Fat Bodies and the Unsolicited Advice Weighing Us Down
Written by Jasica Gill
As a 5’1” person, I’ve always seen myself as small. The world doesn’t always agree, though, especially after taking into account my full 260 pound Brown body. Being a visibly fat person comes with a reality that many other thinner folks don’t deal with, don’t consider, and often contribute to creating. In a society where so much is predicated on appearance, it is hard for any and all bodies to exist; there is a very specific kind of scrutiny placed on fat bodies, especially when those fat bodies belong to Black and Brown folks. Most people abide by the rule “if you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This rule is often broken when folks interact with fat people. Because society deems fat people unhealthy based simply on the size of their bodies, oftentimes people feel that it’s okay to give them unsolicited advice. This happens to fat people both online and in real life. This advice includes things like commenting on what people should be eating, how they should be dressed, or what activity they should be partaking in.
A few weeks ago at work, I was smothering an English muffin with a generous amount of butter when a coworker of mine said, “Omg! That’s so much butter, do you want some bread with that?” To which I immediately responded, “Mind your business.” This response, which in my opinion was completely legitimate, was met with an “I worry about you!” The conversation continued and I tried to point out to my coworker, who is much thinner than I am, that she needn’t worry about me because I don’t suffer from any stomach issues as she does. In hindsight, I realize I was trying to be snappy because my feelings were hurt and I felt embarrassed about the fact that my weight and appearance were being scrutinized under the guise of an innocent concern.
I realize to some folks that the incident described above may seem as if it’s not a big deal, or that maybe my coworker was truly just “worried” about me. The important thing to understand here is: this is not an isolated incident. After a lifetime of living in a visibly fat body, I can tell when coded language is being used as a means to say: “you’re too fat, that’s not for you.” Health concern is one the most popular disguises used in order to demean fat people on a daily basis.
This isn’t to say thinner people, especially women, don’t face any kind of scrutiny when it comes to their bodies, but even the criticism and praise they receive is rooted in fatphobia. It isn’t often that we see a thinner person being told not to eat something. Rather, thinner people are often celebrated when they enjoy food. If and when a thin person is told they should abstain from eating certain foods, someone who looks like me is used as a cautionary tale of why they should choose a “healthier” option.
What people choose to do with their bodies, including what they put in it, how they treat it, and what they choose to adorn it with, is quite frankly no other body’s business. People generally understand that they shouldn’t tell other people how to live their lives. Somehow, though, they lose sight of this when it comes to fat folks because of society’s interpretation and stereotype of a good and healthy body.
No one is free from the messages media constantly pushes about health and beauty, and we are constantly internalizing these unreasonable standards and ideals. Even though we go about life trying to be more accepting, it is difficult to unlearn a lifetime of information, especially when that information is tied to and ultimately contributes to shaping people’s self worth. I suspect this is why thinner people often end up unintentionally policing fat folks in regards to what they’re eating, wearing, and how they choose to behave. Thin folks, just like fat folks, have internalized the message that fat equals bad. For this reason, when they see someone engaging in habits that aren’t “good for them,” they can’t help but give unsolicited advice. This is a projection of what they themselves fear.
For instance, let’s revisit the incident I faced at work. It made no sense that my coworker felt the need to say something to me about what I decided to put into my body. Most of our conversations have never had anything to do with food or working out. I am one of the few people at my day job who eats unapologetically and never talks about curbing any of my cravings. I have never asked anyone at my job for advice on workouts, diets, or anything that would suggest I am interested in changing the way my body looks via dieting and exercise. In fact, I am quite vocal about loving the way I look and feeling good in my body. I work in a field that is physically demanding, so aside from mentioning the expected fatigue and sometimes body aches that come with the kind of work I do, I do not express any kind of remorse regarding my body. I do this purposefully, in hopes that I can avoid incidents such as the one mentioned earlier. Even with my carefully curated image, I deal with conversations like the one at work because it is really hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that a fat person isn’t just okay with their body, but rather they enjoy and revel in it.
Everyone interacts with their bodies differently. In a perfect world, we would all love the bodies we have and would be completely immune to all messages sent by mainstream media designed to get us to spend money and time hating and changing ourselves. However, until we get to that place, it is our job to be kind and mindful to one another. If you are someone who is concerned about weight loss or enjoy a lifestyle full of fitness, that is your business. It is absolutely your right to engage in those aspects of your life. It is not your right to bring that to someone else’s table, especially uninvited. Whenever you have the urge to comment on what someone is eating, how they are moving, or what they are wearing, ask yourself: Did they ask? Are you this person’s physician, nutritionist, or personal trainer? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then congratulations! You can save yourself time and the other person grief by avoiding a conversation that is completely unnecessary. This practice can and should be applied across the board and not just to topics of the body. Unsolicited advice signals to people that you have already made a certain judgement about the way they look and choose to live their life. It tells people that you noticed there’s something to be fixed about them. Rather than trying to fix something about other people, remember to ask yourself if it’s really about you being worried about them or if you’re just projecting your fears and insecurities onto those who are perfectly happy and content in their own skin.