National Weight Stigma Awareness Week
September 23-27, 2013 marks the third annual National Weight Stigma Awareness Week (WSAW) by the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA). This week is designed to raise awareness of the devastating effects that weight stigma can have on people from all walks of life. Their official press release on the subject can be found here.
As dancers and performers we place ourselves in the public eye on a regular basis, and in many cases open ourselves up to unsolicited comments from “well meaning” people and from folks who are just narrow minded or simply mean. While we like to say, and believe, that our belly dance communities are inclusive–welcoming people of all ages, sizes, shapes and genders who love this beautiful dance form–there are issues that come from both within and outside the community that create problems for some. Sharing our stories about experiences relating to these issues can open people’s eyes and start important dialog. It can educate our students, and sometimes even our audience, which can, in the long run, create change.
In one of my other articles here at Belly Dance at Any Size, I talk about a situation that I came across at an event where a table that included a student and her friends and family were overheard saying terribly negative things to one another about a plus size dancer who was on the stage. The performer’s young daughter actually overheard the discussion and was very shaken by what she heard. These people’s own bias against a larger dancer’s beauty now has impact on this young girl’s view of both her own body and her mother’s–when keeping their comments to themselves and just waiting for the next dancer to get on the stage would have been a simple thing.
As producer of a local belly dance event, I’ve had area photographers take marvelous pictures of the performers who have graced our stage, only to find that someone had posted comments on the pictures like “What is this, the muffin top brigade?” or “Who would want to watch that dance?” While I’ve always responded swiftly to educate the commenter about how totally inappropriate and incorrect they are, and deleted the offensive comments when I could–sometimes the damage is already done. The performer, or someone just curious about belly dance, has seen them, and been hurt–or worse yet, been turned off from even trying belly dance because people might say those things about them.
Some people are even more direct in their vocalizations about their discomfort with another person’s weight. In my own experiences I’ve had a total stranger, a woman that I simply crossed paths with in a convenience store, tell me that my knee length skirt was too short for someone “like me”. I’ve had a barista change my coffee order from “cream and 1 splenda” to “splenda and skim milk” right in front of me and then tell me that skim milk would be a better choice for me, while pointedly looking me up and down. Heck, I’ve had random people simply walking past me in the opposite direction at the mall stage-whisper “fat cow” as they passed me. A friend of mine who’s quite slim has had complete strangers say things to her like, “Jeez eat a sandwich or something” or speak about “Who would want to hug a bag of bones?”–clearly intentionally within her earshot. We’ve both grown thicker skins, and learned how to reply with graceful strength in most cases–but honestly why should we have to? What about people who don’t have the emotional fortitude in that moment to do so?
The idea that audiences only want to see belly dancers that look a certain way keeps very talented dancers from getting restaurant jobs, from being included in troupes, and sometimes from even performing at community events. I think if we present to the world skilled, well prepared, amazing dancers of other shapes and sizes, what the audience expects to see will slowly evolve and change, and then talent in the dance will be more important than looking a certain way… It’s a chicken and the egg situation–in order to make room for dancers of all shapes and sizes to be seen, dancers of all shapes and sizes have to be seen. Along the way there is going to be a whole lot of weight stigma,” people will say and post mean and hurtful things, but if we support one another, if we don’t keep it inside, if we don’t stay quiet about it–about the fact that those comments are not acceptable, if we make some noise and share our stories, watch our own unintentional words, reach out to support others of every size who are brave enough to share their pain from situations where they were stigmatized for the size and shape of their body…Slowly we can change the world.