“She’s not fat,” my mom always used to say about my younger sister. “She is just big-boned.” For a while, that explanation worked. Then she went to kindergarten, where new words began to creep into my sister’s youthful vocabulary: unattractive, lazy, shame, diet.
Obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States. A third of Americans are obese; another third are overweight. In California, statistics show that one-in-three adolescents age 9-11 are at risk of or are already overweight. And obesity is associated with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea – it is a very real problem.
But when did a little extra weight on a five-year-old become a source of withering judgment and shame?
Before kindergarten my sister always saw herself as the same as everyone else: there was nothing wrong with the way she looked. Then came school ‘wellness’ programs that taught her about the dangers of that baby weight she’d never quite grown out, and peers who reinforced the lesson; that she was overweight, that larger kids were unhealthy, dirty, more likely to get sick, and that this was an issue of personal responsibility that needed to be fixed.
Fat is a relative term. My little sister was larger than most others in her grade, sure, but she was not huge to the point of being unhealthy – not even close. Unfortunately, weight perceptions pervaded many of the assumptions that were made about her. My aunts would pinch her cheeks and exclaim, “Oh, you little piggy! Eat more vegetables!”
Ironically, my sister was healthier than I was. She ate more than enough fruits and vegetables, drank plenty of milk and water, and exercised everyday. I received no admonitions about my eating habits, despite my absolute refusal to eat anything green. At dinner, my mom would gently advise my sister to split her meal in half or forgo starches and fried foods. If she chose to have desert, she was made to feel guilty about her choice. I didn’t help; slipping in comments like, “Are you sure about that?”
I’d gone from not even noticing my sister’s size to adopting a patronizing, superior tone as I judged her weight. Stigmatization, in short, made me believe that there was something wrong with being large.
In elementary school, we learned about the dangers of excess fat. We began to stereotype and assume that overweight people were all unhappy and unsuccessful. It’s their fault, I remember thinking, why don’t they just eat better and exercise more? I came to see my sister’s size as a result of bad personal decisions and laziness. She wasn’t motivated enough to address her problem, and it was my job as an older sister to teach her that she needed to change.
One memory in particular stands out for its well-intentioned cruelty. We were back-to-school shopping at the mall, and my sister found a bright striped dress that she loved. “Mom, can I buy it? It’s on sale!”
My mother’s expression was full of sympathy. “Well, stripes make you look larger than you already are.
You should probably stick to dark colors too, because you don’t want to draw attention to your body.” I bought the dress.
Now in high school, I still hear those same attitudes echoed in classrooms and among my peers in hallways. While today’s emphasis on obesity has led to a push for change, it has also fed into the stigma that comes with one’s looks. And, as we all know, high schoolers can be cruel.
While a healthier physique isn’t in itself a bad thing, losing weight is not that easy, and negativity won’t help a struggling teen address his or her problems. On the contrary, greater stigmatization makes it okay for us to look upon our friends and associate their extra weight with the side effects and generalizations made about those who are obese.
How does greater knowledge about the dangers of obesity justify giving someone a hard time for being big?
A couple years after the mall incident, my sister had a major growth spurt. Today, she has healthier eating habits, is taller, and is a size 0, probably partially as a result of all the chiding she experienced for eating as a kid. But while she no longer has to deal with endless assumptions about her lifestyle habits, many others are not as fortunate.
In a time of public acceptance and tolerance of differences, stigma associated with weight remains a problem. True, Americans must tackle obesity. The trick will be to find a way to solve this problem while still respecting individuals who are a little bigger than the rest.
Caie Kelley is a writer for New America Media.