"Wow, he really let himself go!"
July 3, 2016 11:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm overweight. You would think friends, family, or acquaintances wouldn't openly mock other overweight people around me, yet they do. How should I respond in these situations?

I'm not a saint. I sometimes laugh about the appearance of others.. in my head. I keep it to myself because I know it's rude, and is likely rooted in my own insecurities.

As an example, a few days ago I went hiking with my cousins and aunt. It was more than 5 miles on an "advanced" trail. It was tough for everyone, and definitely for me because I don't get much exercise. I did it, though, and I am proud of that.

On the drive home my cousins spotted an old friend from high school. Dan pointed him out and said "Hey, there's James. Ohh my god he got so big!" My other two cousins laughed. Dan continued "I don't have a problem with fat people, but when their stomach hangs over their belt, it's gone too far. Like get yourself together."

I asked "Why do you care what other people look like?" And he responded, "It's a health thing." I said "You don't care about their health. You just don't find them pleasant to look at so you judge them." I was fairly upset, but these kinds of comments happen pretty often. I don't usually challenge people, though.

My aunt interjected "My problem is the scooters. They're everywhere now. They're not handicapped, just lazy. And they took over whole aisles." At this point I was very annoyed with everyone and just stopped responding.

I would prefer to be about 40 lbs lighter, but I've grown a lot more comfortable with my body over the past couple of years. I do feel like weight gain is often seen as someone "letting go," however, and that is often in the back of my mind when I see people out in public that I haven't spoken to in a while.

How could I have handled that situation better? Are there any effective lines to diffuse those conversations?
posted by blackzinfandel to Human Relations (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When I'm truly uncomfortable, I've said "I hope you don't talk like that about me." It is quite pointed and doesn't dispell the awkwardness - most people react defensively at first - but then immediately change the subject.
posted by samthemander at 11:10 PM on July 3, 2016 [122 favorites]

So I see two possibilities here: they honestly don't think of you as overweight, or they do but are already indifferent to the fact they're insulting you along with the people they're cracking wise about. If you want to extend the benefit of the doubt to them, you can just offer samthemander's gentle reproach.

If you think they are insulting you on purpose, you have to decide what your goal is, and what the individuals are likely to respond to, before you can decide your strategy. It depends on their motivations, and yours. People who like to "get a rise out of" someone are never going to shut up if you try to point out that fat people are human beings. People who are just blissfully ignorant of fat and have absorbed the chief media narratives about it can be educated, but probably not while they're in the middle of enjoying the bonding experience of being shitheads. But later, one-on-one, you can maybe approach them to say, "Hey, look, I try to take care of myself, and I've found that what the science says is true - it's really hard to keep weight off, especially as you get older, and it's really discouraging when you make jokes about it in front of me."
posted by gingerest at 11:45 PM on July 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

How could I have handled that situation better?
For what it's worth, I think you handled it quite well already. You can't prevent your relatives' fault-finding but you can call them on it (if you choose to do so) and let them know you don't appreciate or care to be included in their judgmental behavior.

In my experience people who have a healthy self-image rarely have the need to single out other people and tear them down to make themselves feel better. To me this behavior suggests your relatives have issues -- something you might care to remember if they turn their judgment and unsolicited comments on you.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:25 AM on July 4, 2016 [27 favorites]

It is a bonding experience. Having done that difficult hike, they get to bond by reassuring themselves about how awesome they are for it, and they get to do that by shitting on others they see as below them, others who would never go hiking like they just did.

If you confronted them, they'd probably (maybe genuinely?) say "but you're not fat - you just did that hike with us." They're confronted with the cognitive dissonance - fat people don't go on difficult hikes because they're lazy, so you can't be fat, but you are fat, but you just went on a difficult hike - and they have to grapple with it for a brief second but they'll push it aside and most likely won't learn anything from it, at least outwardly.

I don't know if there's any easy or satisfying way to make these conversations go better. But they absolutely come from a place of insecurity and doubt. ("We have worth compared to others, right guys? The things we spend our time and energy on have worth, right?") It doesn't help, I know, but maybe you can at least see that kind of talk as transparent, revealing, and pitiful.
posted by naju at 12:38 AM on July 4, 2016 [17 favorites]

Also I forgot to say - I think you handled the situation fine. There is nothing you could have done differently that would have changed the part that blighted a great day, which is that your family succumbed to jerkdom and included you in both their bad behaviour and in being looked down on. Quite a trick on their part. I'm sorry they put a moldy olive on top of the ice-cream sundae that was your family day out, and I do hope it isn't ruined for you.
posted by gingerest at 12:49 AM on July 4, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: [So I don't have experience being fat, but I do have experience being part of another stigmatized group (gay people); I'm extrapolating from that, so feel free to ignore the following if you think it doesn't apply.]

Anyway, I feel like in this type of situation, there's never a "right" answer that's going to make you magically feel good about how the conversation went. Nothing you can possibly say will be so clever or well-researched or incisively-put that you're going to get your family to do a 180 right there on the spot. And ultimately, the fantasy of that perfect answer even just harms you further, because it makes it "your fault" that you didn't get them to see the light. Which is obviously a huge and unfair burden to put on yourself. But, that also doesn't mean it's not worth planting the seeds in people's minds that maybe the stereotypes they believe are actually bullshit. Being visible and sticking up for yourself can do exactly that, regardless of how exactly you put it.

My read on this is that you actually handled yourself well, and it just didn't feel good because these conversations basically never feel good. But if you let go of the expectation that it needs to "go well" and that you need to "win" the argument in order for speaking up to have value (as opposed to just being present and visible), then that can help it not ruin your day/week so much, at least.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:19 AM on July 4, 2016 [56 favorites]

i've never read the bible – ha yeah, yes – but bear with me for one sec ..this question reminded me of this story i read awhile back about Jesus and his crew (which is super paraphrased here, because my memory is lousy), but the gist of the story was that one day they were walking and passed by a dead body of a dog. And one of the apostles/followers (i'm not sure of the correct word here) was like, "ooohh it smells soo bad!!" while another was like "eww so gross!" and a third was like "dood, the flies!! so terrible!!" And Jesus smiled and said, "but look at the teeth! so white!! so bright!!"

And i found the story really striking. My parents always told me over and over, if a person has 10 shitty qualities, try to find & see the one good one. it kind of makes life a lot more chill. And it makes situations like this easier to get through. have noticed that sometimes, but not always, it kind of does kill the negative avalanche momentum of a crapfest – i've never liked bashing randos for fun (especially because they can't stick up for themselves) and sometimes i'll just be like but FUCK did you see his amazeballs kicks?! fucking magnificent!! and change the subject. normally people give up pretty easy if they see that it's a buzzkill for you – and by all means! do speak up (i think you did well!) – like not in a confrontational manner but just genuine, frank, matter of fact stuff. might work on some. keep it up!
posted by speakeasy at 3:52 AM on July 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

Keep it straight and be honest about your feelings.
"Wow, that hurt."
"What, but whyyyyy?"
"Well, how d'you think it makes me feel to hear that I gross you out/look like a lazy bastard?"
"But not YOU etc."
At this point you just stare at them until they stop talking. Then change the subject abruptly.
If they just continue harping on it, tell them "well, it's hurtful to me. Let's change the subject." And then do.

You'll be known as "oversensitive" but if people care about you, it should reduce the number of comments you get.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:12 AM on July 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I started crafting a long multi-layered answer, but ended up thinking "if I had such cousins, I just would fade out on them."
It's mostly the flakiness of their reaction. I mean, I don't know how much fun you guys have otherwise hanging out, but this story would be quite enough for me to look for fun elsewhere. Let them live their own little lives, deliberating about the belt-hangover of complete strangers and stuff.
posted by Namlit at 5:48 AM on July 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

A comment along the lines of "I imagine [overweight person] cares deeply about your opinion of them" is an ok start - it's sarcastic and derisive and points out the inanity and awfulness of the person's critical observation in a humorous way. On the other hand, if you hang out around people that comment on the weight of others, complete strangers or otherwise, I don't see how you really can hope to change their perspectives or why you would even hope to.
posted by docpops at 5:52 AM on July 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: / "...I've said "I hope you don't talk like that about me."

Seconded. I use varieties of this. Never laugh. Say it quietly, but directly to the person.

They nearly always respond along the lines of "but you're not fat!" or "I don't think of you as fat."

YMMV, but my response to that is "I certainly am, though. According to my BMI, I am obese. I weight X pounds at [height]. I wear [this] size of clothes. My waist measurement is X."

It's painful to watch them realize I am fat, and that they only don't see it/say it because they love me. It's horrid to watch them realize I KNOW, just like that person they've laughed at knows. It's horrid and painful, but for me, the YES EXCUSE ME THIS IS HUMANITY NO EXCEPTIONS has to be done. It's the most uncomfortable response, but I am compelled to use it, myself.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 7:03 AM on July 4, 2016 [54 favorites]

They nearly always respond along the lines of "but you're not fat!" or "I don't think of you as fat."

That is key to me. Those strangers are "other" to them and they see you as being one of them, therefore you are not in the same category. You could point out that, in fact, you are. It might be one of the most eye-opening things you could say to them.
posted by BibiRose at 7:18 AM on July 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

After "faking concern about someone's health is my free pass to be a troll," I've said: "Yes, it's always so inspiring when people whose faults are on the inside make fun of people whose faults are on the outside." But I stopped taking prisoners a while ago.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:35 AM on July 4, 2016 [16 favorites]

It is possible they didn't mean to be hurtful and do not think of you that way and this is why they felt okay saying it in front of you. It is also possible these are deeply toxic people and the whole point was to "diplomatically" let you know that you aren't worthy of respect or dignity until you lose that 40 pounds.

If it is the latter, should you actually lose that 40 pounds, the goal posts will move and they will come up with some new reason to criticise you and dump on you, because they fundamentally do not treat people better than that.

So, for me, the first thing to determine is which scenario is it? Derpy "But, I didn't mean you" types can be worked with. Toxic assholes, not so much.

Second, you should realize this is the tip of the iceberg. If you convince them to not say this stuff, you will gradually uncover other expressions of it. So, it will be an ongoing battle.

Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play. Over the years, I have chosen to spend less and less time with such people. Getting them to speak in a more PC manner is not nothing, but it typically doesn't really change hearts or minds.

Of course, since this sort of behavior is really common, walking away can leave you pretty isolated. But you should at least be aware that you have a choice.

If you want to remain on good terms with these people, it helps to try to point it out a bit less confrontationally than some of what has been suggested here. It helps to try to convey something like "Dude, do you realize I don't look much different from that guy and that hurts my feelings?" Being sensitive to their ego needs while calling them out on it also tends to be a better way to get across the idea that, no, it isn't okay to be an insensitive jackass. Otherwise, you will get a lot of psychological pushback, denial and justification.

But, you know the saying: You should try to teach the teachable. If they are just toxic assholes, they probably aren't very teachable.
posted by Michele in California at 7:50 AM on July 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yes, you handled that very well. Just keep doing that. I've found people will act like sheep, just following the herd, never questioning and even unthinkingly repeating what they've heard others say, until one person stands up and calls fucking bullshit. It only takes one person, seriously. Of course they'll push back at first,but over time they will change. Well, ok, maybe some folks won't change, but those who won't are lost causes and not worth worrying about. Don't tell them they hurt you, it's not about that, and they don't get to feel they have the power to hurt you. It's about they are being mindless assholes and you are calling them on it.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:01 AM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Please don't talk about other people's bodies in front of me." Said in a this-discussion-is-over tone, and repeated as many times as needed.
posted by lazuli at 8:25 AM on July 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

"They may be fat but at least they're not judgmental assholes" would have been my response, but I'm not a nice person.

The suggestions to ask "Do you talk about me that way." or variations there of is probably the most useful response though. I'm a larger person, for some reason people forget I'm fat too when they make these sort of comments around me. As others have said their first response when called on this BS is I don't think of you as fat. As if fat is something you are, a personality quirk not just something you have.

Honestly I'd do a slow fade, family or not you don't need people that will find any shallow excuse to hate on others. No one needs to be around that energy.
posted by wwax at 8:44 AM on July 4, 2016 [10 favorites]

I believe you have committed the logical fallacy of assuming that, if they knew they were hurting you, they would act differently. You seem to have handled that scenario with a good deal of grace. Good for you. It may be hard for you to accept that some of the people you care about have such ugly places in their hearts, but that's how people seem to work.

A frank and sincere statement such as "Is this how you think of me too?" will probably continue to get the same dissembling mealy responses from some of these people, but it's possible that one or more of them simply may not have thought about what they were saying in concrete terms. They are the ones you can profitably talk to about such things. When people trade comments such as the ones you described, they are reaffirming the group's common dynamic....sort of like the way racist humor affirms racism in any group of friend. Another trope is the "blonde" joke.

I'm pretty sure that body shaming in your group isn't based on a concern for a heavy person's health. You ought to not give tacit agreement to this strategy (whatever it's motivation is), but it isn't necessary to ramp up the exchange by reducing what they've said to labels...(body shaming).

I've used the reply "well, that was unkind" in a similar situation. My hope is that it gave food for thought to those who were willing to think about it; to the others, well, they'll just have to find their own lights. Sooner of later your group will reform itself: haters in one direction, others in another. That's what those comments are designed to do: compare sensibilities among the members of the group. Don't feel too bad about it if aunt martha and cousin eddie stop hanging around with you guys.
posted by mule98J at 9:20 AM on July 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'm also overweight, in an environment where people make derogatory comments all the time and political correctness doesn't exist, and my standard answer is "mind your business" (when I'm in a good mood) or "fuck you" (when I'm not in a good mood)

But then, I've never been the worrying type, so such comments usually don't stick
posted by Kwadeng at 2:26 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, neat, concern trolls. I'd inform them that there's a such thing as fat + fit, that you can't judge his fitness level by looking at his body type, and that science is starting to show that chubby people actually live longer than thinner counterparts and underweight people, actually have the shortest lifespan. Yes, underweight people have a shorter lifespan than clinically 'obese' people. So if they're really, 'concern trolling' then shouldn't they tut-tut about thin people and obviously underweight people? Would they say, "oh God, Larry let himself go," if Larry was very thin or exercised excessively? Of course not. They wouldn't dare, because it'd be a real dick move to say that to somebody. It doesn't change just because their target is fat. Their comment are based on exactly what you said; judging for their appearance, and disliking them for it, nothing more. For what it's worth I think you handled it really well.

The scooters thing is tougher, as people are commenting on it a lot lately. Hell, even Wall-E fat shamed scooter use. Its somehow socially acceptable to vilify fat people, and it goes hand in hand with the disdain for the morbidly obese, and the implication is that if they ate less then they wouldn't need a scooter, that they ruined their own health and lifestyle, that they are lazy and a burden, that it's not a legitimate handicap, etc. These things are so ingrained and are hard to counter. The only thing I say when people complain about scooters is, "What are they supposed to do? Never go outside? Hide in their closet for the rest of their life? Lay down and die?" and then if they insist, tell them how "Fat shaming them won't help them," and that we don't know their circumstances. For me, personally? Being fat-shamed absolutely factored into my weight gain, and by commenting on other peoples bodies, they are indirectly fat-shaming you and actually making it harder for you to have positive-self image, which would help you lose weight. So their comments are really damaging, and they should be informed of this.

And as a last resort? My Dad taught me a pretty great comeback to comments about weight. "Well, James can always lose the weight, but you'll always be stupid, Dan."
posted by Dimes at 2:39 AM on July 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think you did really well, OP. This shit is hard. I have a friend who is impossible on a lot of topics. We were looking at clothes a few days ago and I wanted a pair of capris and she lectured me on how nobody ever looks good in capris, and I said, "I don't think most people are dressing for you," and found a pair I liked and bought it. She used to be loudly critical of fat people (which, for her, starts at size 8) but she's stopped insulting people about their weight in my company because last time she said something I immediately said, "Look, I have friends and family members who are fat. Those comments really upset me." And she promptly apologized and then shut up. So I don't think you're obligated to dump your cousins. You're probably teaching them something. Just keep doing what you're doing, as long as it's not too painful for you. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:27 PM on July 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

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