Almost 3 years ago I went to live in Salzburg, Austria for a semester of college. What I learned during that semester had very little to do with school, where I failed German tests on occasion, but everything to do with me, life, and not surprisingly, weight. I’ve been thinking about that time a lot lately as I prepare for what seems like a similar situation, so I’ll be posting a bit on the experience.
From the moment I arrived in Europe I was judged based on my weight. I was at 210 pounds, which was actually a decent weight for me after losing weight earlier in college. I felt healthy and was pretty active playing intramural sports at school. I wasn’t as huge as I once was but I was still quite overweight which apparently made me clearly identifiable as an American.
I felt like every interaction went like this:
Austrian: “Hello! How are you?”
Me: “Guten tag!”
Austrian: “Speak English! I know you are American! I won’t speak German with you.”
Me: “Um, ok. Yeah, I am American.”
The conversation almost always continued in English because I was too embarrassed at being so easily spotted as an American.
I failed my German tests in Austria because I never spoke German. Seriously, I rarely got a chance. I didn’t have great German skills to being with and needed practice, but Austrians would rarely speak anything but English with me because they wanted to practice their English with an American. (Finding people who didn’t speak English was like winning the lottery.) Besides my host mom, and some friends my age, I rarely spoke German. Most people rarely gave me the chance to even speak one word of German, because with one look at my body they assumed – correctly, mind you – that I was an American. I was always asked where I was from in America. No one ever thought I was from another place. My skinnier classmates managed to pretend they were European at times but I never got that luxury, even though there are overweight people in Austria.
During that semester I learned that more than ever first impressions count. People judge you and make assumptions based on what you look like. From that assumption they then make other assumptions, like the need to tell you they don’t have super size meals or serve coke, like the need to talk about how your size probably won’t be in the store, like the need to single you out from the rest of your skinny friends. I was often judged as the unhealthy American before I even opened my mouth to say anything.
[[Funny story: Me and three other girls went to Florence over the weekend for Carnival. When we were in the middle of the square I felt someone looking at me. It was a strange feeling but I just knew someone kept looking at us. After scanning the crowd we noticed two asian men and a woman staring at us. After a few seconds I noticed one of the guys pointed his camera at us. I mentioned it to my friends who said he wasn’t doing anything and I was being silly. When he did it a few more time we realized that he was taking pictures of us. We ended up going over to them and asking if they were taking pictures of us. While they didn’t seem to speak English but they knew how to say USA and were slightly embarassed yet excited that we had noticed them taking our picture. They pulled me into a picture and seemed obsessed with me. It was obvious I had been the one they were photographing, which felt strange and I couldn’t help but laugh. It was super strange experience, but I always assumed it was because I was bigger and stood out among my skinny sorority girl friends, who were completely amused by incident.]]
What hurt more than anything about being judged by weight was my inability to control it. I was American but I didn’t want to be judged as the unhealthy stereotypical American. I didn’t want to further cement the idea that all Americans are lazy and unhealthy. Yet I felt like I was exactly that stereotype the entire semester. I was running (around 2 miles at the time) a couple times of week and super active while I was living there, but I never felt like I was anything but FAT. I couldn’t shake the feeling because I was constantly reminded that I was bigger by my host mom (that’s another post in itself) and everyone I met. Hopefully next time I live abroad I won’t represent the unhealthy American stereotype so well.