Monday, February 10, 2014


I like a good joke. I can even take a good joke about myself. And I know that I've laughed at inappropriate jokes. I know most of us have. But we need to talk about what's at the root of some types of our humor.

Even comedians have started to admit that there are realms of humor that should be handled differently. Not off limits, per se, but with the subject of the punchline in mind. Patton Oswalt wrote last summer about his complete 180° in understanding why he was wrong about rape jokes. Not that rape had some pristine status of "off limits" in terms of topics that absolutely could not be joked about, but this quote of his stuck with me:
In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline, and make sure it isn’t the victim.
Today, for your consideration, Internet, I bring you: The Diabetes Joke.

Many of us have seen this meme. Something along the lines of a math word problem involving candy bars or cupcakes or some other decadent dessert. The question states that Bob/John eats a certain number of a certain number, so what does he have now?

Diabetes. Bob has diabetes.

It's hilarious because... Well, because we as a culture are okay with fat shaming, for one. And only fat people get diabetes. They bring it on themselves so they deserve to suffer the butt of the joke. HA. If they'd just shown a little willpower and resisted that kind of food over the course of their lives, they wouldn't have diabetes. It's okay to laugh at their lack of willpower! Laugh with me!

Whether the joke is about someone losing a foot, eating so much / drinking a soda so large that it's diabetes-on-a-plate / diabetes-in-a-cup, or feeling stuffed after a meal and giving yourself diabetes, we get it. You're equating indulgence with an extreme consequence. And it's a little absurd, so it gets a chuckle.

And whom does that hurt? Can't we just take a joke?

Just like a rape joke, a joke about an illness - any illness - places someone struggling with a life-altering, soul-crushing, debilitating experience as the punchline of a joke. I have struggled with diabetes every day for the last twenty-three years. I've been comatose. My parents nearly lost me at diagnosis. I've had hypoglycemia and not known where I was. I've been afraid I wouldn't wake up to be there the next morning for my two children. And I've campaigned for children in the developing world for whom a diagnosis of diabetes is a death sentence.

So diabetes, in general, is not incredibly funny to me.

That being said, there are still plenty of ways I can laugh about diabetes and the situations we struggle with. I follow the work of several talented diabetic comedians. I enjoy the comics my DOC friends publish in the Sunday Funnies. I share hilarious videos. Do you know where I have to draw a line though?

The line where it's funny because we deserve this struggle.

Now, this is where you'll argue, likely, that it's different because of course the OP is talking about type "TWO" diabetes. Not the kind I have.

Stop gaslighting me. Stop telling me that it's just a joke and I'm overreacting. You didn't mean my illness. You meant the other guy's illness. The fat guy's illness.

That's like telling a family fighting cancer that "It was a joke about cervical cancer, not childhood cancer. Jeez, grow a thicker skin, people."

First of all, Type 2 diabetes is not any easier than what I have, so the punchline victim is someone who is fighting an equally hard battle. In some ways, their challenges are even greater than mine. But you know what? Whatever version of a disease a person has, it's a struggle for that person who is sick. The person in the center ring. The person who is afraid, who is bombarded by media blaming them for having given themselves this disease. The person whose well-meaning GP and Dr-Oz-loving-Readers-Digest-reading family probably tells them that it can be "reversed" if they just start toeing the line, shaming them if and when they fail.

Type 2 Diabetes is a life-threatening, serious, progressive metabolic illness. It can't be "reversed." It can be well-controlled to the point that symptoms lessen - and if you want to call that a cure, that's your prerogative - but you can also be recovered from addiction for years, too, and easily slip back into the danger zone. Type 2 puts wear and tear on your body and, though you might mitigate some damage, you won't "beat" it. No matter what that checkout line tabloid headline promises you.

We even hear this diabetes victim shaming from people with my version of the disease who make sure you understand that, in our case, you see, we're blameless. My child didn't give themselves diabetes. Implying, of course, that there is a type of diabetes you can bring upon yourself.

It's a fat person's disease, so you believe. Nevermind that only roughly half of people with Type 2 are obese and those who do carry extra weight actually seem to have protection from the killer instincts of type 2. Less likely to die than the 20% of normal- or under-weight counterparts with the same disease (it's called the obesity paradox). (If you haven't watched surgeon Peter Attia's TED talk about this, go now. You'll probably cry. I'll wait.) But Type 2 is not really my specific area of expertise, so I'll move on to a related point:

We are totally cool shaming fat people. They are still a very safe target for our societal scorn and derision. They're our comic sidekicks - the jolly fatty - and we all know they (all of them, right?) uncomfortably joke about their own weight, so surely it's fair game for us, too. "Hey, I have fat friends and they think it's funny when I joke about it." That's like "I have a black friend, so I couldn't possibly say something racist."

And we're doing fat people a favor when we "motivate" them to conform to our definition of healthy, right? Because you can tell how healthy a person is just by their weight or their diet? This wonderful post on xojane titled "What's Wrong with Fat Shaming?" reminds us that "shame is not a catalyst for change; it is a paralytic." If I have type 2 diabetes and/or struggle with obesity, your joke about me eating candy bars and getting a disease doesn't motivate anything in me but self-hatred.

So maybe I just can't take a joke. Maybe I actually know people who have died from diabetes. Who have suffered at its hands. Whose family believed it their own fault. They deserved to die.

We do it to other diseases, too. The shame diseases. Lung cancer. AIDS. When you say you lost your Nana to lung cancer, people say "Oh, did she smoke?" Yes, she did. So she must have deserved to die. She must have been less deserving of our compassion, our pity. My grief must be dampened by that. That blame. Whew. That feels better. I'd hate to think she didn't kick herself enough in her final month of struggle.

Maybe your stepdad doesn't "take care" of his diabetes (that he lets you see). Maybe he doesn't tell you how scared he really is. Maybe your mother had a plate of strawberry shortcake for dinner and then again for breakfast. Maybe there's a lot she doesn't understand about her disease because access to proper behavioral education isn't available to her. Maybe she is also scared and frustrated. Maybe she's exhausted by this damned disease.

And maybe diabetes is frightening and headed for you, too (1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with it), so if you make light of it, if you joke about food comas and candy-bar-induced disease, it feels less scary.

But the joke's on you. And you may find someday that it's not actually all that funny.


  1. are brilliant and gracious and honest and wonderful. and I am grateful for you and your excellent description of ALL OF IT. This. is. truth. Thank you for writing this, and sharing it, and...for being you. I'm so glad I know you. And that's NO joke.

  2. Melissa, This is brilliant. Thank you for doing it!!

  3. What an amazing post. Can I hug you? I'm going to hug you (((((HUGS)))))


  4. This is amazingly powerful and thank you - for writing it and sharing it with the world.

  5. Wonderful wonderful wonderful. I will be linking this out in many many places.

  6. Thank you for posting this. Your bold words eloquently express what needs to be heard. A beautiful rallying cry. One tiny nitpicking detail: We toe the line in that our toes touch it but do not cross it. Towing the line reminds me of Volga Boatman. Proofreader's OCD

  7. This is the most amazing blog post I have read recently. It kills me to see even members of the T1D community throwing people with T2D under the shame bus. And I shy away from asserting myself with the same statements you are making in those messy comment threads following diabetes jokes because I'm oversensitive to being called oversensitive about this particular issue. I'm so glad you articulated it so well, and I plan on gently forcing everyone I know to read this and understand it. THANK YOU.

  8. Thank you for writing this. It's something that needs to be said. I've had the "I'm not trying to be an ass, but this is why you should think about making 'diabeeeetus' jokes" conversation, and it always ends awkwardly.

  9. Magnificent post. MAGNIFICENT.

  10. Well done. It's not easy to take people to task justifiably without sounding defensive or attacking them back but you have really accomplished a powerful and much needed statement. Thank you!

  11. This is a brilliantly written article and I completely agree and thank you for voicing what so many of us diabetes sufferers have thought for years. I'm a 32 year veteran of T1 diabetes and I've heard alot of 'jokes' and experienced alot of stigma since getting older and having children because I began struggling with my weight (because of my diabetes and the hypoglycaemia treatments that I have had to use) since becoming pregnant with my first child 12 years ago.
    Anyway, I digress, thank you for your wonderful words.

  12. This is very well written, I am sharing it on Facebook in some Diabetic support groups. People need to realize exactly what you have written. Thank you so much for writing this is such a great way.

  13. This is such a thoughtful, smart post about a tough topic.

  14. Truly, spectacularly courageous writing, Melissa! I want everyone I know to read this (plus all those facebook friends I don't even recognize).

  15. So sad that our society thinks this joke is funny. I saw it posted on an "education" fb page. Now, that is a joke - spreading stupid stereotypes is the opposite of education. Thanks for writing this, and so well.

  16. This is so well written! I'm seriously going to print this out and keep it with me to give to people who make such jokes.

  17. I was diagnosed Type 2 in 1980. Thirty-four years later as I read this link I can honestly acknowledge that I have never felt or heard of anybody with diabetes being the subject of a distasteful joke or comment. Nor do I feel I deserve any special accolades for meeting the challenges diabetes continually throws my way. Hey, everybody has challenges of one sort or another, be they from diseases, mental disorders, physical abnormalities, social difficulties, psychotic behavior et cetera. Also, as far as stereotypes go, who cares? Stereotypes are formed by people who aren't intelligent enough to understand the complexities of live.

  18. Thank you! Could not have found better words to express this feeling!

  19. Thank you! I've learned something about myself. I could really care less about the ignorant comments non-diabetics make about T2 diabetics. But I vacillate between hurt and anger when the nasty comments are made by T1 diabetics. Because I think I expect them to know better.

  20. To reinforce the your exploration of how those jokes perpetuate ableism, and looking at the issue more intersectionally, let's also consider that the desserts featured in such memes, like the snickers here, are also very reliably products of ableism. The cows are dis-abled in order to milk them, and reduced to nothing more than milk machines, in much the same reductionist process that turns PWD into punchlines.

    Furthermore, since the Global South children who have limited access to diabetes supplies were mentioned, let's not forget the Global South children who are enslaved, beaten, tortured, and worse, in order to get the chocolate to make snickers. It's all a result of racism, classism and colonialism.

    All of these oppressions are connected. By calling out one, but disregarding the others, we become complicit in reinforcing the systems of oppression we seek to dismantle.

  21. Melissa, thank you for a very thoughtful post.