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How to Stop Patronizing Your Fat Friend: Self-Loathing Edition

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Trigger Warning for Body Image Issues and Eating Disorders

So you’ve stopped making the political into the personal when it comes to your fat friend. That’s awesome! Thank you so much for hearing what your fat friend has to say rather than your own internalized assumptions about her feelings.

“But sometimes,” you tentatively begin, “I hear her actually hating on herself. I hear her call herself worthless, ugly, and so on. What should I do then?”

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Definitely, definitely don’t tell her to just love herself, ignore the “haters,” or otherwise pretend that your assessment of her attractiveness will make it all okay.

In addition to robbing us of our ability to discuss that which affects us, telling fat women to self-love away anti-fat bias asks quite a lot of us. Are we just supposed to turn ourselves into rubber and all of the fat-haters into glue? Ignore everything that we happen to see or overhear? Pretend that everything that is said to us was never uttered?

I’ve worked my ass off to feel good about myself but I have my down moments. A head-pat that frizzes up my carefully-arranged hair and a “you should give yourself more credit, hun” doesn’t help me in those moments. All the self-given credit in the world won’t change the fact that sizeism is, indeed, A Thing, and that my experiences are real. One person’s individual feelings doesn’t exactly change all of my external experiences.

The relentlessness of the message that fat women are repulsive means that fat women have to grow quite a thick skin in order to be confident at all. To make matters worse, confidence in fat women is often mocked and derided even more than their fatness is. One person’s declaration that a particular fat woman isn’t “actually fat,” that she is “proportional,” that she is worthy and beautiful, won’t magically make all that disappear.

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What to do about your fat friend, then?

If she mentions any kind of positive feelings towards her body, you should be damn proud of her. She has managed to resist a pretty incessant message in favor of being happy with herself and living a full life. Direct some kudos her way.

On the flip side, if she mentions anxieties about her body, blaming her for not being confident enough is a rather jerkface move. Think about just how hard she would have to work to never once internalize the message she’s constantly being force-fed. Give her some of that credit you think she isn’t giving herself in her moments of self-hate and refrain from blaming her. Instead, offer the truth: that you feel she’s a worthwhile person and that you’re not sure what you can do to help her feel better, so until she indicates otherwise, you will offer a friendly ear, sympathetic murmurs, and a hug if she wants one.

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29 Comments

  1. One of my friends occasionally makes comments in my presence about what he feels is the undesirability and stupidity of specific fat people (solely on the grounds of their being fat) while presumably pretending that I am not fat or that the same criticisms somehow do not apply to me. He has to know I notice this. He presumably knows that I know that he’s either thinking those same things about me or constructing some elaborate reason why he doesn’t think of me in the same way. It’s hard to know which is the most patronising.

    What should he do instead? I’d prefer him to qualify his remarks so we can more easily discuss them. If he calls someone a fat bastard I’d like to know whether the problem is the fat or the bastard and whether the same thing applies to me.

  2. I’m overweight and “top heavy.” My advice is don’t talk about YOUR weight in front of someone who struggles with weight issues. I have had to sit with very petite friends and listen to them talk about finally losing that “last” five pounds or bragging about how tiny their butts are or complaining about how flat chested they are (honey, if you don’t have ANY body fat you’re not going to have large breasts). Not exactly a friendly environment for me but one I run into over and over again.

    New rule: If you weigh less than 150 pounds or are under 40 you have no right to complain about your weight or how carefully you watch what you eat to stay thin.

    • This is not helpful. And who gets to judge when someone is “too thin” or “not fat enough” to talk about their weight? Thin women also have insecurities about their weight and bodies. It’s not all about you, you know. I’m fat. And I still think you’re being a jerk!

      Also, OR under 40? So I’m 31 and fat. I can’t talk about my weight? And yay, age-ism! How nice.

      NEW RULE # 1: Let us be supportive and understanding of women, fat or thin, instead of getting offended that even thin women have issues with their bodies.

      NEW RULE #2: Do not make assumptions about what other people weigh. You’re probably wrong.

      NEW RULE #3: Do not be ageist. Women under 40 live in the same world as women over 40 and deal with the same bullshit.

    • And why is it 150 lbs? Do you realize that height and body type and shape and bone density all make a difference? Why 145? 155? 140?

      Certainly you’re not being arbitrary elsewhere in your judgements about women and their bodies, right? /s

      • OK. Wow. I really did not express myself well and for that I apologize. Yes, my numbers were completely arbitrary. I was thinking about some people I associate regularly with who do not seem to have body image issues, are in their 20s and weigh less than 120 pounds who “complain” about their weight as a way of bragging. You’re right. I didn’t think that through before posting and I should know better. Mea culpa.

        PS. I’m still going to feel bad about myself when they start going on about how small they are in front of me.

        • How do you know they don’t have body image issues? Can you read their minds? You’re making a lot of assumptions, and it all seems mostly based on physical appearance and your own biases.

          It’s okay to feel bad about yourself and to feel like they are being rude. Honestly. At the same time, demanding that all women that fit your arbitrary and biased view of “too skinny” to never, ever say anything negative about themselves isn’t very cool.

          I appreciate the apology. I do understand where you’re coming from. But it’s not a helpful thing to “demand” or expect.

    • I agree with what marilove has said here about supporting others. People have their own crosses to bare. If you think they are involved in some self hate as described above you could take Heina’s advice, “Give her some of that credit you think she isn’t giving herself in her moments of self-hate and refrain from blaming her. Instead, offer the truth: that you feel she’s a worthwhile person and that you’re not sure what you can do to help her feel better, so until she indicates otherwise, you will offer a friendly ear, sympathetic murmurs, and a hug if she wants one.”

      Sincerely The Edge, I’m not trying to be a pain, I respect what you are trying to say, you are frustrated with your friends. You feel they are being insensitive. They may not know. Some people try to keep their weight down for a variety of reasons, not just vanity. (Although I do find this a valid reason. We all get one life.) Do they not want to invest in a new wardrobe? Are they trying to stay healthy and are using weight to measure this? It is quantitative and a cheap way to measure, but is not an answer to health as for the reasons stated in previous posts here. Do they have additional health concerns that they may not have shared. I don’t go around telling my friends and family that I have some very real health issues and I am vain and so keeping my size down is important to me. Maybe you could ask your friends why weight talk is important to them and open a dialog. I think your friends are being themselves around you.

  3. Do health concerns have a place in this discussion? When a friend of mine refuses to get vaccinated I try to convince them of the reasons they should. Obesity is an illness, and while it has nothing to do with the worth of an individual or their attractiveness (there is no correlation between a person’s weight and their attractiveness) when a fat friend insists that he or she is perfectly healthy I try to convince them that obesity causes a number of serious health problems. It’s not a “worth” issue or a beauty issue or a moral issue. It’s a health issue. When a friend says he or she would like to lose weight but can’t, I sympathize because I’ve been there, and I tell them that losing weight was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but that they can do it. Am I being insensitive or politically incorrect?

    When we were children my sister teased me mercilessly for being fat. I loathed myself. That self-loathing was the motivation later in life for losing weight, and I’m enormously healthier for it. Now she’s the one who’s fat, but I’m not allowed to say anything. I don’t criticize or denigrate people for being fat, but I try to encourage my friends to work towards health. (I take the same line towards friends who do not exercise.) There is a strong thread in society of people denying that being healthy feels good. I would think that skeptics would agree: all the evidence says that exercising and maintaining a healthy weight greatly reduces the risks of a long list of horrible illnesses, and just plain feels better. It saddens me when friends deny this basic science. Or when they claim to be powerless to change their lifestyle.

    Of course, there can be a fine line between encouraging health and criticizing, and I try to stay on the right side of that line. But I don’t think that silence is the answer.

    • The problem here is that you’re using your personal anecdotal evidence to claim that shaming people over being fat will lead them to healthier lifestyles. Such is far from the case. Obesity has been rising in the US despite the fact that society isn’t exactly kind to the overweight.

      As for your concerns over health, a person’s health-related choices are really between them and their doctor. Furthermore, a thin person can be unhealthy and out-of-shape. The fact that we only criticize people whose unhealthiness leads to body mass instead of anyone who makes unhealthy choices speaks to our obsession with the superficial that we mask as concerns over alleged “health.”

      Not to mention the fact that what is considered “healthy” with regards to diet and exercise is more subjective than anyone wants to admit.

      • No, I never said that shaming people will help. I actually said that I do my best to avoid that. And I do talk about all aspects of lifestyle that bear on health. Obesity was the subject of this thread, so I addressed that. When an obese friend acknowledges that they have a health problem, I do my best to be supportive. It’s only when they deny the science that I try to bring them to an acceptance of evidence-based health. As for the “between them and their doctor” notion, I am speaking here of my friends, not strangers, and friends tell each other when there is something they need to hear. My best friends do point out to me when I am doing something I shouldn’t, and I value them for it. That’s what friends do.

        And while some aspects of healthy lifestyle are open to debate and further research, the fact that obesity is unhealthy is not one of those. And the fact that moderate exercise is an integral part of health is not one of those.

        • Obesity has been proven to be healthier than yo-yo dieting, which is generally the outcome for most people who try to lose weight. Furthermore, one can exercise and remain overweight since losing weight is contingent on a reduction of calories that cannot generally be achieved by exercise alone.

          I’m not really sure why you asked if health concerns have any place in this discussion. What you expressed here is that you feel you ought to tell your obese friends what’s on your mind, and that you believe that you do so from a medical and scientific perspective. This piece isn’t about health at all.

        • I’m obese, and if I had a friend like you, I wouldn’t stay friends with them for very long. My RIDICULOUS body insecurities, stress, depression, self-loathing, ETC are all much worse than anything that could be caused by my weight. I don’t care how non-shamey, or helpful the talk is. I will feel judged, and shrink into my hatred of myself and away from you.

        • “And while some aspects of healthy lifestyle are open to debate and further research, the fact that obesity is unhealthy is not one of those.”

          http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/12/31/evidence-that-fat-people-can-be-as-healthy-as-thin-people/
          Fat people with healthy habits (not smoking, not drinking to excess, eating vegetables, going for regular walks) see no difference in health outcomes compared to thin people with the same habits.

    • Ah. Obesity is very visible, so of course you think you have a right to be “concerned”.

      So, what about the things that AREN’T so obvious? Do you live your life perfectly? I’m sure you do unhealthy things, right? You can’t be an angel; no one is.

      And yet, I bet you’d get super fucking pissed if I walked up to you and told you to put down that or to stop doing because you’re an adult and shit, right?

      Oh, and Heina is correct: Thin people can be unhealthy. Many thin people are. Many thin people eat like shit. But because it’s not OBVIOUS, you’d never, ever think to tell a thin but unhealthy person to put down that burger.

      But you’d quickly tell a fat person? Don’t you see the problem here?

      • And yet, I bet you’d get super fucking pissed if I walked up to you and told you to put down that or to stop doing because you’re an adult and shit, right?

        Very unclear sentence. “I bet you’d get super fucking pissed if I walked up to you and told you to put down [burger or soda or cigarette or whatever] or to stop [smoking or wearing high heels that are killing your feet or not getting enough exercise or speeding or what the fuck ever] wouldn’t you, because you’re an adult and shit, right?

      • No, I do NOT get angry when my friends tell me I should change some aspect of my behavior. I value friends who are that open and honest with me. And as I mentioned above, I spoke of obesity because that was the subject of this thread, but you are quite right that there are many bad health habits engaged in by thin people and these are important issues, though not the subject of this thread.

        But again, it’s not about being perfect; it’s about accepting health science and then making an effort to improve oneself. I never criticize people for falling short. I criticize people when they reject the science, whether it be anti-vaxers (those are the people I jump on the hardest!) or people who claim that smoking is harmless, or people who denigrate the value of exercise, or people who claim that obesity is not a health issue.

        When people acknowledge the science, then I keep my mouth shut, unless they ask my advice. And I never speak to strangers about these things, unless I hear someone spouting anti-vaccine tripe. I do NOT walk up to strangers and comment on their appearance.

        • You know, i don’t comment here very often, but I had to speak up here. Your “I value friends who are that open and honest with me” comment just struck me right to my heart and I can’t contain myself. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be an overweight woman, and to have all media, everywhere you turn, constantly pick and pick and pick and tear and tear and tear and cut and cut and cut at you, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY? To hear constantly, forever, without cease, how you are wrong and bad and disgusting and need to change? Do you understand how your “concern” is just one more drop in the gigantic bucket of shit that we have to carry on our backs, and not something that a friend with any kindness or understanding at all does? Do not expect to be valued for piling on the agony that many of us go through, like you’re somehow doing us a favor. Like we somehow don’t know. Like you expressing your “concern” is the first time an overweight person has ever heard it expressed that our bodies are unacceptable. Like most of us haven’t heard people on the street or in the store or in line at the DMV make audible comments to each other about our bodies, or seen the endless barrage of ads on TV, or had teenage boys scream things at us out car windows as they drive by.

          In what circumstances would someone be “denying the science” that you’d have to express your concern over their individual weight? Because if you have to comment on someone’s weight at all, it’s not doing a friend a valuable service.

          • As a child I was fat, and I was picked on every single day. So, yes, I know what it’s like. And that is not what I do. I do not go around telling people they should change. However, when I hear people denying science, in any context, I speak up.

            Yes, there are many health issues where people deny the science, and I speak up whenever those topics come up as well. When someone denigrates the value of exercise, or claims that smoking is harmless, or asserts that vaccines cause autism, I speak up.

            I do not accost overweight people or bring up the subject with my friends. But when someone claims that obesity is not a health issue, then I speak up, as I do when someone says that “evolution is just a theory.”

            What upsets me is when science deniers turn other people away from rational behavior by denying science. Just as there are parents who refuse to get their kids vaccinated after hearing the lies of the anti-vaxers, there are overweight people who choose not to confront their health issue because someone told them that being obese “really isn’t all that unhealthy.”

            If you accept that obesity greatly increases your risks of a number of illnesses, from diabetes to heart disease, and can turn what would otherwise be a routine surgery into a dangerous procedure because the surgeon must cut through a lot of added mass, and you still do not want to lose weight, that is your right, and I will say nothing against it. But if you deny the science, and assert that there are no bad health effects from obesity, then I’ll speak out. The fact that yo-yo dieting is worse than just being fat, does not alter the fact that obesity is unhealthy.

        • You do realize that YOU are not EVERYONE right? Look, context and stuff matters, but as a general rule, it’s not really your business what I fucking eat. The end.

          Also, yeah, science exists, but that doesn’t mean you get to be a presumptuousness, insensitive asshole who is likely making a lot of assumptions.

          I bet yo never, ever, EVER EVER EVER think to go up to a skinny person eating a burger who may be one burger away from a heart attack. You’d never, would you? Nope, just fat people.

          There are so many worse things than fat people I FUCKING PROMISE YOU.

          • No, it’s not my business what you eat, and I couldn’t care less what you eat. But if you go around telling people that obesity is not a health issue, in blatant denial of the science, then I will speak up.

            I also speak up if that skinny person denies the science concerning his choice of foods. Eat whatever you like, both of you. Deny the science and I’ll speak up.

            (Though to be clear, most foods, in moderation, will not harm you. Even hamburgers, though the idea of them disgusts me, are not bad for you in moderation. The issue is really not what you eat, it’s whether or not you eat so much that you make yourself ill. And even that is entirely your own business as long as you don’t deny the science and thereby derail other people from making informed decisions about their own health.)

            I sometimes eat unhealthy things. But I NEVER, EVER tell anyone that those things are healthy. Respect the science and we’ll get along fine.

  4. I had someone throw the “I don’t think you’re fat” message at me recently on Twitter. I had absolutely no idea how to respond to that. By any measure I am fat. Maybe not as fat as some people, but my medical records say I’m clinically morbidly obese. My pants waist size is not sold in most stores and the length/waist combination is not sold anywhere by anyone (I hem my pants several inches). I have been told straight to my face that I’m fat by guys in gay bars and small children in grocery stores.

    The “You’re not fat!” objection isn’t helpful. It actually reinforces the idea that fat=attractive. I’m attractive enough (at least, according to my partners) AND I’m fat. I don’t always feel good about being fat, but denying it doesn’t change the truth about my waistline.

  5. My mother is the worst born again thin person. Like her I’ve gone from anorexia to overweight. But unlike her I’ve spent some time over the line into obese (according to the bmi chart)

    She is very intolerant of really overweight people. I have heard it all my life. “How could anyone possibly let them selves go like that?” Or “can’t they just learn to eat properly?”
    I have often confronted her about these attitudes. I’ve told her but what if you out the word black, or homosexual in those statemnes.

    She says its different because those people are born that way, fat people are not.

    Seriously. This is all my life. It makes my body image worse. I hear her coma plain that she’s gained two pounds and she’s skinny as a rail. I look in the mirror and see fat. Even though I’m at a healthy body weight (according to BMI and weight watchers). I just see my pot and my thick thighs and sigh. If only I kept up with my exercise this time.

    As a rational woman I understand that all of this doesn’t matter and we should be. Happy in our own skins, but I know how hard it is. And I know when friends lose weight and are proud of it. I do say you’ve always looked wonderful. Because the fact is that’s what I want to hear. I want to know that I’m accepted no matter what size I am. Because truthfully that’s what my self esteem needs whether I’m a size 6 or a size 16.

  6. I’m overweight and my parents continuosly tell me to lose weight. At some point when i was in undergrad they threatened to cut off my money supply unless i had lost some weight. When i visited home from college my dad told me to get on the scale to see my weight and if i had lost any. Thing is my dad used to be fat too, but then changed his habit of eating completely and lost a lot of weight. I plan to do the same, but right now my weight is still too big.

    • I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that their fixation on your weight is a boundary issue: your size as a reflection on their parenting. They might see your weight as their failure. It’s not a good reason, but it might explain their behavior. Your body is your own, and, to quote one of my favorite songs, “Sometimes goodbye is a second chance.”

    • This is the first article which simply offers the truth as comfort. Not excuses or patronizing, but true comfort and worth. I have realized I need to love myself just as I am. For this is the truth right here: if I hate myself because I am fat, the haters win. This has come to me as recently as last week. My mother caught me saying to myself, “I used to be pretty,” and countered with “You still are.” I’m losing weight for health reasons, namely: gout, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a bum ankle I got in a car accident. Honestly, the only thing I can really hate is…hate.

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