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Posts Tagged ‘body image’

Following up to my last post about Harriet Brown’s Body of Truth, here’s another reminder of our society’s last acceptable prejudice. Racism still exists, but our society no longer will accept it, and we call it out whenever it appears in the news or the cultural consciousness. Our treatment of and attitude toward homosexuals is something that’s changing and is addressed frequently. Debate over policies is still complex, but how we treat individuals should be pretty clear: just be kind. Don’t name-call. Don’t lump into a category. Don’t assume.

But we’re still in the very early phases of ending the name-calling and shaming over fat. About once a week, it seems, some celebrity or other makes assumptions and puts their foot in their mouth about people who are overweight. Cheryl Tiegs stupidly assumed a couple of things in February about model Ashley Graham: One, that Graham isn’t healthy. Two, she assumed her waist size was 35 inches or more, giving her the basis for saying Graham can’t be healthy.

Here’s what happened: Graham’s waist size was revealed to be 29.5 inches. It’s perfectly within the range of what experts say is healthy (although, let’s be real … doctors really know far too little about weight and health, as Brown writes in Body of Truth, for one). And Graham works out regularly. She seems to be taking care of herself. As she said to the Daily Mail, “There are too many people thinking they can look at a girl my size and say that we are unhealthy. You can’t, only my doctor can!” (I’m guessing she’s lucky enough to have a doctor who sees the big picture of health and hasn’t pushed her to lose weight.)

And the fat-shaming of today comes from Australia, where a fitness expert just assumes that all overweight people must be unhappy. One, it is possible to be overweight and happy, and two, her remarks and attitude likely contribute to people who are overweight feeling dissatisfied with themselves simply because of their size. It’s been shown time and time again that making someone feel bad about themselves, guilty, shameful, etc., will NOT lead to them taking steps to take better care of themselves, such as incorporating some better eating habits and exercising regularly. It may motivate briefly, but in the long haul, they’ll just give up and say it’s impossible. The best motivation to help someone truly take care of themselves for life is to help them feel they are worthwhile as people; therefore, they deserve to take the time and energy to take care of their physical bodies.

One thing that needs to become more common knowledge among doctors and all of us is that fitness is a huge indicator of health. More people should get out and exercise more. Yes. But there are plenty of people who exercise regularly who are not thin. (And on the flip side, there are plenty of skinny people who have never exercised, and on top of that, they eat food that no one would call healthy. But they get a pass in others’ eyes because, hey, they APPEAR healthy, since our society still only equates health with thinness.) And we should be working to get more people fit. But it doesn’t need to be in pursuit of being thin. It needs to be fitness for its own sake.

Let’s just stop the fat-shaming. Let’s stop assuming overweight means miserable and unhealthy. Thinness does NOT automatically = healthy, and fatness does NOT automatically = unhealthy. Fat people are not necessarily unhappy, lazy, or unmotivated. They are people. And how do we treat people? With kindness. As whole, worthwhile individuals.

 

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It occurred to me yesterday that I don’t have to use “fat” as an adjective for myself. No one does. It’s another label, and while labels are necessary for products on a shelf, they are dangerous for people. (How about this?: “CAUTION: This label is toxic for your emotional health.”)

caution label

We don’t say someone “is cancerous,” just that they “have cancer.” We are striving to say someone “has Down syndrome” (or some other disability) rather than “is a Down syndrome person.” Because that label does not by any stretch describe the whole person.

So I am not fat. I have fat on my body. Right now, I have more fat than I’d like to, because I’m uncomfortable, and part of the reason I have more fat than I’d like is that I’ve been resorting to emotional eating for a few months, and the quality of some of those foods (sugary) is making my cholesterol a bit higher than I’d like. And those are the facts.

The problem with words is that they often become loaded with associated meanings that weigh them down far more than their original, “true” meaning. Some words even become so weighed down with other associations that they change meaning entirely. This happened with the word “gay.” No longer do we even use that to mean “happy or lively.” We only use it to portray someone as homosexual.

What meanings have become tied to the word “fat”? I’d like to offer these: ugly, disgusting, lazy, shameful, embarrassing, gluttonous, gross. I’m sure you can come up with many more, and they’re all negative. What’s happened is that there is a stigma attached to the word “fat,” and that stigma, rather than “helping” obese people to get healthier through diet and/or exercise, etc. (and that’s a WHOLE OTHER topic entirely), is actually hurting us all. The stigma, the shame and embarrassment of being labeled “fat,” is actually making it even harder for those who would like to make a change in their health to start an exercise program or change a few bad habits in their diets. Shame doesn’t motivate very well or for very long. Researchers Lexie and Lindsay Kite at Beauty Redefined put it this way:

(R)ampant self-loathing, which can be partially attributed to women’s self-comparisons to unrealistic and unattainable body ideals in mass media, may very well encourage women to give up on achieving healthy body weights altogether due to the perception that “healthy” or “average” is unreachable. Studies help to confirm this idea.

It’s actually true that the better you feel about your (whole) self — including your body — the more motivated you are to take care of it in every way. But if you feel shame and all those bad words associated in our culture with “fat,” the less motivated you will be to take care of yourself.

So can we shift the stigma, remove it altogether? Can we snip the associations tied to the word “fat”? It’s going to take some hard work on everyone’s part, but it is possible. Because what we’re “doing” right now — shaming the majority of our population that’s deemed to be overweight — isn’t working. It isn’t working to make anyone feel good about themselves and it isn’t working to get more people exercising, which is truly the goal. Losing weight isn’t really the “magic bullet” we think it is, but more and more we’re learning that being fit is what really counts.

Let’s take the first step toward a healthier and happier society and cut the “fat” talk right now.

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So I’ve noted a few occasions recently in which I’ve just felt I had to explain why I feel strongly about the topic of body image (particularly as it pertains to women). Those occasions have been offhand comments or posts or cartoons or what-have-you that indicate that the desire to change how our society perceives women (as objects or bodies) is trivial or silly or not as important as other issues that could garner support or activism, etc. (such as some of the ignorant comments I saw about the Representation Project’s “NotBuyingIt” campaign and hashtags that call out sexism and demeaning portrayals of women in the media, most recently during the Super Bowl, and don’t get me started on Sports Illustrated teaming with Barbie this year!).

I’m not saying there aren’t SERIOUS, very troubling things happening all around the world (wars, disease, repression, abuse, sex trafficking, crimes specifically against women and particular ethnic or religious groups) and that we in the United States and other less-troubled places can’t mobilize to do something to help. But even as we may realize that our problems in the West are “first-world” troubles, it doesn’t mean they are trivial or not worthy of attention and activism.

I’ve never considered myself “a feminist” (a word that over the years has certainly accrued a lot of not-necessarily-positive connotations and associations), nor am I a “liberal.” I tend to be mostly conservative politically. I care deeply about social justice and helping to improve people’s lives but I have more conservative views as to how those things should be accomplished (because my experience has shown certain methods to be more useful and successful than others). I am a stay-at-home mom who does some freelance work from home and haven’t worked outside the home full-time since the early years of my now 20-year-plus-long marriage. Those facts, along with my religious beliefs, might indicate to outsiders that I am not big into “women’s issues.” Those outsiders, though, if coming to that conclusion, would be wrong.

Beauty Redefined is a great resource for learning more and fighting back.

Beauty Redefined is a great resource for learning more and fighting back.

I care very much about my fellow women and how we get to function as real people in society. (I care about men being allowed to be fully functioning members of society as well, but historically in our culture, they’ve been given these rights for centuries, so they’re mostly “all set.”) The fact of the matter is that our Western, 21st-century culture diminishes the wholeness of women every single day, everywhere we turn. Media from every angle throw back very limited, definitely-not-varied, two-dimensional views of the ideal female, reducing 50% of the population to mere objects. These images and opinions are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we essentially have all tacitly agreed that they are truths. These beliefs lead men to treat women they know on some level and in some degree as less-thans, expecting their wives/girlfriends/daughters/sisters to be shaped and sized a certain way at the very least, and they lead women to act as if they are 75% (or more) what they look like and 25% a collection of their personality traits and actions.

These false beliefs have been and are continuing to be so thoroughly perpetuated that though we may pay lip service to the notion that they are false, we act as if they are true. Extreme examples are the continuing massive growth in cosmetic surgeries, particularly among “normal,” “average,” everyday women (not celebrities, not the rich, not people you might consider to be particularly vain). In the interviews I conducted with women in Utah who are moms and generally have a strong foundation of faith and have always been taught they are daughters of God worthy of love and respect for who they innately are, I was amazed how many felt bad enough about their “outsides” to undergo surgery, which is always risky, costs a pretty penny, and is just unnecessary. While I understood the feelings that led them to make the decisions they did (for getting breast augmentations or full “mommy makeovers,” for instance), I felt sad that our culture creates, fosters and intensifies those feelings of insecurity — all over their breast size or perkiness or the size of their waist or hips.

Yes, this may seem a minor issue: what does it matter if we care a lot about how we look? Here’s a short breakdown: it causes us as women to spend precious time and energy and brainpower on something that simply doesn’t matter very much. It takes those resources away from the things that really matter: our spouses, our children, our friends, our families, our work, our joys, our passions, our life purposes. And how many of us have time and energy to spare?

Focusing on our appearance reduces us to objects. Statues and photographs and machines are objects. They’re nice to look at and they might even get things done, but they aren’t human beings, with glorious origins and endless potential and utter uniqueness. Humans are imperfect, frustrating, very different from each other. But we’re so interesting and fascinating and have so much to offer! Is that true, can it be true, about mere objects? No way.

When we consider each other (or ourselves) objects, we treat each other (or ourselves) differently. We don’t expect the best, we don’t reach towards our limitless potential, we don’t care for each other as precious souls who deserve respect and love and fair and equal treatment. Men in our society, who are swimming in this media ocean of images and objects, are prone to some level of treating women as less-than themselves, because men aren’t reduced to objects nearly as often or as prevalently as women. Pornography is one more extreme example of how women are reduced to being objects, even parodies of womanhood, and it skews men’s attitudes and actions toward the women in their lives even further.

I can’t possibly explore all the angles here. There are tons of scientific studies, books, etc. that speak with authority on this subject. Suffice it to say, this is not a silly or trivial topic. It’s one that must be shared and discussed and changed. How women view themselves and how they are treated (as whole, real, full and complex individuals with unique gifts and talents and attributes) is at stake. I wouldn’t call that minor. It’s a huge battle to fight because the messages that pick women apart and reduce us to body parts, that make us less valuable than men, are constant, ubiquitous, and insidious. They’re so prevalent as for us not to even notice them anymore. If you pass the same billboard featuring a bikini-clad woman biting into a huge, juicy hamburger every single day, you’ll begin to tune it out and not even realize the damage it’s doing. But that message is still burrowing its way deep into your every cell.

I would love to make things better in so many ways, in so many places, for so many people. Right now, what I can do is write and speak up. I can say, “Hey, look at that billboard. Isn’t that insulting? Maybe we can even get it taken down. Maybe we can get the advertiser to stop objectifying women.” I can’t change the world. But maybe I can change your mind and remind you that you are far more than just what you look like.

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By now, if you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you’ll know I’m a perfectionist, Type-A–personality woman who is the busy mother to four daughters, loves to read, has lots of projects, and struggles with mental health. It may not come as a surprise, then, that I struggle with my weight as well. Having four children and lots of projects keeps me busy, and the mental-health issues make me a little more fragile or susceptible to stressors than perhaps some others, I think. Add in that there are some serious addictive tendencies going a ways back on my paternal side, and — voila! — I comfort myself with food. Sometimes the compulsion gets so bad I feel I just can’t stop eating, and it’s frankly a bit scary. I feel possessed.

Beauty Redefined sells these great messages as sticky notes. I find them inspiring and very positive. I want to talk about health and curbing emotional eating, but I am not posting images of skinny people or before-and-after photos of myself (at least not at this point).

Because I also feel strongly about the issue of body image and beauty in our culture today, I am going to try to frame this discussion outside of pounds or before-and-after photos. I decidedly dislike going on Pinterest and seeing all these “fitspiration” pins that feature photos of teeny-tiny toned chicks wearing next to nothing and showing off their nonexistent tummies. I don’t care how great the tips are that lie behind those pins; I’m simply not going to look at them, and I’m definitely not going to perpetuate them by repinning. (For a really great discussion about this topic, go to Beauty Redefined and read their take.)

Yes, I am looking in the mirror right now and at recent photos of myself and finding myself ashamed and appalled. I am also into my biggest clothes and scared that I might eat myself right out of those into sizes I don’t even own. I stepped on a scale at my gym this week to find out exactly where I stand and wasn’t too surprised but also was definitely not pleased to see that I am now the heaviest I’ve ever been, barring the very end of my first pregnancy. So I am falling right into the trap of feeling bad about my whole being because of how I look. Not good. But that doesn’t mean that I should just accept where I am and move on with life.

One, where I am is not healthy physically, no question. Two, emotional eating is just a crutch, a way to avoid dealing with other issues, and I’m the type of person who wants to do things the right way, no shortcuts, no excuses. It pains me to think I’m using this crutch. So for my emotional well-being, I’d like to try to dig deep and figure out ways to toss this crutch. I’d love to complete that sentence with the phrase “once and for all,” but the realistic side of me recognizes that this may very well be a fight I wage for the rest of my life, much like any other addiction. Alcoholics never consider themselves cured; they’re always “recovering,” and I think that’s where I’m at. Right now, I’m off the wagon and wallowing in the mud on the side of the road. But I am starting to get up enough … strength? desire? motivation? … something… to get back on the wagon and try to stay on there for a good long while.

So this post is going to be the first of many. I’m starting a new category on this blog, about my “light life.” Like I said, I don’t want to frame this as a numbers game or show off before-and-after photos of me in little workout clothes. I want to come at this from a health viewpoint, that of my physical body and of my emotional and spiritual selves.

What I’m looking for is ways to help me get over my addiction to food and eating as a crutch. I’m going to start collecting some good articles and talking about them as I go. I’m still feeling pretty wobbly back here behind the wagon, and I’m not even sure I have the strength to grab for the wagon. But I’m going to put this online, so perhaps that will give me a little extra push.

Please comment and give me some direction as you think it might fit into this viewpoint. I don’t need dieting or fitness tips. I need emotional tips, encouragement, and some solid guidance as I try to find my way and get myself happier and healthier. No platitudes or cheesy dieting sayings (like the infamous “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”: I mean, really — if that were true, all of us emotional eaters would be skinny and loving it).

Weigh in on this topic. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

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