Students
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Fat shaming is everywhere

Kicked out of the gym for being obese

Sure, they’re overweight. But the shame they’re being made to feel on a daily basis is counter-productive, say students Clem and Madlen. ‘I eat because I’m upset, and I’m upset because I eat.’
By Marjanne van der Bijl

It was a warm summer day and Clem was just walking outside. She’d normally wear long trousers, but because of the heat, that day she was wearing a tank top and a short skirt. A man passed her on the street. He looked her up and down and tsked at her disapprovingly. Clem was furious, but too scared to confront him. Back home, she told her parents what had happened. ‘He shouldn’t have done that,’ they said, ‘but he was right. You’re too fat to wear clothes like that.’

That hurt. It hurt a lot. Not that she wants to speak ill of her parents, far from it. But it’s difficult to shake off remarks like that. They stay with you and leave their mark. 

Comfort

Originally from France, Clem is now twenty-five years old and studying at the UG. She’s still overweight. ‘My relationship with food has always been difficult’, she says. ‘But my mother was really strict, and I exercised a lot, so I was never fat.’ During her second year at a university in England, she started feeling stressed out. She was lonely and turned to food for comfort. She gained weight, fast.

My mother said that I’d better not wear a dress

That’s when it really started. ‘Whenever I said I liked a particular dress, my mother would say that because of my weight, I should wear jeans and a shirt, instead’, says Clem. Aunts and uncles would tell her how ‘she used to be so beautiful’.

It’s called fat shaming. These remarks, no matter how well-intended, were her family’s way of criticising her for her weight. It’s considered completely normal. Overweight people often have to deal with criticism, bullying, or exclusion. While most of the remarks they get are under the pretence of concern, they do not help at all.

Opposite effect

‘In fact, overweight people who are criticised a lot tend to gain weight’, says social psychologist Simon Dalley, who studies women and their body image. ‘Fat shaming literally makes people feel ashamed, which can lead to feelings of inferiority, poor mental health, low self-esteem, and depression’, he explains. In an effort to escape that feeling, people tend to start eating a lot in a short amount of time. ‘That means it has the opposite effect.’

Madlen

The shame people feel is exacerbated by society’s idea of the ideal woman, who should be slender, with a small waist and as little fat as possible, no matter how unrealistic this image may be. The more you deviate from this ideal, the more ashamed you feel. ‘You end up blaming yourself, thinking it’s your own fault.’ That leads to more stress, and more eating. It’s a vicious cycle.

Clem knows exactly how it feels. ‘Because of my bad perception of myself and my negative self-image, I feel that I as a person don’t matter. I don’t like who I see in the mirror. I eat because I’m upset, and I’m upset because I eat.’  

Willpower

People also tend to connect weight to willpower, which means that being overweight isn’t just bad for your health; it also makes you a bad person.

But that’s not how that works, says social psychologists Susanne Täuber. She also studied fat shaming and discovered that moral judgement, like telling people who are overweight that they lack discipline, actually really impacts a person’s weight. ‘It’s so stressful that people start eating more in an effort to regulate their emotions’, she says.

People tend to conflate the cause and effect of being fat

There is also a socio-economic factor at work, which is something else people have no influence over. ‘People tend to conflate cause and effect: they think being fat makes you poor or leads to a bad family life’, she says. ‘But it tends to be more of a correlation: being fat is usually the consequence of a bad home situation and being overweight makes it harder to escape that.’

However, there exists a social stigma that says fat people are lazy. ‘Overweight people supposedly work less hard, be dumber, and work less efficiently’, says Täuber. ‘This means they have fewer chances of finding a job.’

Stereotype

The media only exacerbates the problem. ‘Magazines often feature something called the “headless fatty”, a fat person whose face you can’t see. They’ll often be photographed sitting or lying down with a big bottle of soda or a hamburger next to them. It confirms the stereotype that these people are too lazy to walk.’

The consequences are dire. German student Madlen, who now lives in Groningen and is seriously overweight just like Clem, experienced this personally when she applied for an administrative job back home. She didn’t get it, but not because she lacked the skills. ‘They said I’m a very nice person and my CV looked very nice, but they couldn’t hire me because of my body. The boss only wanted beautiful, young, slim girls with blue eyes, so he would have something nice to look at when he comes to the office.’

She’s still really disappointed. Not just in that man, but in society as a whole. ‘How can we accept this kind of behaviour?’

Rejection

She still regularly faces rejection. For a while, she would go to the swimming pool every morning. One day, a woman in the cafeteria addressed her. ‘When I walked past her, she said to me that I’d better leave the swimming pool. She wanted to know if I wasn’t ashamed of myself walking there like that.’

At the time, she was flabbergasted. She didn’t get angry until later. And she stayed angry. ‘My friends told me to let it go, that it was just one person, but there are so many others who think the same way. It’s a part of our culture.’

Losing weight

Both Madlen and Clem have made repeated attempts to lose weight. Madlen went to the gym and once managed to lose twelve kilos in a short amount of time. ‘But once you tell people you’re trying to lose weight, they’ll constantly ask you about it. It’s a lot of pressure.’

I had to make room for people who were serious about working out

She also didn’t feel comfortable in the gym. She felt intimidated by the people working out around her, but the staff didn’t help, either. ‘I was barely two months into my two-year membership when an employee kicked me off the home trainer. She asked me to make room for people who were serious about working out.’ She never went back.

Clem tried to eat less. ‘It works well for a while, but then something happens which makes me fall off the wagon’, she says. Small remarks can have a big impact. ‘“Are you sure you’re not hungry”, someone said to me once. “You’re eating so little.” Something like that throws me out of whack. I get emotionally destabilised and start doubting myself.’

The students emphatically say they’re not here to glorify being overweight. They are perfectly aware that it negatively affects their health. ‘Saying that being overweight is okay is like telling an alcoholic that alcohol is okay’, says Clem. ‘But I also have to accept the way I am now. If I say to myself: this is not good, this is unacceptable, this is disgusting, I will only feel worse and enter that vicious circle again. There’s a line between accepting yourself and getting help and wanting to get help, and fat shaming or stigmatising people.’

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