Note: Hey there, everyone! This week’s post is, in fact, not from me at all, but a cross-post from Grace over at So Many Heartbeats, a really lovely person starting a really lovely body positivity and feminist blog. Here’s a quick taste of things to come over there, and definitely check out her site when you get the chance! I’ll be back with my own blogging later on, particularly when the madness that is working two jobs and writing a senior university honors thesis calms down just a tiny bit.
Sometimes, society is exhausting.
The constant pressure placed on our bodies day in and day out can make you never want to leave your bed, where at least your pillow understands that your body is nobody’s business but your own.
But much as I’d like to, I can’t stay in bed for my entire life and listen to body negativity pitter-patter against the roof like a particularly noxious rainstorm. So forgive this somewhat-ranty list of the top six things that irritate me about the way body politics appear in the world and the media today.
If I miss something that really grinds your gears, let me know in the comments! This list could go on forever, but I only have so much emotional energy to expend at one time.
1. The phrase “plus size.”
Plus what? Plus society’s preconceived notion of what size is acceptable for a woman? Here’s my general thought on the matter: “plus” means positive, as in “not a negative number.” We are all plus-sizes if we take up any space at all in the world. So please stop dividing clothing into “acceptable” and “plus-acceptable.” If you have to make clothing sized by numbers, go ahead and do that. Just keep your value judgments out of it.
2. Diet supplement and weight-loss ads everywhere.
I’ve made a game of it every time an ad telling me I can LOSE SEVEN INCHES IN TWO WEEKS WITH THIS ONE EASY PILL, NO DIET OR EXERCISE REQUIRED!! (For some reason or other, they do seem to enjoy caps lock…) I like to block them, and then when Facebook politely asks me why, explain that they are “against my beliefs.” Which they are. I’d just like to see the article my friend posted on my wall about the French kids who took a llama on the tram. I don’t want to be bombarded with the multi-billion-dollar diet industry. Facebook doesn’t know my body. And quite frankly, it’s none of its business.
(For those who are interested, the llama on the tram is real. Click here.)
3. Tabloids like these:
First off, tabloid reporters have zero way of knowing whether or not one of these celebrities is or is not struggling with an eating disorder. That’s not something that you can tell by picking them out on the street. Eating disorders are mental illnesses (I’ve discussed this before…), not diet plans. And making it something you have to continuously deny only adds to the shame. The last thing we need is celebrities having to repeatedly assert “I’M NOT ANOREXIC!”, as this only heightens the stigma on an already dangerous disease.
And let’s not even talk about those little arrows on the left image, pointing out Mary-Kate’s “stick thin legs!” Because that’s so helpful, Star.
4. Tabloids like these:
No. No no no no no no. Other people’s bodies are literally none of your business. Cellulite is not like Sugar Ray Leonard, and you cannot “lose a fight with it.” Cher “packs on 26 pounds,” and that’s entirely her business. Please stop making other people’s body size news.
You want to show me “eight pages of shocking new photos”? How about some pictures of the cleanup efforts around Hurricane Sandy, or the continuing conflict in Syria. Not Britney Spears’ thighs. The only person to whom Britney Spears’ thighs are important is Britney Spears. And I doubt she’s reading this magazine to find out what they look like.
5. Fat-Shaming Week
I didn’t make this up. This is actually a thing. October 7-11 was apparently hailed by some self-absorbed douche canoes on Twitter as Fat Shaming Week, otherwise known as five days of the year when people with nothing better to do provide unsolicited, ineffective, rude, and cruel advice to anonymous strangers whose weight they determined was unsatisfactory. Here is part of their actual mission statement:
Mocking someone for lazy and slothful behavior is one of the best ways to motivate them to change and appear more pleasing before our presence… Hurting people’s feelings is the quickest way to get them to change… We have decided as a group that fat shaming is essential in creating a society of thin, beautiful women who are ashamed for being ugly. Let the fat shaming begin!
I’m actually so angry about this that I want to throw my computer across the room and let out a war cry. I won’t do that, because 1. my laptop is very expensive, and I’m unemployed, and 2. I’m in a public library and that would be frowned upon. But seriously? This is the world I live in?
I don’t think I actually need to say what’s wrong with this, but let’s do it briefly anyway.
First: THEY ARE WRONG. Fat-shaming isn’t even effective. Studies have shown this. (Yes, there were studies on this. I’m linking only a few sources that confirm it. Tiger Beatdown puts it best, I think: “Guess What? Shaming People for Being Fat Doesn’t Magically Make them Thin!)
Second: Some people still seem to be laboring under the delusion that women are here to “appear more pleasing before men’s presence.” Excuse me while I laugh so hard that I actually vomit up a lung.
Third: “Lazy and slothful behavior” are not direct causes for someone’s body type. Fat does not equal unhealthy. Thin does not equal healthy. Neither of these equal beautiful. Besides failing basic human decency, it appears that someone also failed science.
Moving on, before I actually get so angry that I break something expensive…
If you haven’t seen the 37-second video that explains why Photoshop gives us an unrealistic view of what the actual human body is supposed to look like, I recommend you click on this link and check it out. You can spare 37 seconds to see in glittering detail how fashion magazines and advertisements are airbrushing us out of existence.
If you want to sell us clothing and accessories, please show us how it would really look on an actual human’s body, not on some computer-generated cyborg that you whipped up in your laboratory. I don’t want to see what pants will look like on someone made of toothpicks and papier-mâché, I want to know what they would look like on me. Because unless I’m very much mistaken, the average consumer is, in fact, human.
The only plus side of Photoshop in the fashion and advertising industry? The fails. Photoshop fails make my day.
I could go on for days and days and days, but as I mentioned earlier, that would only result in me breaking things. Is it possible to live in a society where women’s bodies aren’t placed on the dissecting table and picked apart by strangers and CEO’s? Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But I live in eternal hope that someday I will turn on my computer, switch on the TV, and flip through a magazine without once feeling the need to flip a table.
What’s my excuse? Didn’t know I needed one.
Over the last few days, the above image has circulated around the Internet with the fervor usually reserved for cats on robot vacuums or whatever Miley Cyrus is up to now. Featuring a thin and toned mother of three posing in a sports bra and matching panties around her three children, aged 8 months to 3 years, this picture of Maria Kang has apparently succeeded in pitting half the virtual world against the other.
On one side, we have the supporters: “Good for you! This inspires me to lose the baby weight and get in the best shape of my life! Don’t let the haters get you down!”
And then the other side. Mine.
Now, let’s be clear. I support Ms. Kang’s right to take care of herself in whatever way she sees fit. (No pun intended.) If her lifestyle involves regular workout sessions, “clean” eating, and rigorous self-discipline, and that makes her healthy and feel good both physically and mentally, then more power to her. No body positive movement that I support will shame people for any reason, whether they are slim, full-figured, athletic, prefer a marathon of Breaking Bad to a workout, or any combination of the four.
Moreover, I do not and will not support body shaming of this woman. My body positive movement will not stand for the shame and criticism of this woman’s body shape for any reason. And neither should yours. No calling her out for being “a bad mother” or “self-obsessed” or any of those things. Positivity is part of the movement for a reason.
That said, though.
The message conveyed through this picture is not one of supporting a healthy lifestyle through a balanced diet and regular exercise. The message here is work hard enough, and you can look like this.
If Ms. Kang provided a picture of her three kids sitting down with her to a balanced meal full of healthy whole grains and vegetables, or the three of them partaking in mommy-and-me aerobics or whatever her workout routine actually is, I would be completely behind this message. You absolutely can take good care of your body regardless of your family size (though for some it might be more difficult because of economic circumstances, work schedules, physical disability, etc). Advocating health for everybody is totally in line with body positivity. Hey, if we want to love our bodies, shouldn’t we take care of them?
Kang’s apology, though, doesn’t address the real problem that I think should be mentioned about this image: it equates health with body size and sexual attractiveness, which is simply not true.
You can be thin and fit, just as you can be fat and fit. The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement has been trying to spread this message, but apparently it has not caught on as well as it should. Looking good in a sports bra (and hey, who’s to say that her way of looking good is the only way?) does not mean that you can run a marathon, or that you are getting an adequate amount of nutrients, or that all your muscles and organs are in tip-top working order. They can do that just as well at a higher weight, or a different body shape.
If Maria Kang is healthy and happy in her current body, more power to her. But I don’t need an “excuse” not to look like she does. Why? Because even though I look different, even though my abs will never do whatever thing hers are doing and my thighs have some more give to them, I am perfectly capable of being healthy in this body. Just as you’re perfectly capable of being healthy in yours.
Now, I’m all for free speech and first amendment rights. I’m not saying that Kang should take the image down, or that she should stop anything she’s doing. I’m just asking that we think critically about the social movements that lead us to believe that health equals thinness and “conventional attractiveness.” (The only way I can express my disdain for this concept is through quotation marks, because I don’t know how to punctuate an eye-roll.) Consider that athletes, and all women for that matter, come in different shapes and sizes, and one shouldn’t be more valued than another.
What’s my excuse for not looking like Maria Kang?
I look like me.
Hey, all! After a fantastic trip to Northern Ireland, I’m back in my home base, catching up on sleep and wondering why driving on the right side of the road has suddenly become so difficult. On the plus side, this means that I’ll be able to get back into my more typical schedule of posting. Exciting times!
Today’s topic is a little more abstract and general than usual, but I still think it’s really important to think about.
How do you respond to people who disagree with you about body positivity?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to repeat the same three or four arguments in favor of self-love and health at every size. Even in the past two weeks, I need more than the fingers on both hands. While body positivity is a very personal journey, many people have a hard time understanding what it’s all about, or why it’s really not any of their business how I feel about my body.
I sometimes have a difficult time not flying off the handle when confronted by people who are completely against all the principles of positive body image that I work for. I find myself tempted to build a soapbox out of whatever materials I happen to have at hand, climb up on it, and wave my hands around while shouting for about a quarter of an hour. But this won’t accomplish anything.
And that’s why I’m compiling this list: Five Ways To Talk To People Against Body Acceptance Without Making Enemies. It’s not the catchiest name you’ve ever read, but it’s still a useful list to have on hand when someone confronts you about your beliefs. Because if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably only a matter of time.
1. Keep It Civil
This is one of the most important elements, and the one that’s the hardest to stick to. When someone is telling you that fat people are the reason they pay more taxes and so should pay higher health care costs, or that eating disorders are first-world problems for spoiled rich kids, it’s tough not to get angry. But no one’s mind has ever been changed by an exchange like this:
Person A: “Oh my God, how can you believe something like that? You’re so stupid!”
Person B: “You’re right! I am stupid! How did I never notice that before? Thanks for pointing it out!”
Often, the only reason someone is so vehemently against you is that society pushes the opposite message of the body-positive community. It’s not fair to target others because they haven’t been exposed to the viewpoints that we’re dealing with.
If they’re willing to listen to you and hear your reasoning behind your beliefs, that’s great. But think about it this way: you have someone in front of you that can potentially be persuaded to change their perception of the body-positive community and respect people of any size, shape, color, or what have you. Don’t throw that opportunity away by going off on a rant.
2. Ask Questions
A recent conversation I had with a total stranger (that’s what happens when you put me on an eight-hour flight, I get into discussions about body positivity with my seatmate) evolved into the motivating factor for compiling this list. He shared his distaste for dating women he deemed “overweight,” because living a healthy lifestyle was important to him, and he was worried that dating a heavier woman would compromise his goals.
There were plenty of things I wanted to tell the man in 26F, not least of all that weight and health are not the same thing, or that what a woman does with her body does not need to impact what he does with his. But lecturing him would get me nowhere, and would make me look like a jerk.
“I mean, can you really tell what kind of lifestyle habits I have by what I look like?” I asked him. “Can you tell I’m not a chain smoker and an alcoholic?”
I’m neither, by the way, but by looking at my weight alone, it’s tough to tell.
The best part of questions is that they force the audience to think for themselves without making them feel attacked. It’s the same as the old “I-feel” statements: you’re allowed to express how you feel without ganging up on your conversation partner. Which I’m sure they appreciate.
3. Have Facts And Resources Ready
Too many arguments get derailed because they descend into finger-pointing and name-calling. Calling each other rude names isn’t going to convince anyone that body positivity is a good thing for society.
But you know what might? Facts.
Too often, the “War On Obesity” or the Sedentary Age of America gets blown up into emotional appeals and exaggerations. When obesity has become not only a disease but an epidemic, it’s tough to get people to take a step back and think critically about what they’ve been told.
If you have facts and scientific studies that show that BMI is not a reliable indicator of health, or that fad diets are more harmful than helpful, or that being severely underweight can be more damaging to your health than being overweight, this hard data will go ten times as far as your simply repeating, “you’re wrong.”
Debate Team 101: it’s easier to be persuasive with facts rather than opinions.
4. Meet People Where They Are
This tactic appears all over the consciousness-raising sphere, from educating people about sexism, racism, homophobia, or what have you. If you’re talking to someone who’s never considered the idea that fat discrimination or society’s pressures on our bodies and our health habits are serious problems, leaping into a discussion of complicated particulars on the subject is not going to be helpful.
Everyone has been exposed to some kind of body pressure, whether or not they think they have. Been teased for being the scrawny kid who got picked last for dodgeball? Anxious because you’re shorter than your girlfriend? Feeling uncomfortable because your significant other expects you to look like either David Beckham or Kate Moss? You’ve experienced body pressure. How did it make you feel? Trust me, you’re not the only one who feels that way.
5. Know When To Walk Away
It would be great to think that with enough reasonable conversation and awareness about the serious problems around body image, social pressures, and body type discrimination, we could change everybody’s mind in the whole world.
It would also be great to have a pony and a billion dollars.
There are some people who disagree with you simply to get a rise out of you. Sometimes it’s patronizing, sometimes it’s rude, sometimes there’s a “it’s for your own good!” note to it.
Either way, know that there are some battles you’re not going to win.
This is a big issue, and it will take more than one conversation to change everybody else’s mind. There’s no call to expose yourself to verbal abuse when it’s clear you’re making no progress.
That’s what the “block” function on blogs is for.
And that’s what legs are for: to walk away.
What do you think? Are there any other suggestions you’d give to people trying to explain their body-positive position to others? Anything I’ve suggested that you don’t think will work? Let me know!
Note: this post appeared this morning on the fabulous blog The Outlier Collective, which invites two bloggers weekly to engage in often controversial topics from various perspectives. You should definitely check that blog out (the editors are lovely, lovely people), and the post can be found in its original context here. And thanks again to MadameWeebles for inviting me to write a guest post – you should all definitely check out her site as well!
“Where are you putting all that?”
My hand stopped halfway to my mouth, the thick, crispy, delicious french fry left hovering halfway between me and my plate. My friends around the pub table continued eating, and I sighed. Here we go again.
That’s the trouble trying to have a social life while in recovery from an eating disorder: sometimes you forget just how much of our culture revolves around food. We bond by going out to eat, out for drinks, out for ice cream, out for popcorn at the movies. What I’m noticing, though, is that as women, we’re encouraged to bond around not eating.
I’m not talking about pro-ana groups specifically, though I’ll argue with my last breath that they’re a more dramatic manifestation of the same impulse. All I’m saying is that it’s easy to bond over shared problems, and the common denominator of personal malaise for the modern woman tends to be the size of our bodies.
Diet culture is not only a cash cow for mail-order food programs, it’s a great way to build community. Think about all those throwaway phrases you and I have used while out with friends.
“God, sometimes I just can’t stop eating.”
“I know I shouldn’t have the pasta, so I’ll have to hit the gym extra hard tomorrow.”
“Ugh, I can feel my food baby after that sandwich.”
Maybe you have that friend who looks at you when you decide to order that white chocolate cheesecake and jokingly sneers, “All right then, fatty.”
Speaking in huge, broad generalizations, we are bonding over an association between food and feelings of shame and self-loathing.
As if there were something morally heinous about ordering the giant beef burrito you’ve been daydreaming about for days.
As if an ice cream sundae had the power to transform you into the Antichrist.
As if the food you put into our body says anything about the quality of the character you carry around in it.
Eating can be a source of pleasure and enjoyment, but in the end it’s the shame as shoveling coal into a steam ship. Everybody does it. It keeps us moving, and when we stop doing it, or don’t do it often enough, we sink. Simple as that. And if sometimes you can make your coal-shoveling a little more exciting, and do it around a table with friends and ambient lighting, why on Earth wouldn’t you?
The reasons for why we wouldn’t are endless. Pop culture and the media telling us we need to be waif-thin and order salads with dressing on the side, otherwise we’re worthless and unlovable. Doctors and the American Medical Association telling us that obesity is a disease, and it’s contagious by simply looking at a plate of churros (I exaggerate, but only slightly). Well-meaning family members and friends looking us up and down, commenting on our bodies like we’re public property, and if we don’t look a certain way we’re on the fast track to death or old-maid-hood or some other horrific fate like being left on the side of the ballroom while Mr. Darcy dances with someone else.
Or simply the voices in our head, telling us that if we eat what we really want, if we don’t behave like the perfect mental construct of what a woman should be, we are in some way less than, imperfect, failures.
Those voices are more difficult to ignore than any of us like to admit. Time was, the question around my nearly-eaten french fry would never have been asked, because you couldn’t have gotten me near a plate of fried, salty potatoes with a ten-foot pole.
Which is a shame, because this was one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. It was a dinner of salty delicious chips, a pint of Guinness, and a bowl of soup that may or may not have included octopus tentacles. And you know why? Because while I still have moments where I hem and haw and panic over the moral consequences of a plate of pasta, in the end, I’m starting to relearn that food is food. And if I only end up in this pub once in my whole life, am I going to be proud of myself for bypassing the chips and the octopus for a chicken Caesar salad, dressing on the side, while staring longingly at my friends’ meals?
I doubt it.
“Where am I putting all this?” I repeated, looking down at the fry. “In my mouth. And it’s delicious.”
This post was originally published on Adios Barbie and can be viewed in its original context here.
On the inside, I’m still about 7 years old.
There’s a shelf in my bedroom dedicated to Disney movies. When I’m stressed, I’ve been known to break out coloring pages. I’m still a little upset that I didn’t get my Hogwarts letter when I was 11. I look back on my childhood as a simpler time, when there just weren’t so many things to worry about.
And that’s why this billboard that I recently came across struck me especially hard.
The ad, if you haven’t seen it, features three slim, happy children playing on the higher end of a see-saw, and an overweight, sad-looking boy holding a bag of chips on the lower end. The slogan? “Once, kids played like their lives depended on it. If only kids still did.” This friendly fat-shaming message was brought to you by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS).
Now, I’m not claiming that kids don’t need to play outside. I don’t believe that sitting on the couch playing video games and eating truckloads of Cheetos is a good way to spend one’s childhood. (Not to mention the Cheeto dust getting all over everything. That stuff’s insidious.) I think we all agree it would be a good thing if everyone in America were happy and healthy, in whatever way felt right for them and their bodies.
But fat shaming is not the way to accomplish that.
For those of you who think you aren’t familiar with fat shaming, trust me: you are, you just haven’t heard it referred to by that name. Fat shaming is the idea that your body shape is everyone’s moral issue. Simply put, if you’re fat, it’s your fault, and you’d be better off if you did something about it. If a family member suggests you should skip dessert because your dress size has two digits; or if a doctor focuses only on your weight instead of your symptoms; or if you’re being used in a public service announcement as the worst-case scenario, you are being fat shamed.
Fat shaming assumes that if we make people who are overweight feel bad enough about their bodies, they will be motivated to change them. This motivation might not be overt: after all, I doubt the AAOS got together around their conference table and said, “You know what? Let’s make kids hate themselves. Bonus points if we can encourage crash dieting and trigger eating disorders, too.” (I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that meeting, just to hear what the rationale really was.)
There’s a psychological theory behind this, called operant conditioning. Here’s the gist: each time a subject does something the experimenter doesn’t like, the subject receives a painful consequence until it learns not to repeat the behavior. If this sounds like something designed for lab rats, that’s because it is. Some people argue that even though those on the receiving end of operant conditioning are treated poorly, the shame gets the desired result in the end. If making children feel worthless and unlovable gets them off the couch and out onto the playground, isn’t it worth a few years of trauma?
Shame as a motivator is pervasive in weight loss culture. According to the reality television program The Biggest Loser, the best way to encourage an overweight person to begin exercising is to repeatedly remind them that they’re unattractive, lazy, and otherwise going to die. This can be done either by yelling oneself hoarse or getting more artistic and locking them in a coffin for up to 20 minutes to remind them of the consequences of obesity. The ends justify the means, right?
I’m not convinced.
Aren’t we supposed to tell our kids that we love them the way that they are and encourage healthy self-esteem? But then we treat overweight children as an “epidemic,” and we belittle and ridicule them in the name of “health.” I smell a contradiction.
We should be supporting health for America’s youth, no doubt about it. But societal norms are not health, and shame is not support.
Ads like the AAOS billboard or the Georgia anti-obesity campaign are not the only ways we’re telling our kids that they only have value so long as they’re thin. In a controversial move, NBC’s The Biggest Loser has teamed up with Seventeen Magazine (which, irony of all ironies, features a section called “Body Peace Pledge,” encouraging teens to love themselves as they are) to feature childhood contestants for the first time.
Pause for a second to let that sink in: some of the new contestants on The Biggest Loser are13 years old.
Yes, trainers have said that the teenagers will not participate in weigh-ins, nor will they be yelled at (or, hopefully, locked in coffins). But this teaches overweight American teenagers that as long as they’re overweight, it’s okay for them to be gawked at. It’s acceptable to push themselves so hard to lose weight that they damage their health, and it’s natural to hate their bodies until they change them. What does it say about us when a show that encourages fat shaming, disordered eating behaviors, and outright cruelty gets a 21% rise in ratings when it extends its tactics to teenagers?
The Biggest Loser’s proponents claim that the drastic lifestyle changes the show encourages may prevent the life-threatening consequences that are commonly associated with those who are overweight: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc. But I can only speak for what I’ve seen. Public weigh-ins in front of entire towns, using junk food as punishment, and of course simulated death as a motivator to crank the treadmill up one more notch… all of these are clear strategies for making overweight individuals feel terrible about themselves, and they reinforce the idea that weight is something to be ashamed of.
Not to mention, of course, the inundation of longitudinal health studies that prove to us that weight cycling, or repeated weight loss and subsequent weight gain, has consequences of its own. Sixty-five percent of people who rapidly lose large amounts of weight regain it within three years,which is hardly surprising. The weight loss program proposed by The Biggest Loser isn’t sustainable for people without eight hours a day to devote to exercise. Weight cycling, alternately known as yo-yo dieting, has been linked to a weakened immune system,high blood pressure, heart disease, and a slowed metabolism. This last side effect may actually cause faster weight gain, since the body is accustomed to operating in survival mode and will respond to changes in intake more dramatically.
We want our children to grow up to be happy, healthy members of society – regardless of the numbers on the scale. We need to teach them to accept themselves for who they are and what they can do, not what they look like. We need to ditch shame and use love instead. Engaging in healthy eating and exercise are great, but without healthy self-esteem, what kind of message are we sending?
Kids learn by example. Show them that fat shaming is unacceptable. Encourage health that isn’t based on appearance or size. Aim to love your body. If you’re in the process of learning to accept your body, be conscious of not engaging in “fat talk” in front of children. Discourage unhealthy diets and negative self-image as soon as you see them surfacing.
Please, let kids fantasize about being firefighters and doctors and Spiderman. Don’t replace their dreams with shame and diet plans. If this continues, we’ll all be the biggest losers.