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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Do Not Suffer in Silence

Hello. My name is Ciara Hall. It’s nice to meet you. That’s a lovely shirt you’re wearing; it really matches your eyes. And who am I, you ask? Well, I’m a lot of things, many of which aren’t relevant to the discussion that we’re having right now, so I won’t mention them. Instead, I will mention that I sometimes struggle with depression, and I almost always struggle with anxiety. I have dealt with suicidal thoughts off and on for pretty much my whole life, and although I am trying to break the habit and I have made significant improvement, I have also dealt with issues surrounding self-harm since I was about ten years old.

Again, it’s very nice to meet you.

I have been told by people in the past that I should not be so open about these issues. And, I mean, I don’t usually greet someone in quite the same way that I greeted you, humble reader. Usually, I’m a bit more discreet than all that. But that being said, I do not try to hide it either, and this little exchange between us is not the first time I have written about this. I mean, I sort of wish that I could say it was, because that would imply that this doesn’t occupy much of my brain space.

And I come from a rather private family, so it should come as no surprise that I have been criticized for talking about this by being told, “how do you think the people who care about you feel, having to read about that?” And I have no doubt, my mother did not wake up this morning thinking, “oh boy, I really hope that I can read about my daughter’s battle with depression today!” My grandmother does not want to know that I deal with anxiety; my sister does not want me to dig my nails into my skin in frustration. I know all of this. Every time that I write these articles, this exact thought crosses my mind.

And I am not writing these articles because I want them to worry, or feel bad, or anything like that. That is not the point. Truth be told, the point has very little to do with them. The point is me. The point is, I feel better when these thoughts exist outside of my own head. The point is, I know that there are people out there who are dealing with the exact same problems that I am, and I do not want those people to feel like they are dealing with them alone. The point is, these are pervasive issues that our society has been ignoring for far too long now, and somebody needs to stand up and speak about them; I cannot control the voices of other people, but I can control my own voice. And I choose to speak.

It just so happens, the unfortunate side-effect of this is that the people who care about me learn that my life isn’t exactly perfect.

And I hate to come across as callous and cruel here, but my answer to that is: so what? Nobody’s life is perfect. That’s just one of those things that we all know know and accept, one of those phrases that we pass around to make ourselves feel better about our own dumb lives. And yet, we never want to believe it when it comes to our loves ones. I know that I wish my loved ones never had to hurt. But the fact of the matter is, they do, even if it hurts me to know that they do.

The fact of the matter is, we all do.

Maybe your issue isn’t depression or mental illness, but you have an issue of some sort.

I have known people who spent their entire teenage years in the closet and hating themselves for it, and the only way to make things better was to come out to the world around them, even if there were those in their life who wished they hadn’t.

I have known people who have been hurt and abused, and despite that, lied about it for years, even to themselves. And the only way to stop the hurt and abuse was to come forward and talk about it, to deal with it, even if their loved ones did not want to hear that they had dealt with something so horrible.

I have also known people who claim to have the perfect life on social media, never once making a single complaint, and yet their eyes are hollow in every picture, their smile forced. When I see these people, I always wonder what they aren’t saying.

Because end of day, we are all suffering, to one degree or another. That is simply part of the human experience, and it’s unfortunate, but denying it won’t make it any better. And hiding your pain may make your loved ones a little bit less concerned, but it most certainly isn’t fair to you. Nobody should have to suffer in silence.

And, in a perfect world, revealing your pain to others shouldn’t make them shy away from you or angry. Rather, it should bring you closer; maybe my family doesn’t want to hear that I deal with depression and anxiety, but at least if they know, then they are aware of what is going through my head, and I have someone to turn to when things get particularly bad.

But I get it; the world doesn’t always work that way. Not everyone responds to things they don’t like in the most ideal fashion, but that still doesn’t mean that you should be silent. Rather, keep talking about it. Talk about your experience to anyone who you feel comfortable enough with, and either one of two things will happen: 1) those who don’t respond well will come around eventually, understanding that your safety and happiness sometimes needs to come before their comfort, or 2) you will find someone who does, in fact, accept you for all that you are, and lends an ear to your troubles when you need one.

Maybe we don’t want to hear that our loved ones are suffering, but our loved ones are suffering nonetheless. That’s just the nature of life. And if they are truly someone that you care about, then ask yourself this: is it not better to be there for them and do everything we can to alleviate their pain, rather than forcing them to suffer in silence?

Speak out. And more than that, lend an ear to someone who needs it. Because the truth is, we all need it, from time to time.

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.

Why Depression is Not Romantic

When I was a teenager, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I read stories of girls with arms like mine. The girls with white lines drawn across their pale skin, carved there by blades and tainted by tears. Girls who caught the attention of the cute, sensitive boy in their class, the boy who saw her scars and knew what they meant. The boy who took her aside and kissed her scars and told her that she was beautiful regardless, that he would hold her close and take care of her, that he would never let her hurt again. The boy who loved her, not because there was more to her than her scars, but because he knew that she was sad and broken, and that he could protect her from the harsh world.

These stories were not the reason why I self-harmed, but they most certainly justified my doing so.

Just like when I was in my second year at university, studying literature because I wanted to be a great writer, and the professor made the statement to my class: “this poem is about depression, which is something that all great writers deal with. I don’t really think it’s possible to be a great writer without being broken.”

Well, that’s good news, I thought; I suppose I need to be broken then. Maybe this is just the price I pay to achieve my dreams.

I think, even at the time, I knew that what I was thinking was wrong.

Even then, I knew that the stories I wrote were not created in the black, ceaseless spirals of depression. They might have been inspired by it, from time to time, but no more than they were inspired by other aspects of my life. And, more importantly, they were written in those moments where I broke the surface, where I took in a gulp of air and thought that everything might be fine again, just before I sunk back below and lost all creative ability again.

Just like I knew that self-harm would not earn me love. No boy ever saw my scars and kissed them to make them better; now that I’m no longer thirteen years old, I don’t really think I’d want one to. All that my scars did was give me something to be ashamed of, something to pull my sleeves over and lie about when people asked me about them.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what did you do to your arm?”

“Oh, I was playing with my cat, and, well, this happened.”

Please. Please, don’t notice that it looks nothing like a cat scratch.

But even still, despite the fact that depression was not my gateway to genius, despite the fact that self-harm brought me more shame than it did love, there was still something so romantic about both ideas. About being the tortured artist, the Sylvia Plath, the Van Gogh. Forget the fact that they both cut their stories off before they were finished; they were beloved and mysterious, deep and thoughtful. And all I had to do to become them was give into what was already inside me, right?

We romanticize mental illness all the time, present it as something mysterious and unknown and darkly beautiful, but it isn’t. The reality of mental illness is laying in bed all day because you just can’t find the motivation to get up. The reality of mental illness is wearing long sleeves in the summer because you don’t want to risk anyone, not even the cute, sensitive boy in your class, to know your secret (because it is, after all, a secret). The reality of mental illness is panic attacks that leave you exhausted, fear that keeps you its prisoner, suicidal thoughts that threaten to cut your story off too soon, if you just give into them.

And the problem with romanticizing all of this is that it then justifies people to give into it.

All of this isn’t to say that no good can ever come from a mental illness; it can. Personally speaking, I believe that coming to terms with my mental illness and fighting it has made me a much stronger person than I would have otherwise been, but that is exactly my point; I needed to fight it. Fighting gave me ability. Fighting gave me more stories to tell than depression ever could have. Fighting made me feel as though I deserved, not only love, but a love that was worthwhile, a love that would see me, not as the broken soul that needs to be fixed, but as a person, as an equal. Fighting is what brought me here, to this place, to this day.

I honestly don’t know who or where I’d be today if I hadn’t fought, but I know it wouldn’t be romantic. It would be pitiful, a tragic tale to tell. And I am not a tragedy.

So if we have to romanticize anything in regards to mental illness, let’s romanticize the fight. Let’s talk about how strong survivors are to reach out and get help for themselves. Let’s praise those who managed to overcome suicidal thoughts, even when it seemed next to impossible. Let’s celebrate the ones who self-harmed at one point, but managed to pull themselves through it and stop altogether. Because when we romanticize mental illness itself, we are helping no one; when we encourage people to seek treatment and get help, we have the opportunity to save lives.

And, personally, I am tired of romances that focus so much on how loveable or genius someone is only because they are depressed.

 

Why We Cannot Force Labels on Others

I have discussed why labels are important in the past, and regardless of anything that you are about to read here, I still believe that they are. We do not exist in a society that is beyond labelling yet – identifying as queer or transgender or black or Muslim still affects the way that you go about your day, the way that people treat you and the way that you are viewed by society.

But that being said, there is another trend that I have noticed when it comes to labelling individuals that I think needs to be addressed.

If you have been following following celebrity news lately, you might have noticed headlines such as, “Sam Smith Comes Out As Gender-Nonbinary” or “Sam Smith Reveals He Identifies As Gender Nonbinary“. Now, for those of you who might not be aware what non-binary identities are, what this would essentially mean is that Sam Smith identifies as neither male nor female, but rather, as a third gender that exists (as you might expect) outside the binary. Many non-binary people prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are neither masculine nor feminine – in other words, they do not wish to be called “she, her” or “he, him”, but as “them, their”.

This is not what Sam Smith actually said in his interview with the Sunday Time.

What Sam Smith said was that he’s “as much woman as he is a man“, and he then proceeded to explain how he enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing and heels. The closest that Sam Smith came to identifying his gender was when he stated that he “[didn’t] know what the title would be”. He did not actually use the words “I am non-binary” in the interview, and he did not ask to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns; more than anything, he seemed to express a desire not to be labelled at all. And yet, despite this, Sam Smith has been labelled by People and Vogue as non-binary.

Something similar has been happening to singer P!nk for years now as well. All over the internet, you can find people arguing about P!nk’s sexual orientation, and some, such as Perez Hilton, have even identified her as bisexual. Yet, P!nk has never made any active attempt to label herself at all. In a 2012 interview, P!nk discussed what dating was like for her (before she was married to a man), stating, “I wasn’t gay, but all my girlfriends were. So no, it wasn’t a big deal for me, but when (a tabloid) comes out and says, I just said I was bisexual, it’s like what? That wasn’t my truth, and I like truth. I like absolute truth.” And yet, regardless of this, you can still find her identified with the label ‘bisexual’.

Now, on the one hand, I understand why some people might want to identify Sam Smith as non-binary and P!nk as bisexual; both of these identities are seriously underrepresented in the media. So, as a result, people who do identify with these labels want to be able to see themselves in others, particularly in celebrities who they look up to and admire. It’s a bit easier to do this when the celebrity in question actually identifies with your label, and lives with all the same stigmas and experiences that you do as a result. It’s easier to know that your identity exists and has value when you can see someone who is loved and respected and powerful identifying with it as well.

But the problem with these two specific instances is that neither individual has claimed the label that is being put on them.

Choosing what label you identify with, particularly when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, is a very personal matter; nobody else can choose it for you. You need to decide what feels most natural for you, what you think best reflects your experience. And if you do not feel comfortable adopting a label, even if it does reflect your experience just fine, then you should not feel forced to adopt it.

Perhaps Sam Smith is non-binary, or the way that we might think of non-binary anyway, but even if he is, he should not feel forced to accept that label just because others think that he should. He should be allowed to come to the conclusion himself, to decide what he feels best reflects his own experience without anyone else telling him how to feel or identify.

And, meanwhile, for those of us on the outside, we should not try to decide what someone else should or should not identify with. If someone tells us that they identify as bisexual, or non-binary, or as no label at all, then even if we do not agree with their choice, it is not up to us to tell them how they should identify themselves. That is their decision to make, based on how they feel and how they wish to be perceived and understood.

And at the end of the day, you need to make the decision of what you’re comfortable with. Live your truth, whatever that might be, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are any more or less valid because of the word that you use to describe your experience. Because, as much as labels are a useful tool in helping us to sum up and explain our experiences, at the end of the day, they are just words, with all of the limitations that that implies.