Can Body Positivity and Weight Consciousness Co-Exist?
It is terrible to tell people to try to be thinner; it is also terrible to tell them that wanting to lose weight is hopeless and wrong.
So begins the insightful article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in a recent New York Times article. An important and contentious debate in our society has centered on “fat-acceptance” verses thinness as a goal. Today, in addition to discussing this article, we’ll also include excerpts from the books of two articulate and eloquent writers on the subject: Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Lindy West’s Shrill. We hope that you’ll be willing to weigh in, so to speak, on the subject and share your thoughts with us.
We Judge Others, and We Judge Ourselves
Those of us who struggle with weight are not immune to being part of the problem of fat-shaming. Roxane Gay writes:
I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.
What I know and what I feel are two very different things (1).
It may be that you are ashamed of yourself for being overweight. It may be that you judge others for being overweight, and it may be that you're ashamed of feeling that way. You may want those people who judge you to feel ashamed. None of this is working. Shame never works.
Jay – Since my weight loss, people are more interested in what I have to say because of my appearance, and I no longer feel invisible. I feel ambivalent about this change, however. Of course, I appreciate being acknowledged; but I don’t appreciate, for example, that people from high school who never gave me the time of day now want to be my friend. These are people who measured my worth by my weight, and that feels really bad to me.
Now that I’m thin, being out in public feels very, very different, too. If someone bumps into me and says, “Excuse me,” it no longer feels like they’re saying, “Get out of the way.” On the other hand, I get harassed now that I’m “hot.” I get catcalled. Men walk up to me and ask me to smile. No, I do not appreciate this unwelcome attention and obnoxious behavior. I feel uncomfortable and violated. I’ll smile when I want to; I will not smile when some jerk wants me to wear a Happy Face for him.
Appreciating Your Body in a Fat-Shaming World
Obese people are perceived by the media, by doctors, by perfect strangers, and by potential employers and life partners as undisciplined and even lazy (2,3,4). This weight bias has terrible ramifications with regard to academic achievement, financial success, and emotional well-being throughout life.
...I live in a world where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged. I am a product of my environment (1).
How can you stop feeling shame when it seems like the rest of the world wants you to be ashamed? It takes mental toughness to counter that attitude from others. It takes kindness to counter that attitude from yourself. We have both struggled with internalizing the cultural norms that dictate how women “should” look.
Janice — Medical school was a very happy time of my life. I felt like I was doing something worthwhile, and I was proud to be there. I loved school, and I loved my classmates. So why did I miss my 20-year reunion? It was because I weighed 40 pounds more than I had in med school, and I was embarrassed. . As I write these words, I think to myself, “What is wrong with this person?” I regret that I am not strong enough to be more than a mere product of my culture, but there you have it.
We suggest that it is both useful and empowering to shift the paradigm and to reframe the meaning of having a large body. This is what Roxane Gay has to say about the subject:
I hate how I feel in my body. I hate how people see my body. I hate how people stare at my body, treat my body, comment on my body. I hate equating my self-worth with the state of my body and how difficult it is to overcome this equation. I hate how hard it is to accept my human frailties. I hate that I am letting down so many women when I cannot embrace my body at any size.
But I also like myself, my personality, my weirdness, my sense of humor, my wild and deep romantic streak, how I love, how I write, my kindness and my mean streak. It is only now, in my forties, that I am able to admit that I like myself, even though I am nagged by this suspicion that I shouldn’t. For so long, I have given in to my self-loathing. I refused to allow myself the simple pleasure of accepting who I am and how I live and love and think and see the world. But then, I got older and I cared less about what other people think.
I don’t want to change who I am. I want to change how I look… Fierce vanity smolders in the cave of my chest. I want to look good. I want to feel good. I want to be beautiful in this body I am in (1).
Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.
Apparently, there was quite a bit of backlash, justifiably so, against this statement. What is this nonsense about there being a thin woman inside every fat one? If you think that you’re not a good enough person now and that you will be worthy of love and respect only after you lose weight, please rethink your strategy. Self-loathing is guaranteed to lead to more shame and more weight.
Here’s more reframing, this time from Lindy West:
I hate being fat. I hate the way people look at me, or don’t. I hate being a joke; I hate the disorienting limbo between too visible and invisible; I hate the way that complete strangers waste my life out of supposed concern for my death. I hate knowing that if I did die of a condition that correlates with weight, a certain subset of people would feel their prejudices validated, and some would outright celebrate.
I also love being fat. The breadth of my shoulders makes me feel safe. I am unassailable. I intimidate…I can absorb blows — literal and metaphorical — meant for other women, smaller women, breakable women, women who need me.
Maybe you are thin. You hiked that trail and you are fit and beautiful and wanted and I am so proud of you, I am so in awe of your wiry brightness, and I’m miles behind you, my breathing ragged. But you didn’t carry this up the mountain. You only carried yourself. How hard would you breathe if you had to carry me? You couldn’t. But I can (5).
What then, can we finally say about this tension between accepting one’s body and striving to attain a lower, healthy weight? Perhaps it’s simply this: being obese may be unhealthy, but it’s not a moral failing, and we all share in the responsibility to detach shame from body size.
Janice — Here’s what I tell my patients: I don’t care what you weigh. I do care that you eat healthy food and that you incorporate movement into your life. I care that you don’t hate yourself. I care that you get enough sleep. I care that you spend time with people you love. I care that you go to the dentist twice a year and practice safe sex. The rest is up to you.
(1) Gay Roxane. Hunger. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.
(2) Lindeman, M et al. The effects of messages about the causes of obesity on disciplinary action decisions for overweight employees. J Psychol 2017; 151(4):345-358.
(3) Phelan SM et al. Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and outcomes for patients with obesity. Obes Rev 2015; 16:319-26.
(4) Puhl RM, Heuer CA. The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update. Obesity 2009;17(5):941-64.
(5) West, Lindy. Shrill. New York: Hachette, 2016.