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Transforming the Body Positivity Movement

Imagine having to research a restaurant extensively on Google Images before you go out to eat just so you can decide if you will be comfortable or not. You have to ask yourself, “Are the chairs solid? Do they have arms? What does the dining room look like?”. Well, this is the reality for well-known author and editor, Roxane Gay. Gay, along with millions of people, face the everyday challenges of being “fat” such as not being able to find cute, comfortable clothes that fit (i.e. Lane Bryant is one of the only stores dedicated to selling clothes for larger people), trouble finding a partner, not being able to get a job, and constant hateful behavior. The current body positivity movement is a social movement that is “rooted in the belief that all human beings should have a positive body image, and be accepting of their own bodies as well as the bodies of others” (“Body Positivity”). However, the body positivity movement has digressed from an inclusive, supportive message to a message that seems to only include individuals at an ideal weight. This movement needs to be refocused to address the systematic discrimination against fat people; health reasons are one thing, but putting that off to the side, hateful behavior is something else.

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The body positivity movement originally started out as a fat acceptance movement. In 1967, Lew Louderback published an essay titled, “More People Should Be Fat”, where he talks about the discrimination that fat people face on a day-to-day basis. It further coalesced into the founding of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in 1969 (Alptraum). This organization “activated for the reeducation of what it means to be overweight and discouraged doctors blindly labeling any patient that is overweight as “unhealthy” (“History”). They believed that health should not be measured based on the number on a scale, but “rather vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and other things such as diet and exercise”. This fat acceptance movement has further blossomed into what today’s society sees as the “body positivity movement”. One common example of this movement is the Iskra campaign for #AerieREAL. Aerie, a popular lingerie/swimwear/sleepwear brand, is well-known for their inclusivity of all bodies. The campaign featuring body-positive activist-model, Iskra Lawrence, intends to encourage women to have self-love and body positivity by refusing to retouch their models through Photoshop.

Despite all of the good work the body positivity movement has done, the bottom line is that people still have a problem with fat people. Most people’s flaws are not so apparent (bad sport, arrogance, stubbornness, etc.), however, with fat people there is no “hiding”. Today’s society tends to target overweight people and label them as “lazy” or “gross”, but praise models on the covers of magazines who are in fact underweight and equally unhealthy. Fat shaming is defined as “the act of making fun of someone for being overweight, or telling someone they are worthless, useless, lazy or disgusting because they are overweight” (“Fat Shaming”). Unfortunately, fat shaming still seems to be a socially-accepted form of discrimination. For example, my roommate told me that “[she] hates fat people more than crying babies on airplanes”. Whether or not we iterate these ideas, we all see the fat person on a plane as an inconvenience in our lives rather than a human being. Likewise, Roxane Gay also mentions being fat shamed on a flight. She tweeted while on her flight, “Just caught the guy next to me taking a picture of me. The kind he will share with his friends to laugh about the fat woman he is sitting next to on a plane. If the floor could open up and swallow me right now I would be grateful”. This constant policing and shaming does not motivate people to lose weight. In fact, it seems to exacerbate weight gain. Weight discrimination has been shown to make people feel less confident in taking part in physical activity, therefore, they avoid it at all costs (Dallas). A study in the journal, Obesity, involving over 3,000 adults, found that weight discrimination was associated with a weight gain of roughly two pounds, while those who were not shamed lost around 1.5 pounds (Jackson et al. 2486). This study clearly shows that weight stigma and discrimination are part of the obesity problem in America, not the solution.

Due to the lamentable treatment of overweight individuals, a psychological vicious cycle is created. This causes people to not only gain even more weight, but also causes the epidemic of obesity to expand across America. According to the Podcast, “Tell Me I’m Fat”, one third of Americans are classified as “overweight”, and another one-third are considered “obese”.  The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) defines obesity as “weight that is higher than what is considered as a healthy weight for a given height”, using BMI (Body Mass Index) to measure this. A BMI of 25-30 is considered overweight, whereas a BMI of 30 or more is considered to be in the obese range (“Defining Adult”). However, research has shown that BMI is not a good indication of health because it cannot distinguish between fat and muscle (Sifferlin). If there is a universal truth regarding health, it is that being overweight means you are unhealthy. It is important to note that in some cases obesity can lead to problems such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. However, it has been drilled into our heads that this is the case for every overweight person which is so wrong; being thin does not equate to good health. In fact, it has been scientifically proven that some obese people with higher levels of fat can also be in good health. A 2012 study conducted in the United States found that the difference between healthy and unhealthy obese people were fitness levels; those who were metabolically healthy but obese were much more fit. This “fat but fit” group had no higher risk of death or illness than their “normal-fat” fit peers” (Williams et al.). What it really comes down to, is that living a healthy lifestyle is overwhelmingly more significant than a number on a scale.

Contrarily, there are many people trying to break this cycle and lose weight. In order to combat weight gain and fat shaming, people often look to diets for help. Dieting is a restricted form of eating, in terms of its qualities and composition (such as calorie intake), in order to improve one’s physical condition or to lose weight (“Diet”). The TV show, “The Biggest Loser” is a prime example of this – it centers around overweight and obese people who attempt to lose the most weight by extreme amounts of exercise and reducing calorie-intake. While the show seems to be great with the majority of contestants losing a significant amount of weight, the long-term results were not as pretty. A study conducted over six years showed that thirteen of the fourteen contestants gained back all of the weight they originally lost (Asprey). This study proves that dieting is “rarely effective, doesn’t reliably improve health and does more harm than good” (Aamodt). According to the Aamodt, “the root of the problem is not willpower but neuroscience”. Each individual has a specific metabolic range that is determined by genes and life experience. Therefore, a significant weight loss would “declare a starvation state of emergency, using every method available to get that weight back up to normal” (Aamodt). In addition, dieting can later influence binge-eating, which ultimately could lead to an increase in weight gain. The act of taking away specific foods such as ice cream, pizza, bread, etc. is harmful because our bodies naturally respond by glorifying and obsessing over it. According to registered dietitian and nutritionist, Jean Alves, “the more we restrict our food intake, the more we think about food” – hence the excitement those get during “cheat day” for diets. So, many might be wondering, “well if dieting does not seem to work, what should we do instead?”. Research shows that food quality and not quantity is most effective in regard to weight loss. A study conducted by Dr. Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, found that “after one year of focusing on food quality, not calories, the two groups lost substantial amounts of weight” (O’Connor). Overall, diet culture is inherently not body positive; it is important to focus on eating whole, nutritious foods rather than eliminating entire food groups and counting calories.

Although weight loss is a process and is often difficult to achieve, the public rarely takes this into account. Fat shaming is inescapable, from the airplane to shopping malls to even attending a doctor’s appointment. The body positivity movement has failed to address the discrimination against fat people by the constant policing in the name of “caring for one’s health”. According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Washington, which surveyed over 2,000 medical practitioners, “doctors have similar levels of anti-fat bias as the general public” (Stokes). It is quite ironic that doctors are so concerned with others’ health, but do not make healthcare environments welcoming at all. According to health.com, “doctors are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to making people feel ashamed of the number on the scale”. They are so confident to diagnose and blame patient complaints on their weight. For example, Amena Azeez explains that when she was thirteen years old, she slipped on a diving board and injured her back. She mentions that doctors were so sure that her back pain was a symptom of her larger size, saying that if she lost weight she would be fine. In addition to stigmatized comments, the first thing that is taken at pretty much any doctor’s office is weight. This undoubtedly makes overweight people uncomfortable and not want to come back.

Unfortunately, the general public also tends to fat-shame in “caring for one’s health”. Even I have done this, not even realizing the harm that it could potentially cause. About a year ago I noticed my sister gaining weight and I called her out on it and said, “well, maybe you shouldn’t eat as much junk food”. At the time, I did not realize what I had said, but a few weeks later I noticed she had bought a weight-loss supplement. Statements like this are not beneficial to a person; all it does is mess with their confidence and hurt their overall health by making them feel bad about their weight. Bodies are not meant to all look alike, and trying to promote an unrealistic and unhealthy “ideal” body shape can ultimately create serious consequences such as eating disorders and mental problems.

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Through the relatively recent development of social media and the inability to escape it, body image has become even more stigmatized. For decades, the media has promoted unrealistic images of how a female body should look. Flashback to the 1800s – Peter Paul Rubens, a 17th century Flemish Baroque painter, was famous for his paintings of plump, sensual women, denoting the term “rubenesque”. According to Bushak, “up until the 20th century, curvy, voluptuous women were considered ideally beautiful in the United States and Europe”. In contrast, in today’s society there is an obsession with being thin. Skinny models continue to dominate most of today’s magazines and media, emphasizing this idea of the “ideal body image”. Body shaming has become proliferant through the help of magazines, social media platforms, television, etc. It is not uncommon to see “overweight” celebrities on the front of a magazine with degrading comments. For example, Kim Kardashian “was slammed by tabloids for the amount of weight she’d gained during her pregnancy” (Warner). Furthermore, television shows and movies have fallen to this fat discrimination pattern as well. It is not uncommon for the fat character to be the subject of criticism and/or bullying. According to the International Journal of Eating Disorders, “overweight characters [are] more likely than those of average weight to have negative comments directed toward them and such comments were typically met with positive audience reactions (i.e. laughter). For example, Jonah Hill has been called “Hollywood’s “funny fat guy,” due to his appearance in early films like Superbad and Get Him to The Greek” (Wildenradt).

While weight stigma and fat shaming primarily center around women, it certainly has a large impact on men as well. The body positivity movement has failed to include men because “many studies find higher vulnerability and/or prevalence of experienced weight stigma among women compared with men” (Himmelstein et al. 968). However, larger men still face the same issues as larger women. According to Himmelstein, “40% of men reported experiencing weight stigma” (968). Nonetheless, self-perceptions differ between men and women. Men perceive themselves as being overweight at a BMI of around 20, whereas women do at 23.7 (Himmelstein 969). Men are upheld to society’s standards of being muscular and fit. Even if they are not fat-shamed at the same level as women are, they are still labeled as “lazy” and “gross”. If the body positivity movement claims to be inclusive of all bodies, it has to include every gender as well.

There is no doubt that the body positivity movement has encouraged many women to love their bodies and look past their flaws. However, slapping a body positive sticker on a water bottle does not solve the socially-acceptable discrimination against fat people. Fat shaming is not an individual issue; it is a cultural problem. And, with decades of discrimination against overweight people via fat shaming, it is going to take a lot of time to turn the tide and embrace the beauty and uniqueness of all body types. This requires all of us to put our individual negative stereotypes aside, be open, and become the voice for both women and men who are fighting fat shaming. At first, this may be very uncomfortable with standing up for those who many have previously targeted as being less valuable and important than others, based on their size. But, when we stop perpetuating the idea that people should be judged primarily for their physical features, over time, we will be part of the broader cultural change where we accept, love, and support others regardless of their physical size. Through our participation and commitment to being part of the cultural change, the body positivity movement will soon be back on course to provide inclusiveness, acceptance, and support for health at any and every size.

Works Cited

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  • Alptraum, Lux. “A Short History of ‘Body Positivity’.” Fusion, 2017, fusion.tv/story/582813/a-short-history-of-body-positivity/.
  • Alves, Jean. “How Dieting Can Lead to Binge Eating.” Eating Recovery Center, www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/blog/2016/10/12/diets-set-us-self-sabotage-jean-alves.
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  • @rgay (Roxane Gay). “Just caught the guy next to me taking a picture of me. The kind he will share with his friends to laugh about the fat woman he is sitting next to on a plane. If the floor could open up and swallow me right now I would be grateful.” Twitter, 19 Sept. 2018, 8:23 p.m., https://twitter.com/rgay/status/1042585038066475008?lang=en.
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