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How to View Isms


Last summer, my husband and I got on the wrong check-in line at Boston’s Logan airport (having been directed there by an airport employee). Later, at the gate, we sat down just as a twenty-something woman mentioned something to her friends about, “this old couple getting in the wrong line.” Assuming it was us, I stood up and said, “You mean us?” and we all had a good laugh about it. 

I described this (to me) humorous incident to a friend who smirked and said, “How could you laugh? What she said was so ageist!” I hadn’t thought of it that way. To me the term “old” was descriptive, especially since the young woman wasn’t saying anything unkind about us. After my friend’s comment, however, I realized that this whole “isms” thing may be a lot more complicated than it first appeared.

I’ve on rare occasion had someone say something negative about my being Jewish and I’ve certainly endured slights and outright insults for being a woman, things I would undoubtedly deem antisemitic and sexist. I’ve also been within hearing of racist comments and have learned that I’ve at times made ableist remarks myself. I’ve always gone by the rule that says the person on the receiving end of a comment is the one who decides if they fall under the category of “ism” or not, not the comment’s originator. 

In my work with clients who suffer weight stigma and fatism a lot, I’m well aware of how rampant it is in this culture (and others as well). Decades ago, a higher weight client described riding her bike in a park and having some boys shout at her, “Hey, fatty, get off the bike before you break it.” I cringe even writing the words now.

The question is how to respond to “isms.” A first step is to make sure that you’re hearing an “ism.” People of higher weight are often so used to hearing snark about their bodies that they walk around bracing themselves to ward off hurt and may (totally understandably) misinterpret what is said to them as being fatist. 

That said, much of what is said to higher weight people about their weight is likely to be hurtful, cruel, insulting or stigmatizing. Frankly, I don’t know which is worse: comments made out of ignorance, because people think shaming you will help you, or due to their genuinely lacking empathy while enjoying zinging you to feel better about themselves.

There’s no best way to handle “isms” as they’re often situation dependent. One thing we must be absolutely certain of is that someone’s comments directed at us, inappropriate as they may be, are not necessarily about us. They’re 100% about the mouth they come out of. Another thing we must do is fight “isms” on the macro-level by who we vote for, calling out organizations when we endure or spot bias or insult, and become part of anti-ism movements. And, of course, we must soul search and purge the urge to think and act in ways that promote any kind of discrimination against others.