Big Mistake, Huge -- Why Bitchy Sales Ladies Aren't "Fat Shaming"

Fat-shaming has been a popular topic on this site, and I’ve avoided the topic like an out of state parking ticket, but I have something to say, now.

May 14, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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­ In December 2008, I was fat.

I have struggled with my weight for most of my life, and while I’ve come a long way (106 pounds down, as of Monday) -- I've still got about 30 to lose. I'm working on it. I'm working on it because I want to, for the following reasons:

I think I would look better.

I think I would feel better.

I’m also working on the other end of it -- quieting the voice that calls for punishment anytime I do indulge.

I have a hard time with the argument that obesity is not inherently unhealthy. For the most part, I believe that being overweight is a choice. There is a percentage of the obese population whose weight is a medical symptom of a bigger issue, absolutely. There is also a percentage who, like me, hid under that excuse for a long time while eating an entire bag of Trader Joe’s peanut butter pretzels as an afternoon snack and crying about my “Insulin Resistance,” which it turns out, I do not actually have.

I had a dual-diagnosis of two common ailments: “Elliptical Resistance,” and “Reeses Big Cups.”

Everyone gets to make life choices based on their priorities, because we are all grown-ups. If you love food, and you want to eat a lot of it and you’re fine with being overweight, do it! It’s just like any other preference in life. Drinking on a weekday makes getting up for work in the morning really hard, and I still choose it sometimes.

At my biggest, I tipped 300 on the scale. I’m not even entirely sure how far up I went past there. I got to a point of avoidance so severe that I would turn my back on the scale at the Doctor’s office, and squint at her computer so I couldn’t see the weight when she typed it in. I was terrified to know.

I would shrivel in fear whenever anyone brought up weight, terrified that I would be called out on my fatness. I squinted when I walked by mirrors, too, avoided wearing pants for years under the guise of “I love dresses,” when it was really that my size 20 jeans from Old Navy no longer buttoned. I cut the XXL tags out of my clothing, just in case GOD FORBID someone saw.

The day that some well-meaning but idiotic woman in Target skipped the whole “When are you due?” presumption and went right to: “It’s a BOY, isn’t it?” I went home and went to sleep at 6 pm after falling into one of the deepest sorrows I have ever felt.

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I’ve destroyed almost all evidence from this period of time, but recently found this on an old hard drive from the summer of 2007. This is hard for me to share.

For a very long time I was not capable of accepting that my decisions (sedentary lifestyle, constant high-fat snacking, terrible carbs-based vegetarianism, sedating and depressing relationship) were responsible for my weight. I felt destined to be fat, and so I felt out of control. There was comfort in that, strangely enough.

That’s my fatstory, but it’s not everyone’s. I am envious of women who are comfortable in their own skin; what do you do with all of that free time?!

A dear friend of mine with an eating disorder once said that the day she realized she needed help was when she thought about all of the time she had wasted worrying about her weight. She, a profoundly talented poet, realized that she could have written a book with that time; instead she had nothing to show for it.

I too, have wasted far too much of my life obsessing about my body, hating it for it’s imperfections. Even now, as my loose skin struggles to catch up to my smaller frame, I’m angry at myself for ever stretching it out. I am terrified that one day I will wake up and the pendulum will have swung back, and I will gain it all back, slowly. I still don’t feel like this is in my control, in my head some sort of “Freaky Friday,” cosmic event is more likely responsible for my new body.

Like I said, I have issues. I try my hardest to focus on being proud of myself for my accomplishment. Here’s a self-congratulatory photo that I posted on the Internet after my 100 pound marker, as proof that I am a little proud, if not completely satisfied:

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­ I default to ballet stance when posing, which is weird because I took two ballet classes as a small child before being asked to quit.

I’m not satisfied partially because I have fitness goals, but also because of a lifetime of conditioning that tells me 190 pounds is too much for a woman to weigh. This is equal parts a shame and an honest reality.

I read this article a few days ago about how Weight Watchers UK is launching a partner program with Debenham Stores to train their sales associates to be gentler with their customers, when it comes to issues of weight and size. I also read this article by Claudia Connell, which backs up the WW study with a real woman’s perspective.

Fat-shaming has been a popular topic on this site, and I’ve avoided the topic like an out of state parking ticket, but I have something to say, now

Claudia brings up a lot of legitimate issues of rudeness, which are not OK. It is not OK for a salesgirl to tell someone they look frumpy, or that they should “cover up more.”  She also expresses that she’s insecure about her weight, which I relate to viscerally.

My problem with the argument that sales people are insensitive about weight is that it puts too much responsibility on the sales person -- I doubt anyone would be offended if a salesperson said “Those might be too big on you, I’ll bring you a size 10, just in case.” That, my friends, would be like Christmas in May for me!

A salesgirl that tells a customer she’s a frump is a mean jerk, and would probably also tell someone that sunglasses make their nose look big. She’s just bad at her job, and also probably a bitch with no friends. However, there are also a lot of complaints in the in Claudia’s article about things that aren’t offensive, and there are a lot of soapbox declarations that deter from the stronger points. Ex: “No plus-size woman wants to hear what a 19-year-old size-8 flibbertigibbet of a girl in hot-pants and a crop-top thinks she’ll look good in.”

This is where she loses me, because she’s speaking on behalf of the entire group, and she’s wrong. Some of my best shopping experiences (now and when I was a size 20+) have involved a (usually tiny) sales associate offering suggestions. They were most often things that I would never pick up on my own, because back when I squinted at mirrors, I had no idea what my body really looked like, what size it was or what cuts of clothing would be flattering. I have similar issues now, because my body is a new, baffling mystery to me. I bring 4 sizes of everything into the dressing room with me. I love help! Claudia doesn’t, which is fine, too!

As a concept, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of fat shaming, which is why I’ve stayed out of the discussion on this site. I am down with the idea of self-acceptance and love -- that sounds great, what’s that like? The overlap is maybe what confuses me: Are the people who speak out against fat-shaming *exclusively* the people who are cool with their size? Are the people who call for gentler language *exclusively* the people who aren’t?

My sincere inquiry for those self-loving fat ladies out there is this: If fat shaming is a bad thing, then how come it's not OK for a sales associate to say your size out loud in a dressing room, as Claudia rails against in her manifesto? If you’re cool with your size, what is hard about hearing it said out loud? Or being brought a bigger size that might fit better? If you’re comfortable with your body, why is it offensive for your doctor to ask about your weight?

Are these two completely different populations of people? Am I generalizing by assuming there is overlap? I know that as a fat person I felt shamed, and avoided that shame whenever possible, sometimes going to extremes to avoid facing it. I have never identified with the pro-fat movement, though, so I know that I don’t overlap.

Today, I feel like I wasted a lot of years running from a problem I was scared to face, and so I wish I had been coddled *less* about my weight. I wish someone had called me out when I grabbed for that 10th Oreo.

If we want people to stop hating on fat girls, which we do, then maybe fat girls need to try to get on the same page about what it is you are asking for; just like how if we want to de-stigmatize being a slut, then we can't be mad if someone calls us one. There's nothing wrong with sluts! Sluts rock! (-Coop, Wet Hot American Summer). If you’ve got shame about being a slut, though, you’re giving sluts a bad name and should stop being a slut, because you should only do things you feel good about doing.

If your weight is a sore spot for you, or in my case a gaping, festering wound, then acknowledge it as such -- there’s nothing wrong with having a sore spot, it’s human. We don’t have to love everything about ourselves in order to be viewed as strong, smart women; that’s a trick! We don’t have to be radically against every norm -- Only the ones that are really just universally terrible and obviously created for us by someone else, like bleaching your labia. *shiver.*

I think that’s where our real power for social change is -- in CONQUERING our fragility, either by true self-acceptance, or change, and in rallying together for causes that cannot divide us.

The truth is this: we alone are in control of our self-esteem. We choose what defines us, what offends us, what makes us feel weak or conquered. We choose what words can hurt us, because we choose to identify with them negatively.

I’m working on taking my own advice, of course, but in my clearest moments, a voice inside of me tells myself: Weigh your choices against their consequence, and then: Eat whatever you want, wear whatever size pants you want to wear, bone whoever you want, and watch as much Jersey Shore* as you feel like watching -- Just don’t expect anyone else to tip-toe around your shame.

A big thank you to Lesley, who read my clumsy 3am first draft of this article, and gave immensely thoughtful feedback and direction, which helped me address the weak points in my argument. Dialog is invaluable in breaking down the walls and finding our common humanity. Let’s keep doing that, below!

*My shame.