Body-Love, Body-Shaming, and Health
How politics, media and commerce may be keeping us fat
Posted Oct 27, 2016
There is a social movement that celebrates the human body no matter what size it is. This movement is called the 'body-love' or 'body-positive' movement and these words are very popular hashtags in the social media space.
I admit to hesitance in posting this piece because of the volatility of this topic in social media. And the politics of choosing the right picture for this piece meant I decided to skip a graphic altogether.
The body-love movement is inherently feminist and grew out of women's anger and frustration with the unhealthy cultural obsession on women's weight. An obsession that came to be called 'body-shaming', which describes the cultural tendency to shame a woman for not meeting the mostly unreachable thin-but-curvy cultural ideal. Body-shaming has been rightly blamed for eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
The Marketing of 'Plus-Size'
The early days of the movement began in the 1980's with the rise of the first 'plus-size' super-model: Emme. For the first time the average-sized woman was on the pages of fashion magazines. Eventually retailers such as Lane Bryant successfully targeted the 'plus size' market. Today this movement includes millions of people following their idols on Instagram and Facebook and even a reality TV show that follows four plus-size models.
Beauty At Any Size
As our girth has expanded in the last four decades so has the market of products geared towards larger and larger women. The ads all scream "look good at any size' and brands get lots of positive publicity for acknowledging the range of sizes in which women come. Dove beauty soap was one of the companies that led the way in focusing their advertisements specifically on women of various sizes even though soap and size does not seem inherently correlated.
I am a fan of loving one's body because it is not emotionally or psychologically healthy for women—or anyone—to obsess about each inch or pound, and to base their self-worth on their size. However, it seems that there is a cultural shift in which body acceptance means loving our larger bodies despite risks to our health and well-being. Many of us feel comfortable to implore our loved ones to stop smoking or to reduce their alcohol intake, but we become social pariahs if we talk to our friends/family about their size.
Health and Weight
Because if one loves their 300-pound body then the subtext is that one need not change that body. The word 'fat' is considered to be an insult and the word has been replaced by a wide range of pseudonyms such as big, curvy, thick etc. There is a social media trend to brag about being fat and healthy, which is demonstrated by the absence of chronic illness. As we pile on the pounds we have decided to accept the new norm, even as the health and weight-loss industries continue to grow. Even Oprah Winfrey got in trouble on social media when she decided to represent Weight Watchers. People felt that she set a bad example to continue to focus on losing weight. In the new body politics any conversation about weight leaves one open to accusations of body-shaming.
But somewhere in the loving of our bodies at any weight, we avoid conversations related to health and weight because we do not want to offend, nor to be preachy. It is true that we do not need to be thin to be healthy. However, although we may critique the appropriateness of body mass index measures, the link between chronic illnesses and weight is indisputable: too much weight is linked to heart disease, cancer, hypertension, stroke and other chronic conditions.
As a public health practitioner, my goal is to promote health. And in a country where people are getting bigger and bigger, the link between weight and health cannot be ignored. Focusing on healthy behaviors that prevent illness, instead of intervention and medication, is the most efficient and effective way to maintain health. This means creating environments that encourage and support people in their efforts to be healthy. This includes everything from bike trails and sidewalks to the availability of healthy food options. So the challenge is how to find a way to promote a healthy weight that doesn't promote shame, self-hatred and unhealthy relationships with our bodies.
Loving Our Bodies
Loving oneself is not the same as loving one's body. Accepting one's body doesn't mean you shouldn't change it. If we treat our bodies with love - good sleep, healthy foods, regular exercise - we wont have to love our bodies despite the way we look. Instead, the way we look will reflect how much we love and care for the bodies we have been given.