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I was watching CSI NEW YORK recently and one of the characters, a black doctor, was confronted with slurs from a racist skinhead. The doctor didn’t fly off the handle, hurl an insult back at the skinhead, nor seem the least bit perturbed. Rather, he shrugged off the insult, explaining to another character that someone’s racist attitude wasn’t his problem but theirs. My first thought was, How can overweight people learn to respond in a similar fashion?
Granted being born black and becoming fat are not the same thing. I get that. However, many blacks (and other people who’ve been stigmatized) have learned over time to handle hurtful comments well, and that makes their attitude instructive. Some may say that our culture is now what’s being called post-racist, but throughout history, people have had to contend with being picked on, excluded from the mainstream, and abused in various ways because of particular characteristics. Not all of these people bought into the insults flung at them or internalized society’s negative stereotypes and messages.
How did and do they stay sane and centered and feel okay about themselves when the rest of the world doesn’t? This is what overweight people must learn to do to survive emotionally. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your anger that the world is cruel and unjust, but you do have to let go of any and all responses which limit your life. And ignore what’s been said, recognize that hurtful comments are about the person saying them, not you, educate someone who makes weight comments, and speak up in a way that indicates your depth of feeling calmly but forcefully. To do this, consider how you might react other than with anger or hurt—with sadness, compassion, or contempt for people’s ignorance or with amusement at how ridiculous they sound.
I’m not saying that responding in a healthy manner that does not internalize fat phobic comments is easy. It’s an arduous process that takes time and practice. Do it and you’ll benefit on two counts. First, you’ll stop carrying around the pain in your heart from being wounded by thoughtless and mean remarks. Second, by responding in a healthy way to fat phobia, especially calling people on it appropriately, you’ll be helping to reshape the world into a more tolerant place to live. As part of working on this issue, ask people in your circle who have faced any kind of stigma how they’ve not personalized remarks and have overcome feeling hurt and upset. “Isms” go away when people stand up for themselves, not when they remain victims. Imagine how different the world would be if every overweight (and not overweight) person confronted fat comments!
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