I don’t personally like the word “fat”. I don’t deny that I am fat. I just prefer the word overweight. Somehow ‘overweight’ sounds more factual. Like hair being blonde or eyes being blue. Fat sounds more like a judgement. But that’s just me. However, ‘fat’ is the word being associated with this project along with the phrase “fat shaming” so I guess that is the title I will go with for this post.
Haley Morris-Cafiero is a photographer who also happens to be overweight. One day, she was taking pictures of herself in Times Square. Upon reviewing the pictures, she noticed someone in the background who she felt was staring at her “in disgust”. This prompted her to photograph herself in various places with the purpose of catching the looks of bystanders in the background. Looks which she felt revealed weight bias, weight discrimination and general disdain for an overweight individual.
Her photos capture herself doing every day things, working out, going to the beach and other things. Here is one of the pictures she captured
On her website there is a video where she describes her project. She said that she was interested in how people use the “gaze” to communicate emotion and how “we in turn interpret” that gaze. She wants to “reverse the gaze back onto the passerby” in an effort to start a conversation.
I will say that her video does end though with this statement:
“We all know that haters are going to be haters”
This statement most likely reveals that she is confident the people staring at her in the background are doing so out of hatred and disgust. But is this the truth?
I think I am uniquely qualified to speak on this subject. I have spent the majority of my life overweight. I weighed 417 pounds for a good long time. I was actually quite a bit larger than the subject of these photographs. I also have been out in society doing all the things she captured on photos. I have been in a bathing suit at the beach. I have been at the gym. I have been sight seeing and other things as a large individual. I also have felt and personally observed the stares and glares of others.
So–is she right? Do people in society look at overweight and obese individuals with disgust, hatred and contempt? YES. Many of them do. But if you really want to talk about a segment of society that is the worst of the worst—let’s talk kids!! Little children are the worst if you are exceptionally large. They have no filter and if you are an extremely big person like I was (over 400 pounds) you may have been the only person they have ever seen at that size. So to them it is really unusual. They point and stare often to the embarrassment of their own parents who try to get them to stop. The truth is, though, that very young children do NOT do this out of disgust or hatred. Young children have not yet had the chance to grow into discriminating views of hatred and disgust for people who are different from them. They haven’t yet been influenced by the world and the opinions of others to the point that they feel hatred for people who are overweight. Children pointed at me when I weighed 417 pounds for the same reason they point out a balloon in the sky or anything else that stands out to them. And I would venture to say that a lot of the people who this photographer has captured in her pictures are staring at her for the exact same reason.
We NOTICE people that stand out from the crowd. That is true of anyone though. If you see someone who is very large, you notice them. It can’t be helped. If you see someone walking by you with hair from 1987, you’re going to take notice. The other day I was in the grocery store and a woman walked past me that was dressed like something out of a magazine. Everything about her looked amazing. Her hair, her jacket, her boots. Her perfectly applied makeup and her beautifully manicured nails. All of it stood out from everyone else in the laundry detergent aisle. And yes—I think I stared for a moment. I know I wasn’t the only one.
This is reality. We get stared at. For looking good and looking bad. For having amazing hair and for not brushing it at all. People turn their heads when an obese person walks by the same way they do when someone that looks perfectly toned walks by. Ever watched someone with a cute baby move through the store? How many times will they get looked at?
The world is set up for people to take notice. Isn’t that what Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are for? Here I am world—look at me! And would any of those websites be successful if we didn’t on some inherent level as humans like to….WATCH?!
That’s what we do. We watch others. We compare them to ourselves. What are they doing? How are they dressing? We are curious people. We always want to know what others are doing. Maybe it’s to see what we’re missing. Or what they’re missing. Whatever it is that makes us look at others–that’s what we do. Plain and simple.
About a month ago, I was at TJ Maxx. In front of me in line was a woman who looked to be about 7-8 months pregnant. She had with her 3 young children. She was pushing a double stroller with two young children in it. By the time I made it to the parking lot, she was still trying to wrangle all her kids into the van. We had parked near each other as it turned out. When I walked by her to get in my car, she actually yelled at me out of no where saying “Yes I know!! I KNOW!!”
I was completely startled and I stopped in my tracks unsure if she was actually yelling at ME!
I said to her, “I’m sorry. Are you talking to me?”
To which she replied, “Yes. And I KNOW. I’m stupid. I get it. I have 3 children and I am pregnant with another. I get it. I’m a stupid person because I have so many kids and I can’t keep them under control in a store. I GET IT!”
I was totally in shock. I had NO IDEA why she was saying this to me. So I said to her, “I don’t think you’re stupid. Why do you think that?” and you know what she said??
BECAUSE YOU WERE STARING AT ME
And I really didn’t realize it. But after I thought about it for a few seconds I realized—yes I was. The whole time she was in front of me in line I WAS staring at her. I didn’t mean to be obvious about it but I clearly was. Subtlety must not be my speciality. But I wasn’t thinking she was stupid. After all, I have 4 children myself! My youngest are close together in age as well just like hers. So if I was staring–it wasn’t out of judgement. It was actually because I was remembering how it used to be. Back when my kids were that young.
I remember what it’s like to be pregnant with one baby while trying to carry another. What a nightmare it is just to go to the grocery store and praying that they all don’t have a meltdown at the same time. I also remember that side by side double stroller I had and what a terrible idea it was. Just try getting through a narrow aisle at the store with a side by side double stroller!! You see, I was actually thinking she was much smarter than me because she had one that was NOT a side by side! And I also was thinking how much easier my life is now that all my kids are school age and potty trained! So while she thought I was staring at her in total contempt for having so many children, I was actually doing it for the opposite reason. I was doing it in a sentimental way. Remembering those days and feeling lots of sympathy for her.
I tried to explain this to her but I’m not even sure she believed me so I walked on to the car. All the way home, I berated myself for having stared at her. What is wrong with me?!! Why did I do that??! But it won’t be the last time. Like I said, I looked long enough at that well dressed woman in the laundry detergent aisle the other day that I still remember what her boots look like!
We’re all guilty. We don’t mean to look but we do. And it’s not always out of hatred or contempt for the person we’re looking at. Sometimes it is simply because the person stands out in the crowd. For good reasons or bad reasons—they just do. And that catches our eye. Other times, we see something in that person that triggers something. A memory. Maybe even a twinge of jealousy! I want that purse…we think. Man I wish I had those boots!! Whatever the reason we often catch ourselves looking at others.
So are all the people in the background staring at Haley Morris-Cafiero out of contempt for her weight? Or is she just hypersensitive to society’s stares?
Perhaps it is a mix of both.
One thing is true. Many people do feel contempt and disgust for overweight individuals. It’s hard to believe that someone could literally hate you simply because of your weight but it’s true. I know this for a fact because I’ve lived it. When I weighed 417 pounds, I was on the receiving end of much more than just nonverbal glares. At least the starers and glarers limit themselves to just that. It’s the people who DON’T keep their thoughts in their heads that we really have to worry about. I’ve had people approach me in stores and in restaurants to give me their opinions on my weight. I once had a man in a truck scream at me to go back in the house because I was too fat to be outside. So if anyone has been exposed to weight discrimination, it is me.
Only last month, I had someone make a comment to me about my weight and the fact that I had regained some of the weight I lost. I was walking up the stairs and they were behind me on the stairs. Right behind me in full clear view of my rear end! That’s when the comment came—
“I see you’re EATING again”.
In other words—I’m standing behind you and your giant butt is bigger than it was the last time I saw you. Wait–is that just the theme of this week?
That comment that they said to me implied that I’d regained some weight and they could tell. I would have much preferred a sideways glance or a nonverbal sigh but instead I got the full fledged verbal assault of “I SEE YOU’RE EATING AGAIN!”
So what? I shouldn’t eat? I should starve myself until I’m thin? Or perhaps I don’t deserve to eat because I’m overweight?
You see it’s not just the nonverbal stares and glares we can interpret. It’s even the verbal, out loud and in your face comments of others that we can still roll over and over in our head. Trying to analyze them to the deepest level. What did they mean by that? What were they trying to say?! All those thoughts went through my mind in response to that comment. Because it wasn’t straight forward. It wasn’t even…”I see you’ve put on some weight“.
It was….”I see you are EATING again“. Not OVER-eating. But EATING in general. As if that was something I should not be allowed to do because I’m fat! As if an overweight person eating AT ALL should be a crime. And guess what? Many people feel that way. And while not all of them voice it, they often transmit it through their stares. Just try grocery shopping at 417 pounds and see if others don’t judge what is in your cart. Even if it’s healthy they still seem to look at you with disdain. As if an overweight person having the audacity to purchase food is reason enough for them to hate you.
I admire this photographer’s unwillingness to hide behind closed doors. It’s hard to get out there in society when you are overweight or don’t fit society’s traditional view of what is beautiful. You may have to wade through the contempt of some people on the way to enjoying your life. But do it anyway. Go to the beach even if people stare. Do whatever you can to embrace life no matter what your size. I know that’s hard because I know fat shaming is real. I’ve lived it. So I know it exists. But while we may not be able to avoid the unfortunate comments of others, we don’t need to to fill in the blanks on nonverbal glances that truly are not clear and still up for interpretation. Yes, some people will clearly and obviously stare at you with disgust. That’s a sad part of life. But we must try to keep an open mind on the glances that are less clear. We can’t assume that we know what everyone is thinking. And why not err on the side of the positive if we can? Trust me—there are enough people out there who will tell you exactly what they think. Especially if you get on the stairs in front of them apparently!! But let’s not try to imagine what the silent ones are thinking too!
There is a television show called “Lie to Me” that I recently watched on Netflix. It was fascinating. The doctor on this show had studied facial micro expressions. He could determine what someone was feeling just by looking at their face. Contempt, disgust, hatred, happiness, fear.–he could read all of those things on someone’s face just from the small facial expressions they exhibited. He solved all kinds of cases for the FBI and the government with this talent but in spite of all that his personal life was mostly a mess. He was divorced because his wife said that while she loved him—it was hard to be with someone who could see everything you were feeling without you ever saying a word. You see, he always mistrusted her because any time she felt a twinge of doubt he could see it on her face. The problem was that she had other emotions too that he didn’t bother to take into account. Sure, she sometimes felt doubt about their relationship but she also loved him. Unfortunately, he gave the most attention to the doubts and frustrations that her facial expressions revealed. THOSE were the ones he paid the most attention to.
We need to be careful of this as well. While we may notice someone’s stare, that is only one thing we are seeing. What lies beneath is a deeper story that will never be revealed in a mere photograph. In spite of the comments and stares, I try to remember that even those who look at us with contempt do so often out of ignorance. Behind the stares may be fear. Fear of facing their own problems. After all, our society today loves to linger on the lives of others as a means to avoid what we would prefer not to face in our own world. Maybe it’s lack of empathy because they have no idea what it’s like. Or maybe like me, you saw yourself in that other person at the checkout line and your stare was one of understanding more than anything else. I’m going to admit to you right now that when I see someone in a store who is extremely obese–they catch my eye. When I see someone who looks to be over 400 pounds, I am immediately moved by it. If someone over 400 pounds saw me looking at them today–they might think I was judging them. But it wouldn’t be the case at all. In fact, I am just holding back a hug. The hug I want to give to a total stranger who at the same time is a kindred spirit.
Whatever goes on behind the eyes of another will usually remain a mystery. Let’s not always assume we know what it means. Let’s give people the benefit of the doubt when we can. Trust me–enough people will let you know what they think. For the ones that aren’t clear about it, let’s hope for the best. Because a mystery is just that—a mystery. And perhaps that is where it needs to stay.
If you are interested in the project you can find the information here at her website