So egregious was this “Dear Abby” column that over 500 readers contacted me to ask me to write about it. I think it’s a helpful example of everything that is wrong with the way that we talk about weight, health, self-esteem, and body image. Here are the original letter and answer, then I’ll break them down bit by bit:
DEAR ABBY: I’m a 24-year-old plus-sized woman (60 or 70 pounds overweight), but very comfortable in my own skin. When swimming in public, I wear a one-piece bathing suit because it doesn’t attract a lot of attention. When I’m home, I have a bikini top and shorts I prefer to wear. This is because I don’t like being covered up like it was in the 1950s, and I feel good when my curves are properly accentuated.
When I go back to see my family and swim, I wear a bikini top and black shorts. Recently, my mother said, “When the family comes over, you can’t wear that. It makes people uncomfortable.”
I was shocked, and we had a huge argument. Most of my cousins are fine with my attire, as are my aunts. Only Mom has a problem with it. I asked if she’d feel the same about a large man swimming without a T-shirt. She said it’s different for women.
Am I wrong for wanting to be comfortable in my childhood home? Mom should be proud to have a daughter who accepts herself as she is. Who is wrong here? — OFFENDED DAUGHTER IN CHICAGO
DEAR OFFENDED DAUGHTER: You are not wrong for wanting to be comfortable. But please remember that when you visit someone else’s home, that person’s wishes take precedence — even if it used to be your childhood home.
While you say you are comfortable in your own skin, it would be interesting to know what your physician thinks about your obesity. I suspect that your mother would be prouder of you if you were less complacent and more willing to do something about your weight problem.
Let’s break this down, bit by horrible, offensive, inappropriate, bad advice, bit:
You are not wrong for wanting to be comfortable. But please remember that when you visit someone else’s home, that person’s wishes take precedence — even if it used to be your childhood home.
If this had been the whole reply, my response would have been “ok.” I would personally think long and hard about spending time with someone who would body shame me, lie about the way other’s feel about my body to try to back up her own bigotry, and tell me what I’m allowed to wear when with my own family, but that’s just me and it’s ok for Abby and I to disagree on this.
While you say you are comfortable in your own skin, it would be interesting to know what your physician thinks about your obesity.
It’s only interesting if you think that what a doctor thinks about someone’s health should impact what they are allowed to wear. Can you imagine if someone wrote in because their mom has forbidden them to wear yellow clothing and Abby’s response was “It would be interesting to know if you have any health problems.” Her statement above is exactly that ridiculous, and the only reason it may not seem that ridiculous is because rampant prejudice against fat people has created a world where the question “How do I deal with a body shaming and a gender double-standard” is answered with “what assumptions does your doctor make about your health based on your body size?”
Look, if someone thinks that they can tell how healthy someone else is by their body size, then they are mistaken. But even if they were right, if they suggest that people who aren’t healthy shouldn’t be allowed to be comfortable in their own skin or wear clothing that they like, then they are being a horrible person.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect that Abby would do any research to make sure that she’s not harming people with her
advice concern trolling, but if she did she would find studies have linked the stress of shame and stigma like this to the same diseases to which obesity has been linked, and found that women who are concerned about their weight have more physical and mental illness than women who are fine about their size, regardless of their size. So Abby could have harmed the health not only of the woman to who she gave terrible advice, but to every fat person who reads the drivel she wrote and buys into it. But of course, it’s for their own good.
I suspect that your mother would be prouder of you if you were less complacent and more willing to do something about your weight problem.
Notice that Abby has gone from wondering about what the woman’s physician thinks to just assuming that she knows her health, and her behaviors around her health (since she knows both that she has a “weight problem” and that she’s “complacent”.) If I were a psychic doctor I probably wouldn’t spend my time being an advice columnist but that’s just me. Or maybe Abby isn’t so much a psychic doctor as a bigot who is happy to visit her stereotypes and prejudices upon anyone who will listen.
I’m also wondering if she advises children who are being bullied to blame themselves and give the bullies whatever they want in the hopes that the bullies will stop beating them up. The problem here belongs to the mother and her issues with fat bodies. It’s not the daughter’s fault but it becomes her problem when her mother decides to enforce her issues on her daughter via a dress code. The daughter gets to choose how to deal with this, but let’s put the problem where it belongs – on the mom’s issues, not the daughter’s body. I hope it goes without saying that the idea that she should have to change her body to deserve her mother’s pride is abhorrent.
Abby is perpetuating the idea, the absolutely horrifying idea, that the best thing for fat people’s health is to never ever be happy with ourselves, never be comfortable in our skin, always hide our bodies, live in constant shame, have low self-esteem and poor body image, have strangers make constant assumptions about our health and habits, be constantly stigmatized, stereotyped and bullied, never have even a moment of peace unless and until we become thin. And what about the fact that being thin will probably never happen for most fat people? Well then, according to the Dear Abby’s of the world, we should live a joyless life subjected to constant bullying, stigma, stereotypes and oppression, hiding our bodies in shame as penance for having a body that isn’t socially acceptable.
Fat people are not the problem. Fat people in bikinis are not the problem. Fat prejudice is the problem. People who think that public health means making fat people’s health the public’s business are the problem. People who advise fat people to internalize the shame, stigma, and bullying they (shouldn’t have to) experience are the problem. Dear Abby is the problem. And that’s true whether you think fat people are healthy or not.
Write to Dear Abby (I’m thinking “Dear Abby, I can’t stop being a victim-blaming weight bigot – can you help?)
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