Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

A roundup of psychoanalytic points of view

Weight Bullying: Large Size People Are Often Targets

We treat “fat” as a contagious and deadly virus

By Debra Farbman, Ph.D.

In a recent episode of the television show “Louie,” an overweight waitress rejected by Louie CK because of her size laments, “It sucks to be a fat girl. Can people just let me say it? It sucks. It really sucks.”

Being called “fat” by others is a terrifying prospect for most of us--it’s as though being large is a contagious and deadly virus. And we don’t want to catch it.  People feel free to criticize the overweight, often attributing large size to weak character, lack of will power, or compromised concern for self-care.

 “Size bashing” and “weight bullying” are terms that connote hostility and possibly even violent behavior toward a large-size person. Large people are, indeed, frequently the target of verbal abuse and, sometimes, physical attack. Sometimes they draw stares; other times they are ignored as if invisible. Either way, they are often looked down upon and thought of as second-class citizens.

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Weight bullying injures its victims. I opened the door to my office recently and found one of my patients in tears, trying to regain her composure before coming in for our session. Once inside, I asked her to tell me what her upset was about. A large-sized woman in New York City, she is no stranger to size-related trials and tribulations, but this incident was particularly painful. While on the way to my office, a woman on the street approached her and told her she “looked horrendous,” and asked, “Don’t you see yourself?” This followed on the coattails of another event just a week earlier—my patient and her fiancé were waiting for a train, and a stranger standing next to them made a comment about the “fat monster on the platform.”

As an Eating Disorders specialist, I hear of many humiliating incidents. For large people, weight concerns almost always have roots in very painful past experiences. What’s worse is that the wounds of early life are continually reopened, kept raw by hurtful judgments and harsh critiques. Even typically compassionate people often seem compassion-less when commenting about large-sized people.

My patient carries a diagnosis called Binge Eating Disorder, which has been recently added as a distinct diagnosis to the DSM V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Afflicted for most of her life, my patient’s struggle with weight is something she is literally never allowed to get away from: it seems almost everyone—strangers on train platforms, a passerby on the street, family members and even friends—don’t want her to forget her size.  She not only carries her own weight around, both physically and mentally, but she also must tolerate the weight of society’s judgment and fear about her size.

There are many types of bullying. The examples above are of hostile verbal abuse by strangers. However, there is also so-called “benevolent” or “loving” bullying—family and friends berate the overweight individual for his or her inability to lose weight.  The large person is told that the key to happiness and success is to be thin. A recent Israeli ad campaign encouraging parents of adolescents to manage their children’s weight features a photo of an obese teen-ager with the caption, “his smile gets smaller as his size gets bigger.”  

Joshua Max described his experience living in a household in which members of his family saw “his fat as a target for punching, socking, pummeling and hurtling daily verbal abuse.” This was done because family members thought his pounds were an “abomination.”

Medical professionals can also be weight bullies. Recently, a physician wrote in the Washington Post, that, “a morbidly obese patient tests the limits of a doctor’s compassion.”  This is true for another patient of mine, an accomplished man diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder, who worries he is being viewed as inferior because of his girth.  He recently reported feeling vindicated and relieved when his gastroenterologist called him “lazy” for not being able to lose weight. To my patient, this meant his anxiety about criticism was confirmed and that it “wasn’t all in his head.” In fact, according to the New York Times, studies show that physicians are nicer to thinner patients.

Recently, I heard an interview with the actress Jennifer Lawrence who said, “People should not be able to call others fat on television because it has an impact…” And it does! As a clinician who sees and hears firsthand the impact of weight bullying, I know weight bullying of any sort leads to overwhelming self-criticism, low self-esteem, shame and embarrassment. It certainly doesn’t promote or support behavioral change in the person being bullied. It is important to remember that just because people are larger in size, does not mean they have thicker skins than the rest of us.

Debra Farbman, Ph.D., is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute’s Psychoanalytic Training Program and EDCAS Program. Her specialty is in the treatment of eating disorders in adolescents and adults, relationship difficulties and couples’ therapy. She has a private practice in New York City.

Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, edited by Susan Kolod, Ph.D., and Melissa Ritter, Ph.D, is under the auspices of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, the journal of the William Alanson White Institute.

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