My friend Rich wrote on his Facebook Wall that he had gained the first 5 pounds of autumn. Pretty innocuous news that you would think would go unnoticed. What ensued, however, was an unprecedented, lively conversation, involving people from across the country who didn’t even know each other, basically coming together to make fun of Rich for his weight gain. People pondered what he ate and made suggestions from getting elastic waistbands to directing him to the maternity department when he goes shopping.
The exchange was very funny, all at Rich’s expense, of course. I thought “I’m enjoying this because it’s not me,” which made me look at who was involved in the sparring: It was all women…all women operating possibly under the cultural assumption that in our society, men are not sensitive about their weight. Had this been a woman complaining she had gained 5 pounds, the only acceptable response from another American woman (or I can at least vouch for a Jewish-American woman) is “you can’t tell…you look great!” Or “aggh, I know what you mean, I’ve gained 10!” followed by “you can’t tell…you look great!”
While this conversation worked here, it might not work in a cross-cultural situation. In Brazil, for example, my initial deduction from visiting was that it’s okay to have group discussions about a person’s weight. When my husband I first began visiting 20 years ago, his family members would actually debate about whether I had gained or lost weight from the previous visit. Initially I was really hurt, and shared my feelings with my husband. What I came to realize as I learned more about the culture, however, is that it had nothing to do with being insensitive (American interpretation) and it had everything to do with being really comfortable in their bodies, regardless of size (Brazilian interpretation). That latter position is liberating, and a feeling that I like to adopt.
At the end of the day, for rewarding connection with others in cross-cultural conversation, it’s important to remember:
- Your own underlying cultural assumptions (e.g. in my culture you never publicly comment on a woman’s weight)
- The cultural norms of the person with whom you are communicating (e.g. in Brazilian culture weight is just a matter of fact, and not thought of as something sensitive)
- That personal experience may trump all (sentiments vary from individual to individual within a culture-helpful to watch and listen for cues if you don’t know someone well)
- And that each exchange is a gift. You can use the exchange as a moment of quiet personal learning as you recognize how your own cultural lens frames the conversation, or use it as a moment to share your experience and teach and learn about the difference.
p.s. Rich, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings!
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Hurt my feelings? Are you kidding? You’ve made me famous! And your suggestion that I try maternity pants just made me laugh. Seriously though, I started the conversation, so I’d say I asked for it. And anyone who knows me knows I can handle being the butt of a joke.
But I find the subject of your essay very interesting, and it reminds me of a couple experiences. About 16 years ago, I was working in a large organization, and I mentioned a friend who used to work there, a very overweight woman, who someone else couldn’t recall. Stupidly, I said something like, “Oh, you remember Mary. She used to work on 24.” (Silence) “Remember? Her office was right next to Bob’s. Very nice, very funny…kinda fat.” I knew Mary well enough to know she would not be offended by my use of the “f” word. And I really was only describing her — not criticizing her. But another woman, who happened to be very thin, was outraged that I would ever describe someone else as “fat,” even though she knew Mary, and agreed I had not been inaccurate. I remember being stunned at being chastised for having accurately described a woman as fat. (Remember, I was much younger and considerably more stupid then.)
More recently, I had the kind of experience every married American man has had. I was watching TV with my then 5 year old son, and my wife entered the room saying, “I look fat in this, don’t I?” In fact, she did not (and truly could not), and I said she did not, and — of course — she took the dress off anyway, and I knew she would. And then, as one of a series of lessons I wish my father had taught me, I taught my son the rule that there is only one right answer to that question, EVER. And what is possibly worse than saying “yes,” is hesitating a moment before saying “no.” “If Mommy or any girl ever asks you if she looks fat, you should only look quickly and then say “no” right away. If you don’t, you will be sorry.” He didn’t have a clue why I was telling him that, but someday, I know he’ll thank me for it.
Why does weight need to be discussed at all in any culture?
I don’t think it is just an American interpretation to be sensitive about someone discussing your weight.
Just my two cents worth. I know someone else from another country who also thinks it is okay to matter of factly discuss people’s weight. I will not accept it as cultural diversity. I think it just doesn’t need to be said. Sorry.
Okay, I have said enough!!