I have spent the last few articles discussing what, I have come to believe, are abusive comments made to overweight people in the guise of caring and acceptability. These comments, I believe, are one of the few socially acceptable ways we have of denigrating others without having to cope with the fact that what we are doing is wrong.
I am not talking here about the helpful words and kind offers like “I’m going for a walk, would you like to join me.” Or “I’m thinking of joining a gym and would love your company. ” Or, “Will you join Weight Watchers with me? I don’t want to go alone.” Those are positive motivational efforts made by a caring person who cares for another and is willing to put her/himself out to help.
What I am talking about are the inappropriate, unsolicited comments of the obvious: the “you-know-you-should-take-off-the-weight” comments that inform the overweight person of a problem that they are already acutely aware of, as if they’ve never noticed.
The last time I brought up the topic of being overweight with a well spouse support group, about a third of the members of the group were overweight. The members of the group, who were heavy, agreed that these unsolicited comments about their weight were never helpful, always hurtful and usually caused more harm than good.
Despite this, a gentleman in the group insisted he often made these comments, to strangers, friends and family members alike, because he cared. It did not matter that all the overweight people in the group insisted the comments were counterproductive. It did not matter that those types of comments caused them pain. He still said he would continue to make such comments because he cared and he believed they were helpful, despite the evidence to the contrary right in front of him.
My feeling about this became even stronger when I received this letter:
I have been following your articles on the issue of weight. I have never considered myself a hurtful person but I realized I have made these very comments to others. I really began to think seriously about it when I was waiting for my car at the local car wash. The person standing beside me had a weight problem.
As I was standing there, thinking that she really needed to lose some pounds, for her health, and perhaps I should say something; a man came out of the car wash and joined us to wait for his car. It was quite windy and the smoke from his cigarette was all over us. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind moving away as his smoke was bothering me.
When he did, I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me to tell him that he needed to stop smoking for his health. I didn’t know either of these people. Why did I feel I could correct one and not the other? Amazingly, why would I comment to the person whose actions (the weight) has no effect on me and not to the one whose actions (second hand smoke) could kill me. What right do I have to correct anyone?
Though I disagreed with you initially, I am changing my mind. It is very scary for me to think of myself as a bully… but maybe that is exactly what I have been doing when I make these comments.
* * * * *
I also began to wonder about the bystanders, the people who hear these hurtful comments made and say nothing. Silence lets everyone believe we agree with what is being said. Many of us have been in such a situation and for a variety of reasons stand by quietly, our silence saying we agree with the hurtful comments.
Perhaps we choose to remain quiet because we do not want to become the focus and have the one making the comment switch his attention to us, or because we want the attack to stop and not be extended by our comments. Perhaps we remain quiet because we don’t want to be seen as aligned with the person under attack or because we are just feeling uncomfortable by the whole incident and want it to go away.
Perhaps we think that if we say something we will make the victim feel worse or we just don’t know what to say to make the situation better. Or could it be that we actually agree with what is being said and feel that though it may hurt their feelings the comments are really for their own good?
It is up to each of us to examine our motives for our silence. It is up to each of us to consider what we are being told by the recipients of these comments: that they are hurtful and counterproductive. And then it is up to each of us to decide what we will do the when we hear someone being told that they really are the size of a football player and need to take off weight and start eating less. Whom will you align yourself with next time?
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org