I’m not going to link to the site here, but I’m sure most of you are familiar with the meme The People Of Walmart. Basically, strangers take pictures of other strangers that they find, for some reason, odd or hilarious or whatever… and they post them online and make fun of them. TPOW is hardly the only such site that does this… there are many out there that do it. It happens on reddit, it happens in forums all over the net.
At first glance, it’s pretty easy (in most cases) to tilt your head and go WTF? to some of these pics. Like the infamous one of the woman wearing her nightgown, fur coat and vacuuming her front yard. It’s easy to judge that pic and go… well clearly she’s high. And maybe she was high.
Or maybe she’s mentally ill. Or maybe she has Alzheimer’s. We don’t know because we don’t her. We have no idea what led to her being outside, on what looks like a rainy day, wearing that fur coat and nightgown and vacuuming her yard (or trying to). But whatever the story is, it’s hers.
My grandfather has dementia. We don’t know what the cause of it is, but he often forgets to shave and his hair will be a mess. He used to be the sort of man who never, ever went outside unkempt. He was very neat and put great care into his appearance, at least outside of the house.
When my grandmother needed emergency surgery in November, and the doctors really didn’t know if she’d survive, he had to rush with my mom to the hospital. All he kept saying, while they were waiting in the family room for news, was that he hadn’t shaved. This upset him so much that when she wanted to say goodbye a few weeks down the road, he didn’t want to go because he hadn’t shaved. My mother, as gently as she could, told him it was going to be his last chance to see his wife.
So he went out, unkempt, disheveled…
A friend of mine went to the Walmart pharmacy late at night because her 2 month old had a fever. She was wearing pajamas, flip flops and realized after the fact that her top was inside out (and had spit up on it). Her hair hadn’t been washed in two days because, as a new mom, she just hadn’t gotten the chance to wash it. She told me later she worried about someone taking pics of her while she was in Walmart, since her pajamas were hot pink and had animal print. And it was December in New Jersey and rather cold for flip flops.
As a fat person in a digital age that so greatly enjoys mocking people for no reason other than they’re out in public and dare to look somehow different than other people think they should, I never shop without fear of winding up on some fat shaming site. It’s always in the back of my head. It doesn’t stop me from living my life, but the fact that I have to think about it at all is pretty fucked up, really.
I’m fortunate to live in a place where the majority of people aren’t assholes. No, really… I regularly have teenage boys hold the door for me. That doesn’t happen where I come from, not unless said teenage boy thinks the woman he’s holding the door open for is hot, anyway. And maybe not even then. But certainly no one ever held the door open for me where I grew up on the east coast.
But then hell, I saw a little old woman with a walker struggle to get into a bank in Manhattan that didn’t have automatic doors for 5 fucking minutes. I was prepared to help, but stuck on the other side of the street. People went into the bank, came out of the bank. No one helped her. It broke my heart. When I went and helped her, the look of gratitude in her eyes was just… overwhelming. It literally made me tear up because I could not imagine how anyone could be so oblivious, self-absorbed or cruel as to let this poor woman struggle that way.
So certainly, it wasn’t limited to fat people… which is the point. People here are, in general, just much kinder and nicer than the people where I used to live. So given that, I worry a LITTLE less. But I still worry.
I’ve had strangers (again, back east) come up to me in a store, look at me and give me their diet business cards. This is when I was dieting, btw, and nothing in my cart was even remotely “questionable.” I was once walking home from the deli, where I’d gone to get my husband and myself some ice cream on a hot summer day, after he’d had a rough day at work. The bag I was carrying was a brown paper bag… some asshole stopped at the red light where I was crossing shouted out, “hey fatty… what’s in the bag? Ice cream?”
Yes, because being fat means you can’t have ice cream. Or it means ice cream is all you eat. I’m never sure which one, tbh. But at the time, that comment destroyed me inside. It made me feel so much guilt and shame that I didn’t even eat the ice cream, despite the fact that, again I was dieting and had worked the ice cream into my daily diet allowance.
I was eating a fat free frozen fudge bar before class started on a warm May Saturday, when a classmate I barely knew came over and asked “should you be eating that?” I looked at her and said, “well since it’s 2 Points and I’m on Weight Watchers, yes, I should.” But I wish I’d said, “how the fuck is it any of your business what I’m eating?” Because that’s EXACTLY the sort of reply that question deserved. And today, after years of eating disorder therapy and time to learn to accept myself, that’s more or less the response I’d give. But I only was able to start this therapy after leaving the toxic fat bashing environment I grew up in and moved to Colorado, which ironically despite being repeatedly reported to have the lowest obesity rates also happens to be far more fat friendly. I’m sure people think things, but I’ve only once in almost 10 years of living here had anyone say something, and it was the second week after we moved here. And, not that it excuses it, because it doesn’t, the person in question thought I was out of earshot when he made the snarky comment. It was at the Wendy’s drive through, and the kid who took our payment said, “that dude’s wife was BIG.” But it was after we’d driven up… he just happened to have said it before the other kid had closed the window. Or I’d never have known.
This sort of shit was bad enough when it was limited to what happens in a store with one person coming up to you or shouting shit from a car at you or making the odd rude comment to you at a restaurant or anywhere else. But now? Now we’ve moved into an entire other realm, one where strangers can take your photos while you’re eating, and you never know it. And then they post said photos and judge you for daring to eat while fat. Sometimes the person in the question probably doesn’t even meet the BMI chart standard for “overweight (not that that’s anything other than money-making BS anyway),” but the photographer thinks she does…
Or the person is wearing a tank top in public, and she’s fat so of course she shouldn’t be daring to show her arms. Or he has chocolate in his cart, and he’s fat, so he deserves it, right? Uhm, no. Actually, he doesn’t.
You might think, “oh, this is ridiculous, she’s being dramatic or overly sensitive.” And perhaps I am, to some degree. My rant about this is inspired by two friends that I know love me and wouldn’t want to hurt me sharing pics from The People Of Walmart. But my grandmother just died, I’m in a fibro flare from hell, and every time I see pics like these I imagine how easily it could happen to me… because I’m both fat and disabled, but my disability is one that is an invisible illness. It’s fibromyalgia, and I have a handicapped placard so I can park closer to stores, and in doing so save myself some spoons. I won’t even use a scooter… because I know people will make snap judgments (another thing that does happen to thin people or young people) about why I’m in a scooter. That and, well… I’m kind of afraid I’d drive one into the display at the end of the aisle. But my husband (who is also fat) has multiple sclerosis and he’s had to use one before, too. Once when I was in Walmart, there was a young kid in a scooter… a teenage boy. With his mother and sisters. He was checking out at the aisle behind ours. My husband had his cane. The – also young – cashier we had went on a loud rant about how much it annoys him to see people using scooters who don’t need them. Well, guess what? When we got out to the parking lot that kid was handed his crutches by his mother to get from the scooter to the passenger door, and she then took the scooter back. So this doesn’t happen just to fat people, but having a fat body in a fat phobic, fat hating society certainly puts an extra target on your back to be the butt of someone’s joke.
When it comes to the internet, I think because they’re strangers in a picture we’re seeing it’s so easy to become desensitized to the fact that The People of Walmart are, in fact, PEOPLE. Real people. People who have jobs, feelings, families, children… etc, etc. People for whom your two minute laugh have to live, in some cases, a lifetime of ridicule and shame over something that you really, when it comes right down to it, don’t know anything about.
The man whose ass crack is out of his pants… maybe he’s undergoing chemo and has lost weight. The woman who has on jeans that are too tight (in your opinion). Maybe she’s gained weight and can’t afford to buy new clothes. The woman in the crazy platform shoes who gets a comment about being a stripper running errands might be a single mom who really IS a stripper, and that’s how she supports her kids. Or maybe she’s just a stripper because she wants to be. And guess what? She fucking allowed to be a stripper, and she’s allowed to wear those shoes to Walmart or anywhere else she wants.
Our bodies don’t belong to strangers in stores or online. They belong to us. We get to do with them whatever makes us happy, whether that means dyeing your hair fuchsia, shaving it all off, having 22 tattoos or 32 piercings. Or just something as simple as wearing shorts This is true whether we’re a random unknown person or even a celebrity, although at least celebrities go into it knowing the cost. It is still fucked up, but it’s an unfortunate part of the job, and in many cases the publicity turns into profit, even if it’s unfair or undesired. For us just doing our regular grocery shopping, there’s no “perk”to being photographed by a stranger and turned into a joke.
This world we live in where it’s become not only okay, but often encouraged, to take photos of strangers for the sole purpose of mockery is shit. I think that any one of us could, for any number of reasons we can’t necessarily conceive of, wind up on one of these sites. Whether it’s because we’re shopping in our pajamas because we’re sick and don’t give a fuck and just wanna get what we need and get out, or because we want chocolate and don’t buy into the BS that a fat person isn’t allowed to eat chocolate, or we have crazy colored hair that someone thinks is “weird” or we have a lot of piercings or we have a tattoo that someone thinks is dumb or we’re mentally ill and have no idea where we are, let alone what we’re wearing… it could happen to any one of us.
You could very easily someday be the person being laughed at. So next time you mock someone try – just try – to put yourself in said person’s shoes. Because while some people manage to take their unintended internet fame (though these cases usually involve people who put themselves or a family member online in the first place, like David After Dentist or Charlie Bit Me) and turn it into something positive, others contemplate suicide or experience serious mental health struggles.