When I was young, I was tall and big for my age. I was called “fat” long before I actually became fat. As I grew up and solidified my priorities toward the area of academics, I frankly lost the ability to care in the face of what I really wanted to do. After twenty years, I became more aware that mental health is in part reliant on physical health. As a result, I have been working on becoming more fit and setting up healthy habits.
Although the media has been discussing body image over the centuries, only recently have I begun to tune in. At first, when I began to bump into the various articles written by adherents (and their detractors) regarding “fat-shaming”, I was more amused than anything. I thought, “So what? If you’re fat and OK with it, go ahead – but don’t expect people to support you, and certainly don’t expect super slim hotties (like Tom Hiddleston) to be attracted to you.” I went on my way, shaking my head.
However, recently I was talking with a friend. She was, to put it mildly, bemoaning her fat. Except it wasn’t the usual: “Sigh. I’m so fat; I need to work out.” It was more in the line of: “I hate myself. I am my fat. My fat must all go. Lipo anyone?”
Problem #1: She sounded hateful and bitter.
Problem #2: Her current “fat” weight is my current “tone down” weight.
What should we do in situations like these?
Well. What is fat? What is overweight? What is obesity? (What is underweight?) These kinds of questions have been addressed in a variety of ways throughout human history, and it remains an integral part of body image culture today.
Logically, we know weight is a spectrum, and different people have different fitness and health goals according to their body type, genetic inheritance, etc. A Caucasian man has a different weight spectrum from an Asian male, for example.
Before we label someone “fat”, before we respond to an invitation from someone to agree they are fat, we should think twice. In cases where we are invited to agree with an opinion regarding fitness, we should ask questions.
- Why do you think you are fat?
- What’s your BMI?
- What did your recent blood test say about your metabolism and cholesterol?
- Where’s your blood sugar level at?
- How are your hormones?
- What history of disease does your family have?
- What’s been going on in your life recently?
- Have you taken any hormone/blood/sugar tests? If yes, what were the results? If not, why not check them out first?
These questions must be asked because different factors play into individual situations. Factors may include: stress, new life situations, pregnancy, mental/physical health problems, and family history.
Until these factors are taken into account, advice and opinions shouldn’t be offered.
Once we know what we need to know, we can give constructive criticism. Examples of things to say are:
- You are not fat. Don’t look at others who appear smaller than you. They have different body types. Keeping fit is key – not attempting to look a certain way you could never achieve in a healthy manner.
- I know you’ve been struggling with [insert X difficult situation]. That’s probably what is affecting you. Be patient. Once you figure out how to handle [X], you can focus on getting back into your regular life rhythms, which include being fit.
- Keeping fit is key. Have you looked at your food intake recently? How are you getting your necessary exercise? How can I help?
- (For particularly challenged people) It’s gonna be hard but I know you can do it. The important thing is to keep fit. Are you seeing a nutritionist or some kind of doctor or trainer to oversee your progress? Do you want an accountability partner? Can I exercise with you?
As one can see here, the questions and responses are focused on encouragement and healthy assessment with balance in mind. The healthiest motivation for losing weight is to enhance your life to its fullest. It shouldn’t JUST be about looking good for anyone (including yourself), but about having a healthy sense of self-acceptance as well as a balanced, healthy lifestyle. However, defining fitness and mental health isn’t as easy as one might think.
Although throughout history men and women have had a share of pressure to maintain fitness and a variety of beauty standards, women in recent times have decided to rebel against the unattainable standards of Twiggy, the British model who, some say, revolutionized expectations in high fashion. Nowadays, women are reconsidering such expectations in hopes of combating rising eating issues, such as bulemia and anorexia, among teen girls. Such change is welcome amongst those whose bodies are fundamentally unable to achieve the ideal female figure.
However, some have gone one step further. Body image and false expectations are being blamed on “the patriarchy”, and freedom to pursue one’s own version of fitness is linked to the freedom of women and the ideals of feminism in general. Furthermore, certain sections of these revolutionaries claim fat-shaming – negative critique of overweight bodies – is tantamount to crime. They think no one should have the right to say something derogatory about a fat person.
As with most extreme causes, there is an element of truth to what is being said: unkind words spitefully spoken are damaging. HOWEVER, this group has gone one step further and has said:
- Everything negative said about being fat is spiteful.
- Everything negative said about being fat should be unwelcome.
- People should accept overweight people for who they are.
- Acceptance of being fat includes being (physically) attracted to fat people.
- Fat people who are attempting to be fit or lose weight are also, due to their actions, intrinsically critical of currently fat people.
This faction of overweight people constantly refers to the unattainable standards of society. As stated previously, “the Patriarchy” is often blamed. Barbie is brought up.
Considering the backlash against past generations of physical expectations, some issues arise when the pendulum of social change swings too far in the opposing direction. One could say that the baby is thrown out with the bathwater as unrealistic standards are given the attention they do not deserve, everyday society attempts to suppress high fashion and the role it has played within society heretofore, and even more oddly – unequal gender expectations continue within a new formula.
Unrealistic standards. Women, being socially creatures, recognize early on that there are a variety of standards within society. Unfortunately, many women are unable to develop an ability to ignore or revise such standards. Instead of focusing on what their partners may think is adequate (or beautiful), women buy into the unattainable standard of Hollywood and high fashion.
These standards aren’t just about weight – but also height and coloring. For example, white models, according to agencies, should be either very tan or have alabaster skin. How common is it in the real world to attain alabaster skin? As a freckled girl, I know that even I were well-proportioned body-wise, my skin will never be standard as per high-fashion or Hollywood requirements. Do I go out and… Can you change your skin? Who really supports these standards on a day-to-day basis, other than people who make it their business to adhere to such standards?
Being able to compartmentalize is important for sanity’s sake in this regard. Watching Project Runway or America’s Next Top Model, for some, is enjoyable as a peek into a more artistic realm and commercialized expression of beauty. For other women, these shows become burdens of expectations. Perhaps it is time to turn off the TV, and realign one’s priorities in a healthy way.
Societal expections fighting for dominance. When discussing standards, to whose standards are we referring to? Which parts of society are we talking about or prioritizing? The high fashion society that operates in one specific space of society? The Hollywood society which most people can’t afford? Or the everyday society that actually exists?
Choice exists that we may decide how we will live our life, but choice does not equate with the right to enforce your ways to attain a healthy (or not) lifestyle on another. In this way, high fashion standards (a la Twiggy) cannot denigrate a husky northern European girl. Neither can the husky northern European girl denigrate the tall leggy French girl walking down a runway in France. As long as the person in question is healthy, the image they project, made up or not, curvy or slender, lithe or buff, is an expression of their personhood and therefore deserves respect. However, respect does not equate with agreement or enabling. More on this later.
Unequal gender expectations. The average expectations of most men are not complex. Most men appreciate average women. Most men don’t want a skeleton, nor do they want a Michelin woman. Most men don’t mind curves or stretch marks or scars or freckles. Most men will have preferences (who doesn’t?) but these preferences can often be set aside when personality come into play. However, the anti-“fat-shaming” section of society imply that men are the foundation of female insecurities, ignoring male insecurities and the ongoing unequal expectations required of males.
Barbie and Ken show an “unrealistic” standard for men and women. However, while doll companies are starting to design “real” women dolls, the male dolls are not undergoing any change in order to alleviate the expectations on the average Joe who doesn’t tote a six pack.
Furthermore, where are the fat men with frizzy long hair and faded tattoos and beer bellies? Why aren’t they being covered by a sympathetic media as being misunderstood and oppressed? Truth be told, difficult standards exist for men as much as they do for women.
If there is any sign that patriarchy in North America doesn’t exist, it is this: women have greater buying power which has resulted in more women-targeted products. These women-targeted products are able to change to suit their consumer’s desires. This means that the Ken doll isn’t going to change – because women want Ken. This is a societal projection, however; in reality, women, like men, usually want more than looks. At the end of the day, women have many other complex requirements involved with attraction, but the over-arcing idea in the media and consumer culture is that men (like women) should be physically fit.
The media (Hollywood, first and foremost) would have us believe that women don’t want overweight nerds or underweight beanpoles. If we look at standard models of male, er, beauty within society – the men that get the most coverage on Tumblr or Weibo (enjoyed by ordinary people) – we get lots of fit, handsome men. We get Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Colin Firth, Lee Pace, Tom Hiddleston, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender. We don’t get “fat Leonardo di Caprio”, or elderly Jeremy Irons, or Melissa McCarthy’s husband what’s-his-face. See I don’t even know his name.
So, let’s change Barbie by all means – but to be fair we need to change Ken as well.
THE TRUTH ABOUT OBESITY
Obesity is unhealthy. It is moderately dangerous.
Requiring society to accept (aka pander to) obesity, people want us to join them in an overweight world. How? By being attracted to them and telling them they are OK. They suggest,”If you are already fat, show solidarity and remain fat!”
I would say this is on par with crossing the road without looking both ways or jay-walking. By all means, practice your freedom to make bad choices, but don’t make me cross with you. Crossing the street without looking both ways and remaining in a state of physical or mental unhealthiness are both damaging to a person. Don’t expect others to cross that road with you. That is really the ultimate form of selfishness and narcissism.
Around 5’9″ and around 220 lbs, I know that scientifically speaking, I am overweight and unhealthy. During an emergency situation, such as a natural disaster or a zombie apocalypse, I would not be able to survive well, if at all. For a variety of reasons, I have not prioritized fitness or a healthy long life, despite personal symptoms and a family history of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. It would be abusive and selfish of me to force those around me not only to accept my self-destructive lifestyle, but to embrace it as well. Yet, various corners of the internet support me as an individual in my journey to an early grave!
TALKING ABOUT THE FAT
Having said that obesity is unhealthy and moderately dangerous, I want to leave with one last word on talking about weight. I believe that how we talk about fat is important, especially when we are discussing other people.
First, no person should refer to themselves as being their fat. You are not your fat. You happen to be overweight and have an excess of lipids, but you in your entirety are not just your fat. Referring to yourself as though you are merely a collection of unhealthy cells demeans you and lowers your self-worth as a human being. You are more – and you owe it to yourself to help your outward self and inward self match in a healthy way.
Second, when talking about weight either face to face or over the internet with a friend, unless you are specifically invited to give tough advice, talking about the process of losing weight should be more personally focused. There is nothing worse than hearing unwanted advice – especially from someone who doesn’t know exactly what you are struggling with. It is even more terrible (or annoying) when said suggestions come from someone who is obscenely fit or super slender. People should ask questions, listen, and then talk.
Third, hateful words about fat or fat people – whether in reference to others or yourself – is not healthy. It is not mentally healthy, nor is it socially acceptable. Now, some people like negativity and heavy criticism. They need it to inspire themselves to make necessary changes in their lives. However, many other people can’t handle unadulterated negativity and constant criticism. Before you make comments on your own fat or other people’s weight, make certain of who is in your audience.
If you look in the mirror and realize a change needs to happen (either to gain or lose weight or to keep fit), you will realize that there is a mountain of effort before you. People may have opinions, but the most important opinions and advice you need to seek out are those from friends and family you trust and medical professionals upon whom you can rely.
The people who care about you will ask questions first and talk later. Their focus will not be on weight or body image, but on health. There may be jokes about preparing for the zombie apocalypse. There will be no unseemly remarks about your appearance – unless you need and want that frank criticism. There will be acknowledgement of the difficult path before you, and with that acknowledgement will come encouragement, support, and respect.
Being fat isn’t easy. Being fit isn’t easy. Transitioning from being overweight to being fit requires a lot of willpower and determination. It usually demands a lot out of you personally. Sometimes a total change of lifestyle may be necessary. Whatever is required, through the process, you may find that the motivations for fitness you thought you had are not the ones you truly have. Truth about yourself arises as you walk through life, but only if you allow yourself to see it. It is in your decisions to fight for what you think is right for yourself that you know who you are. Your priorities and choices become important signals to the world as to where your path is leading.
In the end, it is about your choice. Your choices have consequences – good or bad. The responsibility is yours. It’s up to you.
Note 1: Barbie. The new “real women” dolls aren’t even close to being actually fat. More like fit, genuinely proportioned women, which is great, but no more than a token acknowledgement of changing trends by perceptive marketing teams. So, transforming Barbie isn’t gonna change anything for actually fat people.