One of the most powerful tools a culture has is shame – a way of threatening a member who strays too far from cultural standards. It operates like a lion-tamer’s whip, snapping us back into compliance.
All cultures since our first gatherings around a fire have taught us that stealing is bad. If members of a community can’t trust you, whoa, the consequences can be dire. Lying, same thing. “Thou shalt nots …. “ abound. Living in a community is a pact, an agreement. An investment is required in order to bask in the benefits.
Some of these rules become laws and law enforcement handles them in the name of the community. But most are informal. Here’s how we pray. Here’s what men do and what women do. This is private and this is not. Here’s how we dress.
Today I want to spend a few minutes focussing on our culture’s expectations around weight. Yes, communities feel that is within their domain. When people step outside those expectations, the group brings out the real tools of enforcement: peer pressure, gossip, shaming and ridicule. The full complement of weapons.
I think I am like many people when it comes to weight. Sometimes I am up. And sometimes I am down – but never quite down enough. Never really satisfied. It is my own personal hell – or at least I think it should be. But NOOOOOOO. There have been so many times in my life when my weight is trending down, that people say to me, with a quick scan of my body from head to toe, “Wow, you look great!” And sometimes, just to be sure I get the message, it is followed up with, “Have you lost weight?”
Point. Match. The world has just taken me by the shoulders and said in its kindest voice – fat is bad. Or worse yet – I was bad because I WAS fat, but now I’m good.
I know my response may not be ‘normal,’ but every time someone has commented on my weight I feel like saying, “Do you want me to finish that thought for you? I think you really meant to say I look good today – not like yesterday. Yesterday I looked like s###.”
Of course people are well-meaning. These are compliments, after all. But I want us all to be alert to how this culture has decided who is good and who is not based on weight. That this culture takes it as their job to intimidate and get people into line. If someone is seen as having a ‘drinking problem,’ people don’t feel free to say, “Hey, I noticed you stopped with one glass of wine tonight! Good job!” Or, “I see you finally ditched those old sneakers! Good job?” “Great dental work!” Seriously, we respect the personal nature of those struggles.
I also know that compliments can be a force for good. Noticing and reinforcing effort is natural and good. And many people I know really appreciate having people comment on their weight loss. So – I am not speaking for everyone.
I would like us to adjust our lenses a little. Let’s think about our own insecurities. I recently heard an interview with Charlize Theron where she shared that she had always felt insecure about her shoulders. She felt they were too wide. Charlize Theron! Cultures can be ruthless body bullies. We all get messages about our irregularities from marketing and movies and …. the list goes on. But, if we could let it stop there and not face us every day at work too. Let’s limit it to our chosen circle of friends – those who really know and support us.
Read about how a community responded when a news anchor was fat-shamed.