If thinking stupid thoughts about strangers was a crime we’d all be arrested by the morality police. From judging parents based on the ill behavior of their children to judging drivers based on their obnoxious bumper stickers (true story: My brand-new reader tested out his cool new skill by announcing loudly to the rest of the car “Look mom – that person’s in the army! It says ‘My girlfriend’s husband fights for your freedom!’ ” #facepalm) to the ubiquitous judging of strangers by the way they’re dressed, people watching is an international pastime. The problem for me isn’t that people judge others unfairly – who hasn’t done that? – but that the advent of the Internet has given all of these dumb thoughts a voice. A loud one.
People of Wal-Mart. Street fashion photography. Sneaky waitresses with camera phones. Yoga pants fetish sites. And even the /creeper and revenge porn threads dedicated to pictures taken down women’s shirts or up their skirts with the thrill being that the victim doesn’t even know they’ve been victimized. There are a wide range of websites dedicated to analyzing strangers without their knowledge or consent. Some are kinda funny, some are downright vile but all of them make me uneasy. And my sense of unease deepened when I read an article on Psychology Today called “Female Obesity: It’s not all her fault” (interesting factoid: the original title, according to the URL, was “Killing Your Relationship With Weight Gain”) because this introduces a relatively new phenomenon: stranger voyeurism posted to the Internet under the guise of “helping.” (I’d link you to the actual article but Psychology Today has pulled it down, likely after being inundated with negative comments yesterday. You can read Jezebel’s dissection of the piece here.) It basically involves a man, a grocery store and a bunch of women who unfortunately ended up in his field of vision.
Grocery stores are already a bit of a gauntlet for me. If the four kidlets, including one who thinks lipsticks are the best markers ever and the makeup aisle is his personal easel, aren’t enough I up the difficulty level by having weird neuroses about food, money and strangers. Having discussed my food issues ad nauseum on here and leaving my money issues for another day (seriously I’ve never met a clearance sticker that didn’t make my heart jump for joy), let’s discuss strangers. First thing about strangers: they’re strange. They can be wonderfully strange, monotonously strange and, on occasion, horribly strange – and you never know which you’re going to get until the puppet show has started. I prefer to assume that the world is populated with the wonderful variety and I live my life that way. This optimism doesn’t come naturally but it’s something I’ve cultivated because it makes me less scared, sound like a nicer person without having to do much different and also, I’m lazy and conspiracy theories take a lot of energy.
But Stephen Betchen, author of the aforementioned article made me realize that sometimes when you think people are just looking at the dinner rolls, they’re actually sizing up all the rolls – including yours. Betchen begins by explaining why he be creepin’:
“I paid a visit to my local supermarket last evening and I was astounded by the shapes and sizes of some of my fellow female shoppers. I’m usually in a rush and have little time to gaze at others but this time was different. Given my early start I was afforded a leisurely shopping experience during which time I noticed that several of the women were obese by any standards. Even more disturbing, many appeared to range in age from their late twenties to early forties-and most with beautiful faces. I’m sure many of the men were overweight, but I’ll deal with them another time.”
Oh wow. One paragraph in and he’s already pulled the “But you have such a pretty face!” line. Then he delves into some of the reasons he thinks these women in “boxy designer sweatsuits” have let themselves go.
“Medical conditions aside, it’s pretty easy to blame some of these women for their poor eating habits and lack of self-discipline, but aren’t their male counterparts culpable as well. One of the most disturbing things I see in couples/sex therapy is men-especially married men— who rarely, if ever, attempt to make their wives feel sexy. Sure, they might relentlessly pursue for sex, but what about the space between? During the work week how many men compliment their partners? How many attempt to seduce them? How many use verbal foreplay? Many men still neglect physical foreplay. I’m not talking about buying flowers, I’m talking flirtation.”
Yeah, okay, he’s got a good point about keeping the romance alive and saying loving things to your partner but the implications are unnerving and show a lack of understanding about weight and relationship dynamics in general. Women gain weight for many reasons and reducing it to spousal attention or “medical conditions” seems ridiculously reductionist. And who’s to say the women he observed don’t already have bangin’ (pardon) sex lives? But the real question is why is he analyzing these women’s sex lives in the first place? In the grocery store? Does he really think he’s helping anyone with these observations?
It’s this last point that really bothers me – this idea that if we cloak fat shaming in the guise of “helping” it’s any less shameful, that if we mask the impudence of speculating about a woman’s sex life with a veneer of goodwill it’s any less invasive, that if we pretend commenting on a woman’s body is legit because of her size it’s any less rude? It’s the idea that doing something inherently unkind can be called kind as long as we’re doing it out of concern for the other person. I’ve never liked the concept of “brutal honesty.” The brutal always comes across more than the honesty.
But what do I know? I’m certainly not an expert in these issues. (I recently got an e-mail from someone accusing me of being afraid to tell it like it is because I “never want to hurt anyone’s feelings” and all I could say was that if that is my worst fault then great. I don’t think it’s my job to tell anyone “like it is.” If someone asks for my advice I’ll offer it but I’m not in the business of calling people out.) All I know is that I hope if strangers notice me at the grocery store on a bad day in any respect – my kids, my body, my paint-stained super unflattering yoga pants – that they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt. Or at the very least not snap a pic of me and/or put it on the Internet.
Betchen’s article immediately made me think of news anchor Jennifer Livingston’s impassioned response to a similar situation with a “concern troll” e-mail she got about her weight. If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s a must. She calls it bullying and I think she’s right.
What do you think about this issue – is Betchen helpful or is he just one more voice telling women we’re not good enough? Am I misinterpreting his words because I’m overly sensitive? How do you feel about this trend of anonymously critiquing people on the Internet, harmless fun or societal callousness?
PS. When I posted this on Facebook one of my female friends commented that she hoped not all men thought like this and several of my male friends jumped in to tell her that no, they really don’t. I love Alex’s reply: “Just to be really really clear, and I’m not some great and glorious exception to this, men really don’t walk around grocery stores judging any such bullsh*t. We get our food, and go home. If you happen to turn a head, there’s a lot less thought than that going through a guy’s mind. Men also don’t think about sex nearly as much as you think they do. What’s sad is society pushing these myths about men, and then some men thinking that they have to imitate what the media tells them they are or there’s something “wrong” with them.”