Fat shaming, bus seats and your fair share

Fat shaming, bus seats and your fair share

Fat shaming has been a bit of a hot topic in recent years. For decades thin and athletic bodies have been held up on the pedestal of beauty standards. This is hardly surprising as they are generally pretty nice to look at.

More recently, however, there has been a push for better representation of 'plus size' (that term always confused me, do negative sizes exist?) people in popular culture. Mainly women, most don't care about fat men.

Maybe fat men just feel less ashamed? I'll let you in on a secret - they don't. However, fat men are definitely better represented in pop culture. Often depicted as being manly or jolly. The beer swilling every man who eats his steak and drinks his beer. That character is pretty familiar.

I was overweight for most of my life and while I might have had some positive representation, it didn't make me feel any better. The memories of my little brother once innocently asking why I had 'boobs like a woman' and my older brother taunting me about being fat still haunt me to this day. And I was never even that big. I was just a bit shorter and rounder than them.

Anyway, this whole fat shaming thing got me thinking. There is a lot of vitriol leveled at fat people in the online world (and in private conversation). Because of the internet this negative attitude towards the overweight is more visible than ever. But why is it there at all?

In books and movies there is always the fat kid that gets bullied, the overweight girl that doesn't get a date or the slovenly but rich fat man that's easy to hate.

Amazingly this pervasive negative image of fat people persists despite the fact that most people are actually somewhat over weight these days.

So are fat people just easy targets? After all they can't run very fast and get tired quickly... Or is there something more to it?

This is going to be one of those blog posts where I just think out loud. Today I'm wondering if there is a deeply ingrained evolutionary psychology element to the negativity surrounding our body fat.

Story time

Time to fire up that imagination. I’ll set the scene.

You're sitting on a bus. It's pretty busy but by no means at capacity. You look around and notice that every seat is occupied by one person, so there is space left for another (I'm using Dublin bus as a reference here, where every seat fits two people, so you'll have to work that into your imagination).

It's a hot day and you're wearing jeans. These jeans are a little two tight so you find yourself constantly shifting and readjusting yourself in your seat. The heat compounds your restlessness as the traffic outside extends your commute.

The bus slows down. A man is waiting at the next stop. He's morbidly obese. Oversized to the extent that just getting on the bus will be a challenge for him.

Once the bus has pulled over and opened its doors he grabs the hand rail, places one giant leg on the step and heaves himself up. It's enough exertion to leave him slightly out of breath. And rightly so, he is carrying a tremendous amount of weight.

The strain on his joints is immense. The discomfort plastered all over his face.

He presents his travel card to the machine that goes beep and makes his way down the gangway.

Now, at this part in our story I want you to be really honest with yourself.

As this man makes his way towards the seats, what are you thinking? Remember, each seat is half occupied.

It might feel bad to admit it, but don't lie to yourself. You are probably thinking "God, I hope he doesn't sit beside me." I know I am... But maybe I'm just an asshole.

However, I don't think it's unreasonable. This guy is so large that he would easily fill a double seat himself. Who ever he sits beside is probably going to be uncomfortable as a result. He’s going to take up a lot of space.

You're uncomfortable already so you don't want it made any worse. After all there's still an hour left in your commute...

Is it selfish and compassionless to hope and pray that he doesn't make it as far as your seat? To think “It’s not my problem he’s obese, I don’t want him sitting in top of me.”

I'm not trying to 'shame' this guy or anything. He's probably not happy, and that sucks. I'd imagine he’s also very self conscious about all of the things I mentioned above, and that also sucks. His day to day life is no doubt a struggle. And then there's the hoard of health issues he has to worry about.

What's worse is that doing anything about it is hard. Really hard. It will take discipline, hard work, pain and suffering.

Add to that the fact that the modern world is setup to keep him that way, while at the same time judging and jeering him.

What's your point?

In this story we were looking out for ourselves. For our own comfort. But would you have resented him, or his body fat, if he had sat beside you? And if so, why?

Is it because his size meant he would have been encroaching on your space? That because of his lifestyle choices he takes up more than allocated space per person on the bus?

What if fat people are seen in such a negative light because they appear to be taking more than their fair share? We carry a lot of psychological baggage courtesy of our ancestors and I can't help wonder if this is one of those bags.

Think about it. What would our ancestors think if they could see us today. And I'm not talking about the Greeks here, I'm talking about the guys that existed 10,000 years ago. The ones who spent the majority of their day trying to find food and not die, especially at the hands of some other animal that's also trying to find food.

What if they could see the amount of food we waste on a daily basis. What if they could see that there are people dying from eating too much readily available food as opposed to dealing with famine and starvation?

Imagine if in that primitive society there was an overweight person. A person that didn't engage in as much physical activity as the others. That ate more than their fair share of the food the others worked all day to find.

 What would they do with this person? Surely there would have negative social consequences. I doubt this ever happened because life was so tough for them, but imagine sending a modern day morbidly obese person back to live with them...

Fast forward a few thousand years and we've got agriculture. We've started to gain a little more control over our lives. There are social structures in place, hierarchies of power.

There's a king who by divine right sits on some throne made out of sticks and mud. He doesn't take part in the hunt. He doesn't work the fields. Yet he gets the spoils.

The only people in ancient history, and largely up until the industrial revolution, that could have been overweight are those at the top of the hierarchy. That feasted off the hard work of the peasants. I'd imagine there was some resentment there.

Surely for a peasant that image of a fat king gorging at a feast while their own families starved pissed them off at least a little. What if being fat represented the injustices in the world?

The illnesses that the rich suffered were different too. Their illnesses were often those of excess rather than deprivation. If I was a peasant back then I might have laughed at the landlord who died as a result of excessive consumption as I mourned my child who died from undernourishment at five years old.

Fast forward again to today and things are very different. In the modern day we have easier access to calories than ever before, with far less physical effort required to obtain them.

We can get out of bed in the morning, sit our fat asses at a computer and spend the day there working. Then have food delivered to our door. It’s crazy, but so what? It’s not like this effects anyone else right? Not like the bus seat debacle from earlier.

But think about this. How many countries have a struggling health care system? This is driven in no small part by health issues that come with obesity.

Many hospitals in the US have had to spend millions on special equipment to help lift and treat morbidly obese patients. Might that drive a little resentment in all you health conscious tax payers out there?

As we already learned in our imaginary tale, extra space is taken up on public transport. A pinch more resentment for people who don't want someone else's body fat affecting their comfort.

Statistically overweight people will also take more sick days. Every employee is picking up the tab on that one.

Maybe this is in part an innate driver of the modern day vitriol that fat people face online. A subconscious building of resentment that is manifested in culture.

Anonymous people online vent their frustration at other people who, like the fat old king, are taking more than their fare share. These days there is enough food to go around, but the fair share is being used up elsewhere. There is always a balance to be maintained.

There's a good chance I'm just talking nonsense, and I'm really not trying to be mean. The current state of education around food production and nutrition is abysmal at best. The ubiquitous obesity and health care crisis we face today are not at all surprising given how our society has evolved.

It's just a pity that we are putting our social systems and indeed global survival at risk because of  the excesses and comforts we've all come to depend on.

But hey, knowledge is power, and people are learning. I think this can be turned around, it will just take a lot of work from parents who need to raise a health and environmentally conscious generation of children.

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