It was like a scene from an American teen flick, but the nine-year-old child was too young to see it like that. He stood there in the change room, pretending to be in on the joke because his mother had told him the best way to respond to bullies was to laugh at them.
Of course, the seven bullies themselves, who were reacting to the child taking off his school shirt, were too busy pretending to vomit at the sink, shrieking in mock terror, asking: “Ew, don’t you ever go to the gym?” and demanding he “Put it away!”.
So with a nervous smile and tears in his eyes, the child put his sports shirt on and went to practice.
This is a real incident that happened to a child I know. This is bullying, or in 2018 what’s known as ‘fat shaming‘: “The action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size”.
But ‘fat shaming’ is a dangerous term, and I’ve got a real problem with it.
Is plastic surgery a solution if your child’s being bullied about their appearance? We discuss, on our podcast for imperfect parents. Post continues after.
I’m not here to debate or ‘glorify’ obesity. I do care very much about the increasing weight of Australians in general. I wholeheartedly support initiatives to get people to be healthier and fitter. I know, as most people do, that serious health risks increase as weight does.
The problem is, using the term ‘fat shaming’ is victim-blaming at its finest. The implication is that the target is fat, and whilst we all agree that the bully shouldn’t unkindly point that out, the fat part is true.
But not always. The child in my story isn’t overweight, but he is larger than his classmates. That shouldn’t matter, although I’m sure size is where many people’s minds went when I told his story. An obese child was envisaged. And, this thought was entertained: “He wouldn’t be fat shamed if he was not fat in the first place.”
It’s not just in American teen flicks that incidents like this lead to life-long, and often life-threatening, eating disorders, crippling anxiety and mental health problems. These consequences happen in real life.
Any of them could happen to this child, and all simply based on one small group's judgement of him.
That's one of the problems with 'fat shaming'; it's done by people who are usually not health professionals. And, just because someone 'fat shames', doesn't, in the slightest, make it true that the target has a weight issue or a health problem.
Even if there is a serious weight concern, is the fat-shamer, by their act of shaming fat, trying to motivate, or humiliate?
Is it fair to replace one health risk with a more visually acceptable one; a thin, but emotionally traumatised person? No.
The recent #bodypositivity movement has been distracted from its roots, which were to encourage people to embrace their bodies and be proud of themselves. The movement has regularly been derailed by a debate about 'glorifying obesity'; but what its detractors don't understand is that body positivity is merely about not hating yourself, it's about not being ashamed of your body, whatever shape and size you are.
We all have a right to that.
It's not up to unqualified people to critique anyone else's physique. Everyone has issues, some just show them more visibly than others; or in ways that are more socially acceptable. Compassion is a more constructive attitude than belittling.
That's the biggest problem with the term 'fat shaming'; it demands an explanation from the target as to why they are fat, to justify their appearance. The victim is forced to respond: "I'm happy with how I look", "I'm comfortable with who I am", or, in the case of the nine-year-old child, "No, I don't go to the gym, but I play lots of sports".
But any target of bullying doesn't need to explain or defend themselves. What they have experienced is not merely 'fat shaming'; they've been abused.
'Fat shaming' is serious, and the term itself casually makes the victim feel it's their fault for attracting that attention. So let's call the behaviour what it really is - bullying - without diluting the responsibility of the shamer.
Listen to this week's full ep of our podcast for imperfect parents.
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