Double-Edged Sword —
Stigma is a double-edged sword.
I don’t mean that in the traditional “it cuts both ways, positive and negative” definition, but in the “sword with two serrated edges facing opposite directions that shred your flesh and innards going in AND coming out” kind of way.
First, there’s the gut-wrenching pain inflicted by the stigma directly: the loss of job opportunities or advancement; the skepticism of doctors; the horrible, dishonest medical advice from well-meaning friends, family and acquaintances; the sexual isolation of the outcast; and the general shittiness of a population. That’s the damage we all know and loathe — the effects of stigma as imposed by society.
As if getting stabbed in the gut isn’t bad enough, stigma carries a second edge that does even more damage when the metaphorical blade is removed: the blame for stigma.
Stigma works the same way for all “spoiled identities” (the concept of the spoiled identity is explored in depth in Dr. Pattie Thomas’ excellent Taking Up Space, which I reviewed here). And as Pattie says in this article, stigma is big business.
The reason stigma is big business isn’t because it’s profitable to make people feel like shit (the first edge), it’s that after you make them feel like shit then you tell those people how they can fix “the problem” that makes them feel like shit. And every social stigma (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia) comes with this second edge that tells the stigmatized person that if they want to be treated decently, then they must change X, Y, and Z.
For women to avoid stigmatization, they must not be emotional or shrill or, to put it another way, they must act more like men. For POCs to avoid stigmatization, they must not talk POCs or dress POCs or act like POCs or they must act more like Whites. For Gays to avoid stigmatization, they must not be so flamboyant or vocal or engage in PDA or they must act like Straights.
Stigma isn’t just treating a certain group of people like shit, it’s placing the burden of destigmatization on the targeted group so that they too participate in their own oppression.
Stigma’s power comes from self-participation. When you feel compelled to change yourself to avoid the effects of withdrawing the sword, then you are merely sharpening that second edge for yourself and others. A perfect example of this is Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, which explored the many ways Black women have tortured their scalps in an attempt to mitigate the effects of racial stigma. The ultimate effect, though, is a multi-billion dollar haircare industry. As Al Sharpton says in the movie, “We wear our economic oppression on our heads.”
Unsurprisingly, the stigma of Black hair and the stigma of of fat bodies are both partially enforced by social attitudes on beauty and attractiveness, which stigmatizers love to remind us is the result of evolutionary psychology (i.e., assholes in search of evidence that they aren’t really assholes). Their opinions. they claim, are the result of millions of years of evolutionary refinement that have resulted in one particular group or another being identified as inferior, weak and deserving of shame.
Of course, if there were any credible link between evo psych and stigma, then I’d still be treated like shit for being an Irish papist anchor-baby who is destroying America’s culture with my alcoholism and violent temper.
But the fact is, each generation develops its own standards for stigmatization, and the influence of stigma can be affected by the response of both the stigmatized group and the society that stigmatizes due to resentment.
Stigma is a social disease, a virus spread through contact with toxic attitudes and behaviors. But like most diseases, we can immunize ourselves and our culture over time from the effects of stigma. Just compare the stigma faced by women, POCs and Gays today with the stigma faced 20, 40, 80 years ago, and you’ll see that some progress has been made at destigmatizing these groups (though we still have many miles to go for all). But how do we do it and what does destigmatization look like?
First, you have to recognize where the disease of stigma comes from. Simply acknowledging stigma isn’t enough. Acknowledging that stigma exists is like snipping weeds from your garden: yeah, you’ve addressed the superficial appearance of weeds in your garden, but the roots remain.
Yesterday, I got an amusing reminder of where some of the roots of modern stigma are dug in the deepest.
You may recall back in June that I had a run-in with Mike David, a “radio show host” who attacked Golda Poretsky for her TEDTalk. You may also recall that once I began confronting David, he blocked me and pretty much stopped being an asshole to her. The reason? David has a reputation to maintain as a badass straight-talker, so getting smacked down by someone with a sharper tongue would damage his brand.
Well, we recently got a visit on our blog from another radio host, Tom Leykis, an infamous shock jock known for releasing the identities of rape victims on air, as well as beating his wife. I had never heard of the guy, but quite a few people responded to a post I made on Facebook and they shared anecdotes of what an asshole he is. I also learned that Leykis is King of the PUAs (PUA being pick-up artist; think Frank TJ Mackey and his “Seduce and Destroy” lecture), which is a sure sign of sexual insecurity and deep-seeded psychological issues.
Mr. Leykis (no Tom Cruise himself) responded to vesta’s post this week on handicapped accessibility with some fat hate. I didn’t allow it through, but I did notice that he had previously commented on Bronwen’s post on her own medical issues with the same advice nearly word for word:
Now, I’m not one to judge others by their looks, but the words “fat” and “slob” have definitions that go beyond their hateful connotation, and judging from the following picture, I’d say that Leykis is projecting some self-loathing onto us.
So, self-loathing fat slob Tom Leykis spends his free time on the internet telling other fat slobs to lose weight. Brilliant.
Now, if stigma were a logical concept, Tom Leykis would be out of a job. But stigma is, by definition, irrational and intersectional. A man can fuck dozens of women as a PUA and he’s a syndicated icon for other lonely losers, while a woman who does the same thing is a slut and a whore. Likewise, a fat man can feel perfectly content shaming fat women because the threshold for weight stigma against men is far higher than for women.
I work in a professional office for an international corporation with tens of thousands of employees. In my office alone, I know several fat men in positions of power, while fat women are relatively few. My company is definitely forward-leaning and supportive with regard to diversity and there are plenty of women directors, principals and partners (in fact, our new office managing partner is a talented and popular woman), but it seems as though larger women don’t ascend the ranks quite as easily as their male counterparts.
The fact that fat Tom Leykis can lecture us on losing weight with absolutely no cognitive dissonance is reflective of the intersectional nature of stigma, and how certain privileges (chiefly, being rich, white and/or male) can actually disarm the effects of stigma. The problem with this is that fighting stigma can become provincial, as each group tries to address its own stigma through its own methods.
But I think that if we really dig for the roots, if we really look at the totality of stigma, we will find that intersectional stigma often has a common source: Tom Leykis. I don’t mean Leykis is responsible for all stigma, but that people like Leykis (pompous, hateful windbags with a platform) are often Patient Zero for the virus of social stigma. Vulnerable elements of our society (those who are just as psychologically kerfucked as Leykis) glom onto his brand of “blame everyone for my inadequacies” outrage. You often find these individuals and groups harbor a hostility toward not only fat people, but women, POCs and Gays as well. Rarely is a homophobe compassionate toward POCs and women.
So, this social virus requires a social disinfectant. And the first thing we can do to confront the roots of stigma is to confront the people promoting stigma. In my Facebook post, I said that it was “time to break out the ass-stomping boots of righteousness to show Mr. Leykis he fucked with the wrong fatties.” I got a response from someone who was bothered by these words because they weren’t reflective of my “high principles.” While I understand and respect those who would take the high ground in response to the Tom Leykises of the world, I strongly believe that ignoring hate and turning a blind eye to stigma will not resolve stigma.
Instead, I propose that we do what we have always done: call out the sources of stigma and fight fire with fire. The point is not to convert Tom Leykis or Mike David, but to stigmatize the stigmatizers. This is immediately responded with claims of hypocrisy, but bear in mind that it’s not stigma itself that is the source of the problems, but who and why we stigmatize.
Stigma is a form of social control; it’s a way to inform society of what is an is not acceptable behavior. For instance, there has long been a stigma against teacher/student relationships for obvious reasons. And when people suggest that we remove the stigma of something like teachers dating students (as this creepy Washington Post article suggests), society pushes back because obviously that stigma serves a legitimate purpose and teachers who exploit the power differential for sexual gain should be ostracized and outcast. The outcome of that stigma is clear: protecting children.
I am all for stigmatizing assholes because I am far more concerned about this country’s asshole epidemic than its obesity epidemic. And for those who would say “Yes, but obesity is a major health problem costing our country billions of dollars and killing our children,” I would direct them to the work of Dr. Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. In particular, I would recommend this study which explains the health consequences (including long-term weight gain) of social stigma surrounding weight.
Rather than treating stigma as a virus, I would like to treat stigma as a bacteria. There is good bacteria and bad bacteria, while the vast majority of viruses are harmful. To be healthy, a human body must foster the good bacteria and minimize the bad bacteria (think gut flora and tuberculosis, respectively). Healthy stigma is the kind that encourages social standards of decency and respect, while discouraging hate and intolerance.
Therefore, the question that we must ask during this Weight Stigma Awareness Week is how do we transition from viral stigma to bacterial stigma? How do we fight bad stigma? And how do we foster healthy stigma against hatred and intolerance?
The later question is easy: you call it out. When you see ignorance and hatred toward ANY group based on bigotry and small-minded perceptions, you call it out. Thin, fat, tall, short, Black, Hispanic, gay, transgendered: CALL THAT SHIT OUT. The roots of stigma are not in any one particular group identity, but in a mentality that seeks to punish those who are perceived as weak. Now, some groups specialize, like how we call out fat stigma, but provincial concerns shouldn’t prevent us from addressing the full culture of stigma that affects our diverse culture.
As to how we fight bad stigma, the answer is also fairly simple: inclusion.
Remember during the 2012 election when Joe Biden said “Will and Grace” helped change public opinion on Gay rights? I tend to agree. The most effective way for someone to overcome their homophobia or racism or sexism is to include Gays and POCs and women in their lives. Remember when Republican Rob Portman changed his views on gay marriage after his son came out as gay? When people are confronted by the negative effects of stigma on the people they care about, then they tend to change their views on stigma. It’s a no-brainer.
Including a diverse group of people in your life is nature’s stigma vaccine. But the great thing is that even if you live in Podunk, Missouri and have never met a Black person in your life, you can still get the positive effects of inclusion from a diverse culture. This is where “Will and Grace” and media representation comes in.
Seeing positive, likeable, relatable Gay characters or Black characters or female characters can wear down the barriers that prevent people from seeing stigmatized groups as human. But having a stigmatized group on the screen as a token gesture isn’t enough. This is why the Bechdel test is so valuable: the quality of inclusion depends upon the content and context of the character. It’s not enough to have a Hispanic character on screen, especially if that character is rife with stereotypes and 2D portrayals.
This is true of fat characters as well.
Now here’s the interesting thing about representation and stigma: it’s still intersectional. There have always been fat, male heroes in games from Super Mario onward. In fact, here’s a round-up of a few fat, male protagonists and heroes who you can “become” in video games:
There’s also Roman from Grand Theft Auto IV, who even defends himself against fat jokes and snide comments about his weight at one point, which I found pretty refreshing (although GTA still has fat jokes and stereotypes galore).
What makes Roman such a great fat character is that he is more than his waist size. He’s a character with depth, who helps his cousin Nico throughout the game. His weight is just one of his characteristics because he is thoroughly human.
Taken together, it’s not a bad list of fat heroes.
But compare that to fat female protagonists in video games and you get this from TV Tropes:
Often, she functions as a source of comic relief, whether or not the subject is her weight. Like the Black Best Friend and Pet Homosexual she is the unconventional one who is, likely the all-American main character’s best friend for her size. Either that or she’s the main character of a drama where her big conflict is having an issue with her weight. She can range anywhere from Hollywood Pudgy, where the actress is actually fairly thin and her fatness comes across as more of an Informed Flaw than anything else to BBW, where large women are portrayed more positively.
The author lists fat female protagonists from comic books, films, literature and video games. When you read the video game characters, you notice a trend that the fat character is usually a glutton and the game play often includes a weight loss narrative, or else, like Eunice Pound in Bully, the character is completely self-loathing, masculine and physically repulsive.
I only know of one fat, female video game character who is even remotely sexual in nature: Eve from Dragon’s Lair II.
Of course, Eve is also a glutton whose appetite threatens to destroy the universe.
Recently, though, I found an exception to the fat, female character trope.
I’m a huge fan of Grand Theft Auto, and when the most recent version came out I was clamoring for a copy to no avail. In the meantime, I picked up Saints Row IV, believing it to be comparable. It’s not, and I immediately lamented the differences between the two games, particularly the physics.
But what is awesome about this game is that you can customize the protagonist. Given the double standard for fat characters, I’m always curious how customizable features affect female body size options. Typically, the “fat” female body is just a scosche heavier than Pamela Anderson, but to my surprise, I was able to make a female Saints Row character that had a belly.
Not only is she fat by female video game standards, but she’s unapologetically sexual.
One caveat: the metric of successful inclusion is not whether fat female characters are sexual, it’s whether they have some depth outside of being either gluttonous sloths, self-loathing dieters or cretinous goons. But given the ubiquity of sexy female characters, it was refreshing to see my fat character maintain her sexuality.
Now imagine if your favorite video games featured fat, female heroines positively: without mockery, without condescension or moral lessons on moderation. Imagine girl gamers growing up in a world where they’re allowed to pick a character who looks like them.
That is power.
And it’s the kind of power that has been used to blunt the edge of the double-edged sword of stigma for women and POCs and the LGBT community since time immemorial. And this is exactly what we need to reduce weight stigma: more representation and more inclusion.
So if you’re a writer, get to work on that novel with the fat heroine; if you’re an artist, show us the beauty of fat bodies; if you’re a songwriter, give voice to the self-confident fat woman. These are the things that will help reduce the effects of Tom Leykis et. al.
Fighting stigma is ultimately a form of culture war, where one side is promoting stereotypes and irrational hatred, while the other is promoting inclusion and understanding. This is a battle that must be fought in the public sphere, and we must not be shy about labeling stigma when we see it.
But the very first step — what will ultimately lead society away from stigmatizing certain groups — is to raise awareness of the problem, both within yourself and those around you. That is why we celebrate Weight Stigma Awareness Week. This is the first in a long series of steps that will lead us ultimately to a more accepting, more understanding, more compassionate society. And that is always worth fighting for.