the HAES® files: Don’t blame the fat-shaming Lilly Pulitzer employee. Blame the culture that supports our self-loathing. Then help change it.

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Harriet Brown

They were the office decorations seen around the world. Or at least the internet. A New York Magazine slideshow of life behind the scenes at Lilly Pulitzer, a women’s fashion house known for its floral prints, included a shot of two cartoons hanging over an unnamed employee’s desk. Their captions read “Just another day of fat, white, and hideous . . . you should probably just kill yourself” and “Put it down, carb face.”

Any number of media outlets covered the controversy, and pretty much every one of them used the word “fat-shaming.” As I read story after story about the drawings, I found myself torn between two conflicting reactions.

On one hand, I’m glad that both the concept and the word “fat-shaming” have entered our consciousness to this extent. No offense to my chosen profession, but when journalists use a term like this in headlines, it has entered the public lexicon. It means we’re paying lip service, at least, to the idea that fat-shaming is a problem.

On the other hand, I’m disturbed by the vitriol directed at this employee. Commenters were quick to call her out, calling the cartoons insensitive, hateful, and thinspirational. And don’t get me wrong; they are all of those things. But the comments I’ve seen are missing a crucial point: these body-shaming drawings were created by a woman and aimed at herself, not others. They hung over her desk, not in a common area. They are literal and figurative illustrations of one woman’s clear struggle with shame and guilt and self-acceptance.

These drawings reflect self-loathing rather than fat-shaming. And that self-loathing grows directly out of our cultural attitudes around weight.

I’ve been researching and writing about body image, eating disorders, and the Health at Every Size® paradigm for a decade. But I grew up in a house where cartoons like these would have looked right at home, along with images of fat women bending over, eating enormous sundaes, naked, and others meant to drive us away in horror from the refrigerator door. My mother was always dieting, and for a long time so was I. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with hanging images like this over my own desk.

So much outrage has rained down on these drawings and the woman who made them. And so little outrage has been directed where it truly belongs: at the culture that demands this kind of self-loathing, especially from women. At the advertisers who deliberately make us feel insecure, anxious, less-than, so they can sell us products, bombarding us with anatomically impossible images of fantasy women.

You know the saying “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”? I think we’re paying attention to the wrong issue here. The self-deprecation and body hatred of the Lilly Pulitzer employee is a symptom of the greater problem. And yes, I can imagine that the corporate culture at Lilly Pulitzer might exacerbate this kind of self-hatred. The company is part of the problem. But while scapegoating the employee or the company alone might feel satisfying in the moment, it’s a misdirect. The true outrage belongs elsewhere.

At the last talk I gave about my new book, a woman in the audience raised her hand and made a passionate plea for us to work toward systemic change, not just look for ways to make peace with our physical selves. Both are imperative. Each of us has to find a way to live in this culture, in this time and place, in whatever size and shape body we’ve got. And all of us have to find ways to direct our outrage at the culture, where it belongs. To speak up for meaningful change. To push back against the body police, against the rhetoric of hatred, against the objectification of people’s bodies.

So repeat after me (with a nod to the movie Network): I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Then do something, one thing, to push back against the culture’s punitively narrow stance around bodies. You’ll feel better. I know I do.


Harriet BrownHarriet Brown’s newest book is Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It (Da Capo, 2015). She teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

7 Comments to “the HAES® files: Don’t blame the fat-shaming Lilly Pulitzer employee. Blame the culture that supports our self-loathing. Then help change it.”

  1. YES!!! Absolutely right, each of us should do ONE thing to move this forward. However, I have to disagree that each of us loving our bodies is not working toward systemic change. Personally, I feel that learning to love our fat bodies IS the way to start the systemic change. If more of us are happy in our fat bodies, more of us will fight, more of the status quo will change. Starting within is the most powerful thing we can do to begin to direct our outrage at the culture. Otherwise, it’s just paying more lip service to the cause.

  2. I am a Master’s student in Nursing, and one of my classes right now has health promotion as one of the topics. We had a discussion on health promotion via social media, and I brought up the fact that some of the things that people post to motivate themselves on social media are actually really using shame as a means to try to motivate. I find such things very triggering and try to avoid them, but I do agree that the person who hung those cartoons in her work area probably was directing those thoughts toward herself. And attacking her for that just gives her more to feel shame about.

  3. Reblogged this on move the dog fitness and commented:
    A very important distinction that can easily get lost along the way.

  4. I completely agree. Putting the blame on the woman who drew and posted those cartoons is definitely focusing on the wrong thing – she’s a victim of the same fat-shaming culture that has seen an astronomical increase in eating disorders and has children stating they would rather lose a limb than be fat.

    We have a job to do here, and it’s not blaming the fat-phobic cartoon posting victim, but the society and culture that created her attitudes in the first place. We can change society, but that change has to start at home and with our selves. We can only demand change when we feel worthy of change.

    • Blaming the single employee for the culture at large is a given in mainstream media. How often do articles which attempt to whip up panic over weight use personalized, individualistic accusations such as, “YOU aren’t taking the time to eat right and exercise!” A lot of us have lived in a culture or worked in a space where only the most privileged employees had the opportunity and means to practice self-care during the workday. In fact, it’s part of the lower-ranked employees job (or fate) to work longer and harder for less so their superiors can better enjoy their own privilege. But systemic inequities are kept invisible in most mainstream stories about health and wellness. The ultimate bosses, the advertisers, want it that way.

      So in that sense, this coverage is just the logical outcome of what most lower-tier employees already deal with on the job. Somebody else designs and maintains the culture, and only in your own little space do you get a scrap of autonomy– if you’re lucky. But when things look bad to outside observers, all the responsibility for the culture’s failings is on you, the powerless prole. You, not your bosses, are the one who faces punishment for a system you had no right to influence in the first place.

  5. I thought is was kind of rude, hypocritical, and unnecessary for PMM to put them on blast, so I unfollowed them. Besides I always found it odd that they wanted to promote body acceptance but only to use a standard themselves that women compare themselves too.

    I do not blame the person either. I hear women do this when I go to work, when I go to the gym, when I go to dance class, and when I am among friends. It also happens on the Internet. When women were saying they were not going to shop at Target, so I guess they would quit life too. SMH…

    People need to look at what they are reading and who is writing it too. Read between the lines.

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