In one of the saddest examples that perverts will use anything to justify their crimes, a pastor (a pastor!) recently explained that the reason he molested a thirteen-year-old girl on an airplane was because “she was a big girl.” The girl, “Emily”, was flying home as an unaccompanied minor from a weight-loss camp when Jackson Senyonga, a pastor of over 1,000 churches in 4 countries, decided to take advantage of the child traveling alone. He even went so far as to ask to be seated next to her at the beginning of the flight. So what was it about Emily that made her look like a good target for a pedophile? Senyonga could have said a lot of things – that she was obviously alone, that she was young, that she was female – but the excuse he chose was that she was fat.
I have heard many sad accounts of women and girls gaining weight after being abused as a way to shield and/or comfort themselves but this is the first time that I have heard of the reverse. Diabetes, heart disease, asthma and other health issues are known effects of growing up overweight. In addition, overweight kids often carry a social stigma setting them up for abuse from their peers. Research – not that we needed scientists to tell us this – has shown that overweight children are targeted by bullies more often than kids of a normal weight. Anecdotal stories and dozens of teen-lit books (anyone else remember “Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade”??) add further evidence of teachers, parents, siblings and even strangers using a child’s weight as an excuse to abuse them in some manner.
It has gotten to the point where teenagers who merely think they are overweight (whether or not it is true) are more likely to attempt suicide. Being overweight also increased the risk of suicide. But the group of teens most at risk for killing themselves? Overweight teens who are very conscious of the fact they are overweight. And sadly, in our society there is no shortage of people ready and willing to tell a kid she’s fat.
The point that rankles me the most about the pastor is that he somehow felt that a girl’s weight made her less human and therefore deserving of being sexually abused. It was as if he thought he would garner more sympathy from a public that is notoriously fat phobic. “Wait, the chick was chubby? Well then it’s all right!” There is a bright side to this depressing bit of news: Emily, despite being just 13, had the presence of mind to jump out of her seat and tell a flight attendant who then notified authorities. This “weak, fat” girl was strong enough to do what many victims do not and stand up for herself. I think this bodes well for her.
Reactions to this story around the internet are varied – some have suggested that this is a call for tough “love”, that this is one more reason why we can’t let our kids become overweight or if they are, get the chub off them by whatever means possible. Others suggest singling out overweight kids for special empowerment classes, essentially warning them early on that they are more likely to be victims of abuse. But many many others are quiet. Too quiet. Why aren’t more people talking about this?