The Weight of Stigma
By Tina Sawicki
The only sound is the shuffling of feet and the birds crying above me. The sun gazes down, engulfing me in its warm splendour. I don t feel the heat, as I am being softly fanned by my admirers. I am sprawled out in a full lounge chair, with my folds of flesh bared for all to gaze upon admiringly. The artist s eyes light with adoration each time he glances up to fill his eyes with my beauty. He is working tenderly, preserving my splendour on canvas for the world to see. I look up to see the thin, almost gangly, women around me, with eyes filled with envy.
Then I am awake, in a world different from my thoughts and imagination. I am amongst people who stigmatize me as fat, lazy, ugly and undisciplined. The world I dream of, in the past, beyond my reach. I am a stigma in my time.
The term stigma has been around for decades. Used against those who are different or stray from the norm. Goffman, in Stigma 1963, delves into the different resulting groups and behaviours from stigmatization. Many of the concepts Goffman has developed are a large part of my life and those within it. Living with a stigma can be a hurtful and complicated way of life to face.
Leaning against the fence in the backyard of my childhood home, I longingly cried out to my sister on her way to school, that I wanted to go with her. I wanted to go to school so badly. I hated staying at home, while she was allowed to go into the unknown world. Little to my knowledge did I realize that going to school would begin my stigma career. I was different from everyone else, this I did not know. I found this out when I began school as a child. Goffman points out, public school entrance is often reported as the occasion of stigma learning, the experience sometimes coming very precipitously on the first day of school, with taunts, teasing, ostracism, and fights (pg.33). I was taller than the majority of the other children, bigger boned than the other children. This difference labelled me. I was the one they began to tease, to hit, to torment. Through the use of the Labelling Theory, Frank Tannenbaum validates this as a process. I had to be labelled deviant before I took the deviant role. This role led me to self consciousness and identifying myself as fat.
My only safe place was at home, with my mother, my father, my sister. They would tell me there was nothing wrong with me. Telling me, the other children were jealous of me or that they would get their dues someday. I would come home crying and my mother would calm me with sweets and hugs. My family was the wise in my life. Goffman offers the term wise as others who are related to the stigmatized and are sympathetic to the situation(pg 30). It was a horrible realization that I was not one of them, a normal, we and those who do not depart negatively from the particular expectations at issue (pg. 5). And so began my moral career, Persons who have a particular stigma tend to have similar learning experiences regarding their plight, and similar changes in conception of self (pg. 32).
When the time came for choosing a baseball team or racing team, I was always the last chosen or had to be given a spot on the team. I began to go through a phase of my moral career, learning I had a stigma and the consequences of it. Other normals began to assume what I was all about. They gave me a virtual social identity(pg. 2), one which I was rarely given a chance to change. I remember a teacher in Grade 6, who singled me out of the class to be made an example of. My desk was placed at the front of the class, beside the teacher s desk, and I was basically made the class clown. During this mixed social situation (pg.12), my innermost fears were forced out. I was terrified of being the centre of attraction. It seemed every day I recoiled back from comments from both the teacher and the other children in my class. I hated having to go to school. I would go home in tears every day, until one day, I went to class and my desk had been put back and I was no longer the centre of the teacher s attention, only the children s. I have learned as an adult, my father visited the teacher with threats on his life if I were not left alone.
The following year our family left that town. I was hopeful, anxious to find a new circle of friends or perhaps a new identity. Entering public school in the new town, I learned that the stigma I carried could not be hidden. It was highly visible and impossible to pass(pg. 73) as thin or normal. Therefore my biography(pg. 62) as a fat individual continued. I became situation conscious, a critic of the social scene, an observer of human relations (pg. 111). I attempted to be prepared for any and all mixed contacts. I was at the age where I began to notice boys. I learned from a very young age that my virtual social identity(pg.2) included an undesirability to the opposite sex. I was the brunt of many a joke, including a set up where the young man I was interested in asked me to meet him at a particular time and place. I proceeded to be there on time and the moment I stepped into the area designated, I heard laughter and hoots coming from the bushes surrounding me. This made me aware of how unattractive I was to others.
Of the three types of stigmas Goffman puts forth, abomination of the body, character, and tribal stigmas (pg 5), I began not only to carry the physical abomination of being fat but I began to develop character stigmas and flaws. After learning my unattractiveness, I became depressive and suicidal. I remember as a child becoming hysterical and riding my bicycle approximately 7 miles to the provincial park in our area. It was filled with extremely high water falls. I climbed atop the highest rock surrounding the falls and began to sway and rock. I had planned on jumping but seen a reflection of myself in the water. For some odd reason I did not jump that day.
In addition to these character flaws, I developed another physical abomination. In our high school, in order to get to the other side of the building you had to pass through the gym area. Within this area, there were rows of benches where the other children sat and carried on during breaks. Every time I had to go through this area I began to hyperventilate and cower. To me this was an extreme mixed social situation and I reacted by lowering my head as I walked through. Because of this constant cowering and lowering of my head, I have developed a hunch on the back of my shoulders and extremely bad posture. This has become another physical abomination for me to carry.
My high school years did include several sympathetic others or own, those who share his stigma. A circle of lament to which he can withdraw for moral support and for the comfort of feeling at home, at ease, accepted as a person who really is like any other normal person (pg. 20). We were the three Musketeers, as we called ourselves. We never went anywhere without each other. We calmed each others fears and used each other as a crutch when called for. We believed we were the cool group. That we were the ones others aspired to be like.
There came a time when this illusion no longer worked for me. I became sick of who and what I was and decided to do something about it. I began to play a role, normification(pg. 110). I became a different person. I forced myself to do things I would otherwise have not done. I forced myself into the so-called cool group of kids, who partied and did drugs. I had fun but soon realized they only tolerated me within their group. I was not a normal and they knew it. When I was not in the room, and they believed I was out of earshot, they would take off(pg 134) about me. Realizing how I did not fit in, I resumed my place with my sympathetic others.
Once I moved out of my home and into the city on my own, I began to discover my ego identity(pg. 124) was not something easily dealt with. From what I saw on television and from what I read or was lectured to me by my family, I should accept myself for what I am. Yet other things I read or saw, told me not to accept myself. That I should lose weight and that I would be so much happier if I did. I found it difficult to assume a happy medium. I was not happy with who and what I was nor did I find the answer to be what I thought I should be. Goffman says, it is a question of conformity, not compliance (pg. 128). This conformity becomes difficult in a world that believes an individual should be of a certain body size by manufacturing movie theatre chairs to fit only the slim, clothing of one size fits all or university desks made for the fat individual to squeeze into or seek alternatives.
I continued throughout my adulthood to always be on, calculating about the impression I am making to a degree and in areas of conduct which I assume others are not (pg. 14). I would find myself questioning my appearance and regarding each movement I made with hesitation. I attempted to pass by using large, baggy clothes as a disidentifier(pg.44). I believed I was creating an illusion on myself to portray myself as normal. Being introduced to the Internet was a beginning of a new identity for me. I could keep my stigma discreditable(pg.41) and be someone I normally am not. This identity was never permanent, as the other normals on line would eventually discover my secret by wanting to get to know me better.
I made an attempt at one point to become sociable with others who carry the stigma of being fat. I found myself yearning to not be a part of their group, believing myself different and not belonging amongst them. I became self-betraying(pg.107), seeking others of a heavier weight and comparing myself to them. It made me feel better about my own stigma, that I wasn t as bad as they were. I found myself pointing and commenting about them. When I was among normals, I found myself nearing, as Goffman terms it, coming close to an undesirable instance of his own kind while with a normal (pg. 108). I would follow the lead of the one I was with, commenting, pointing, joking. All the while feeling as if I were one of them, a normal.
I developed new sympathetic others as an adult. They included a friend who had Cerebral Palsy, as well as several others who strayed from the norm. The normals in my life seen one side of me, while the others saw another. I allowed the others to see a social identity(pg.62). One which portrayed me as strong, aggressive and able to let comments and the torment to flow over me without affecting me. My personal identity(pg.63), which my sympathetic others seen, was one of pain and sadness. I shared with them intimate details which I would never release to the normals. I developed certain coping skills which lead to my social identity. Never letting them see me cry or flinch, always ready to attack and strike back. At other times I would use disclosure etiquette(pg.117), introducing my stigma to the interaction and drawing a conversation from it, in order to save myself further damage.
The career I chose as a young adult was one where immediately I was deviant. I became a Hairstylist. I became a member of the beauty industry and continued throughout this career to be reminded continuously of my deviance in being of that industry. I had to scope out job opportunities. Be sure that they were not of too high class salons. I learned this early when I decided to apply to a salon in the city which had a very snobby cliental. When I concluded my interview, it was said straight out that I would not fit in with the clients, that I was not fashionable enough to work there.
A reinforcement of my stigma came one day while I was working. A child with his mother came in for a haircut and was assigned to me. The child was upset and argued with his mother that he did not want me to do his hair. Very loudly he declared I was too fat to do it. I remember immediately seeing red while the mother flushed with embarrassment. I proceeded to do the haircut on the child but decided to turn the tables on him with the mother s encouragement. He had received a broken arm playing soccer recently and it was quite visible. I began to explain to him that I really did not want to do his hair because he had a broken arm and that I did not believe he should sit in my chair. He was very upset by this and his mother and I proceeded to explain the logic behind this. The child apologized to me and I hope that he learned a very valuable lesson that day.
Goffman s Stigma, was written in 1963. With this in mind we can find the entire book to be dedicated to men and the stigmas applied to that gender. It is unfortunate that he does not extend his research or theories to that of the female gender, as I find it difficult to generalize all his concepts to both genders. It would be enlightening to Goffman, if he were to exist in our world today, the extent of differences that have been found between men and women. Women have shared many different experiences throughout life that cannot be shared by men. Without this experience introduced to his theories, it is difficult to accept his concepts as the final concepts. His only reference to women in his book seems to be in the form of prostitutes. Perhaps in his time, it was difficult to assume women to have stigmas or to even commit deviant behaviour.
Goffman s discussion on the phases of learning a stigma or even learning the consequences of having a stigma, leaves out one important facet, the media. He discusses learning the stigma label through others in face to face situations as well as a child. Goffman also discusses a lot of stigmas which can be controlled through the criminal system, yet being fat is an issue that cannot be controlled this way. The ultimate controlling vice of those fat individuals in society is once again the media. This type of learning is termed by Daniel Glaser in Theories of Deviance as Differential Identification, people getting their definitions of norms from other than other people. Everywhere one looks, the streets, the television, the newspaper and magazines, there are ads defining the cultural norm of beauty. It tells us we must thin to be happy. Women have become so body conscious that they find it difficult to accept themselves as they are. The cosmetic industry is a billion dollar a year business, mostly run by males, who outline the definitions of what society is to expect of women with their bodies.
I believe in my life I have tried at least one hundred different diets that I have read in magazines, joined several fitness clubs, and considered more than once cosmetic surgery to fix my stigma and become normal. I have even dreamed of enduring surgery which slices off my offending folds of flesh, leaving me with horrendous scars. I remember being elated by the results, dismissing the scars as part of the battle won. I could wear that bikini that says I am normal, walk amongst those and carry myself with pride.
It is outrageous, these steps that some will take to pass or become a normal. In more recent times I have become somewhat of a social deviant(pg.143). I walk among those others, standing ground for myself and ignoring the reactions of others around me. Those who say I do not belong do not belong in my life. I have complied with the so-called rules of society, I go where I do not belong yet I accept the behaviour of others to a certain extent.
The media has slowly become a mentor of a different kind. It has taught us to accept to a degree those who are different, such as the physically challenged, or the blind. It is beginning to teach us that we don t have to comply with what we are told to be. It will take time and the strength of many to dissect the current ideologies and norms amongst us. Perhaps I can go back to my fantasy of being admired for my beauty rather than being shunned for my uniqueness. Only you can be the judge.