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Fat Denial: When Self-Help Mantras Can Backfire

To tackle growing rates of obesity, we can’t always be politically correct.

Americans are fat. This isn’t me being mean—this is a fact. We are the second most obese country across the globe (having recently been usurped by Mexico), but alas, we still rank first in obesity if looking exclusively at industrialized, developed nations. I could go into all of the cultural reasons for our ever growing waistbands, but I want to focus specifically on one often overlooked factor that at the least enables overweight or obese individuals to maintain the lifestyles that contribute to their weight.

Namely, in our increasingly politically correct society, sometimes we try to gloss over the hard facts of fat for fear of appearing prejudicial or discriminatory towards the overweight. And alas, I feel compelled here to offer a disclaimer of my own: namely, as a feminist, I am keenly aware of the hyper-thin images women are bombarded with on a daily basis and of the ways in which the beauty industry shame us into altering our bodies by buying expensive products that we don’t need or committing to ridiculous diets that aren’t good for our health or wellbeing. I am not promoting weight loss for aesthetic reasons, and I fully advocate that women (and men) should love and accept themselves regardless of their shape, color, size, etc.

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However, my concern is that our ever growing “protect self-esteem at any cost” culture has led us to tip toe around the dire reality of how fat we have become as a nation, and the serious health implications that come with this. When does “love of curves” or mantras of self-acceptance cross the line into either implicitly condoning unhealthy lifestyles or blatantly ignoring our growing waistlines?

For instance, in perhaps the best feminist take on dieting I have read, Daphne Merkin writes in “The Last Feminist Taboo” (ELLE Magazine) that as she found herself gaining more and more weight, she tried to lean on “acceptance mantras” about her body as a means of disguising how her weight gain was really affecting her. In fact, what research finds is that while generally, women tend to overestimate our weight/sizes (a byproduct of the ubiquitous “thin at all costs” media images) the one exception to this is actually women who are overweight or obese—they actually show the reverse trend, where they underestimate not only their body size but also how many calories they are consuming per day. Thus, these mental distortions likely fuel the denial that enables lifestyles that endorse overweight or obese bodies to persist.

Here is a case in point: a friend of mine recently got into trouble on social media for voicing a dissenting opinion on another’s status on Facebook. The status read something to the effect of, “I love a woman with curves,” to which my friend, honestly, responded: “I don’t”. The amount of vitriol on social media lodged to this poster for her innocent and honest remark really got me thinking, is what she wrote really that offensive? I mean, do we all have to love curves? If the status had been something to the effect of, “I love skinny girls” and someone had written, “I don’t”, would there have been as much of a fuss?

Here is the reality, brought to us by a recent groundbreaking study: it isn’t possible to be obese but healthy. In fact, “scrutinizing the combined data from eight earlier studies, Canadian researchers have concluded that there is no such thing as ‘healthy obesity,’ according to a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine” (Carroll, 2013, para 3). I am not promoting fat shaming by any means, but we need to have open eyes about the reality of what it means to be fat: it means a person is not healthy, even if tests find that sugar, cholesterol, and blood work are in a healthy range. Now, the reverse is also true: Just because someone is skinny doesn’t inherently mean they are healthy, either. However, the health risks associated with weight gain are clear and very well documented. When self-help mantras enable denial of these realities, they are offering more harm than good.

It is a common resolution as a new year approaches for individuals to want to lose weight. I suggest health related resolutions instead, and perhaps these aspirations can start with a mental or attitudinal shift—you can accept who you are and still aspire for greater health and well-being, and with this there has to be a recognition that the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese will face increased health risks, burdening our already bloated health care system unless they reverse these ails by losing weight. Perhaps our whole "love of curves" thing is just a façade maintaining an illusion/denial of fat that needs to be broken this year as another part of our resolutions for 2014.

Carroll, L. (2013, December 2). New Research Disputes Fat but Fit Claim. NBC News: Health. Retrieved on January 8, 2014 from: http://www.nbcnews.com/health/new-research-disputes-fat-fit-claim... .

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2014

 

Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland and an adjunct at George Washington University. She is the author of Understanding Aggression. more...

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