Body shaming: Stepping away from negative perceptions of healthy
“Fat” is arguably one of the worst insults in American culture, and to be overweight or to be called fat is one of many Americans’ worst fears. But what is so bad about being fat?
A documentary to be finished in 2015 by the name of “Fattitude” plans to explore the discrimination of overweight people in pop culture and everyday life and to teach acceptance of bodies of every size. Many people are already aware of or have at least heard of this problem, but the influence of the media and fashion industry makes it near impossible to change society’s perceptions.
Samantha Kwan, an associate professor of sociology and a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies faculty affiliate who specializes in bodies, gender and health said that the media’s extreme idealization of one body type leaves little room for other women to feel beautiful too.
“The media, particularly the fashion and beauty industries, tend to valorize a thin, young and often white feminine ideal, sending the message that anything else is physically unattractive,” Kwan said.
Even though the average American woman is a size 14, this size is categorized as “plus size,” which is relegated to the backs of stores and given the least appealing styles and patterns. So-called “plus sized” women are underrepresented and discriminated against everywhere from the mall to the movies, online and in day-to-day interactions with other people.
The thin ideal this creates results in the shaming of anyone who strays too far from it. Kwan said this “discrimination and negative bias” is often also based on misunderstandings and false assumptions about larger people and weight loss.
“Others assume that (fat individuals) are fat because they are lazy and lacking willpower. Essentially, they assume that they would not have their bodies if they took individual responsibility and worked hard to lose weight,” Kwan said. “This assumption also erroneously assumes that weight loss is … safe and easy to maintain. Yet studies show that rapid weight loss can have ill effects including malnutrition, gallstones and electrolyte imbalances, and that this type of weight loss is rarely sustained over long periods of time.”
In addition, fat shaming can be counterproductive in its goal of encouraging weight loss in that it fosters a negative body image, which can result in depression and further weight gain. The ideas behind fat shaming also ignore outside influences that can make it more difficult to lose weight.
“It overlooks the social structural factors that influence body size,” Kwan said. “Disparities in obesity rates are related in part to structural factors such as, among other things, socio-economic disadvantage, lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables and access to low nutrient foods that are high in saturated fats like fast foods.”
Nevertheless, health communications junior Margarita Dominguez said she thinks that representation and acceptance of all body types and shapes is getting better in American culture.
“(People) are starting to realize that not everyone is created the same, especially with the Dove campaign and stuff like that,” Dominguez said. “I do feel like they’re starting to represent a lot of people who used to not be represented. I think they’re starting to realize that size 10 is not as big as you thought … (People are becoming) more aware.”
Recent anthems of size acceptance such as Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” may also be a sign of that improvement and increased public acceptance. Both songs have lyrics lauding larger women’s bodies, and both peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and have been receiving a lot of airplay this summer.
However, there is another side to the acceptance. The songs lyrics both taunt and deride “skinny” women and, in affect, only attempt to replace one ideal body type with another.
Liberal arts freshman Carolina Bonilla said shaming anyone for their body is “silly,” and instead she encourages acceptance of all body types.
“People come in different shapes and size. What’s ideal for one person isn’t going to be ideal for another person,” Bonilla said. “It’s your own body, so it’s not fair and it’s not right to criticize another person, because they’re just doing what works out for them and what they like in themselves.”
While thin bodies are still the mainstream ideal in American society, skinny shaming can be just as hurtful as fat shaming. What it comes down to is that neither is a constructive way of looking at people and their bodies. Kwan said that both “illustrate the lack of tolerance in our society for diversity in body size.”
This diversity is necessary, and enforcing one body type through body shaming does not encourage health because different people can be healthy at different sizes. One cannot and should not judge someone else’s health based solely on appearance, weight or BMI, which Kwan said that health experts acknowledge as not being a good measure of overall health.
“Diversity in body types and the inclusion of larger bodies (in the media) may also help to demystify the myth that only skinny bodies are healthy and that weight or BMI alone determines health,” Kwan said.
American culture seems to be getting closer to the acceptance of the variety of body types that exist, but we still have a long way to go before we get past the inaccurate ways of thinking about body size.
Opinion columnist Eileen Holley is an English literature senior and may be reached at [email protected].