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Neil Steinberg And The Problem With Judging Others

By Lisa White in News on May 30, 2014 3:00PM

2014_5_29_steinberg.jpg How do you create a dialogue with someone who clearly doesn’t see the wrong in abusing their position to take personally fueled judgmental jabs at a marginalized group of people? This is the question running through my head after reading Neil Steinberg’s public response to the ridicule he recently received.

To give some context, Steinberg wrote a column in the Sun-Times about waiting in line at Hot Doug’s. In it, he mentioned the women in front of him, describing them as “hefty.” During the wait, they sat down and scooted as the line moved forward. Steinberg thought he might suggest they go to the hospital rather than load up on duck fat fries, a judgement even he admitted was hostile. When called out regarding this on social media, he reacted by writing a long screed on his blog and tweeted defenses of his judgement.

First, the comment should have never made it through the final stage of the article as is. Overall the article’s subject matter and story was lovely, painting a family enjoying a day waiting to dine at Hot Doug’s. And it even includes a quip about Doug Sohn suggesting “embracing the line” which I’ve always told others. It’s a thing, enjoy it. But apparently only if you are not fat. Being fat clearly offends Steinberg.

Steinberg stands by the idea that he was merely describing his surroundings and that justified his commentary on these two women’s bodies. But he didn’t just say a woman of larger size was waiting in line, tired with her friend. He made a ‘joke’ about how she shouldn’t be enjoying a particular food at her size. There is a difference. He was judging someone on the fly based on a cultural perception that fat is bad. He knew nothing about this person, their medical history or anything. He just didn’t like looking at their fat bodies and felt the need to comment on them.

As a fat person myself, I’m not surprised. There are a lot of people in the world that hate me because of the visual of my body, which is a sad way to judge a person. People this judgmental usually hang out on Tumblr or in the comments section on articles about obesity telling me how easy it is to lose weight or that I deserve to die because of my size. They usually are not columnists with one of the largest papers in Chicago. So I don’t hold them accountable the same way for abusing their position.

Steinberg had a right to talk about the people in line and his surroundings. He even had the right to be that asshole who makes fun of a fat person. But everyone else has the right to call him out, which according to his sparring with others on social media, he doesn’t seem to fully accept or understand. An editor should have cut this line or changed it, but after seeing the combative behavior Steinberg dished out towards people questioning his verbiage, I can see how dealing with him could be problematic. It still should have been done.

Steinberg took to social media and argued that he gets judged all the time, so what's the big deal? That no one seems reluctant to express their own hostile thoughts towards him. Sure, some people will react with hostility when a person shows their own hostility toward people who are different than them. But instead of hostility, all I feel is pity and sadness. I feel sad that he thinks it is OK to judge people and to have people judge him, sad that he thinks it is OK and respectable as a person and a writer to use such wording so carelessly.

Ultimately the piece wasn’t about obesity. It had nothing to do with fat people. If he really wanted to be honest with himself and the readers, and he felt the need to say anything at all, he would have followed up with the fact “this image bothered me because I’m not comfortable with fat people being allowed to eat whatever they want and exist, especially in certain settings.” Instead he dug in his heels, contradicting himself while muddying the waters with diatribes on aesthetics.

Steinberg wrote “I see a 350 pound man I am permitted to wonder what he was thinking when he reached 300.” There are a multitude of reasons a person may be the size they are, and frankly they don’t have to justify any of them to Steinberg to exist or to buy duck fat fries or to make anyone feel better about one’s moral judgement. Maybe that person has a medical issue, already lost 100 pounds and is losing more or maybe they are just simply fine with their current body makeup.

Steinberg claimed that “maybe I didn't hear too many complaints about my piece because most fat people are comfortable enough with their condition that they don't have to go to war over perceived slights.” He also concludes that “my gut tells me that those few who were worked up about my description of the crawling ladies might have an issue accepting themselves.” I’d argue the opposite is true.

Years ago, I would have kept my mouth shut or agreed with Steinberg because of course, I thought I was disgusting and needed to shrink my body so others found me acceptable. But after years of therapy, years of creating a kind and loving relationship with my body at whatever size, I’ve finally started accepting myself as is. And for the first time finding myself beautiful and feeling the need to tell people “hey, don’t be an asshole and comment on someone's body. It isn’t yours so why do you care?” Body acceptance has led to me giving a damn and calling out people like Steinberg in the hopes that maybe he’ll learn the right way to treat a person. I would like to help Steinberg understand this in the hopes that making a public dialogue about it might make him or others think twice the next time they decide to judge someone based on their appearance. Then again, as he summed up what he perceives as the full discussion last night, only his opinion is the one that matters.