Does Fat Shaming Really Encourage Change?

Body positivity and fat shaming are two related issues that we as a society have been discussing quite a bit in recent years.

For the most part, there seem to be two sides to this debate. There is the side that is in support of body positivity, and what this more or less means is… well, they don’t think that anyone should feel shamed for being fat. This side of the argument points out that, in our media, we primarily see thin women represented as ‘beautiful’ or ‘worthwhile’, despite the fact that this body type doesn’t really represent every or even most women. In fact, some studies have shown that the average American woman is a size 16-18, while the average female mannequin body size is “similar to a severely underweight woman”.

Essentially, what this side of the debate rests on is the idea that all women, regardless of body size, should be allowed to feel beautiful. Nobody should be beaten down or made fun of by society because of the way that they look. And, more than that, everyone should be able to see themselves represented in their media, and everybody should feel as though they have a right to exist as they are.

And this side of the argument has had their successes. Some photographers have gone out of their way to capture the ‘real woman’, to show just how beautiful women with curves actually are (since we don’t see it in our media often enough). Meanwhile, the popular children’s doll Barbie, which has been criticized for upholding unrealistic body standards, has since released the Fashionista line of dolls, which include dolls that are, as they call it, ‘curvy’.

And yet, despite these successes, there remains another side to this argument.

While some claim that larger women should be allowed to feel beautiful, there are those who say otherwise. This side of the argument believes that people who are overweight should feel ashamed, and that being overweight is inexcusable. And often times, when I see this opinion given, it is used to justify looking down on and mocking someone for their appearance.

Now, this is the perspective that I want to speak to.

I’ve heard this perspective voiced a few times, either on the internet, in the media, etc. It is a fairly common perspective in fitness-type communities, such as gyms, and I have attended three different gyms over the past few years, as well as knowing people in the fitness industry. And when I hear this perspective voiced, it is often from people who claim that they are not trying to cause harm to anyone. Rather, they are trying to help the overweight person in question. They want to make them see that being overweight is wrong, or ugly, or unhealthy, so that they might, in turn, change their behaviour and become thin.

It isn’t the society that needs to change here, this perspective argues; it’s the people.

But let’s talk about that for a little bit; this idea that being overweight is wrong, or ugly, or unhealthy. I can’t talk much about body weight being ‘wrong’, because that’s simply too complex a concept for any of us to grasp here, but let’s talk about beauty.

In his article “‘Fat but fit’ is a myth and big is not beautiful – so stop making excuses for obesity”, personal trainer Nick Mitchell wrote, “Subjectively, fat is rarely beautiful because we are hard wired by evolution to want to pass on the best genes from the healthiest bodies”. Mitchell here claims that we as a society can never see people who are overweight as ‘beautiful’, because it is in our genetics to see them as unhealthy and, therefore, undesirable. It isn’t bias; it’s science. However, world history doesn’t really support Mitchell’s claim. In the modern day, the ideal woman’s body is thin, sure, but this ideal has been changing constantly. In Ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance (two historical periods that produced some of the western world’s most classic artistic examples of feminine beauty), the ideal woman was plump and well-fed. Even as recently as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the ideal woman’s body would have been considered ‘curvy’.

Our body standards are constantly changing, and that’s because our ideas of beauty are incredibly fluid. Beauty is not a solid construct; it is something that we as a society make up. Something that we can change if we want to. It is not black-or-white, you are not either beautiful or ugly. It is up to us to decide what beautiful is, and I say that all body types are beautiful.

But let’s talk about that third issue, because that one tends to be mentioned even more often than the others: this idea of ‘overweight’ being unhealthy. This is a concept that has been debated, over and over, and by people much more qualified than me. I am not a doctor. I am not a nutritionist. I cannot give my expert opinion on any of this.

But I am someone who was, at one point, overweight, and who then began eating healthy and exercising regularly. And with that experience, I can tell you this: people do not turn their whole lives around merely because they feel bad about themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact.

When I was overweight, there were plenty of times where I would overeat food that I knew was unhealthy for me, and I’d do it with the thought, “what does it matter? I’m a fat cow anyway”.

When you feel bad about yourself, you feel depressed and unmotivated. And changing your daily habits require motivation. Personally speaking, I knew that I was overweight, and I was ashamed of it and did not feel beautiful, but that alone wasn’t enough to make me change my lifestyle. What made me change was coming to the conclusion that I was strong enough to do it.

I didn’t become healthier through shame; I became healthier with confidence.

So when you make fun of someone or put them down for being overweight, you are not helping them. They already know that people make fun of them for how they look; they are hyper-aware of it as it is. All that you are doing is adding to the issue. All that you are doing is making them feel a little bit worse.

If you truly do want to help someone live a healthier lifestyle, then there are a few things that you can do instead:

  1. Do not assume that, just because someone is overweight, it is because they are living an unhealthy life style. There are plenty of reasons why someone might be overweight, outside of inactivity and excessive junk food. Maybe it is genetic. Maybe it is due to a health issue. Either way, the mere appearance of a person’s body does not give you enough information to know if they need a change of lifestyle.
  2. Do not present health as something that you can either succeed or fail at. Do not pose a dress size as the trophy that you win once you officially ‘get healthy’. Getting healthy is not about a short-term diet or achieving a goal; it is a lifestyle, and one that you can take breaks from when you need to. It’s okay to have a slice of cake at your nephew’s birthday party. It’s okay to have a cupcake with your coworkers when somebody brings them in. This is not something that you can fail at; it is just a lifestyle.
  3. Do not belittle anyone into doing what you want them to do; encourage them. And, end of day, there is nothing wrong with them if they decide that a healthy lifestyle is not something that they want to pursue. That is their choice to make. It is their body, and they can do with it as they please.

I have heard people say that, quite simply, people who are overweight should feel ashamed of their body, and this statement has never made any sense to me. Why should anyone feel ashamed of their body, for any reason at all? It is a body. It is the only body that you will ever get in this life. It is natural, and it carries you throughout this world, and it does what it needs to do. So why should anyone feel ashamed of it?

And, more importantly, how does being ashamed of ourselves serve us? How does it make our lives better to hate ourselves?

So to any readers out there, regardless of body type, all I can say is this: love yourself, and love those around you. Growth does not come from cruel words or belittlement, it comes from strength and encouragement.

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Don’t Let Someone Else Live Your Life

There’s this issue in society that I’ve seen come up again and again, and I’ve seen it in multiple forms.

When I was in high school, I would always answer the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with “I want to be a writer”, to which most teachers would respond, “oh, that’s not a practical job, you can’t make much money with that. Why don’t you do something else – you could be a teacher instead.”

The other day, when I was at the gym, I met a woman in her fifties who was enthusing over another woman’s bright red and orange dreadlocks, and she mentioned that she had recently gone to the hairdresser’s asking for a funky haircut herself, to which the hairdresser responded, “oh, you’re much too old for that, I wouldn’t do that to you.”

I recently read an article about a girl who described herself as ‘fat’, and she stated that when she went to the beach in her bikini, she was spotted by a woman who responded to her by saying, “you’re much too big for that bikini, I don’t want to see that. Why don’t you wear something that covers you up a bit more?”

And I very recently watched a video posted on Elle Magazine’s Facebook page discussing an eight year old boy who enjoyed dressing and performing as a drag queen, and in this video he mentioned that he knew other kids who would go to their parents saying that they wanted to be drag queens, to which their parents would respond “you’re too young to even know what that is”.

Now, there’s a lot going on in all of these examples, but the common theme that I notice, the thing that really gets under my skin, is this idea of telling other people what they can and can’t be, the acceptable ways of expressing themselves, based off of your limited understanding of who they are and what they are capable of.

And this happens so often, and in so many different ways. In the above mentioned examples, we see at least three different types of discrimination as well.

In the example of the woman in her fifties wanting to get a funky haircut, we see a prime example of ageism, or discrimination against someone based on their age. The woman was deemed to be too old to look good with a funky hairstyle, and so the hairdresser refused to give it to her, but when it really comes down to it – why? Why wouldn’t she look good with a funky hairstyle? And more than that, who is the hairdresser to judge if she would or would not? If the woman in question wants to express herself in that way, and if it would make her feel more comfortable in her own skin, then what is so wrong about it? But we as a society have a very basic understanding of what someone in that age group should be – they should be humble, quiet, non-offensive, ready to wind down and start taking things slow, and so when someone comes along to challenge all that, we don’t like it. We tell them that they can’t do that. Which is really unfair, because it limits the way that they get to express themselves and find comfort in their own skin.

In the example of the larger woman in a bikini, we see one of the most classic examples of fat shaming. I don’t know a whole lot about the woman in her bikini – I don’t know if she felt like she was rocking the bikini or if she was already a little bit self-conscious about it, but the one thing I do know is that she did not deserve to be told that she shouldn’t wear it. Because she should. If she wants to put her body in a bikini, then she should put that body in a bikini, and she should have the opportunity to go out and look fabulous and be her beautiful self. Her body and her bikini was not the problem here. The problem was the other woman’s limited idea of what beauty is. She decided (because she was told this by society) that only thin women look good in bikinis, and therefore, only thin women should wear bikinis. Larger women should spend their lives enrobed by the shame one-piece, forever going to the beach in frumpy tee shirts and acceptably covering shorts.

And lastly, in the example of the children who wanted to dress in drag, we see an example of sexism and/or homophobia. A lot of people see gender as a very two-way street: you are either male or female, and especially when it comes to children, a lot of parents fear that deviating from that two-way street will result in their children becoming ‘other’. Their sons will grow up gay, their daughters will grow up confused, cats will live with dogs, havoc will erupt upon the city, and dear god, will someone please think of the children! There are two major problems with this thinking: 1) we already force children who are LGBT+ to act straight and/or cis-gendered, but that doesn’t cause them to grow up to be straight and/or cis-gendered, and 2) this sort of thinking hinges on the belief that being LGBT+ is wrong and must therefore be avoided. Children must give a very limited, very prescribed performance of gender, or else they risk becoming queer, but even if they did, what would be wrong with that? And, almost worse, by telling children that they shouldn’t know what drag queens or anything similar to that are, you are indirectly telling them that being a drag queen or anything similar is wrong or dirty, which poses one of two risks: either they start treating their fellow LGBT+ children accordingly, or they internalize these opinions about themselves, that they are wrong and they are dirty, because they are LGBT+. We associate being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender-queer, drag queen, etc., as being an ‘adult thing’, but most everyone who falls under those categories as an adult can tell you that it started somewhere in their childhood, or that they knew it all along. So if this is the case, and if children most certainly can be something other than straight or cis-gendered, then why do we force them to act otherwise?

One of our societies many problems is that we are constantly limiting one another. We see each other in very basic, very simple ways, and then we act accordingly: a person is either fat, thin, young, old, child, woman, man, this, or that, and when they start to step outside of those lines, to challenge our ways of seeing them, we tell them, “oh, no, no, don’t you do that – get back into that line where you belong!”

But that isn’t how things works. People are more than the labels we give them, and they should be allowed to express themselves in any way that they see fit.

So if you are a fifty, sixty, ninety year old woman who wants to get a bright green mohawk, do it! If you’re four hundred pounds of pure awesome and you want to wear your stylish new bikini to the beach, then please be the most beautiful, most confident person there! If you want to dress in drag, or express your gender in a way that is sort of unconventional, then you will look all the better for it because you will be expressing who you truly are, and nothing is more beautiful than that!

And to go back to the example of my wanting to be a writer – if you have a dream that other people tell you is unrealistic, but you still need to pursue it, then pursue it for all it’s worth. Trust me, it will make your life so much more fulfilling.

Don’t ever let someone else live your life for you. You are amazing, and you are so incredibly strong and capable. So even if you do face the occasional doubter or nay-sayer, just remember that they’re speaking from a very limited understanding and that they don’t know you. You know you, and at the end of the day, you are the only person who has to be satisfied with your life.

What You Decorate Your Beautiful Body With

A while back, I was scrolling through Facebook, bored, not really looking for anything in particular, when I came across a picture of a woman. She was a little bit older, a little bit larger, but she was wearing a great, beaming smile and a small dress covered in Disney characters. “I finally got it!” read the caption. “I’ve been eyeing this dress for so long, and I’m so glad that I finally got it! It’s just a shame that it’s on my fat body.”

When I read this last part, my heart sunk. I left the obligatory “you look awesome in that dress, rock what you got!” comment, but I’ve been thinking about that comment ever since.

Because, really, I don’t think that it’s all too rare a comment to make.

When it comes to clothing and style, people feel a need to conform to a certain set of expectations. People who are bigger in size are mocked and made fun of if they wear anything that shows off their body. People who are older are mocked if they dress “too young”. And when it comes to alternative styles, like funky hair colours, obvious tattoos, or facial piercings, many people behave as though the act of getting them is a courageous one, telling people who have them, “oh, you’re so brave! I could never do that!”

And there are a lot of ways that society enforces these beliefs. For example, certain employers will refuse to hire someone who is dressed completely clean and professional, and yet they have a tattoo of a flower on their arm. But these beliefs are man-made. They do not reflect any sacred truth, and the only thing they reflect is the way that we as a society see people who do not conform to what is deemed the ‘appropriate’ way to dress.

But restricting what a person can and can’t wear, bullying an overweight person until they feel ashamed to so much as wear a dress, is a strange and cruel thing for society to do. Because, really, what does a person’s style really do to offend those around them?

How do inoffensive tattoos get in the way of a person’s ability to do their job?

How does an older woman wearing black lipstick and a mini skirt affect your day?

Why would a cis-gendered man wearing a dress offend you?

And when you actually ask these questions to those who enforce these beliefs, often times they’ll come up with the same responses: because it looks silly. But why does it look silly? The only reason that I can think of is because we don’t see it very often. And the reason why we don’t see it very often is because society bullies people out of doing it – they tell them that if they do it, then they’re wrong, they’re ugly, they’re ridiculous, none of which is at all true.

There is nothing ugly about your body. Your body is a magnificent thing, whether it is overweight, wrinkled, disabled, tattooed, covered in stretch marks, or whatever the case may be. It is a human body, and it is capable of sustaining you, of bringing you through life. And of course it isn’t perfect – nobody’s body is, and neither should they be. They should be scarred and marked and calloused, because these are the things that life does to us. These are the signs that you have lived.

So whatever you want to wear, whether that be sweatpants or a small dress covered in Disney characters, please wear it! Some people might laugh and mock you, sure, but those people are wrong to do so. Those people are too stuck in the idea of what’s acceptable and what’s not that they haven’t bothered to ask themselves why they feel that way. And as far as the ways that society enforces these rules, the issue of employment and what not, there are always ways around it. Some employers might take issue, but others won’t. Others will look passed the things that you choose to decorate your beautiful body with and see you for what you truly are: a remarkable, open-minded person who can’t be defined as easily as society says you can.