Challenging the stereotypes of body size and health
Between the first lady’s crusade to champion physical activity for children and a host of reality shows whose winners shed more pounds than stereotypes, the fear of becoming obese continues to haunt Americans.
But what exactly do we mean when we apply such a nasty term like “obese?” Who qualifies as a “fat” person? And to what extent does the designation actually provide meaningful information about a specific relationship to food, health, exercise and mental and emotional stability?
Our fat-fearing culture perpetuates a “fat equals bad” assumption that goes unchallenged by U.S. media and popular opinion. Because bodies perceived to be fat — appearing beyond “normal” physical size — are robbed of dignity and viewed negatively as reflections of poor life choices, the structural and psychological underpinnings of fat-hating culture remain largely ignored.
Jeanette DePatie is the vice president for the Association for Size Diversity and Health, an organization dedicated to educating the public on health without making weight-based assumptions. She also works as a plus-size exercise instructor and said she believes we have lost track of what a healthy body means.
“You can’t look at a person and tell that they’re healthy,” she said. “If you tease apart weight from behavior, [you find] behavior has a stronger impact on health.”
DePatie referenced research organizations like the Cooper Institute that found on average, fat people who exercise live longer than thin people who don’t.
Dr. Deah Schwartz, author of the syndicated blog Tasty Morsels, said our perception of body size masks the realities of health by only using visual information.
“A kid who is naturally thin but lives on soda and packaged food is not necessarily healthy just because he or she looks that way,” she said.
While many health experts agree that significant weight fluctuation and consumption of highly processed foods pose a higher risk for life-threatening issues such as heart disease, body size is distributed widely across the human species and alone is not an indicator of much besides genetic diversity.
Not to mention, calculating who gets to have the “normal body” is not so simple. The Body Mass Index — a popular tool to gauge body mass based on height and weight measurements — has been systematically debunked as an inaccurate, misleading representation of health. Yet even Michelle Obama advertises BMI on her “Let’s Move” campaign website against childhood obesity.
“The chart’s in every doctor’s office,” lamented Ithaca College senior Marin Cherry, who said the chart is damaging to both the body and the mind of people told they are overweight from it. “They say you get people motivated [with the BMI], but they don’t know what they’re doing in people’s heads.”
In addition to instruments that catalogue those we decide to be “overweight,” the U.S. mass media plays a crucial role in trivializing, exploiting and hating fat bodies. DePatie mentioned that much of the TV programming, supposedly dedicated to healthy lifestyles, is actually about ratings and exploitative entertainment.
“They employ techniques … that are not healthy,” she said, referencing programs like NBC’s ubiquitous fat-shedding reality show The Biggest Loser, in which contestants are expected to advance by losing the most amount of weight possible. “Losing eight pounds in one week is not healthy.”
DePatie also emphasized the idea that much of these shows are part of a million-dollar industry that does not recognize its impact on the way society continues to view and disparage fat people.
“There’s this sense that you can hate somebody for their own good,” she said. “But nobody deserves to be abused. While people say they want to learn [from the show], it’s voyeurism. They’re watching people be fed to the lions.”
At the end of the day, how do we want to assess the state of healthy bodies in America? Will we continue to show news segments on obesity that reduce fat people to clips of stomachs or legs? U.S. culture, especially as a global power with the capacity to homogenize food and fitness trends, needs to reconsider the binary framework within which we categorize body sizes as “fat” or “not fat.”
Our pigeonholing of fat people in the United States continues to clog imaginations with painful assumptions. Our “obesity crisis” is really more of a “thinking crisis” that not only fails to thoughtfully question the systemic consumption of bad foods, bad medicines and bad dieting, but also ignores harmful stereotypes based on body size, further marginalizing those who already feel like they are morally corrupt, lazy or disgusting people for having fat bodies.
Chris Zivalich is a senior journalism major who thinks the biggest loser seems to be our critical thinking skills. Email him a czivali1[at]ithaca.edu.