My heart broke for her and ached for me with isolated frustration.
These so-called compliments are at the same time well meant, backward and omnipresent. Find a photo online of a fat celebrity who is well dressed (an achievement given the lack of clothing options for fat people), and you’ll also find gushing compliments and headlines about her “body awareness” and “bravery” – headlines that easy aren’t often there for thinner celebrities. This practice has become so common that Lizzo introduced it in a shine Profile on the singer. “When people look at my body and say, ‘Oh my god, she’s so brave,’ it’s like, ̵
These compliments often come from a genuinely good place: a sense of wonder and disbelief, a real appreciation for people who defy societal expectations of what we should look like. Sometimes they come from people struggling with their own confidence and self-worth. Sometimes they come with a hint of longing. Regardless of their tone, they are often thought of as heartfelt compliments. The woman’s compliments, like most aimed at the perceived bravery of fat people, weren’t scary.
Still, the compliment to the “bravery” and “self-confidence” of fat people, as kind and generous as it may be, often serves as both a reflection and a perpetuation of the anti-fat tendency. Many fat people – myself included – experience these compliments as a bizarre reminder of the shame we should bear for simply living in our bodies.
Confidence is a wonderful thing, of course. It is risky and liberating to do and wear what you want regardless of what others think. But the compliment to the “bravery” or the “trust” of fat people is often associated with a feeling of wonder – simply put, it is unthinkable that we would be confident. Adding the “trust” of the fat people is a reminder of a deeply ingrained belief: You, of all people, have nothing to be sure about. This also means that we are simply “brave” dare to show ourselves in publicbecause we should know that our body should not be seen.
These compliments reveal more about the person paying them than the fat person who is receiving them. Praise for the “bravery” and “trust” of fat people is a subtle way of being different that reflects the values, prejudices, and limited understanding of fat people’s experiences. Fat people are only “brave” if they expect us to be ashamed. I wasn’t “confident” about wearing a regular black dress, nor was I “daring” to dress like my thinner colleagues. I did not feel confident or brave about my body that day. I did not feel something about my body that day. I felt distracted and afraid of making the right impression. I wanted to make my employees proud to represent our work well. But for the skinny woman who complimented me, it was all overshadowed by my body.
These compliments are not among the most damaging factors fat people face, but they can be deeply frustrating due to the prejudices they reveal, yet they refuse to face them. They reflect an imaginary reality of anti-fatness: the awareness that the deck is stacked against fat people and the assumption that we must live in constant fear of being seen.
And fat people to do need to overcome more concrete prejudices in order to love ourselves. Fat people face discrimination in the workplace, highly biased health care, sexual harassment, and much more. A study published in 2012 in Obesity: A Research Journal interviewed 2,671 fat Americans about their experiences with weight stigma. A majority of participants reported having experienced almost every form of stigma they were asked about: Others made negative assumptions and hurled nasty comments. Doctors made inappropriate comments. The loved ones expressed their embarrassment at their size. Even anecdotally, many fat people have terrifying stories about the bullying we ourselves have been exposed to from our families and partners. And fat or thin, almost all of us have been exposed to ubiquitous cultural messages that fat people are unkind, undesirable, and shouldn’t be seen or heard. Fat people are there to be spoken to About, not spoken to. So it makes sense to be seen, to wear clothes, to eat in public, and to participate in public life, as thin people do, to be viewed as some kind of daring act. And yes, deeds that would presumably require our “bravery”.