinated that way because there is a whole industry dedicated to taking our money with promises to make us thinner, and thus more beautiful. And because we are too smart to do this to ourselves for vanity alone, they’ve convinced us, and most of the rest of the world that what makes us ugly also makes us bad.
When, really, fat is ugly is nothing more than a hurtful, nasty myth. The big kahuna of all fat myths. The one that would bring down the whole fat hatred machine if only we could find a way to bust it.