When I lived abroad, people tended to make a lot of assumptions about me based on their generalizations or stereotypes about foreigners from America. I figured when I returned to the U.S., this would stop. However, it turned out that people are still making assumptions based on generalizations or stereotypes, they are just doing so with a different set of them.
Several weeks ago, I met an new acquaintance of my husband's at a coffee shop for the first time. At the early stage of our conversation, we were discussing size differences in beverages. The country I used to live in did not offer "venti" size drinks, but it did offer "short" ones. This talk about everything being bigger, including the spaces around the tables, in the U.S. prompted this new acquaintance to mention how large the people in America were. Clearly, she was referring to weight.
As a way of handling this somewhat derogatory remark, I mentioned that I felt American weight issues were largely linked to acculturation. We are acclimated to larger portions and find them natural and normal. My husband also pointed to his drink and said that it cost a mere 20 cents more to go from a large to a venti so you are economically encouraged to have more. We proceeded to discuss how the cost of food products is largely wrapped up in marketing, packaging, and sales and that the cost of the actual food you are consuming is such a small percentage that there is much more profit in getting you to fork over an extra dime or quarter for more food because of this.
This new acquaintance, who I actually really like and I was not offended by what she said at all, in large part because she accepted what I said about food and culture with a thoughtful mindset rather than a defensive one, made assumptions about me based on how she saw me as I am now. I'm fat, for sure, but she's also a little overweight. She was looking at me as a "normal fat" rather than an "abnormal fat" and had no idea that she was talking to someone who used to weigh 380 lbs. and who has lived most of her adult life over 300. If she had known, my guess is she never would have casually remarked about how large Americans are to me within the first 3 minutes of having met me.
It isn't only about weight that I've found people are reaching conclusions about me. My sister-in-law has had several conversations with me in which she's has taken to "educating" me about a variety of things which she has no experience with and that I have, shall we say, copious experience with. The absurdity of her telling me what it is like for people to grow up with an alcoholic parent, in poverty, or to be around seriously mentally ill was hysterically ridiculous.
It's as if she just can't hold the thoughts in her mind that I grew up incredibly poor, surrounded by dysfunction, worked with seriously mentally ill people, and with an alcoholic father when she looks at me. She simply can't reconcile whatever image she holds of the present me with a person who lived that life and takes to talking to me as if I were an idiot who can't possibly understand or empathize with the difficulties of the people she is talking about. I've literally had to repeat each of these points at least 3 times during various discussions to make her understand that I'm not some middle class entitled person (which, ironically, she is) who has landed on these shores after an exciting and privileged life abroad. I've worked hard, suffered greatly, and came from absolutely nothing.
The intransigence of the stereotypes and generalizations people form about another person based on present day limited knowledge is something I find very frustrating, especially since people instantly believe my life was an easy one. They see me as middle class economically (even though currently I have no income at all), educated, and out of touch with the difficulties of minorities and the poor. The idea of "white privilege" is all around me and people speak as if I have no idea what it is like to be a minority and to experience prejudice. They assume I don't know what it is like to be judged on sight, rejected based on skin color, or have doors closed to me based on ethnicity.
I spent 23 years being gawked at, insulted, talked about, turned away, and having my opportunities severely limited because I was in a country where more than 99% of the people were not like me. I think I do have some idea what it is like to be part of a minority. What is more, I spent about 20 years of my life at home in America being marginalized because of my weight. I have always been part of an oppressed minority, at least up until now. But, people don't see that, and won't even believe it when I tell them, because they cannot break out of the thought box their generalizations about me lock them in.
I find that I was less frustrated by the prejudices I experienced abroad than the preconceived notions I experience back home. Part of the reason for that is that my former home abroad is not a country in which people are educated about prejudice and how not to act on it. Part of it is that I disconnected emotionally from those people as a survival mechanism and could do so because they saw me as outside and I could see myself that way. Here, the perceived inclusion is stifling because I'm in an individualistic culture which is fiercely intent on pigeonholing me as something other than an individual. Even when I assert clearly that I am not what people perceive me to be, they push back or refuse to see who I truly am in favor of their notions.
One of the sources of my depression has been a deep disappointment and frustration at how I am perceived and how I did not expect to have this sort of thing happen. While I did not expect people to look at me and assume I used to be much more overweight, I did expect them to at least be open-minded to the fact that I can't be sized up with little more than a look. People used to think I was a lazy, donut-scoffing pig before based merely on my looks. Now, they think I'm some easy-living, entitled, spoiled middle-aged white lady. Perhaps I was naive in thinking that losing weight would change the way people reach conclusions based on appearances. The cursory judgement didn't end. The conclusions people tend to reach just changed, and they're not really for the better in my experiences. They still diminish me. They still serve to elevate others at my expense. They still are shallow and self-serving.