Category Archives: Stereotypes

The Shame Game

I’ve always had a strong sense of justice, and recently I came across a newly-published book that appealed to the side of me which likes to champion the underdog.

The book is called Fat-Talk Nation, and it was written by an anthropologist named Susan Greenhalgh. The subtitle of the book, published by Cornell University Press, is The Human Costs of America’s War on Fat.Cover, Fat-Talk Nation

The premise of the book caught my attention.

And, it got me thinking.

While it’s not news that Americans are fixated on weight, Dr. Greenhalgh believes we’ve reached a new level of hyper-awareness with the so-called “war on fat.”
Dr. Greenhalgh realized that while everyone was talking, admonishing, shaming, scolding, and essentially freaking out about how fat Americans have become, no one
had looked into the impact this relentless message was having on young people who are growing up during the war on fat era.

What she learned by listening to the stories of forty-five young people is that they were so anxious about their weight that it was wrecking their lives. We’ve reached the point where virtually no one feels good about their weight and body image.

What’s chilling is the stories themselves. Parents, aunts and uncles, school personnel – many people in authority seem oblivious to the impact of “fat shaming.”

And yet, according to Dr. Greenhalgh, tying a young person’s self-worth so closely to his or her weight is a recipe for disaster not just for the individual. It warps and interferes with the creation of normal, healthy relationships.

Those who are categorized “morbidly” obese do have an increased risk of death – and indeed we should be doing what we can to help them. But it’s pretty clear from Dr. Greenhalgh’s research that lecturing them does not get results.

Besides, there is a significant group of Americans, Dr. Greenhalgh points out, who fall into the category of “slightly obese” and who have a 5 percent LOWER risk of
early death.

In other words, the war on fat is not just misguided. It may be flat-out wrong.

Are there people who eat too much? Sure. Are there folks who eat unhealthy foods? Absolutely. Are there people who have a sedentary lifestyle? Of course.

But why is it acceptable, even encouraged, to ridicule them? To be cruel, and condescending?

It seems we live in an age that applauds the virtues of acceptance and tolerance, but none of that positive energy and generosity applies to the word “fat.”

I once knew a teenaged girl who was ridiculed (even by adults) for being overweight. What they did not know was that she’d had a kidney transplant, and the medications which kept her alive also made her gain weight. In fact, unwanted weight gain can be a side effect of a number of prescription medications. Should people be shamed into NOT taking medications which improve or even save their lives?

Here’s something else to ponder: There seems to be a weight-gain connection to endocrine-disrupting synthetic chemicals which have become part of American daily
life since the 1950s and 1960s. These chemicals exist in household products, food, water, and the air we breathe. What if it turns out that some people are more
susceptible to these chemicals than others, genetically speaking?

Kudos to Dr. Greenhalgh for her research, and for calling attention to another side to this important story.

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On a Plane, Being Misjudged

“You do WHAT?” asked the businessman sitting next to me on a flight to Florida. This was twenty-plus years ago, a short time before I made the transition from journalism to nonfiction book author, and long before I became a novelist. I had endured this fellow flirting relentlessly with me for two hours. He bragged about how much money he made (so what) and all the reckless business deals he’d made, a few of which sounded vaguely illegal. Finally, it occurred to him that I had said perhaps three words on the entire flight, and he asked me, “So, do you work?” This is one of the most clueless questions a man can ask a woman. I replied yes. “Oh, what do you do?” he persisted. “I’m a writer,” I said simply. “Oh? What do you write? Children’s books?” I paused before answering. “No,” I said. “I write for a newspaper.” He suddenly looked worried, no doubt thinking of all of the secrets he had spilled. “You do WHAT?” I refused to elaborate but he persisted. “You mean you write about cooking, stuff around the house, things like that?” I don’t like making people squirm, even a jerk like him, but it was unavoidable. “No,” I said. “I’m a reporter. I write news stories.” Beads of sweat began to sprout on his forehead and upper lip. “You don’t write BUSINESS stories, do you?” He looked terrified. “Yes,” I said, “sometimes.” Now he was freaking out. “What else do you write?” he asked. I shrugged. “Oh, all kinds of things. Police stories, for example.” He was deathly quiet for a few moments. “Well, which paper do you write for?” he asked finally. “The New York Times,” I said. Clearly, this was not the answer he was hoping for. He fumed for the rest of the flight but at least he had shut up and I was able to read in peace. As we left the plane, he took a parting shot: “You should have told me,” he said in a threatening tone, and stalked away. Really? I was obligated to talk about myself? I wondered why some people who blab to others seem to think the rest of us are obliged to reciprocate. But the encounter has stayed with me for another, more important reason, too: A reminder of the assumptions people make about one another, and how often they are wrong.

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