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Don’t blame the fat-shaming Lilly Pulitzer employee. Blame the culture that supports our self-loathing. Then help change it.

by Harriet Brown

They were the office decorations seen around the world. Or at least the internet. A New York Magazine slideshow of life behind the scenes at Lilly Pulitzer, a women’s fashion house known for its floral prints, included a shot of two cartoons hanging over an unnamed employee’s desk. Their captions read “Just another day of fat, white, and hideous . . . you should probably just kill yourself” and “Put it down, carb face.”

Any number of media outlets covered the controversy, and pretty much every one of them used the word “fat-shaming.” As I read story after story about the drawings, I found myself torn between two conflicting reactions.

On one hand, I’m glad that both the concept and the word “fat-shaming” have entered our consciousness to this extent. No offense to my chosen profession, but when journalists use a term like this in headlines, it has entered the public lexicon. It means we’re paying lip service, at least, to the idea that fat-shaming is a problem.

On the other hand, I’m disturbed by the vitriol directed at this employee. Commenters were quick to call her out, calling the cartoons insensitive, hateful, and thinspirational. And don’t get me wrong; they are all of those things. But the comments I’ve seen are missing a crucial point: these body-shaming drawings were created by a woman and aimed at herself, not others. They hung over her desk, not in a common area. They are literal and figurative illustrations of one woman’s clear struggle with shame and guilt and self-acceptance.

These drawings reflect self-loathing rather than fat-shaming. And that self-loathing grows directly out of our cultural attitudes around weight.

I’ve been researching and writing about body image, eating disorders, and the Health at Every Size® paradigm for a decade. But I grew up in a house where cartoons like these would have looked right at home, along with images of fat women bending over, eating enormous sundaes, naked, and others meant to drive us away in horror from the refrigerator door. My mother was always dieting, and for a long time so was I. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with hanging images like this over my own desk.

So much outrage has rained down on these drawings and the woman who made them. And so little outrage has been directed where it truly belongs: at the culture that demands this kind of self-loathing, especially from women. At the advertisers who deliberately make us feel insecure, anxious, less-than, so they can sell us products, bombarding us with anatomically impossible images of fantasy women.

You know the saying “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”? I think we’re paying attention to the wrong issue here. The self-deprecation and body hatred of the Lilly Pulitzer employee is a symptom of the greater problem. And yes, I can imagine that the corporate culture at Lilly Pulitzer might exacerbate this kind of self-hatred. The company is part of the problem. But while scapegoating the employee or the company alone might feel satisfying in the moment, it’s a misdirect. The true outrage belongs elsewhere.

At the last talk I gave about my new book, a woman in the audience raised her hand and made a passionate plea for us to work toward systemic change, not just look for ways to make peace with our physical selves. Both are imperative. Each of us has to find a way to live in this culture, in this time and place, in whatever size and shape body we’ve got. And all of us have to find ways to direct our outrage at the culture, where it belongs. To speak up for meaningful change. To push back against the body police, against the rhetoric of hatred, against the objectification of people’s bodies.

So repeat after me (with a nod to the movie Network): I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Then do something, one thing, to push back against the culture’s punitively narrow stance around bodies. You’ll feel better. I know I do.

Harriet Brown

Harriet Brown’s newest book is Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It (Da Capo, 2015). She teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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