by Miriam Villchur Berg
In my work with the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, I answer emails from students on all levels, from middle school through graduate school. I am always struck by the poignancy of their questions—especially those that come from the younger girls. I can picture their struggles with weight prejudice. I give them a lot of credit for deciding to do a project on weight discrimination, and I thank Google for leading them to our website: www.cswd.org.
Here is an example of an email interview I did with two girls from a middle school in a western American state. Since they mention self-harm and suicide, I can’t help but wonder whether they themselves have experience with the effects of bullying, or whether they know someone who has encountered cruel and emotionally damaging treatment. I am not a therapist, and even if I were, I feel my job is to answer their questions, not to offer counseling. I try to keep such interviews on a professional level. I treat them as adults and colleagues. I do my best to tell the truth. But I also try to find ways to give them strength.
I rarely hear back from these students about how their projects went, except for an occasional thank you note. I will continue to answer this type of email request, writing new and original answers each time, and tailoring the answers to each student’s focus. I have to believe that they went on to use my words, along with the other research they did, to change hearts and minds. That is enough to keep me going.
Mary and Sue (I have changed their names) wrote and asked me to answer some questions for their project on weight discrimination. I said that I would. They then wrote:
Thank you for replying. Here are the interview questions that Sue and I have agreed on. We’ll need your responses to the questions by January 10th.
- What’s your opinion on people being discriminated based on their weight?
- Were you ever a victim of weight discrimination?
- Do you believe that anyone should be able to speak freely of other people’s weights? If not, why?
- What is your opinion on the body image society has created?
- How do you feel about the fact that many girls commit suicide and self harm because of their weight?
Mary and Sue
Dear Mary and Sue,
Below are my answers to your questions.
Thank you for taking on this important issue.
I wish you the very best with your project.
Miriam Villchur Berg, President
Council on Size & Weight Discrimination
- What’s your opinion on people being discriminated based on their weight? Weight discrimination is simply wrong. It is based on false stereotypes, and it harms people for no good reason. We can learn a lot from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous speech, said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” By changing “the color of their skin” to “the size of their bodies,” these words express the purpose of our organization. Yes, we all do judge people, and sometimes that is entirely appropriate. We judge people on the content of their character. We judge them on their actions, and on how they treat other people, or animals, or the environment. These are legitimate ways to assess whether a person is a good person or a bad person, and whether we want to spend time with that person. These are characteristics that tell us how to decide who our friends should be, who our partners and colleagues should be, and who our elected representatives should be. But other criteria—such as a person’s skin color, or a person’s weight—do not belong on a list of valid reasons to judge someone.
- Were you ever a victim of weight discrimination? In our culture, anyone whose body is larger than average can encounter weight prejudice in social situations, at work, in educational settings, or in dealing with various bureaucracies. I decided to work in the field of size acceptance and size equality not because of my personal stories of discrimination, but because it is the right thing to do. I want to be seen as a champion of the rights of larger-than-average people. I want people of all sizes to understand the societal problem: to recognize prejudice when they see it, to be outraged by it, and to take steps to interrupt size prejudice whenever and wherever they encounter it. In my work, I hear from victims of size discrimination constantly. Here are some examples: A teenager with a beautiful voice was denied entry into a chorus that travels around the world, simply because she wore a size 16 dress. A newly married couple was told by a furniture store that they could not return their broken sofa, which was under warranty. The store told them the sofa broke because of their weight. I pointed out to them that sofas are made to hold three or four people, not just two. The couple fought for their rights to a refund, and won. We hear from numerous workers who have been fired or demoted because their weight exceeded the weight limits on the ladders used by the company or utility they work for. We urge them to insist that the company purchase heavy-duty ladders. Sometimes we win those battles, and sometimes we don’t, but we always fight for equitable treatment for people of all sizes.
- Do you believe that anyone should be able to speak freely of other people’s weights? If not, why? It is not acceptable for someone to talk about another person’s weight except in very specific circumstances where the person has given permission for that to happen. This is simple courtesy and consideration. Unfortunately, this principle is violated on a daily basis in social situations, as well as in the media. It is inappropriate for someone to criticize another person’s weight; but it is also inappropriate for someone to tell another person that he or she looks good because he or she has lost weight. It may seem like a compliment, but the underlying meaning is that the person didn’t look good before. It implies that the person’s weight was never mentioned before because being heavier was something to be hidden—something shameful. It implies that body size is the only criterion for attractiveness, which it is most certainly not. It also sends a message to every person within earshot that their weight might be “wrong,” and that they might soon be on the receiving end of similar unwelcome comments.
- What is your opinion on the body image society has created? In the media, celebrities are chastised on an ongoing basis for having any weight gain, or even for having body parts that are larger than size zero. Every summer, the front covers of tabloids show pictures of starlets in bikinis, with emphasis on any tiny protrusion or roll, and headlines such as “You’ll never guess who THIS is!” The pressure to be pencil-thin, and to have a so-called “flawless” body, puts an enormous burden on both celebrities and on ordinary people—especially women. The tabloids seem like a source of harmful negative opinions to me, and I make a point of not looking at them when I am waiting on line at the grocery store. I also have to point out that lots of companies make money from women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. The weight-loss industry is enormous, making more than 60 billion (US) dollars a year—more than the gross domestic product of more than half of the countries of the world. And that does not count the money earned by the cosmetics industry, the exercise industry, and the cosmetic surgery industry. All of these depend on women (and men, to a lesser extent) hating their bodies and their looks. If people started feeling good about themselves—in both appearance and in overall self-worth—these companies would lose most of their business.
- How do you feel about the fact that many girls commit suicide and self harm because of their weight?It is very upsetting to learn of young girls who are bullied at school because of their weight. When these girls self-harm, or even commit suicide, it is heartbreaking. I wish I could tell each of them that they are OK just as they are, and that they should not listen to the criticisms of others. I know how difficult that is, because it seems to be human nature to hear criticisms and remember them, while forgetting the praise and positive comments one has received. Helping people—especially young girls—maintain and improve their self-esteem is something that needs to be repeated over and over.I want to tell all young girls that they are strong, worthwhile, capable, and loveable, just the way they are. And when they forget that, or when they hear another criticism and feel bad about themselves, I want to remind them again: You are strong, worthwhile, capable, and loveable.
Miriam Villchur Berg is a writer and editor, a political activist, and the president of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination. Her special areas of interest are employment discrimination, accessibility issues, and health care rights. Miriam is the author, compiler, and editor of most of the material on the Council’s website (www.cswd.org). She also writes the program notes for the oldest chamber music series in the US, Maverick Concerts (www.maverickconcerts.org) in Woodstock, NY.