‘Body image’ and ‘self esteem’ have been headline-grabbing buzzwords for the better part of two decades. It is now widely accepted that media representations of ultra-thin, air-brushed models have a negative effect on young people. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are appearing in children as young as eight and now commonly affect males as well as girls and women.
In an attempt to redress the balance, government initiatives like the National Advisory Group on Body Image have been put in place. Their work, such as drafting a voluntary code of conduct for magazines and advertisers, has been valuable. But there are many vulnerable people left out of this campaign: those of us who are not only less well-sculpted than Jennifer Hawkins but who are, in fact, truly fat.
Living fat is not easy right now, and not only because it’s harder to find a decent cocktail dress. The so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ and associated media reportage constantly re-enforces the myth that fat and health are mutually exclusive and, by extension, hand a ready-made excuse to those who simply find fat people disgusting. As a mother who wears plus-sizes, I know that every time I step outside of my front door I’m facing harsh judgment. My body isn’t deemed by others to be healthy (regardless of what I eat or how much exercise I do) – and because of that, my body is generally excluded from positive body image campaigns. My body is real, and it is healthy, but I’m apparently not supposed to feel positively about it.
The simple fact is that if fat people are to live healthy, active lives we need good self esteem too. And that requires equitable treatment from others; skilled, empathetic health care; accepting environments in which to exercise; quality clothes and fashion to fit our bodies; and the right to live free from prejudice and size-based discrimination. This is especially important for fat children and teenagers, who are vulnerable to bullying. These young people need parents, teachers, doctors and celebrity role-models to protect them from prejudice and encourage them to have good self esteem, no matter what their weight. They also need Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, and her advisory groups, to have a nuanced understanding of the issues facing fat people.
The growing international movement of Fat Acceptance aims to help break down hurtful stereotypes about fat people as well as expose some of the myths about weight and health. Fat people are amongst the most vilified groups in our community. A recent study showed that obese children are 63% more likely to be bullied than their lighter peers, regardless of their gender, race or socioeconomic status. Other research shows that obese people are consistently rated as amongst the most ‘disgusting’ in our community, regardless of whether survey respondents believed that being fat was a choice or not. It is well-known that fat people are discriminated against in the workplace: in a Monash University study, a quarter of participants reported being refused employment or fired because of their weight.
The consequences of this routine denigration of fat people are very serious. The Yale Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity has proven that amongst health care workers, fat-hatred is just as prevalent as in the wider community. As a conservative estimate, more than 50% of doctors are prejudiced against fat patients, viewing them as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and non-compliant” and also attributing their weight to a lack of personal discipline. Many patients are told to lose weight as the first course of treatment, regardless of their symptoms. This certainly doesn’t promote good health outcomes! Mental health also suffers because of rampant fat-shaming in our community. A recent Australian study into mental health and obesity concluded that due to societal pressures, fat people “feel an unrelenting otherness and difference associated with their weight.” Shockingly, fat teenagers are twice as likely to attempt suicide as their ‘normal weight’ peers.7 (Despite this sobering reality, mainstream body image campaigns aimed at teenagers rarely address weight discrimination and organizations like Beyond Blue do not provide support explicitly for fat teens.)
Much of the hatred directed towards fat people is seen as justified on the grounds that being larger is bad for your health. But this is a very simplistic and almost entirely untrue assumption. The link between weight and health is far more complex than the media would have us believe, and medical studies have never unequivocally proven that being fat is an independent health risk. Even so, in this country headlines about ‘obesity’ and an ‘obesity epidemic’ have increased fifty fold in a decade, and yet our waistlines have barely moved in that time. The Fat Acceptance movement attempts to demonstrate that the moral panic about obesity has more to do with junk science than junk food. What is very clear from the scientific research, however, is that there is no sure-fire way to make a fat person thin. We know that diets don’t work for the vast majority of people – but neither do ‘lifestyle changes’, drugs or even surgery. In fact, weight loss usually isn’t good for your health and could be associated with higher mortality rates – but we don’t read much about that in magazines.
The simple fact is: you cannot tell if someone is healthy by only assessing their weight. The common-sense paradigm of Health At Every Size acknowledges that all bodies are diverse, and even very fat people can be healthy. Activity and nutritious foods are obviously good for you, whatever your weight. Given the extent of fat-shaming in our culture, however, it can be difficult for those of us who are constantly told to ‘diet’ or laughed at for jogging at the beach to live healthy lifestyles. Therefore, the work of Fat Acceptance is vital and should be considered a core part of any government’s health, mental health, and body image policies.
If we are to combat the sheer force of destructive body-shaming in our culture, we must all be self esteem warriors. Accepting everyone you meet, regardless of their size and shape, is a good place to start.
Got some questions? Here are some key resources and further reading:
- Dr. Linda Bacon Health At Every Size, The Surprising Truth About Your Weight
- Paul Campos The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health
- Kate Harding & Marianne Kirby Screw Inner Beauty, Lessons from the Fatosphere
Photo credit: Peter Albrektsen – Fotolia.com