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Monday, November 23, 2009

Living While Fat - An American Crime

I am fat. I have been fat since I was 10. And while it was never a conscious decision about how to live, after years of personal struggle and self-realization I decided long ago to not let it get in the way of living fully. Which, by the way I do, probably way more than most skinny people.

Now I know that there are lots of people out there who are uncomfortable with the idea that someone as large as I can be professionally and personally successful, but I live to break the barriers of small-minded expectations. And although you may see me as fat on the outside, on the inside I have never been fat in the negative vitriolic way that we large people are expected to hate ourselves.

Which is why I’m still adjusting to the recent epiphany that fat people, like me, have become the latest government-sanctioned target for ridicule and bigotry in America.

It’s not like we haven’t been down the road of stigma and discrimination on a whole host of other issues in our ugly past before. Once upon a time Blacks were only 3/5ths the value of a White man and it was socially acceptable, and even fashionable, to call people Spicks, Fags, Kikes, Niggers, etc. It isn’t like fat kids have not been the joke of the playground since time immemorial, and it isn’t like adults supervising those playgrounds have not turned a blind eye to those particular rants – even in these days where there is sensitivity about bullying.

Is it not bad enough that people spit the word “fat” out as a curse word or derogatory marker? In this case, the word “fat” somehow emphasizes the terribleness of some other bad trait (e.g. “she is a fat slut” when really that slutty girl is not fat at all but a fat slut is worse than a regular old slut).

From my perch here in Tanzania it seems that what has changed is that fat is now an acceptable stigma for ADULTS and our very own GOVERNMENT to wield in America. And once again I am left wondering why it somehow makes us feel better about ourselves to put other people down for the things we fear the most. Like somehow the very presence of a fat person highlights all the insecurities we have about our own bodies – or something bigger - like the national debt.

And to make it worse, it is my own people – fellow public health professionals – that are leading the completely misguided assault on fat people. It seems that now that we’ve largely won the war on cigarettes the public health mafia needs a new place to turn their attentions.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not misguided to educate people about healthier behaviors and pitch to them the reasons why they should change, and to give them step-by-step guidance for how to make those changes. And it is not wrong to worry about the burden of obesity’s (as well as a whole long list of unhealthy behaviors) effect on our society. But in their overzealousness, my public health sisters and brothers are attacking the people who are fat rather than coming up with creative ways to deal with the undesirable behaviors or seeking to understand the true reasons why most seriously overweight people are overweight - which in my somewhat experienced opinion is really due to a complex mix of psychological and metabolic factors rather than simply too much McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Which leads me to why it is that I am up at nearly 2 AM on a Sunday night/Monday morning, writing about fat stigma, with my blood boiling and my face turning purple with rage. Well… it is the fault of the BBC. At 11 PM I listened to an interview with the head of student health from Lincoln University in Philadelphia describe why it is that the university plans to prevent almost 80 students with BMIs of over 30 from graduating unless they take a special fitness and health education class for obese students only. And to make it worse, arguing with an editor from the student newspaper who categorized the classes as offensive and inconsequential to the degree programs that students have completed, the BBC commentator countered that the university should even reconsider investing in fat students at all since probably not long after they graduate they will just get sick and be a burden to society, and therefore a wasted education.


When did it become fashionable again to deny a person an education because of their outside casing? Are students who smoke, drink, take drugs, have a family history of cancer, or have unprotected sex being subjected to special classes? Are they being told that because they may eventually be a burden to society they, too, should be divested of the degrees which they have spent four years earning?

I hope those students sue the ass off that school. I will be the first in line to contribute to the legal fund.

And this leads me to ask, whatever happened to loving the sinner but hating the sin?

The truth is that when stigma increases, the ability and willingness of people to seek help for that stigmatized issue decreases. I see it all the time in my work where people living with HIV in communities where stigma is high end up denying themselves access to treatments and support that might help them live longer and put others at less risk because the social risks of seeking help are too high. Where stigma decreases, communities are better able to cope. It is in communities where the partnership between people with the disease and their friends and neighbors without the disease work together that we have seen the best successes in curbing the spread of HIV.

It is frankly the same with fat people. The more the society around us seeks to stigmatize us, the less likely we are to feel comfortable interacting with the rest of the world, taking that exercise walk around the block, or seeking the medical assistance we need to stay as healthy as possible. Think about how unpleasant it can be to visit a new medical provider when you aren’t overweight. Then imagine what it must be like for someone who is significantly overweight to get weighed (and inevitably judged) by a stranger, be given a medical gown that doesn’t fit, meet with a new doctor who is more likely to lecture than counsel, and share your body – which you are not very comfortable in – with that lecturing stranger. It can be agonizing, demoralizing and stigma enhancing.

Here in Tanzania I have become sick of opening up my MSN every morning to read another article about the fat tax on fattening foods, airlines denying seats to fat people with the happy approval of the rest of the country, or health insurance companies using fat as a preexisting condition to deny coverage to people who are even barely overweight. I don’t care if skinny Americans, are slightly put out by the very presence of fat people. For me their discomfort isn’t all that different than how some people 60 years ago didn’t want to have to ride the bus with Colored folks. Tough shit. The world is diverse, and not everyone can or should look like Heidi Klum.

Fat is a human rights issue. Stigmatizing me and my kind will not make America skinnier. It will just make us unhappier, more divided, and angrier. And by the way, none of these conditions are particularly conducive to weight loss.
**** Edited to remove a snarky comment about people doing coke to stay thin. I was trying to be ironic, but I think it just got in the way of my message.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

My Third Culture Kids

Rowan in her Obama kanga

Friday was International Day at the International School of Tanganyika - meaning that kids were to come to school dressed in their “national costume”, participate in a parade of nations (by nationality), sing songs about peace and multiculturalism in an assembly, and attend the International Festival where kids were to talk around to different areas of the football field visiting different countries to learn something new, taste a bit of their food, and get their special “passports” stamped.

I’m normally horribly cynical about this sort of thing – but since the election last year this has largely changed. I was happy to dress in red, white, and blue and march in the parade with my kids – who like a huge chunk of the American contingent were decked out in Barack Obama t-shirts. Rowan even wore a specially made Obama dress for the occasion. For me, walking with the Obamaians, and a scattering of cowboys and cowgirls (and even one Native American) was a joyful experience.

It was a reminder of just how multicultural this environment really is. Personally, I was shocked with the relatively small size of the American marchers. I expected them to take up a disproportionate portion of the crowd, but really they weren’t much bigger than then South Africans or the British, and may have even been smaller than the Indian contingent (which were of course the most beautifully dressed of the lot).

Inside the assembly, kids from South Asia, Japan and Kenya performed for the audience in between courses of Give Peace a Chance and a song called In This World Together (a poem, of sorts, about living in peace and protecting the earth). The Principal reminded the kids and gathered parents that many kids had a choice to make about which country they wanted to represent in the parade. Some kids marched with the country they were born in, some where their passport is from, some were they lived the longest, and some marched in the country of one parent, but not the other. And those that couldn’t decide marched with the “UN” contingent which also included “orphans” from countries where there were only one or two representatives like Luxemburg or Nepal.

And since I’m so sappy, I fell for the beautiful One World image:

Living together in peace
Protecting the earth
Fighting against poverty and injustice
And beautiful babies and chirping birds, la de da de da…

I may have been so in the moment that I actually shed a tear of joy when the South Asian contingent of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka pointed out that they made a conscientious decision to perform together – to show how people can live in peace.

It was only later that the downside of multiculturalism truly hit me in the face. At the festival part of International Day children were given a passport and told to visit booths from about 20 countries. In each booth the children could learn something about the country and get a treat or a small present somehow related to the country. I worked at the American booth as the passport stamper. In return for a tidbit about America (“Tell me something you know about America”) I stamped the kids’ passports and gave them a homemade chocolate chip cookie (made by little American Mommy elves and/or their cooks). It was mostly a happy task, except for the two older boys who claimed their chocolate chip cookies in exchange for information about how many people died on 9/11 when the planes hit the World Trade Towers – while wearing big smiles. That wasn’t such a nice moment. I’ve decided to blame it on their parents who must not be raising them under the banner of multiculturalism, rather than the kids themselves. At least that is what I needed to tell myself in order to get through the moment without taking them to task.

But overall it went great. Several hundred children from age 3 to 11 came by the American booth that day and I would say about 80% of them – no matter what their country of origin - told me that Barack Obama is the American President in exchange for their stamp and cookie. After awhile that got pretty boring so I started to challenge the American kids to tell me at least one other thing they knew about America.

Let me tell you, the answer is, not much. Well… one older kid impressed me with the knowledge that there were 13 states when America was first created and another told me that the bald eagle is our national bird. But then I looked up and realized that these tidbits were in the booth display behind them. I asked one 10-year-old American kid if he had ever heard of the Pilgrims. The silence was deafening.

My kids, they couldn’t do any better. When I asked them a few days before International Day what America meant to them Rowan responded that it meant Grandma’s house and the Good Humor Man. Jaden said Toys R Us and escalators. Barack Obama is what they know. Even the American flag is Barack Obama’s flag in their lexicon.

I take full credit for this failure. I should be supplementing the multiculturalism with some sort of identity-strengthening learning and I haven’t. Bad me. Now I’m wishing I could send the kids to an after-school American class where someone else could make up for my shortfalls (like having my Microsoft Word set to British English at work) with stories about the Mayflower and Jamestown. At least then they would know what American football is. (To-date they have no clue.) And perhaps they could help Rowan with her absolute obsession with wanting to be Indian (dot, not feather) which is primarily an obsession with wanting to wear colorful saris and salwar khamises. And perhaps the school could help get rid of the Britishisms that have sneaked into their daily language, like saying sitting room instead of living room, nappies instead of diapers, and pronouncing naughty like noughty. These aren’t a big deal now, but if the experiences of my adult friends who grew up overseas are any indication, it will make them freaks when they get back to school in America. And depending on how old they are when we go back, it could be a traumatic experience.

Although we’ve been here for nearly four years, it is only now that it has really hit home that I am raising third culture kids. Or rather, intellectually I knew it was happening, but my work as a US immigration officer at International Day prompted me to internalize it.

And don’t get me wrong, this is NOT a bad thing. There are some many wonderful things about multiculturalism (see above). But it isn’t all roses and cream either.

According to the bible of third culture kids: Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken,

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experiences, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

“Two realities arch over TCK experience that shape their lives. These are:

1. Being raised in a genuinely cross-cultural world.
2. Being raised in a highly mobile world

“Other characteristics in common:

Distinct differences. Many TCKs are raised where being physically different from those around them is a major aspect of their identity.

Expected repatriation. Unlike immigrants, third culture families usually expect at some point to return permanently to live in their home country.

Privileged lifestyle. Historically TCKs are members of an elitist community – one with special privileges bestowed on its members.

System identity. Members of specific third culture communities may be more directly conscious than peers at home of representing something greater than themselves.

This definition very accurately reflects the realities are our lives now – with all the wonderful exposures they offer us, and all the losses of friends and cultural fluency ahead of us.
I love it and hate it, all at the same time. I still wouldn’t trade this experience for all the acculturation in the world. I hope that Jaden and Rowan will agree when they are old enough to realize what they’ve gained and what they may have lost.

Meanwhile, I’m trolling amazon.com for children’s books about the Pilgrims and George Washington. I want them to be people of the world. But they are also Americans and I need to make sure they are proud of that, too.