Five years ago Jennifer Knapp Wilkinson of Missouri became famous, unwillingly and rather ingloriously: the very overweight then 34-year-old was shopping for her family using a mobility scooter to get around Walmart. As she tried to lift a pack of soft drinks into her basket, she lost her balance and tipped onto her side, together with the scooter.
“I thought I saw a flash of light and heard some young girls giggling. I thought nothing of it because I am use to hearing people make fun of me or saying snide remarks. It was nothing new,” she recalls. But what she didn’t yet know was: the laughing kids behind her put the picture online.
In fact, it landed on a site devoted to making fun of Walmart customers, which captures all kinds of eccentric shoppers — and shopping situations — at the retail behemoth. But it often also propagates a nasty stereotype of Walmart shoppers as unsophisticated and obese. (And let’s take a moment to appreciate how cruel that is, on its own, given the pressures on middle- and lower-income Americans as well as the widespread phenomenon of food deserts — Missouri being an epicenter of that problem!)
So Jennifer’s image spread online as a mean-spirited meme and, of course, she eventually saw it. Reading the comments below the picture was brutal. She’d been injured by the fall itself but now she was truly devastated.
Four years later she decided to speak out:
“The worst thing about this photo is that people think a fat woman tipped over a cart because she was too lazy to get out of the cart to get the case of soda. I have a condition in my spine called “spondylolisthesis” where a vertebra slips forward and out of place. In my case, the longer I stand the more numb and weak my leg become. I fall because of this condition… I also was experiencing a lot of pain and weakness that day.”
“I am also very obese which does not help the situation in my back. I fight my weight daily and have recently joined a gym.”
But it’s “still a battle… The reason I am sharing this is because people think it is funny to laugh at people with disabilities. You can not see my disabilities but they are there and they are REAL. So next time you see photos making fun of people just remember you know nothing about these people or the struggles they face everyday. It is never just harmless fun to laugh at someone.”
“I did not choose to be photographed at a low point in my life. The fact that people assume I am fat because I am lazy is false. Or they assume I am fat because I want to be on disability. Obese people are treated as less than human and as something to ridicule. I just want people to be aware that fat people are people too.
I am not asking people to accept or condone obesity. I also am not asking people to pity or feel sorry for me. What I want is compassion, understanding, and respect as a fellow human being. I am a person please treat me like one!”
After four years, Jennifer gathered the courage to speak out and what a good thing she did. The internet can make people forget that photographs of people online are usually of real people. People with feelings – and access to the internet.
By treating them like objects of ridicule rather than fellow human beings, we can cause a lot of harm and pain. It’s great that she (like others) has opened up about what it’s like to be the person behind a viral meme and reminded us to look at others not with mockery but with empathy!