Saturday, February 11, 2012

Body Shaming and Competition

Facebook can be a horrible place if you are sensitive to other people's actions and perceptive about their subtle messages. It can also be fertile territory for understanding people in general and knowing your friends better. In ways both subtle and gross, you can see how others think and feel.

Recently, I have had experiences with both of the obvious and the less so. One of my friends posted a picture of three people on the beach. One woman was very thin, possibly anorexic, and she had had somewhat moderate breast implants (probably a "B", definitely no more than a C-cup). Her age was difficult to gauge but given the skin sagging, her hair color and texture, and her wrinkles, she may have been as old as her early 60's or as young as her late 40's (probably she was in her mid to late 50's). She was standing with her arm around a slightly overweight woman with a hairy, chunky guy in Speedos on the other side. My friend's comment was something like "I'm glad I kept my own (referring to her breasts)! She (thin woman with implants) makes the guy on the right look pretty good!"

I should note that my friend is very short (about 4' 11"/150 cm.) and has very large breasts. She has also rarely been thin, but not especially been fat. She has had body issues all of her life including being uncomfortable with her disproportionately large breasts and feeling she had a large behind. As she has gotten older, she has put on a little more weight and gained enough at one point to develop Type 2 diabetes, but changed her habits to take her out of the red zone and back to borderline insulin function.

The fact that my friend engaged in such body shaming upset me for several reasons. First of all, I disagree with all body shaming on principle. Second, the sort of sagging and skin wrinkling that woman had was very familiar. It was a less extreme version of what has been happening to me as I lose weight. Third, I think anyone with their own body issues should have more empathy for others with less than perfect bodies. Finally, her behavior was childish and cruel. No one should have their picture passed around and talked about in such a fashion.

Since I don't believe that outright confrontation is helpful when people do these things, I made a comment saying that we don't know anything about how this woman came to be in this state. On the heels of a few "ewwws" and "I just tossed my lunch" types of comments,  I mentioned that an acquaintance recently had a double mastectomy and had breast implants as a result. Any woman could have such implants because of a medical issue, not just because she's vain. I did not say that it didn't matter if she looked as she did out of vanity or not, but I did think so. I wanted my friend to have empathy for this woman, not merely use her as a stepping stone to elevating her own low self-esteem a notch or two.

As the comment thread went on, I mentioned that I would be certain never to show up on a beach in a bathing suit of any sort because strangers would take my picture and pass it around on the internet and mock my body as was being done with that poor woman. My friend expressed incredulity that my body could look so bad and called me a "goddess" (which is weird since she knows I used to be fatter). I guess as someone who has never been severely overweight, she doesn't know that you don't spring back into shape but rather look like a stretched out sweater made of skin. At any rate, my husband, who is also her friend, went on to mention that he felt there was too much body shaming as did a few other people and she withdrew the picture under the weight of disapproval. I remain somewhat surprised that she didn't anticipate how bad what she did might make her look.

Another one of my friends recently posted that she found some dresses in the back of her closet and that she was shocked that they fit. This particular friend has always been slightly chubby and gained a little more weight as time has gone on. She's probably no less overweight than I currently am, but has been mentioning that she went down two dress sizes recently.

Note that my Facebook page does not discuss my weight or anyone else's. As far as they know, what they see is what I am. This blog is unknown to them (and shall remain so) and my struggles are not public. There is no reason for anyone to think I am trying to lose weight, though I do occasionally post recipes which I enjoy that are sugar-free or nutritious. They are there for me to keep track of, and for diabetic friends to experiment with on their own. Though I have never been diabetic, I do make sugar-free items (baked goods) to reduce the blood sugar impact and calories of such items.

Regarding my friend's situation, I commented to her that there were no dresses in the back of my closet, but if there were, they surely would not fit me. I did not state that the reason this was the case was that all of my clothes from the past are far too big and she "liked" the comment. I am not sure why she would "like" the fact that I wouldn't fit into my old clothes while she could, but I got the impression that she was concluding that I was too fat to fit in my old togs. This friend is from college and last she saw me I was at a lowish relative weight (very similar to how I am now), though she met me when I was likely in the 300-350 lb. range in my earlier college years. She had no way of knowing I'd regained and lost weight again, so she didn't know my bodily disposition over the years. From her perspective, I have remained unchanged.

This friend has had a habit of being competitive and copying people she admires or is envious of. When I lost weight in my later college years, she also lost weight shortly thereafter and had shown increasing moodiness and resentment toward me as I continued to lose weight at that time. She also dyed her hair blond to match her roommate's (who she had a serious non-sexual crush on and believed was the coolest human being on the planet) and dressed like said roommate for several years. It could also have been a coincidence, but she dyed her hair the same color as mine shortly after I connected with her on Facebook and remarked on how great she looked with that color.

Though I could be wrong, I think the reason my friend "liked" the idea that I may not be able to wear my old clothes was that she felt I'd gained weight and that made her feel better about herself. This is all not meant in any way to say that I am awesome and enviable in my beauty, but rather as a reflection on the situation in which someone is competing with me and happier to come out the "winner" in her estimation. Both of these friends are behaving competitively with other women. One of them is doing so with a picture of a woman from the internet and the other with an old friend. In both cases, they are valuing bodies such that they can value themselves more highly relative to others.

In both of these cases, I'm not angry with my friends, but I am disappointed that they assign such value to external appearances and sad that their self-estimation is such that it is based on body size and shape. I'm also increasingly uncomfortable with the feeling that I'm being drawn into a sort of "race" for relative beauty now that I'm no longer viewed as the one who absolutely will come in last. When I was super obese and  near 400 lbs., women simply dismissed me entirely as "competition". Now, it's not quite so simple.

I don't want to be involved in any of this, but it does seem quite unavoidable. Though I have changed a lot inside, it seems that people only attend to the changes on the outside, and they aren't necessarily happy to see me looking pretty good if they feel they look relatively not quite as good. I don't want to play this game, but people keep dealing me hands anyway. I'm not sure what to do about it, but I guess all I can do is try to maintain empathy for them and their needs in this regard.


Bunpoh said...

As you mentioned, subtleties and meaning can be obscure in forums such as Facebook. Your interpretation of your second friend's "like" of your comment seems to be projection of your expectations of her. You have no way of knowing why she chose to "like" that comment, but my best guess is that her interpretation of your comment was that you have recently lost weight and that your old clothes no longer fit, because:

a) Many, if not most people would not post such a comment if they meant the opposite, that they had gained weight, for fear of social shaming, while most people would take the opportunity, as you did, to mention that you are no longer the size you once were as a way to let people know you have accomplished something you were trying to do.

b) I have seen very few people express jealousy, competitiveness and/or disdain using the "like" function. Usually, people use it to be supportive. You know this woman and I don't, so you may be the better judge of her motivations, but I think most people would find such an action shocking. I think she, as well as other people, would be afraid of being thought of as bitchy for such an action.

I do believe that many people can be jealous and competitive about body image and weight loss, I've experienced that myself. I think it's very important for us to process this dynamic as it presents itself and learn how to handle ourselves with grace and integrity in the face of it.

But I caution you to be very careful, and try to give most people, even ones you have suspicions about, the benefit of the doubt in ambiguous situations such as this. I keep seeing people work themselves into neurosis over things said in social networking forums that NEVER meant the terrible things people interpreted them as, due to their own particular focus at the moment.

screaming fatgirl said...

It is possible that it is a projection based on my past experiences with her, which I did not go into in great detail. I spent a rather dreadful couple of weeks with her in a major city she was living in (and she had invited me to come stay with her as she had time off and was going to be alone) about a year after graduating with college in which she pretty much sulked the entire time because I had money to spend and she didn't (something which she overtly stated). There is a strong amount of jealousy in her which she may have recovered from over the years.

That being said, as I said, she had no way of knowing I'd lost weight at all as she had no way of knowing I'd ever gained any, but it is possible she interpreted it as weight having been lost. It just seems unlikely.

Lexxxiemustang said...'s amazing that you've posted this. I am going through the very same thing with an old friend of mine. My therapist is advising me to get "rid" of people in my life that are toxic, and she is definitely one of them. I am trying to figure out if I should tell her that I don't want to be her friend anymore.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this post. I was actually just surfing the web for some support about a similar situation. A relative of mine continues to leave clothes for me because she doesn't fit into them anymore. I'm smaller than she is, and have a totally different body structure. But she's turned out to be the kind of person you're describing, the kind that imitates the people she admires. It's actually a little bit creepy for me. And I've had some trouble wondering why she insists on leaving her "fat clothes" for me when they're too big.
But I realize that I inadvertently started this situation because several months ago I took an old pair of her pants that she left for me and cut and sewed them to fit me. That was insulting, and I realize that now. I guess she's just going to keep losing weight until she can maybe do the same with me. Lol, women can be so hurtful and childish...sometimes without even meaning to. I hope everything was resolved with this friend.

screaming fatgirl said...

I can understand the dilemma you're having, and would agree with your therapist that it is best to try to distance yourself from toxic people. The question of whether to tell or not to tell is an interesting and difficult one. When I was younger, I thought it was an act of bold candor to just be right out there with everything and that people who refused to be "honest" through being openly confrontational were cowards. Now, I think the situation is greatly more complex. Often, I do not confront someone with the truth, not because I'm afraid. I'm absolutely not afraid of their responses in terms of being hated or disapproved of or whatever in regard to me. I'm more concerned with the psychological cost to them in terms of being told outright that they are toxic and I don't want to associate with them anymore. Sometimes, it's better for all involved to allow a friendship to die through inattention or infrequent contact than to set the bridge on fire and walk away. A lot of it depends on how hard the toxic acquaintance makes things in terms of extricating yourself from him or her. If they won't let you go, then you have little choice but to be direct. If they don't cling, then it's easier to let it all fade away.

A lot of people feel that it's better to just tell them outright that they have problems and you can't be friends anymore. They do this with the (often mistaken) belief that the former friend may benefit from this information and change and improve. This rarely happens. People who are toxic will not suddenly wake up and become better people because you tell them they are damaging you. They will simply find a reason to blame you and justify their behavior as reasonable and paint you negatively. People don't change because others tell them things about themselves that they can't see. They change because their behavior is so damaging to themselves that they lose something of value. Chances are that a toxic friend has other friends to turn to and validate their behaviors and won't do a turnaround because one friend tells them they are not good to be around

I wish you luck, and I hope that you can purge this person from your life as painlessly as possible. My best wishes to you.