Being Well Rounded (Part II)
by Barbara Altman Bruno, Ph.D.

For some strange reason, our culture has a problem with well-rounded people. The images we promote are of narrow women and one-sided men. This narrow-mindedness gets us all into trouble. Dimensions readers know what problems arise from skinny standards. Seating and other public accommodations can't handle large-size bottoms. Employers hire and fire workers according to their image, rather than their ability to do a good job. Eating disorders flourish. Politicians and actors are lionized or driven from public favor. And relationships-whether with ourselves or each other-suffer.

Sally Smith's column about fat rage in an earlier issue of Dimensions discussed how relationships with others in the fat rights movement periodically seem to disintegrate into vicious infighting. While I have heard others say that this type of infighting is common in many organizations, and people like Sally say that such behavior is evidence of the internalized oppression/self hatred common to people who have been the objects of prejudice, what I have noticed before Election Day and during other conflicts, is that people became characterized as one-dimensional. Someone who was a brilliant warrior on behalf of fat people was attacked via innuendo that s/he was dishonest. A gubernatorial candidate was portrayed by a political opponent as having let automobile insurance costs get out of control-never mind all the positive work that person had done. It's a device caricaturists use: find a prominent feature and exaggerate it until it dominates the characterization of a person. Parade it in the public consciousness so much that people have trouble imagining the person with any other characteristics.

During the Vietnam War, the "enemy" was called a "Gook"-whatever that is, and thus depersonalized. In other wars, the objects of aggression have received other strange names. If you label people in such a way as to take away what makes them people-i.e., their well-roundednes-they become caricatures, non-people, and thus not worthy of human fights. They become trashable by others.

We've noticed this about fat people, and indeed many of us have at one time or another thought of ourselves only as body sizes or compositions, rather than as human beings. If the people in our lives, up till now, have thought of us only as fat, it's not surprising that we might adopt their caricatures of ourselves. Likewise, if we have been trying to restrict our eating (i.e., dieting), our experience has probably narrowed down to struggling about food, and it may be hard to think of ourselves and life as having other aspects.

We have paid the price of narrow-mindedness by feeling the despair that comes of trying repeatedly to change something, only to have it seem to remain the same. We have paid the price by narrowing down our own lives to the point that we might have been afraid to leave our homes, fearing that in public, we would be categorized only as fat-and-therefore-bad, rather than as full (figured) human beings. Many of you are probably familiar with the study by the Harvard School of Public Health which indicated that fat women have lower incomes and fewer job, educational, and marriage opportunities than thinner women. That is a price of narrow-mindedness. Some of us continue to think of ourselves one-dimensionally: if a fat admirer appreciates us, it must be only because we are fat-and-therefore-sexy, but not because of who we really are, inside.

On the other side of the picture, those on pedestals are often both rewarded and trapped by those who believe the pedestal-sitters are one-sided. Thin people are presumed to be healthy, both mentally and physically, and in control of their lives because of their body size. As a result, they have more access to jobs, promotions, higher education, and potential mates, and higher incomes than fat people. Our narrow ideal of hard work may produce wealth, but also addictions when we leave no allowances for "down time," mistakes, daydreaming, or even sufficient sleep and rest. Millions of young people, especially young women and girls, suffer from eating-disordered behavior because they fear their status would be imperiled by an extra pound. People can achieve all the status symbols accorded to them, and yet feel so empty inside that they kill themselves. I was shocked many years ago to learn that the beautiful residents of a beautiful, affluent California county had extraordinarily high rates of alcoholism and suicide. I have read about supermodels who feel awful about themselves, and I have counted the numbers of marriages of stars who seek, from one wedding to the next, whatever it is that might have them finally feel alright about themselves.

Pedestal-sitters can be trapped by their perches. Consider the media frenzy every time John Kennedy or the late Princess of Wales have gone anywhere. Or the dieting, eating disorders, and forays for plastic surgery by movie stars whose income is lost if they appear to get older, fatter, or bald. Idolizers have little tolerance for such aspects of well-rounded people as weaknesses, errors in judgment, physical "imperfections," conflicting opinions, and the like. Look at how often Prince Charles has been mocked for his big ears, Dan Quayle for his spelling errors, or even Hillary Clinton for her assertiveness. Pedestal-sitters may feel they must disown any contrary aspect of themselves that appears. Their world can narrow down to impossible demands. Look at how gleefully we and the tabloids seek any "dirt" about a star. If we can narrow them down, they become trashable by us. And we seem to think that taking them down is what we need in order to elevate ourselves.

What we really need to do is to substitute the word "and" for the word "but." We need to recognize that people have both good and bad qualities, regardless of their size or their glitter. Some of their/our qualities are admirable and some shameful. Some people may be slanted in certain directions, but they/we also have complementary aspects. Good people do bad things sometimes; bad people do good things sometimes. Rather than trying to disown parts of ourselves/others, it is more useful to recognize that we all have those parts; that each part has or had its positive uses, and that we're bigger than the sum of our parts.

No matter what our size, when we can recognize, value, and make room for all the different aspects of ourselves and others, our world gets well-rounded.

Well Being