I’m a fan of Abby Howard, a cartoonist who does two excellent webcomics: The Last Halloween (comedy-horror), and Junior Scientist Power Hour (autobio/gags). She was also the best reason to watch Strip Search. Go check out all those links, then come back here. I’ll wait.
… are you back yet? Yes? Cool.
As I said, I’m a fan. Which is why I feel intensely conflicted about this new comic of hers. It’s about fat shaming, a subject I’ve been personally familiar with for decades.
Fat shaming is the act of making overweight/obese people feel ashamed of their non-ideal bodies. As Abby hints in her comic, and reinforces in the blurb she wrote below it, fat shaming is usually much more subtle and insidious than “ha ha, look at Fatty Fat-fat!” And, as Abby says, the subtle stuff is far more destructive than the overt teasing, especially in the long run. It’s a societal problem, and like most societal problems it’s invisible to those not affected, but deeply personal to those who are.
I’m fat. Not “pudgy” or “could lose a few pounds.” I’m straight-up fat. Technically, I’m obese. At this moment, my BMI is 34.2. Yes, I know BMI isn’t a perfect metric, and I know that I have a wide frame and a lot of lean muscle in my legs, but I am definitely obese. I’m lugging around an unhealthy amount of body fat. That’s an objective, inarguable fact, and it’s plainly evident from a cursory look at my physique.
And yes, I am ashamed of this. Even though my logical mind knows I have no reason for it, some part of me is ashamed of my body, and always has been. I’ve been fat for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been ashamed of being fat for as long as I can remember.
When you’re a fat kid, the first sign you’re undesirable comes from the overt insults and teasing of your peers. They tell you in no uncertain terms that you’re fat, and that your body is a joke to them. And when you tell a child he’s fat and ugly, he will believe you. Kids (and some adults, to be fair) don’t have the emotional maturity to see the difference between idiotic teasing and sincere criticism. Stupid shit that would bounce off my adult armor today was absorbed and internalized, becoming part of my self-identity.
The overt fat jokes stopped when I hit puberty, but they laid the groundwork for my fat shame. I was a fat kid, a lesser being. Besides, what was to come was far more destructive than any fat joke.
Being a teenager is rough. Being a fat teenager is 80-grit-sandpaper-on-your-asshole rough. At an age when my culture and my own hormones told me I needed to nail as many girls as possible, I got absolutely nowhere with the opposite sex. At the time I assumed girls didn’t want me because I was fat. In retrospect, it’s clear that my low self-confidence about my body was the real issue. If you believe you’re unattractive, your belief tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Photographic evidence suggests I was actually quite a handsome teenager, but my self-image, reinforced by rejection after rejection, told me otherwise.
Schoolyard taunts and opposite sex rejection are just small pieces of a larger issue. Our society is rigged against fat people. Media and entertainment constantly tell us we’re ugly, we’re undesirable, we’re only here to make the hero look good, or be the butt of a joke. We are less than optimal. We can’t wear the nice clothes. We can’t be the protagonist. We don’t get the girl. We don’t get to skip the line at the club. We get judgmental looks when we bring ice cream to the cash register.
And yet, the same society that gives us these messages also seems to want us to stay fat by promoting the hell out of obscene portions of unhealthy food. We’re creating generations of fat kids, only to tell them they’re inferior and unworthy.
The message is subtle in delivery, but crystal clear in intent: You suck. You’ve failed. It’s your fault. And we’re not going to do shit to help you. Not coincidentally, it’s the same message we give to the poor, the jobless, and the mentally ill. Our culture is really good at stomping all over its most vulnerable denizens.
Abby’s comic is a rebellion against fat shaming. It’s an expression of frustration, and a statement that this bullshit won’t be tolerated anymore. She’s certainly not alone in these feelings. I can identify with the frustration, and the “fuck you, my body is fine” sentiment. Abby is (unless I’m completely mistaken) in her early twenties, which, not coincidentally, is the part of my life when I got swept up by this feeling. Years of teasing, female rejection, and societal pressure had piled up, and I was done with it. I was angry. “To hell with those superficial bitches,” I said. “And fuck anyone who doesn’t want me to be fat.” I moved out on my own when I turned twenty, shortly after my parents’ divorce, and became downright hedonistic. I drank gallons of alcohol, ate tons of unhealthy food, barely exercised, and generally stopped giving a damn about anything that wasn’t inside a computer or plugged into a guitar amp.
This led to two outcomes. First, I unexpectedly became attractive to females. Not giving a fuck what people think of you can be mistaken for self-confidence. Second, I began the transition from overweight to obese. In retrospect, this was hardly surprising. It’s also one of my greatest regrets in life.
Obesity. Even the word is ugly.
That’s the dark side of feeling comfortable with your fat body, or, in my case, resigning yourself to your fate as the fat kid. Accepting that you’re fat comes with a real, undeniable cost to your health.
The first half of Abby’s comic is about an interaction with her doctor. This is the part that made me cringe, and is the main reason I wrote this post in the first place. I saw something of my younger self in that comic: the defiance, and the denial of the seriousness of my problem. I’ve had that conversation time and time again, not just with doctors, but with family, partners, and other people who care about me. And each time, I reacted in more or less the same way Abby did.
I now have the benefit of experience, so here’s what I would say to Abby (cartoon Abby, at least — I won’t pretend to know the mind of the real person), and, more critically, to my twenty-something self:
Please, please, please: don’t reflexively brush these people off. Take them seriously. Especially your goddamn doctor. This isn’t about body shaming. It’s about a serious physical health problem. You may not give a shit about your body today, but I guarantee you will in the future, and you’ll be so, so angry with your younger self and the choices he/she made.
“But it’s not a choice,” says twenty-one-year-old Matt. “I’m fat. It’s who I am. I’ll always be this way, and I need to accept it. Besides, I’m otherwise healthy.”
*thirty-six-year-old Matt slaps twenty-one-year-old Matt*
Sorry, younger self. I shouldn’t have done that, but this attitude is not only self-destructive and petty, it’s also flat-out incorrect. It upsets me that I used to think this.
First of all, no, you’re not “otherwise healthy.” You get winded climbing a flight of stairs. That’s bad. Especially at your age. You should be climbing mountains, only pausing to chop down a tree and build a campfire. Instead, you get tired from moderate activity. You sweat constantly. Oh, and listen to this shit:
*makes horrible crunching sound with knees*
*younger self cringes*
See what I mean? You are putting your body through hell. And it’s only going to get worse. Your grandpa had two heart attacks, and he was in great shape. The second one got him in the end. He was the strongest man you’ve ever known. He survived D-Day, for fuck’s sake. What do you think your chances are when that happens to you?
“Shut up!” says younger Matt. “I’ve heard all this shit before. It’s not going to work. All you’re doing is fat shaming me. If you really care about me, you’ll accept me for who I am.”
Listen, I don’t want you to be ashamed. I do accept you. I’m proud of who I am today, and you, younger Matt, are directly responsible for that. To be fair, I completely understand why you see this as fat shaming, but I promise it’s not. It’s legitimate concern for your health … our health. Please trust me. Please take this seriously. Because it is serious.
“I know it’s serious, old Matt, but losing weight is impossible for me. I’ve tried. I can’t do it. I’ve decided to accept that I’ll always be …”
No. Stop right there.
I’m going to say something that will piss off every overweight/obese person reading this, but it’s true; it needs to be said, and it needs to be understood.
Healthy body weight is a choice, and a simple one at that.
Before you go directly to the comment section and tear into me, hear me out.
When I say it’s a simple choice, I literally mean that the choice exists, and is simple, i.e. not complex. The act of losing weight is fucking difficult. I don’t deny that at all. I’ve been down that road many times. And that road gets harder and longer the older you get.
But saying that weight loss is impossible, and that you’ll be fat forever so you might as well accept it, is a lie. It’s a dangerous lie we fat people tell ourselves. We believe this lie because we tried weight loss, we failed, and we don’t want to go through the shame of failure again. It’s much easier to just lie to ourselves and stay the way we are.
My wife often says brilliant things that take a long time to sink into my thick, stupid skull. A couple years ago, as we were planning our wedding, I told her I simply could not get fit and burn off my fat in time for the big day. I told her it was impossible.
She didn’t accept that. “You can’t lose weight because you’ve decided you can’t,” she said. “You just need to choose to do it.”
Initially, I rejected this outright. I was angry at her. How callous and disrespectful of this non-fat person to tell me what I should be doing with my own body! She’s supposed to care about me. She’s supposed to be on my team.
Then I calmed down, and eventually gave her statement serious consideration. Had I decided to be fat? Of course not — not overtly, at least. I would never choose that. But, upon reflection, I realized I had definitely made choices that either kept me fat, or made me fatter. Not big choices. Little ones, the kind you make every day.
This led to the realization: If I can decide, by virtue of my day-to-day decisions, to be fat, I can also decide to not be fat.
What followed was years of hard work on my body, but more importantly, on my relationship with my body. I realized I was making a lot of unconscious choices that kept me fat: idle snacking, big portions, and a tacit refusal to be more physically active. When those choices were brought into the conscious mind, and critically evaluated, everything became clear. Weight loss was no longer impossible, or a mystery. It became a series of small, conscious decisions made over the course of the day. Do I snack on these cheese puffs while I cook dinner, or do I want to lose weight? Do I sit in front of my computer playing video games on a sunny day, or do I want to lose weight?
Since the day my wife prodded me to make that choice, I’ve lost nearly thirty pounds. I feel healthier. My clothes fit better. I look better. I have a new appreciation for hiking and the outdoors. And I’m happier, in general. I have a lot more work to do — as I said, I’m still obese — but I now know that it can be done, that I have choices beyond just accepting it. I’m not trying to be perfect. I accept that I will make bad decisions sometimes, but I refuse to be defined by them.
I’m not writing this to boast, or to teach anyone how to achieve their own health goals, or to tell anyone what they should or should not be doing on a day-to-day basis. You will have different challenges than I do. Your life is your own. Your choices are your own. But you do have those choices. Don’t deny yourself that power.
So what about fat shaming? If being fat is a choice, does that justify it? Is it right to feel ashamed of being fat, given that it’s so harmful to your health?
Absolutely not. It’s never right to feel ashamed of who or what you are. Besides, obesity is a sickness. Is it right to feel ashamed of a cold, or a sprained ankle, or cancer?
Your physique is an important aspect of yourself — one you should accept. You don’t have to like being fat, but you shouldn’t hate yourself for it. Accept it for what it is, understand why you’re this way, and acknowledge that you can be something else if you want to.
In other words: own your fatness.
If someone suggests that you can, or even should lose weight, try not to get your guard up. Yes, their suggestion is annoying, condescending, and misguided. No, they don’t know what it’s really like to be you. But none of that means they’re wrong.
Acknowledging you could or should lose weight isn’t an admission of defeat, unless you make it one. It can equally be an empowering statement. You don’t have to commit to anything. You don’t have to change anything. And you definitely don’t have to feel ashamed.
If you’re happy the way you are, say so. If they aren’t cool with that, tough shit. You’ll lose the weight on your terms, for your own reasons, not theirs.
Now, before I inadvertently unleash an onslaught of well-meaning normals telling their fat pals to lose weight: Normals, please don’t. We already know. We’ve heard it before, from every fucking direction, especially from within. One more voice isn’t going to tip the scales, pun intended. We need to decide this for ourselves. We’re not going to lose weight for you, or anyone else.
If you really want to be a good friend, here’s what you tell your fat buddy:
Tell them you love them.
Tell them you are proud of them.
Tell them nobody is allowed to make them feel ashamed.
And if your friend decides for themselves they want to lose weight, remind them of all the above, as often as possible.