So here’s a link to somewhat misguided (in my opinion) blog from The Guardian entitled, “Do you know what too fat looks like?”
In it, the author says that because more and more people are overweight or obese (using clinical terms b/c that’s what the author used), the stigma they face “must surely die away.” And you’d think so, but actually, it’s not dying away at all. More and more fat/size acceptance advocates are speaking up and calling our culture out on fat phobia, sizeism, etc., and that’s awesome. But dying away? Not quite yet. Sizeism is still very much alive and well in our culture (and the author’s culture as well.)
The author then goes on to describe a study that showed that African American women in the U.S. have a different perception of what an overweight body looks like than medical doctors. They used the following scale in their study:
Turns out, the African American women surveyed identified images 8 and 9 as obese and the weight of those images as possibly unhealthy, which, according to our author, is a negative thing.
Spoiler: According to researchers, images 2, 3, and 4 are the normal/acceptable images. 1 is underweight, 5-9 are overweight or obese.
Personally, I think white culture here and abroad can learn a lot from African American culture as far as being more accepting of different body types – I’ve read multiple studies which discuss how African Americans are more accepting of larger body types, more dismissive of standards of thinness, and very aware that beauty standards are inherently racist. I count all of those things as positives.
The author goes on to quote one of the study’s researchers, who basically says that because African American women have a different standard of what is overweight/obese than the medical profession does, simply being told by a doctor that they’re overweight may not be enough to motivate them to lose weight.
To this I say – good for those women, because the medical profession is rife with its own weight biases and is in desperate need of an attitude overhaul and some new measurements and standards when it comes to how to work with fat patients.
Then this paragraph in particular bothered me:
“When most people around us are overweight or obese, it’s hardly surprising that we no longer notice it. Fat has begun to look normal. In one sense, that’s great – the stigma that overweight people have suffered in the past because of the way they look must surely die away. But it’s a dangerous road. If we don’t know we are overweight, we may be at risk of sleepwalking into crumbling joints, heart problems and diabetes.”
Emphasis mine – because I’m reading this as, While it’s good that stigma is dying, it’s also bad because health. If fat people see bodies like their in images and in society, they might start to think it’s okay to be fat and then we’ll all get sick and die!
This is called fear-arousing communication, and it’s a powerful rhetorical strategy that basically aims to persuade people do to what you want them to do by scaring the ever-living shit out of them. This sort of fear appeal contributes to stigma, because now everyone is putting themselves at risk and it’s an epidemic and WILL SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN and OMG FAT PEOPLE DRIVE UP HEALTHCARE COSTS WITH ALL THEIR FAT PEOPLE DISEASES and THEY’RE GROSS ANYWAY BECAUSE FAT IS ICKY AND UGLY AND THEY’RE ALSO DISEASED AND EW, FAT PEOPLE! See how that works? <– (Sadly, this is not entirely sarcastic, nor an exaggeration.)
So since we clearly can’t have fat people walking around thinking that it’s okay to be fat, the blog author comes to this conclusion: “The researchers suggest that health messages should be accompanied by pictures of what healthy and unhealthy weight actually looks like. It’s something we are all losing sight of.”
Pictures? You want to show people pictures of fat people so that you can label their bodies as unhealthy?
So let me break this down: Because there’s so many fatties walking around, we’re all normalizing to fatness which means the weight stigma thing is going to die out, which is apparently underscored by African American women having more tolerance for body diversity and typically disagreeing with the medical profession, thus we need to accompany already stigmatizing public health messages with actual images to make sure we’re properly body shaming people into wanting to lose weight.
To me, sounds like an advertisement for stigma and body shaming.
I have a better idea.
Let’s stop making BMI the be-all, end-all of what is fat and what isn’t, because it’s not always reliable.
Let’s start encouraging the medical profession and health researchers to check their own biases and stereotypes when they’re talking about or dealing with or studying fat people.
Let’s stop thinking that body shaming is motivating, and start focusing on health over outward appearance. Embracing Health At Every Size (HAES) is a good way to do that.
Let’s start understanding that body weight and indication of health are mistakenly conflated and need to be separated in public consciousness. I’m walking proof of that – I’m only thin because I have a GI system that doesn’t work correctly. When I was fat, I was actually healthier – I worked out more, I was physically stronger, I had more stamina, and I was way more active in general than I am now.
And for god’s sake, let’s just put to rest the notion that because more people are fat, fat stigma is dying out. This is not a neatly polarized, thin vs. fat issue. Having more fat people in the world is not making fat stigma go away – in fact, I think the “obesity epidemic” and all the concern-trolling and stigma that has grown out of public health campaigns shows that tolerance for fat bodies is not necessary increasing along with our collective waistlines.
Also, not all fat people are okay with being fat. There are fat people who have internalized and end up perpetuating the stigma.
And there’s a thing called stereotype threat that even fat people who are okay with being fat have to deal with.
In short – let’s start treating fat people like human beings who matter and have a right to exist, let’s stop making assumptions about other people’s health, and let’s start embracing movements like HAES which focus on positivity rather than spend copious amounts of time and resources on negative messages.
I’m willing to bet that tolerance, acceptance, and positive motivation will get us a hell of a lot further as a society than negativity will.