The moment you mention “fat” and anything positive in the same sentence you get a response that’s meant to put you in your place. It will usually go something like, “I don’t believe in encouraging unhealthy behaviour” or “I’m all for self-acceptance, but…”.
I certainly do understand this sentiment. I think social stigma can be a powerful way to discourage bad behaviour. Just look at MADD’s entire campaign against drunk driving, for example.
However, I do think there is an unnecessarily strong reaction against Fat Positivity. Below I’ve outlined 3 reasons why I think that reaction is unfair.
1) We overlook healthy individuals with large bodies because they don’t fit our cultural beauty standards
The number one criticism of fat acceptance is that it encourages unhealthy behaviour. However, there are more and more examples that prove body size doesn’t always dictate health. Olympic hammer-thrower Amanda Bingson encountered this type of assumption when she was kicked off her high school volleyball team for not losing weight. Years later and she has been able to prove that a large body is just as capable of amazing things as a small body. It’s been encouraging to see her featured in this year’s ESPN Body Issue, the magazine’s “annual celebration of athletes’ amazing bodies”.
Another large and healthy individual who has come to my attention is yogi Jessamyn Stanley. I try (emphasis on try) to practice yoga every week, and yoga is, for me, one of the few physical activities I’m actually kind of okay at. That’s why I was stunned to see Stanley doing moves I am still far away from accomplishing. It’s clear to me that Stanley has the kind of core strength that most of the slender yogis in my classes still haven’t managed to build.
Examples like Bingson and Stanley aren’t meant to prove that all large people are healthy. Instead, they offer a great reminder that size doesn’t necessarily dictate health. While large individuals are sometimes much more healthy than they look, some slim individuals can be much less healthy than they appear.
2) We excuse other unhealthy behaviours when they happen to be trendy
In the past, I’ve posted articles about fat positivity on Social Media only to be reminded that fat=unhealthy. In contrast, when I posted a photo of my husband and I smoking a few years back, I received the exact opposite reaction. People loved it. We were told how cute we were and there were, of course, a few marijuana jokes peppered in there as well.
Maybe the reason we didn’t get chastising comments on this photo was because the people who know us know that we smoke so rarely that we couldn’t possibly qualify as real smokers. Then again, maybe it’s because cigars and pipes are still riding a trend-wave after their hipster comeback a few years ago.
3) We actually encourage unhealthy behaviour, as long as you aren’t already fat.
I touched on this issue in one of my first posts for CWR, about Jennifer Lawrence and diets. I wrote about how much I loved Lawrence as a refreshing “everygirl” who ate fries and pizza and didn’t care about her weight. At the same time I struggled with celebrating these unhealthy habits when I was trying to make good choices in my own diet. While Lawrence’s “obsession” with food was tolerated because she was young and cute and thin, she has since cut back on these public displays and even appears to have lost the weight directors were telling her to.
To have a women like Lawrence, as fun and entertaining as she is, represent real, laid-back chicks isn’t an honest representation of what kind of work goes into sustaining a Hollywood body. Heck, a lot of work goes into sustaining bodies that don’t even fit into the Hollywood standard.
The majority of the time, beauty is not effortless, especially the kind of beauty we see in movies. It can be really discouraging to realize that you can’t actually sit around eating pizza all day and still look like Jennifer Lawrence. Unfortunately, a lot of women (and probably men too), feel like they need to maintain this illusion.
By going along with this social pretence of effortless beauty, we perpetuate a culture where beauty standards are made even more impossible by pairing them with bad eating habits. As Meghan Tonjes explains,
“If I were 120 pounds eating a pizza in my underwear on Tumblr I would be ‘quirky’, and ‘cute’, and ‘real.’ But if I’m 300 pounds and I’m eating pizza in my underwear, people are like: ‘You’re killing yourself, you’re disgusting, you’re everything that’s wrong with America.”
4) We don’t really care about your mental health, as long as you are thin
I’ve had a surprising number of women in my life experience anorexia, bulimia, or an unhealthy weight obsession. Sometimes, these bad habits were even encouraged by loved ones. One such friend explained to me that,
“… people knew I wasn’t eating healthy but I was thin, [so] they weren’t ready for me to make healthy choices for me because 1. Making thin unhealthy choices seemed better than… being overweight and making healthy choices. 2. Some of them were apathetic to my unhealthy thin choices because they themselves weren’t willing to do what needed to [be done] in order to have a healthy fit body.”
For her, it was incredibly discouraging to realize that people in her life would rather that she appeared to be healthy (even though she struggled with anorexia) than be a little bit overweight and actually live out better habits.
Setting aside the prevalent problem of eating disorders, there is still the issue of general self-hate. I’ve seen my own loved ones struggle with this spiral of shame and self-hatred, ultimately to have it lead nowhere. When it comes to losing weight, shame is a terrible motivator. More often than not, it just leads to depression, apathy, and often, overeating.
Why I need fat acceptance
I’d like to think I’m happy with my body. Even as a teenager I (surprisingly) didn’t think about my weight very much. Back then I had a pretty decent metabolism, so even if I wasn’t the skinniest girl in my class I never felt uncomfortable with my weight. Even now, there are times when I look in the mirror and I think to myself “damn girl, you looking goooood”.
Yet somehow, self-hate has snuck up on me these last couple years. The other day I looked down at my stomach, grabbed a flabby roll and imagined what it would be like to make an incision at the bottom and scoop out a little bit of the gelatinous mess inside. Flatten things out a little.
The hatred I felt for my body surprised me. It was so unexpected. Honestly, I’m not sure where these thoughts came from, or why now, all I know is that I’m not the only person who has felt this way.
That is why I need fat acceptance. I need it because I don’t want to hate my body, regardless of the shape it takes. I also don’t want shame to be my motivation. Instead, I want to make healthy choices because it makes me feel happy, and strong, and ready to walk up steep hills (those hills man, gotta watch out for them).
So, if body size doesn’t necessarily dictate health, and shame has never been a great motivator anyway, then why are we so afraid of fat acceptance? Are we just worried fat people might think that they too are *gasp* real people deserving of love?
This is great. I’ve talked about it elsewhere but I think it bears repeating that we often conflate health with vanity and it leads to an awful confusion.
A while ago my husband commented to his parents that he was going to focus on reaching some health goals, like running a set distance or eating better meals instead of focussing on losing weight and from the way his dad reacted you’d have thought he said “screw health I’m going to eat candy for breakfast every day!” it was like he could not understand that weight loss was not the most important factor… Why would anyone “be healthy” if the point wasn’t to look good at the end?
It’s especially weird because James’ brother was horribly sick for years with gastrointestinal problems. He was always a skinny dude but there was a point where he was absolutely skeletal… I’m talking about a 6’5″ guy who weighs 160 lb because he has malabsorption issues. He was finally diagnosed as celiac and is starting to do better. But all you had to do was look at him to know that despite being thin, he was absolutely not healthy.
Anyways I think we make a mistake when we assume that “looking good” is a synonym for “healthy.”
I always love your comments Emily. You always have a great example.
Haha thanks. James says I often get caught up in the examples and forget to make my point …so I’m glad it’s working for someone!
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