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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Here’s to Strong Women

When I was thirteen years old, I started to get into comic books. At the time, I was particularly partial to superhero comics. And as a young girl, I heard all the jokes about how, of course I was so absorbed in a genre that followed traditionally handsome, muscular men dressed in skin-tight clothing. It didn’t seem to matter much if I said that that wasn’t what drew me to the genre; everyone was simply convinced that that must be what it was.

I had a hard time convincing people that, when I opened a Batman comic, I didn’t do it for the sad, rich boy with abs; I was there for the tragic cat burglar who wanted love, but never at the expense of her freedom or independence. I wanted to read about the clown girl who fell head-over-heels for the wrong man, and then learned to recognize the abuse, and, with the help of her best friend (another woman who had faced mistreatment from an entitled and careless man) she got herself out of that situation.

I am, of course, talking about Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, respectively. Three fictional characters who are not only strong, capable, and fiercely independent – they are, quite simply, unapologetically female.

When I was thirteen years old, these were the sorts of fictional characters that I was attracted to, in all forms of media: power fantasies. More specifically, feminine power fantasies. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because she was allowed to (un-ironically) love shopping and make-up and gossiping, while still being able to kick some demon ass and stand up for herself. I loved Wonder Woman, because she was fierce and strong, but nurturing and loving all at once. I loved Xena, because she could be both warrior and princess without question.

When I was sixteen years old, my attention began to turn a little bit more toward celebrities, because I suppose that’s what you do when you’re a teenager (or, it was what me and my friends did, at least). The celebrities that I sought out were much the same.

I loved rocker chicks, like P!nk and Joan Jett, women who weren’t afraid to challenge what was expected of women. I loved celebrities like Lady Gaga, who insisted on expressing themselves in the way that they saw fit. I loved Emma Watson, and any woman who was willing to brand themselves a feminist or stand up for women’s issues.

I loved female celebrities who will go unnamed here, simply because there is not time and space to mention all of them.

When I was eighteen years old, I became more aware of the women in my own life, in my family (as you tend to do when you’re facing the possibility of moving out and moving on).

I heard stories about my maternal grandmother, and how much of a firecracker she had always been. I heard about this five-foot-tall woman, growing up with nothing to call her own and having to build her own life from scratch. I heard about the time that her own brother made fun of her until she could stand it no longer, and she stabbed him in the hand with a fork.

I remembered growing up with my mother, who was covered almost head-to-toe in tattoos and dyed her hair a new colour every week. I remember her pictures being published in tattoo magazines, her name being made as a small-time tattoo model, even when she had two fully grown daughters. I remember her telling me that the people who thought she shouldn’t be who she was at her age didn’t matter. I remember her telling me how important it was to be true to yourself, and to be proud of who you are, no matter what that means.

I remember growing up with my sister, who has never once considered not speaking her mind. No matter what, even if what she says is considered rude or incorrect, she will say it. If others tell her that she should be humble, then she will climb to the highest rooftop just to scream out how much of a gift she is to the world. If someone tries to hurt or slight her, then she will do precisely what she needs to do to protect herself, because that is precisely the sort of strong, independent woman she is.

Now, I am twenty-two years old, and I am more aware now than ever that strong women are a gift upon this world.

As women, we are too often told to be something very particular; we are told to be soft, humble, passive, sweet, whatever – my point is, whenever a woman does not subscribe to this limited definition of what a woman can be, the effect can be truly inspiring.

Because the fact of the matter is, women don’t have to be one thing. Women shouldn’t be one thing; there are millions and millions of us, and we are all different. We all look different, act different, think different, love different, and we should reflect all that in how we live our lives.

A woman who does not perfectly reflect society’s definition of beauty, and yet still loves herself and owns what she has, is a rare and beautiful thing – specifically because society tells women that they shouldn’t do that.

A woman who unapologetically owns her quote-unquote ‘unfeminine’ traits, like ambition or assertiveness, is, again, a rare and beautiful thing.

A woman who is, quite simply, herself, regardless of what that might mean, is a rare and beautiful thing.

And the reason why am I writing this, more important than simply reminding the world that strong women are a gift, is because we need to remind the strong women in our lives that they are strong, that they are amazing, that they inspire us. We need to support our fellow women, to encourage them to continue being themselves. Because we exist in a society that sometimes seems intent on tearing them down, but if we can remind them that what they do is important, then maybe they can find the strength to continue.

As women, we need to build one another up. We need to be there for one another, to make one another better, instead of constantly trying to prove that we are better than them. On top of telling women what they should be, society has also tried to trap us in a constant cycle of competition with one another: we must be the pretty-est, the most loved, the best mother, but the truth is, we don’t need any to accept any of this. We have the option of supporting our fellow women, of helping them to become stronger. Because we all deserve to be and feel strong.

Acting Like A Lady

“Oh, come, come, sweetie. Don’t say those words. Ladies don’t curse.”

“Ladies sit with their legs closed, sweetie.”

“Ladies wait until marriage to have sex.”

“Real ladies don’t wear too much make-up, lest they lead the boys on and give them the wrong idea.”

“Real ladies don’t kiss other girls, because that’s not the right way to get a boy’s attention.”

“Real ladies like girly things, like make-up and shopping and gossip. They don’t enjoy sports or comic books or science fiction.”

Honestly, I could go on and on with these, but I don’t think I have to. Because I think that (especially if you were born female), you’ve heard at least one of these statements before, and probably countless others.

This idea of “being a lady”, being a proper, well-behaved young girl. Some people still say this to children of the genetically female persuasion. Some people still say this to grown women. I know I’ve heard it many, many times; very recently, in fact, I’ve received the complaint that swearing is “not lady-like”.

And I think that many people will defend this idea of enforcing “lady-like” behaviour in girls simply because it’s “proper manners”. Look at the example of telling girls that they need to sit with their legs closed: of course we need to tell girls that, because girls, more frequently than boys, wear dresses and skirts, and it simply isn’t polite for children to be giving you a view of their underwear.

Except, A) children engage in a lot of activity that isn’t polite because they’re children, and B) young girls are also capable of wearing pants, and young boys are never told that they need to sit with their legs closed (for more on this, look up ‘manspreading‘).

And, in fact, a lot of these behaviour that we tell girls to engage in from a young age really have nothing to do with manners. There is no etiquette-assigned reason for why we can’t wear dark eyeshadow or visible foundation. Polite conversation does not particularly care how many sexual partners you have had, so long as you are not going into lengthy detail about them at the time. And there is most certainly no manners-related reason why girls can’t kiss other girls, whether they are doing it because they are lesbians, because they are bisexual, or because they are simply curious and/or experimenting.

So, all of this considered, why do we tell girls this? What does “acting like a lady” really mean?

Well, if I’m gathering information from the above examples, a “lady” is quiet, innocent, virginal, takes up very little space, doesn’t attract too much attention, feminine, and heterosexual. In other words, she is the quintessential passive, submissive woman living under the patriarchy.

And allow me to take a moment to say, “fuck you” to that noise.

Because here’s the thing: women should be allowed to be whoever they are. They should be allowed to make noise without being worried that they will be rejected by society as “unfeminine” if they do. They should be allowed to take up space. They should be allowed to curse and wear make-up and kiss girls and boys and whoever the fuck they want, no matter who gets the wrong (or maybe right) idea about them.

And they should be allowed to do all of this, while still being accepted as valid human beings, rather than the horror stories that we try to steer our children away from.

Because, end of day, what we should be striving for our children and for, ultimately, everyone, regardless of gender or age, is that they have the ability to be who they are. And maybe some of us do fit into the mould of the “lady”; maybe, my nature, some of us are quiet and passive and not the greatest fans of sex or sexuality. But my point is that, while that should most certainly be accepted, so should the opposite. Nobody should feel forced to become anything they are not because society says that they should. Nobody should be pressured to “act like a lady” just because they happened to be born with a vagina. Because not all of us were born as “ladies”, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t women and, more importantly, people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve respect, or acceptance, or to be taken seriously.

So the next time that you most to correct someone else’s “un-ladylike” behaviour, question yourself; is this behaviour really “un-ladylike”? Or is it merely the behaviour of a different sort of lady?

And, please, never feel guilty for acting in a way that comes natural and hurts no one. A lady can do whatever the fuck she wants, because the beautiful thing about us ladies is that we are all, each and every one of us, different.

Me Too: Why We Need to Keep Talking About Sexual Assault and Harassment

If you have been active on social media lately, you might have become aware of the fact that every feed, dashboard, and home page has become an endless scroll of heartbreak. You sign on, and you receive an awful punch to the gut as you realize just how freaking common sexual assault and harassment is, all by reading those two little words that actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all those who have experienced it to post:

Me too.

Nearly every woman who I’m friends with or following on social media has posted it, and some men have as well. I have seen it posted by close friends, family, and people who I haven’t spoken to since high school. In some cases, it wasn’t a surprise, and in some cases, it was.

And all of a sudden, I find myself transported back to the first time that I realized sexual assault and harassment wasn’t just a horror that existed; it was commonplace. Back to being thirteen years old and discovering the statistic that one in four North American women would report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Back to telling a group of my three closest friends this statistic, and upon doing so, having it strike me for the first time that, if this was true, then chances were that one of us would be assaulted at some point in our lives. These were girls that I cared about too. Close friends of mine who I didn’t ever hope to see get hurt, not in any shape, way, or form.

This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was in that moment that I first realized just how astounding this statistic is. And the thing is, the statistic isn’t even where it ends. It is estimated that for every 100 rapes that occur, only 6 are reported to the police. I have known women who were raped, and then discouraged from seeking police involvement because it was her word against his and they didn’t think that they would be able to do anything with that. I have known women who were raped by their boyfriends, and then didn’t seek legal involvement because they cared about him, or because they didn’t realize at the time that what had happened really was rape. I have known people who were raped and then didn’t come forward because they didn’t want to deal with the shame that would inevitably follow.

In short, I have known too many people who have been raped. And none of these people even count toward the statistic of ‘one in four’. So, yeah, to this statistic that caused me such horror when I was thirteen years old, I call bullshit; the number is much, much higher than that.

And that’s just rape. This “me too” hashtag encompasses much more than that; it includes sexual harassment as well, like being groped without consent, having others make obscenely sexual comments toward us, or being offered unwelcome “rewards” (like raises, or a job) in exchange for sexual favours (etc.). And it seems like every woman has a story to tell in this regard, even if she hasn’t been sexually assaulted.

Let me take this moment to offer my own “me too” to this discussion.

So what do we do with this information? Right now, the internet is over saturated with “me too”s, but what do we do about that?

Well, personally, I think that this whole “me too” hashtag is actually starting us off in a good direction: we need to talk about it.

And I understand; not every survivor of sexual assault or harassment necessarily wants to talk about it right now. PTSD is a real and terrible issue that should be considered in all this, and nobody should feel pressured to talk about a trauma that they aren’t ready to discuss.

But, that being said, societally, we need to start talking about this, and we need to talk about it now. This isn’t just some horror that we hear about on the news; some senseless tragedy that we can’t understand but will never touch us in our cozy little lives. This does affect us. This affects every single one of us, in one way or another, whether you’re the survivor, or you’re the person who chooses not to hear the survivor out because you just don’t want to admit that there’s a problem. Either way, we’re all involved.

We need to start educating our children on consent. We need to start telling our boys that their worth doesn’t come from dominating others, or that they’re any weaker or less manly because they were assaulted. We need to start telling our girls that it doesn’t matter what they were wearing, or if they were drinking, or where they were at the time; they still didn’t deserve it, and they still deserve justice, or at least the right to feel safe in public.

We need to stop doubting survivors when they come forward. We need to listen to their stories when they try to speak out. We need to encourage others to come forward, and we need to create a safe space for them.

And this “me too” hashtag is a great idea, if for no other reason than that we can’t log onto social media without coming across it right now. It breaks my heart to see how many people have dealt with all this, because I wish we lived in a world where people (and predominately women, femme, or female-identifying people) felt safe to go out in public, or go to work, or even take the fucking bus. But at the same time, this hashtag is a great method of forcing us to realize just how common this issue is, how it has affected so many. It helps us to realize that we aren’t alone in all this, and that’s a wonderful thing for people who have been silenced (which many survivors have) by society.

But at the same time, I hope that this conversation won’t end with this hashtag. It’s great that we’re talking, but we need to keep talking; we need to keep drawing attention to the issue. Because only by spreading awareness and continuing the discussion can we enact real change.

The Objectification of Men

Recently, Suistudio launched the campaign #NOTDRESSINGMEN in order to advertise their line of business suits created for women. The images that have been released for this campaign are, in some ways, fairly standard for this sort of product: two people, one dressed head-to-toe in a suit and standing in a position of power and domination, the other posed provocatively, their identity meaningless, their body completely on display. Now, this is an image that we have seen before – many, many times, in fact. Yet, there is one thing about this campaign that not only makes it different, but has caused plenty of controversy, and that is the fact that a woman is placed in a position of power, while a male model is the one being sexualized and objectified.

There are many who have taken to social media to show their disagreement with this campaign, despite the fact that these images are not entirely new. In fact, it is nearly common for us to see the genders reversed. In many advertisements, women are depicted as sexual objects, to the point where we barely even think about it anymore. We’re used to the images of big-breasted women with their heads tipped back and their lips parted. All the time, we see men standing squarely facing the camera, their stances strong, their jaws locked, their power confirmed. This is the language of our media, and we speak it fluently.

But at the same time, the majority of comments that I have seen disagreeing with the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign have not been upset with it because it dares to reverse the gender roles; rather, they disagree with it because they know that this is an injustice that society already does to women all the time, and they don’t think that it’s right to spread this injustice to men as well.

As one Instagram commenter said, “If it was the other way around with the woman on the couch and man above her, feminist groups would jump and criticise. This double standard needs to end.”

Some people have accused this campaign of “making feminism look bad”, turning it into a movement of women who merely want to dominate and control men, rather than being about equal rights. And is this what the campaign is doing? Are these images trying to destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy?

Well, the way I see it, my opinion on this campaign rests heavily on the campaign’s intent.

On the one hand, it is very possible that the commenters are correct, and the purpose of this campaign is not necessarily to challenge anything, but rather, to use the accepted language of our media to convey the age-old message, but with the genders swapped. And, in fact, many of the images do seem to be indicating that.

The reason why we often see men standing firm and square-jawed, staring directly at the camera, is because the image is very clearly trying to convey a message, and that message is very connected with gender: he is strong. He is capable. He can do whatever he needs to do, and he can do it without wrinkling his suit or breaking an expression. It just so happens, all of these tend to be masculine traits, and I don’t think that’s incidental. Similarly, when we see women lounging out over objects without much of anything on, that too is meant to convey a message: she is passive, but sexually available. When we see women compared to or used in place of objects, then that is the ultimate passivity: she isn’t even a person, she’s just a thing, waiting around to be used by whoever shows up and wants her.

So when we see the same poses used but the genders reversed, the messages don’t really change, although the gender roles might be challenged. But, still, the photographer is relying on a specific language, one that the viewer will undeniably be familiar with, to convey a message. And the message really isn’t okay. End of day, whether it’s a man or a woman being objectified, the message is that they aren’t really a person. They’re a sexy object, a thing that can be used and disposed of. And not only that, but in both cases, a specific language is being used to convey the message of ‘sexy’ as well; only one body type is displayed, because the viewer will automatically connect that body type to sex appeal. And when that happens, then that dismisses all other body types as being even potentially accepted by society.

So, essentially, if the intent behind this campaign was to rely upon a harmful language that feminism is, in fact, trying to combat, all so that they could convey to their presumably female audience that this company’s suits will make them powerful and alluring to men, then that is not okay.

But there is one other possible intent that this campaign might have, one that I am more comfortable with accepting: the intent to challenge the majority of media.

As I have mentioned, advertisers have made use of sexualizing and objectifying women for decades in order to make their product look somehow superior, and one thing that I think many commenters are forgetting when they show their distaste for the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is that it is only one campaign. It is not an entire industry, meaning that women are not quite at the precipice of taking over the world quite yet. And, more than that, campaigns that rely on switching societal roles are released all the time with the intent of showing just how unfair our society really is.

For example, in 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a short film called “Talk”, which follows an able-bodied man who suddenly wakes up in a world designed for the new majority, people with disabilities. Another short film, entitled “Love Is All You Need”, takes place in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is looked down upon as “weird” and “unnatural”.

There are many issues in our society that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around – not because we never experience them, but because we experience them everyday. They are normal to us, so we don’t even second-guess them. And the purpose of media like “Talk” and “Love Is All You Need” is to try to point out just how wrong our society is. It forces able-bodied people to imagine, not what it would be like to be disabled, but what it would be like to live with the stigma of disability. It forces heterosexual people to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t safely take their partners home to meet their parents, or hold hands with them in public.

And, maybe, the intent behind the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is not to create a new norm, but rather, to force us to question the old one, to make us realize that the over-sexualizing and objectification of women is wrong by forcing us to see it from a new perspective. And, I mean, while I said that there was plenty of evidence in the photographs to suggest the other intention, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest this as well. The photographs, after all, are overly sexual, and overly objectifying, even going so far as to intentionally remove the man’s face from the images, as though to completely remove his identity and force the viewer to look at him only as an object – a body without a soul.

Now, what the company’s actual intent was is difficult to decipher. They have not made any attempt to comment either way, although Suistudio has confessed to intending controversy. Besides that, I suppose that the viewer can merely take what they want from the campaign: are they a frightening image of a new sort of objectification, or an isolated incident intending only to make us question our past and present?