America’s Culture Wars: What Fat Shaming Shares with Poverty Shaming

I’ve just read a Facebook thread that has me feeling pretty down and rather sad. The question was posed, “Should welfare applicants be drug tested?” Overwhelmingly, the thread was filled with indignantly affirmative posts. One woman even asserted that welfare drug testing wasn’t about money or politics at all—it was about “safety,” protecting the public from the horrific elements of drug culture, which of course we are to assume are personified by poor people.

There’s a lot I could say here but one point is at the real foundation of this mindset: The persistent belief that when a person’s life is beset by misfortune, it must have been caused by the person’s own bad decisions, poor judgment, and self-destructive life choices. Golly. Who else finds themselves the target of such attacks on their character? Fat people and poor people. They just can’t take decent care of themselves, can they? They deal with fat shaming and poverty shaming.

I guess many people are still in denial that the infamous “47%” remarks contributed significantly to Mitt Romney’s election loss. One statement summed up his true feelings, “I’ll never convince them [the 47%] that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

We just don’t care. We don’t want to take responsibility. That’s what’s wrong with us fat people AND poor people. We abuse food; we abuse drugs. We destroy our own lives to the point where we can’t even take care of ourselves. We don’t know what’s good for us. And we’re making everybody else pick up the tab for our indiscriminate lifestyles! Fat people are destroying the healthcare system and poor people want to do drugs and live on handouts!

A news story that really got me angry awhile back was about an emergency room surgeon who wrote a letter to his local newspaper (incorrectly reported in the media that he had written the President), complaining that a woman he was required to treat didn’t deserve to have her treatment paid for by Medicaid and that people like her were a burden on healthcare in America. His “evidence” was that the woman had tattoos, a gold tooth, nice sneakers, and a cell phone “with an R&B ringtone.” He went on to claim that she spent her money on beer and pretzels. And apparently that would mean she didn’t deserve medical treatment under Medicaid. Passing judgment on that woman’s character and making assumptions–That’s what that doctor was doing.

I used to be 340lbs. If I showed up in that doctor’s ER with a serious asthma attack, would he have assumed I was gasping for breath because I couldn’t stop stuffing my face and I had brought metabolic syndrome on myself? There was a time in my life when I know that my weight was infringing on my ability to find employment. I know there were times I wasn’t afforded the respect I should have been given in my work. What if I’d been fat AND poor and on Medicaid? Would I have deserved treatment? Or would I have been a burden on the healthcare system and on the public, undeserving of medical treatment because of my own bad judgment and willfully self-destructive lifestyle choices? Was I deserving of fat shaming back then? I’ve lost weight. Have I “earned” medical treatment now? Do I “deserve” to be treated with compassion now? Have I proven I’m a human being of value now? I’m still the same person.

What do we all really know about anyone? I am a volunteer with a supportive housing organization. I teach GED classes and creative writing to residents. They live in apartments that are about the size of my kitchen. They use communal bathrooms, kitchens, and dining facilities. I don’t know the life stories of the people I work with. I know for many of them, the classes they take with me are of immense importance. The creative writing group likes to bring food to share. You could not begin to imagine what it means to each one of them to spend a little of their precious SNAP food benefits to share a treat they hope will delight their fellow students. It’s the one time I don’t dare turn down whatever is offered to me, whether it’s cake, cookies, chips, anything. It’s usually some generic brand from a dollar store. Doesn’t matter, I will eat it and declare it scrumptious.

All of my students except one are very overweight. In their living conditions, it’s difficult for them to store fresh food and to cook. They buy packaged foods they can keep in their rooms. Most of it is simply cheap calories with low nutritional value. As far as I know, many of them deal with chronic medical conditions. In some cases, their conditions are only managed because they do not qualify for the expensive courses of treatment that might clear up the condition completely.

The people I’ve met are typically representative of the thousands who live in the housing facilities operated by the charitable organization I volunteer with. There are buildings for low-income families, seniors, individuals, and those who require a “supportive” facility. Like I said, I don’t know the life stories of these people but I know they consider themselves very fortunate. They find joy in many small things we would take for granted. They consider my classes to be a highlight of their week. The change in the past year in my best GED student is amazing. He’s so determined to take the test and pass it. A lot of people would be afraid to see him on the street. They’d probably dismiss him as just another street bum. His clothes are often worn-looking but he is always clean and well-groomed. He survived a fire in his youth and his skin is mottled with scarring. He is an amazing self-taught painter with a beautiful Impressionistic style. He paints the outdoors because he tells me he dreams of wide open spaces. I know he has those dreams as he sleeps in a tiny room.

The people I work with are not “the good ones” among a demographic who deserves to be labeled, marginalized, or vilified. States that have instituted drug tests for welfare recipients have not seen a decrease in fraud or a lowering of costs. I’ve not been able to find any news story documenting how welfare drug testing is taking vicious drug lords off the streets and cutting off their welfare handouts.

So I ask you. Shall we assume there are a preponderance of criminals among the poor? Shall we assume there are a preponderance of irresponsible weak-willed failures among the obese?


Painting by Jimmy Brown.


1 ping

    • Marlen on February 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    So much of this article refers to folks whom I refer to as “The Judged.” They are not necessarily above reproach, themselves. But do they deserve to be judged in this way by people who may be better OFF, but who are no better? I am ready to move past making judgments and finding viable solutions with justifiable costs. Drug testing all who receive assistance seems like a much less justifiable use of money that could ultimately be used for more effective methods of identifying fraudulent reception of assistance.

    As for obesity? Well I know many who look at me think that I am unhealthy, but one very good reason why I’ve remained obese for so long is that I am very healthy. My blood work, which is done on a quarterly basis, indicates that I have excellent cholesterol, my blood pressure is being managed (weight loss would eliminate a need for managing it, yes), and I am not diabetic. I know the health consequences are coming, just like a smoker knows the health consequences are coming.

    I wonder if that doctor would have made that judgement if it were not known how the medical bill would be paid?

    • Marlen on February 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    OK using the words “good reasons” is wrong here. But truthfully, I have seen being healthy as being a good thing, and this is truly why I haven’t taken any real, dedicated action toward getting healthier up to this point.

    • cat the great on January 14, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Great post. Easy to judge the marginalized. Blacks, Jews, welfare recipients… Anyone who is “them.” Thank you for this post and the wonderful work you are doing with the GED program.

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