I knew there was trouble the moment I saw them. A group of boys. A pack. On the other side of the road.
Predictably it started with wolf-whistles. Then, “What a beast!” And ended with words like ‘pig’ and ‘fat slut’ being hurled like hand grenades at us across the street.
I say ‘us’ but the truth is the insults weren’t directed at me. They were directed at my friend Sonja* – a colleague of mine from my days working in PR in London in the 90s. Sonja and I bonded over our love of Ronan Keating (don’t judge me). She was a truly deplorable cook. Fluent in Spanish. Generous as the day is long. She had awesome taste in music and terrible taste in movies. And she kicked my ass in Trivial Pursuit more times than I like to recall. She was, and still is no doubt, the type of girl who lit up a room when she entered it. She was magnetic and hilarious in that Ellen DeGeneres way.
But none of that matters – apparently – because Sonja is obese.
Hearing those boys (did I say boys, I meant tools) yelling filthy insults at her that day I could feel rage curdling my spirit. But Sonja? You’d swear she hadn’t heard it. I would later realise this is how she copes with the abuse she receives as an overweight woman. She blocks it out. Or at least says she does.
Last week 31-year-old Stephanie Payne spoke out about the verbal abuse that is part of daily life catching public transport as an obese person.
“Stephanie Payne, 31, who once weighed 243kg, said she had been the victim of countless unprovoked, hurtful attacks from passengers.
Ms Payne said she caught an early train so she could have a seat without being abused. Fellow passengers have called her a “fat pig”, sometimes in front of her children. It’s been loudly suggested to her that she buy two tickets because she takes up more than one seat.
“It happens to me all the time and up until this point I’ve put up with it,” she said. ”When people tease me, it makes me feel isolated, like I don’t have the right to catch a train.”
I haven’t walked in Stephanie’s shoes but I’ve certainly walked next to them. And let me tell you, it’s not a walk for the faint-hearted.
In a PC-World where it’s frowned upon to even tell an Irish joke for fear of stereotyping an entire nationality – somehow, somehow overweight people are still fair game. Clearly I can’t speak on behalf of overweight people but I can tell you what it was like hanging out with Sonja. She was regularly humiliated; made to feel ‘less than’ because of her size. I remember people muttering, ‘lose some weight’ when they walked past us on the street. I remember when some guys at a pub thought it was hysterical to pretend to chat her up. And then there was the time someone made pig sounds as we took our seats in a darkened cinema. And when she was out of earshot people seemed to think they could make the jokes about her to me. Hear that? That’s the sound of me not laughing.
I’m not here to discuss the health implications associated with being overweight or whether Stephanie Payne should be forced to buy two tickets for the train since she takes up more than one seat. And this isn’t a post about whether overweight people are “draining” our health system. (Before you roll out that ol’ chestnut, I think you’ll find the majority of us are leaning heavily on our hospitals and health system thanks to our junk-food-eating, texting and driving, heavy drinking, smoking, sun-baking, drug-taking, sedentary lifestyles. In the US – and I’m going to assume Australia is similar – preventable illness is said to make up 90% of all healthcare costs.)
What this post is about is asking the question: at what point along the line did we all decide that your worth as a person is determined by your physical appearance? When was it accepted that how you look, what you weigh, is the sum total of who you are?
You don’t like ‘fat people’? Fine. Think whatever you like. I’m not a card-carrying member of the Thought Police. But everybody deserves to be treated with respect. You may not like it that my friend Sonja is obese. She might not like it that you listen to Nickelback.
Be a grown up and deal with it.
*name and some details changed to protect identity
Have you ever been made to feel bad about your weight? What qualities do you bring to the world other than your physical measurements?