Worst of bigotry is way ‘language dehumanizes’


Steve Krause

I am an overweight person, and I’ve been that way since I was in the fifth grade. That’s when the battle of the bulge began for me.

At 10 years old, I didn’t know that much about nutrition. Neither did my family. My mother fought the battle from as far back as I can remember, and, to me, it just seemed to be a way of life.

My dad didn’t have the problem. And I’m not sure he was all that happy that I did. He’d take me to the clothing store to buy pants, for example, and he and the salesman would make little jokes about me being “husky,” or “stout.” I’d just stand there and glower. It didn’t take long for me to realize that being “husky” was not a good thing.

This had little to do with health. Perhaps if someone had explained to me, when I was a teenager, the enormous health ramifications of being overweight I’d have been more diligent about the problem. To me, the worst thing about being overweight was that buying clothes was torture (there was no Destination XL in those days) and that I’d never be able to get a date.

As long as I played sports, the problem was somewhat controlled. As soon as I stopped, I ballooned.

That’s my background. I don’t apologize for it, and I certainly do not claim to be a victim. I’m 63 years old now, I’ve had a heart bypass, I’m diabetic, arthritic, and know full well the ramifications of being overweight. I suffer with those ramifications daily.

And that’s why it grates on me when people who’d never think of commenting about a person’s skin color, religion, or even sexual preference, feel free to remind us of our situation in ways that are not exactly complimentary.

I once went to the same garage three different times to get a problem with my car fixed. By the third time, I was perhaps a little too gruff with the mechanic, but who could blame me? His response, after I blasted him, was “calm down, big guy.”

It’s really not smart to tell an agitated person to “calm down.” Adding “big guy” to the sentence adds whole new dimension to that. Would you say “calm down, black guy? Calm down, gay guy?”

I responded to him, but could never repeat it here. And he never did fix my car.

Once, about 30 years ago, I got into an argument with a female worker. I don’t even remember why. But about a minute into the exchange, she screamed, “lookit, you fat …” And she so wanted to use the usual alliterative adjective, but she caught herself at the last minute and said “fellow.” The insinuation being what? That if I was thin I’d be smarter?

A few years later, I was at a nightclub where the comedian was into audience participation. He stuck a microphone in my face, and when I didn’t want to participate, he called me a fat … and he did use the usual alliterative adjective. And this was just after I’d just dropped 30 pounds!

In what world is this acceptable?

I’ve been at The Item for almost 40 years, and once decided to spread my wings and see what I could do outside the business. The first thing the manager of my new job said to me was “you’re going to have to lose weight … and get better clothes.”

I should have said “never mind.” Almost a year to the day after I was hired, and after repeated harassment about my weight, I got fired.

That wasn’t the only reason. I wasn’t really a good fit for the job. But weight was one very big (no pun intended) reason why I wasn’t a good fit for the job.

There are terms associated with overweight people I’ve come to hate. One of them is “fat slob,” a pejorative term that always seems to come up when you’re winning a point in an argument or a debate and the other person can’t think of anything else to say. The fat part is bad enough. The “slob” is just an extra kick in the pants.

Far more deleterious is the tendency people have to use “fat” as a derogatory adjective in the general sense. I may not be a fan of Chris Christie’s (I hate traffic jams) but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed seeing caricatures ridiculing his girth, or the snide comments about his bulk. As if he’d magically become a liberal Democrat if he were only thin.

In fact, the worst aspect of any bigotry, be it mild or rabid, is the way its language dehumanizes people and suggests people who use it are physically or morally superior.

This takes on all kinds of forms. People see me eat and feel like they have a license to make comments. Recently, I got a phone call from someone asking me “is the weight still down?” What do you say? What you WANT to say is “why is that YOUR business?”

I’ve read articles about airlines that want to charge extra for overweight passengers. Makes a person want to go right out and patronize them, doesn’t it?

I’m sure you’re saying, at this point, “but it’s not the same as facing discrimination because you’re African-American, or Jewish, or gay, or a Muslim.” No. It’s not.

The uptick in anti-Semitism the last two or three years is tragic and scary. I know some Jews who are, once again, reticent to admit who they are, and that’s an awful thing. I can’t think of anything sadder than being afraid to show your pride in who you are.

But bias against overweight people is still a very-much accepted social prejudice. There are still plenty of people who feel as if anything they say and do to heavy men and women is acceptable on the pretext that they should be smart enough not to have the problem.

We know how unhealthy it is. We live it. But if it was that easy to fix, don’t you think we’d have all done it by now?

I’ve had gastric bypass, been on more diets than I can count (even though I know that a “diet” is not the answer) and — until my knees finally gave out on me — exercised like a fiend.

At this point, I am what I am. I try as best as I can to control it, and not let it get completely out of hand. But it has robbed me of health, motion and — at times — vitality. That’s bad enough. But I do not need the prejudices of people who feel that my condition is somehow exempt from the rules of protocol and civility.

The ramifications are tough enough to deal with.

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