This Guest Post was written by Erika Valtierra
Friends is my favourite sitcom. The importance it gives to nurturing relationships and the endless jokes and references to pop culture are more important to me than the mere concept of 6 good-looking New Yorkers who are making their way into adulthood. One of the show’s classic jokes is fat Monica –Courtney Cox is dressed up into an overweight version of herself, and that is funny because besides her body, she is a socially awkward teenager whose best friend is a hot cheerleader. And even though there’s one episode (Season 5, TOW All the Thanksgivings) in which they let the audience understand that fat-shaming is not nice and it does hurt people’s feelings, most of the times fat Monica is a joke –the girl who broke a swing, the cheater cheater compulsive eater, the one who beat her brother at wrestling because of her size, and the list goes on.
I’ve laughed at fat Monica and the way she interacts with others many times. Yet it was not until recent that I realised how fat equals funny in Western culture. The best case scenario in which the media portrays fat in a “good” way is a fat person who is not ashamed of their body. That kind of fat person is extroverted, and is the one and who dances and sings, whose actions are not seen as something aesthetically pleasing, but funny because of their size.
Perhaps talking about fat Monica this way makes me sound bitter and unable to enjoy jokes. This is not true. Laughing at jokes is not a crime, even many perspectives of psychotherapy (existential psychology, for example, even psychoanalysis) think of humor as one of the key elements for coping with distress. Where my concerns arise around making fat the butt of every joke, is when hurting and humiliating comments are disguised as jokes. This may lead to an unequal distribution of power, especially when things should be equal especially with peers, for example. When subtle forms of domination and hierarchies arise, we need to assess whether these groups can still be seen as support networks. This is my story.
I have always had body image issues. They started as young 10, I was skinny but I had a belly while most of my friends didn’t. I had body issues through high school and everyone could tell, but I kept silent. I still have a body image issues but now I choose to talk about it, to see my body for what it is, to accept it and to understand that friends I know can joke about my body as long as we all feel comfortable.
I hadn’t realised the importance of feeling safe within my groups of friends until I met my boyfriend and his friends. Here’s a bit of context. My boyfriend is 6 ft. tall and he has a larger belly the rest of his friends don’t – most of them, men and women, are thin. One of his friends works out every single day because his body type is not naturally built to be skinny. While even though they all seem comfortable joking about my boyfriend’s body with thing such as how much he eats or whether he is fat or not (including him), I realised that I felt upset the more I heard these comments.
Yet I remained silent. These people are his friends and have become mine as well but my hesitation to speak out about my feelings of being uncomfortable about these comments is because I refused to start conflict. Especially because my boyfriend, their target, feels fine (i.e. lets go) about these comments.
Plus, I had concerns that this was me seeking drama and creating trouble where no one else had an issue. I thought I felt awkward because I have never felt comfortable letting anyone joke about my body, that I wasn’t used to it and that it wasn’t perhaps that big of a deal.
As I let months pass, one day, for completely different reasons, one of my best friends texted me. She wrote,
“There’s this friend of mine who just won’t stop laughing at me because my crush is overweight. He’s always laughing when I mention him and he tells me that my crush is going to eat me [not sexually speaking] any given day. I asked him if he’d laugh at me if I ever put on some weight and he told me to never be fat.”
When I asked about her reply, my eyes and my mind opened,
“Yes, I’m mad because it is awful that you promote body-shaming so much and this goes beyond my relationship. I mean, yeah, you’re fit now, congratulations, but that does not give you any right to mock someone else’s body. We all have different life circumstances and opportunities, some people take more care of their bodies than others, but that doesn’t make us better or worse humans.” Then she told me that they were able to talk about their fight, and they fixed it.
I could not stay the same after that.
Some days later, talking with my boyfriend, I could finally be honest about the comments that bothered me so much. I told him how upset I felt when his friends joked about his body and his weight. I told him that I knew that he was fine with it, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t be anymore. He asked me why I had never said anything, and, of course, my answer was to avoid conflict.
But how was I going to be able to say things, to act as some sort of advocate, without being blunt or aggressive? I had to remember a thing or two about human communication. Speak your mind with respect and courtesy and conflict will be avoided for everybody. Not because everyone will agree but because there’s no reason to fight against each other.
It was about a month after this moment of awareness that I had to put my learning into practice with a close friend of mine. We were talking about random things that had to do with board games and dressing as hobbits and elves. He decided to name my boyfriend as Legordas (which is hard to translate from Spanish, but it’s a mix of Legolas and gorda, which means fat). At first I tried to change the subject. When I saw he was not catching my discomfort, I simply told him, “I don’t like to make those kinds of jokes when it comes to body image.” He apologised, and we kept talking.
It was just that easy. It has become that easy to me. The thing is I didn’t know until that moment that I held that power with my voice. I didn’t know that it even existed. I realised that I needed to tell my support networks like friends, relatives when I or other individuals don’t feel “safe”. I need to speak about how I feel about my body, how I disagree with their body-shaming jokes, even when they are not meant for me because I do not agree with their subtle superiority comments, and neither should they.
On the other hand, I acknowledge that I am a lucky person because those who I call friends have shown support and understanding, but I am aware that that kind of response is not common. We all need social scaffolding in the process of body acceptance, made up from friends and/or family. This support, in my opinion, means that we can feel comfortable when telling them, “This is my body. I love it the way it is. I accept it and respect it. I ask you to do the same and I’ll do it for your body also.” A positive response may give us the strength and courage we need when confronting other people, particularly those whose comments are indeed violent and aim to “make” them superior (whether they acknowledge it or not) because of their weight or size.
We have to break the silence in order to avoid conflict.
A little bit about the Guest Writer Erika Valtierra
My name is Erika. I am a 23 year old Mexican woman with a degree in Psychology and whose biggest dream is to be part of Doctors Without Borders someday. I volunteer at NGOs that have to do with health, human rights violations and/or gender violence. I love colouring books, dying my hair and laughing. Procrastinating and working under pressure are my specialties.
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