*My blog is imperfect – there will always be more reading to do, more edits needed, more people to engage in dialogue. However, I cannot let this need for more or the need for perfection keep me blocked and silent on issues that I find pressing and of importance. This post is my attempt at healing, breaking down cultural barriers, challenging the status quo, and, in doing so, being political.*
Recently a friend of mine posted on social media that she’s fat and that she felt “weird” being fat. This post elicited a dizzying response of well-meaning attempts to help – suggestions to walk together or emphasis on this person still being beautiful, for example. I felt a shadow fall over my heart and a heat build in my belly as I read these comments pouring in. This person never said she wasn’t beautiful. She never said she wanted to change. She just said she was fat, and all the fall out was indicative of the assumptions around the word “fat” – that it isn’t beautiful and/or deserves to be changed.
As someone who aligns themselves with social justice issues, I recognize the marginalization of fat people. I recognize that what you do with your body, in a society that tells you that you are never enough, is a political act. Further, I see that fataphobia, fat shaming, and thin privilege are all feminist issues.
And I’m done. I’m just fucking done with the pain surrounding peoples’ bodies, projected, internalized and metastasized. This is one of my attempts to check my inner bias, the bias of those around me, and dismantle the arena (see my blog post on pictures).
Weight stigma, Fatphobia, and Fat-shaming
Weight stigma is negative attitudes and behaviors towards fat people (http://www.obesity.org/resources/facts-about-obesity/bias-stigmatization), which is related to fatphobia, the dislike of fat people or obesity. Fat-shaming includes acts meant to put down overweight or obese individuals. All of these concepts feed into “body terrorism” – the “discrimination, dehumanization, and denial of rights” (https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/how-people-with-thin-privilege-can-fight-body-terrorism/) To be fair, thin shaming occurs, but not to the same extent as fat shaming, and that is not the focus of this post.
Individuals who are overweight or obese face discrimination at work, in educational settings, by medical professionals (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4381543/ and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25752756 ), and by the public at large (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100420152839.htm). Body-size discrimination is the 4th most common type of discrimination and is as prevalent as racial discrimination (https://www.naafaonline.com/dev2/assets/documents/naafa_FactSheet_v17_screen.pdf). Fat individuals may be described as or associated with terms such as lazy, sloppy, less intelligent, or less disciplined (http://www.obesity.org/resources/facts-about-obesity/bias-stigmatization), and these individuals often feel as if they are living in a culture of blame ( https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080617142916.htm). Because of the stigma and exclusion associated with being overweight or obese, individuals with this body type would be considered a marginalized population (ex. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/481398 ). The marginalization of this group of individuals can contribute directly to poor mental and emotional health and indirectly to physical health (as a result of healthcare bias, reduced access to services, financial/employment disparities, etc). While fatness is stigmatized for all individuals, it deserves recognition that this stigma poses a greater burden on already marginalized individuals, such as people of color or those that identify as LGBTQA (https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/how-people-with-thin-privilege-can-fight-body-terrorism/ ). It deserves repeating that marginalization of any group of people is a social justice issue.
The Science of Obesity
Overweight and obesity are distinct categories typically defined by the body mass index (BMI), basically a calculation that compares weight to height https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm). A BMI equal to or greater than 25 equates to being overweight, and individuals with a BMI equal to or greater than 30 qualify as obese. The general consensus in the healthcare literature and the media is that obesity puts an individual at greater risk of disease, including diabetes, heart disease, and various types of cancer (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity), which lead to increased morbidity and mortality.
The BMI calculation itself is noted to be imperfect. It does not distinguish lean muscle from fatty tissue in its measurements, which is one reason why large body-builders can classify as overweight or obese. Further, BMI does not measure visceral fat, which is the fat surrounding the organs that has been implicated as a metabolic risk factor. Also, it does not mathematically account for a person’s height adequately, making shorter people calculate as being thinner than they actually are, for instance (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/255712.php).
Like BMI, the science surrounding disease risk and obesity is not as clear as the reader might believe. An article by Bacon and Aphramor (https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9) thoroughly dissects many of the misconceptions surrounding health and obesity, including the increased mortality risk and increased disease risk. For example, obesity might be an early symptom of diabetes rather than the other way around, and behavioral changes utilized in weight loss studies might be of greater significance than weight loss itself in reducing disease risk. Also explored in the Bacon and Aphramor article is how dieting does not lead consistently to long term weight loss, and weight cycling through extreme diet and exercise can increase inflammation, stress, morbidity, and mortality risk. Further, there exists an “obesity paradox” for many populations, including those with diabetes, history of heart attack, hypertension, and other chronic disease in which obese persons live longer than their non-obese counterparts (ex. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29063824). Being overweight may be associated with a reduction in the risk of dementia (http://www.bbc.com/news/health-32233571) , and the elderly might experience a protective factor from being overweight via a reduced mortality risk (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11527490). As noted by Bacon and Aphramor, what appears to be more important in health outcomes is not body size but how individuals perceive their body (body image), and cultures where obesity is not stigmatized have weaker associations between health outcomes and BMI. In summary, the science of obesity is less clear cut than it may appear. Weight is not an accurate measurement or determinant of health.
Please note, that while the science of obesity is not clear cut, the science of physical activity and quality, nutrient dense diet is better defined (though specifics within these paradigms might be mutable, such as the consumption of soy and coconut or walking verses running). An active lifestyle results in improved cardiovascular and metabolic health, improved mental health, and increased longevity and physical function. Interestingly, a reduction in sedentary behavior has benefits separate from increased physical activity for improved cardiovascular function (ex. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29383209) . Good nutrition is not as much about calories as it is about nutrient dense, quality food meant to fuel and support your body in its best functioning (a common saying in the health field "garbage in equals garbage out").
Feminism and weight stigma
Women face similar discrimination as fat individuals – in employment, earnings, etc. Though men experience weight stigma, women bear an unequal burden and threat. Girls and women are more likely to diet and have disordered eating than boys and men. Because our culture dismisses fat individuals as being less than or unattractive, a fat women is not fulfilling her societal obligation of aesthetics and prettiness (https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/why-is-fat-a-feminist-issue/). This is not a critical factor for men, as evidenced even in Hollywood’s portrayal of relationships (sitcoms have a fat dad and a thin female in a romantic relationship but rarely do they portray the opposite).
Women are taught that their body has currency, that their value is dependent on their looks. Thin women, despite occupying the idealized space, are in the weight stigma trap along with their fat cohorts. Thin women fear getting fat or being judged for their weight, they chase diets or have disordered eating, and they might have self-loathing related to their body size or shape or relationship with food. Ending weight stigma will free not only fat women, but thin women as well (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/isabel-foxen-duke/thin-women-fat-activism_b_4588823.html). When we are seen as whole Beings instead of just Bodies and recognize that all bodies deserve love and kindness, we will all be free.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés offers many words of wisdom about women's relationship with her body in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves (217), including:
"Women who are big or small, wide or narrow, short or tall, are most likely to be so simply because they inherited the body configuration of their kin: If not their immediate kin, then those a generation or two back. To malign or judge a woman's inherited physicality is to make generation after generation of anxious and neurotic women. To make destructive and exclusionary judgements about a woman's inherited form, robs her of several critical and precious psychological and spiritual treasures..........If she is taught to revile this body inheritance, she is immediately slashed away from her female body identity with the rest of the family......How can she love the bodies of other women (and men) close to her who have inherited the body shapes and configurations of their ancestors? To attack a woman thusly destroys her rightful pride of affiliation with her own people and robs her of the natural lilt she feels in her body no matter what the height, size, shape she is.....[H]arsh judgements about body acceptability create a nation of hunched-over tall girls, short women on stilts, women of size dressed as though in mourning, very slender women trying to puff themselves out like adders, and various other women in hiding"
Glorification of obesity
I have read concerns that body acceptance movements glorify obesity. I have several thoughts on this: 1) so what? Being self-accepting and compassionate towards one’s form cannot be “bad”. It is being humane, loving, and kind. 2) what about thin bodies? Haven’t we glorified them enough to the point of illness – disordered eating, weight cycling, extreme workouts, self-hatred, depression, all in an attempt to achieve some culturally-determined ideal? One estimate suggests 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use unhealthy weigh limiting behaviors (https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/statistics-studies ). It is approximated that most girls start dieting by the age of 8 (http://www.refinery29.com/2015/01/81288/children-dieting-body-image). Is this what we really want to glorify?
What would it mean to love yourself, fat or thin or anywhere in between, as you are, in this very moment? Because that’s all you have – this moment. Tomorrow is a gift and never guaranteed. The constant fighting, punishing, dieting, and striving for some look or body type is keeping you from experiencing YOUR ONE and ONLY LIFE and the ONE and ONLY YOU. This is radical love – embracing the deliciousness that is you, in a culture that will tell you that you are not enough, you are not deserving of love. It is YOU no longer hiding, and it is you acknowledging and appreciating your inherited body of your ancestors. How is it possible or ethical to deny your humanity, your humanness, to your very own self? To deny the connection and acceptability of your ancient ones?
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (Audre Lorde) This quote might have been in specific reference to black women, but all marginalized populations deserve this motto in a culture where they are minimized or ignored. “Prioritizing ourselves in love is political strategy, is survival”, another amazing motto for politicized bodies (Adrienne Maree Brown https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/audre-lorde-thought-self-care-act-political-warfare). I’d add that not only are self-care and self-acceptance political acts, these are spiritual acts – reclaiming of the deepest, most divine sense of self. That you deserve to Be and to Be Well. (Here I am, again, at the intersection of the political and spiritual – it seems this is the place I find my purpose.)
"There is no "supposed to be" in bodies. The question is not size or shape or years of age, or even having two of everything for some do not. But the wild issue is, does the body feel, does it have the right connection to pleasure, to heart, to soul, to the wild? Does it have happiness, joy? Can it in its own way move, dance, jiggle, sway, thrust? Nothing else matters" (pg 228, Women Who Run With the Wolves)
Concordant with their research summary discussed above, Bacon and Aphramor suggest a paradigm shift in healthcare, and society in general, called Health at Every Size. Health at Every Size supports body acceptance, intuitive eating, and physical activity (“active embodiment” rather than meeting strict guidelines). “People with strong self-esteem are more likely to adopt positive health behaviors”. Isn’t this what we should be after? Encouraging self-care and love so that healthy behaviors and attitudes envelope all of their being through reduced stressed and maximized well-being, without the focus of some ever-changing body standard (yesterday it was thin, today it is strong, what’s tomorrow’s trend?)?
Fat people don’t need to change their size, but we as a culture need to change our perception of them and each other, allowing space for body diversity and for everyone to be their most well selves. When someone says that it is weird being fat, don’t immediately offer to exercise with them or offer platitudes on their beauty. Instead, tell them you love them and SEE them. And mean it.
People and Organizations Doing Work, in support of body diversity
Association for Size Diversity and Health: https://sizediversityandhealth.org/
National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance: https://naafaonline.com/dev2/
The Body is Not an Apology: https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/
Marilyn Wann, activist and weight diversity speaker: http://www.marilynwann.com/
Linda Bacon, PhD https://lindabacon.org/ She wrote Health at Every Size Her website includes information for fitness professionals and healthcare practitioners for implementing body acceptance.
Fat Studies course at Oregon State University - addresses the social justice surrounding weightism https://www.campusreform.org/?ID=9570
Thank you for reading. This post is dedicated to a family member and 2 dear friends. May you find peace here. Love you all.
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT)
RYT 500, reiki master
Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
All writing is protected by copyright. Photo is from Pexels.