The worst insults, to me, are the ones soaked in sweet fruit punch. Their meanness feels all the sourer when delivered in the guise of concern, of well-meaning advice.
In my homeland of Brazil, known as Plastic Surgery Capital of the World, one of the worst things one can be – besides old, disabled and black – is fat. Worse still is being a fat woman. And perhaps even worse than that is being told so by other women, when image matters so much in this society.
And some do know this, and say the words with a self-satisfied sneer they can scarcely hide behind all the sugar-coating. Schadenfreude. It’s their chance to feel a little bit better about themselves for a moment, a brief respite from their own nagging insecurities and fears.
Admittedly, standards seem to have changed from “the twiggier the better,” though into something even harder to achieve.
Women get it hammered into their heads from girlhood that they should have big boobs and a big ass, but an itty-bitty frame at the same time. These are impossible proportions for most human beings to naturally have.
Hence getting (sometimes lopsided) balloons implanted onto one’s body and spending the best hours of one’s life slaving away on the treadmill and counting every single calorie. And then getting depressed because one doesn’t ever really feel better, since the external acceptance wasn’t there to begin with, and new-found acceptance doesn’t make up for it, and is ephemeral anyway.
Although this phenomenon is most definitely not unique to Brazil, weight is a veritable obsession in this country, and routinely used as a weapon of cattiness.
I peg it down to Brazilian women’s complex of inferiority on different levels: to ideals of “European” beauty; to men, which is attached to the belief that a woman has no value unless attracting a man’s attention (which is not limited to sexuality); and to each other, based on social, cultural and/or educational capital, and the ability to attract a mate (as marriage is one way to reach the top of the food chain).
So if you’re fatter than I am, I am better than you at least in some way.
Eating an extra muffin becomes an act of rebellion, a veritable disturbance of social norms.
When a woman visits family members in Brazil after a while, it’s almost always guaranteed that someone (almost invariably another woman) will comment on her weight. If she’s lost weight – barring obvious anorexia – then the comment will come with a smile, congratulations, admiration, perhaps tinged with envy.
But if the opposite is true, the meanness usually manifests itself either in a) calling someone fat outright to their face, sometimes conspicuously or b) saying she has gotten “a little bit rounder than last time” or some derivative of it, perhaps accompanied by inquiries on the person’s cholesterol and sugar levels.
The first scenario has been known to devolve into violent altercations at family gatherings, where it becomes very quickly clear that the other’s weight gain is not the main issue at stake here. It is most likely being used as a schoolyard type of insult, as an easy barb with which to hurt the other party due to deep-seated resentment, to provoke a reaction and blow the lid off the festering can of worms between the two.
The second meanness scenario is a bit trickier, and perhaps even more infuriating.
It has to do with – you guessed it – the sweet and sour veneer of niceness coating the “fat” comment. It can even be a bit crazy-making, because if the target gets riled up, the target is made into the attacker, the overreacting one. The person making the comment was “simply concerned” about the other’s health and well-being – so why are you being so sensitive and aggressive?
Why? Because the “fat” person most likely knows, and already feels bad about it all the time. The person tends to have a mirror and a scale, and doesn’t need the interlocutor, who is most likely not her doctor, to help her discover her “unhealthy roundness.”
After all, as a Brazilian woman, it is nearly impossible not to notice one’s own weight gain. We have been deeply conditioned to monitor it, and to feel guilty and ashamed over it, while others are obviously closely keeping tabs on it too.
So one (subconsciously?) waits for the right moment to pounce, to bring it up to the fat person that her weight gain is noticed and noted – or at least bring it up to others amid the nation’s favorite pastime: gossip.
It becomes obvious that pressing the other’s highly sensitive “fat” button and eliciting a negative response, or feeling that the target’s capital is devalued by weight, is satisfactory to the interlocutor on some level. Schadenfreude.
While I do believe that some do not knowingly resort to this kind of meanness (perhaps they really did mean well), it is still an act of meanness, given the whole social context and connotations associated with being fat in Brazil.
We are all victims of the same ultra-sexist society – having internalized and kept its precepts even after moving away – and also all guilty on some level of helping to perpetuate it by continuing to hit our peers below the (tightened) belt.
What we need is more compassion and understanding towards each other. Every “minority” knows that a mere three little letters, whatever euphemism they’re (poorly) hidden behind, can carry a lifetime of prejudice and pain.