Media Messages About Fat Bodies Do More Damage Than Good When It Comes To Health & Body Image

By Liz Greene

I remember with startling clarity the first time I realized I was fat. The summer camp I attended was big on encouraging kids to forge a lifelong relationship with technology. As such, we had access to more computers and audio visual equipment than we’d ever truly need. One morning, I joined a group of friends to act out and record a skit. As we huddled around the video camera to watch the playback, I was horrified to see the image of myself cavorting next to my much slimmer friends. I recognized almost immediately that I was different — and not in a good way.

Shame and self-loathing promptly took over — and that’s something no eight year old should feel about their body.

Despite growing up in a household where fat wasn’t a dirty word, I had been trained by society to equate being overweight with being less than. The media, in particular, was chock full of negative messages. TV shows and movies portrayed fat people as villains, buffoons, or losers.

Magazines trumpeted the virtue of weight loss, and promised that I could lose weight in just a matter of days! Meanwhile, tabloids mocked celebrities who had “let themselves go,” and offered unsavory photos so I could ridicule them as well. The news used dehumanizing, headless images of overweight people in their stories on obesity. Everywhere I looked, I was being fed the message that fat was a bad thing.

And so, I began to hate my body. I felt inferior to thin people, and unworthy of love. I begged my mother to let me try diet pills (she didn’t), tried to drown my figure in oversized clothes, and stifled my personality in an attempt to disappear from view altogether. If the other kids didn’t notice me in class, they wouldn’t make fun of me for being fat. My self-esteem was practically non-existent.

Once I hit my twenties, I started yo-yo dieting. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the weight to stay off. And then fate dealt me a rather unfortunate hand. We’ve all heard the adage, “be careful what you wish for” — well, I definitely ended up regretting my wish to be thinner. After a mystery illness (later confirmed to be severe anxiety) left me with crippling stomach pain and barely able to eat, I lost 80 pounds in just under three months. Friends, family, and coworkers all raved about how good I looked, but I found it hard to celebrate weight loss that was a result of failing health.

At one point, I remember sobbing to my mother that I would rather be fat and happy than be thin and feel the way I did. It was a sobering realization — one that had never occurred to me before. I spent the majority of my life associating being thin with being healthy, and it took me wasting away from an illness to recognize that that wasn’t necessarily the case. After six months of relentless pain, I received a diagnosis and was put on the road to recovery. Eventually, I was able to eat normally and put the weight back on.

But I didn’t become comfortable in my own skin overnight. I still had society to deal with, and there was no way in hell America at large was going to let me get away with something as ridiculous as being an empowered fat woman.

Fat-shaming is a fundamental part of American culture. Women in particular are programmed to hate their bodies at any size, but if they’re fat, they’re especially undesirable. Society paints overweight people as lazy, undisciplined, dishonest, and unintelligent. That’s why 61 percent of Americans consider it perfectly acceptable to make hurtful remarks about a person’s weight. That’s not including the concern trolls, who mask their comments about people’s’ weight as regard for their health.

Of course, some view this shaming as a way to motivate overweight people into losing weight — you know, the old “it’s for their own good” line. However, such abuse only proves to make things much worse. According to a 2013 study, targets of fat shaming are more likely to become depressed or anxious, leading to overeating or binge eating. They may also avoid exercising for fear of being mocked at the gym or while out in public.

The widespread misconception that being overweight is simply due to a lack of willpower only serves to minimize the complexities of obesity and how difficult it is to reverse. Despite the fact that medical scientists have shown that obesity can be the result of uncontrollable factors such as genetics, economic status, and upbringing, these misconceptions continue to be omnipresent. This causes people to feel that they are completely at fault for their weight, and only adds to the chronic stress that can lead to overeating.

There is a way to work together to help stem the obesity epidemic, but it requires we stop discriminating against people based on their weight (or anything else, for that matter.) The key is to change our environment. We need to emphasize that you can be healthy at any size, build sidewalks to make our cities more walkable, reduce portion sizes in restaurants, make low calorie foods as convenient and affordable as fast food, and change the pervasive marketing of junk food. We also need to end the unethical use of photoshop, as it’s only perpetuating unattainable beauty myths.

It was only as I entered my 30’s that I began to shed the societal stigma of fat and love my body. I’m happy with who I am, and other than my anxiety (which has nothing to do with my weight), I’m perfectly healthy. As an ardent feminist and activist, I’ve added fat shaming to the things I regularly speak out against. I support companies that serve the plus sized, I debate the negative language surrounding being overweight with my friends and family, and I fight against skinny shaming with equal fervor.

No person should ever be made to feel as if they’re a second class citizen because of the shape of their body. It’s time we start celebrating how truly gorgeous the human body is, regardless of size, shape, color, gender, and age. Beauty has no limitations, so let’s stop acting as if it does.

 

Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.

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