Sunday, April 10, 2011

My Big Fat Social Stigma

Obesity is everywhere. Articles, news segments, conversations abound about childhood obesity, fat as an epidemic, a public health problem that weighs on our health care system and national economy. At the same time, the more we talk about it, rant about it, focus our energy on preventing it, curing it, fixing it, the more we reinforce social stigmas surrounding body size. In fact, the stigma is so strong that it's fueled some of the fire against the war on obesity. Oddly, as this country's fat-phobia continues to grow so do the population's waistlines. So while the percentage of overweight or obese children and adults has increased, so has the weight bias against them. Somehow our efforts to encourage healthy weight and behavior have been perverted into shame campaign targeting large sectors of the population. If you're not convinced just watch these anti-childhood obesity PSAs (note: I considered embedding one of the videos, but they're too awful to promote). And, we are seeing further global spread of this stigma, as America has exported its unattainable cultural ideal of thinness and its fear and disdain of fat to countries worldwide.

While cleaning and sorting through my stuff this weekend I was watching Hulu, which was promoting a Lifetime movie called To Be Fat Like Me. And, while I'm slightly embarrassed to admit it, I watched it. With this issue of fat stigma on my brain for the past few weeks, I was secretly hoping that Lifetime had tackled this issue, neatly tied it up in a two hour made-for-television movie that I could point others toward and say, here: this is what I'm talking about.

No such luck. The movie reveals the constant bullying, discrimination and somehow publicly acceptable slurs that people of size endure regularly. At first Aly, the protagonist, a high school jock and popular pretty girl is shocked to learn how she is treated when wearing the fat suit and going undercover as a fat girl. But when she gets upset and feels low, she can still take off her fat suit and live her thin life. The scenes are interrupted for commercial breaks with ads for weight loss cereals and products and at the end of the movie Aly's message undermines everything she has learned about the challenges facing overweight individuals. She still criticizes her diabetic mother for everything she eats, she diets because she is concerned by the weight she gained from a sports injury that has prevented her from training, and in the end goes back to her hot boyfriend who admits to her that he probably wouldn't be attracted to her if she were heavy. In the final scene, Aly talks straight into the camera and morphs from her larger self to her thin one, encouraging people who are overweight (her audience is presumably teenage girls), saying that they are the ones who must sum up the courage to find their inner identity. Armed with a healthy sense of self, she seems to be saying, no one can make you feel small.

To me, the film's mixed message supported the work of Linda Bacon and the Health at Every Size movement, which aims to teach people that a healthy diet and lifestyle may not pave the road to thinness for every single person. But being thin does not equal being healthy or being happy. One of my favorite passages from Geneen Roth's Women Food and God was about just this:

"We don’t want to be thin because thinness is inherently life-affirming or lovable or healthy…We want to be thin because thinness is the purported currency of happiness and peace and contentment in our time. And although that currency is a lie – the tabloids are filled with miserable skinny celebrities – most systems of weight loss fail because they don’t live up to their promise: weight loss does not make people happy. Or peaceful. Or content. Being thin does not address the emptiness that has no shape or weight or name. Even a wildly successful diet is a colossal failure because inside the new body is the same sinking heart. Spiritual hunger can never be solved on the physical level."

Roth's approach deviates from Bacon's in that she sees weight issues stemming from underlying emotional and spiritual issues, and for many that may be the case. Her argument loses strength when she claims that once you address the root of eating that pounds come off and disappear, because that is not always true. People are also programmed differently, have different metabolic needs and ideal body weight can be very difficult to assess. Right now our society does not leave much room for individual difference and as we export our thin ideals around the world we reduce cultural difference as well. At a time when we're so concerned the recent release of radiation into our oceans and environment, we fail to think about the toxic ideas, values and stigmas we constantly spread by word, by page and by action. Why aren't we more concerned about preventing, reducing, reversing the spread of toxins that are in our control?

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