‘This is hatred, this is not about health’
To suggest that showing images of happy, successful, self-accepting fat people is ‘glorifying’ obesity is as ridiculous as the suggestion that showing happy gay couples in the media might ‘turn’ straight people.
“What is glorifying obesity?” asks Louise Adams, a psychologist who specialises in body image. “Does that mean people are going to wake up in the morning and decide they want to be obese because it seems like a good idea?”
Unlikely. Recent research from the Jean Hailes Foundation found that women are more worried about being fat than they are about cancer, mental health or heart disease. Separate research has also found that most 10-year-olds are more afraid of getting fat than of getting cancer.
Yet, inevitably, any ‘fat-acceptance’ or self-esteem media featuring a fat person generates this sort of well-intentioned but utterly misguided comment:
“Being overweight is unhealthy. ‘Fat shaming’ is bad, but so is normalising being unhealthy. Overweight people should be given encouragement and support to lose weight by changing their diet and/or lifestyle. We don’t try and nomalise smoking or dinking [sic] too much. And people who are obese are kidding themselves if they think the extra weight will have no health impacts.”
Apart from the fact that much has been written about the glorification and normalisation of smoking and drinking in the media, Adams reminds that these are behaviours, obesity is not.
Of course, people argue that we get fat as a direct result of behaviours.
“This is refuted by all science literature, but it’s a common belief,” Adams reminds.
Indeed, there are thin people who follow a terrible diet without the consequences showing externally while there are overweight people who follow a strict, ‘clean’ diet without those consequences showing externally. There are fat people who are healthy, and thin people who are unhealthy. BMI, it has been found, is a bad predictor of health.
We cannot tell by a person’s appearance alone either way.
Yet, we continue to judge – and even hate – people based on their appearance. Well, fat people anyway.
And they can’t win either way, as model Ashley Graham discovered when she lost weight recently. She was called “ugly” for being overweight and then a “coward” when she lost weight, she writes in a new op-ed.
“To some I’m too curvy. To others I’m too tall, too busty, too loud, and, now, too small — too much, but at the same time not enough,” writes Graham, who appeared on the 2016 cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. “When I post a photo from a ‘good angle,’ I receive criticism for looking smaller and selling out. When I post photos showing my cellulite, stretch marks, and rolls, I’m accused of promoting obesity. The cycle of body-shaming needs to end. I’m over it.”
“There’s rampant weight-prejudice and it shows how much as a society we value thinness,” Adams says. “It’s hatred disguised as health concern… if people were really concerned about their health they would take into account bullying and stigma on someone’s health.”
She adds that people are missing the point when they make accusations about so-called ‘fat-glorification’.
“We need to separate health from weight and stop this prejudice,” she says. “[The fat acceptance movement] is saying fat people exist and maybe we should be nice to them – there’s a difference between rights and glorifying.”
Author of Dietland, Sarai Walker has spoken about her experiences promoting the book in Australia and the ‘health concern’ she was on the receiving end of.
“The last event of my Australian tour was a speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Onstage at the Sydney Opera House, I began my talk about how it’s OK to be fat by sharing an example from my own life,” Walker explained in an op-ed for the New York Times.
“A few years ago, I posted a link on Twitter to a 1969 interview with Jim Morrison, in which he said, ‘Fat is beautiful.’ Minutes after posting the link, a friend responded angrily that being fat is unhealthy because it causes high blood pressure and other health problems. This response, I told the audience, is an example of what I call ‘Fat Derangement Syndrome,’ where even people who consider themselves to be open-minded, critical thinkers become outraged if fat is spoken about in any positive way.”
The Opera House audience, she said, did not respond well to her talk and, during the q-and-a, proceeded to lecture her on the terrible effects of being fat on health.
“…in the hotel that night, I crawled into bed, relieved that I no longer had to perform as a professional fatty,” Walker revealed. “I wanted to go home and hide. I am ashamed of this response. I wrote a novel to give fat women a voice, but then became exhausted using mine. I had begun to feel like the fat lady in a freak show, on display for public amusement…
“At the heart of this debate over obesity is a professed concern for health, as if the dignity of any group should be contingent on whether its members are deemed healthy.”
She does not contend that there are health risks at either end of the body weight spectrum, but adds:
“Just because something is true at an extreme, doesn’t mean we should hate,” she says, likening the attitude towards fat people to the prejudice experienced by many gay people and many in the Muslim community.
Such attitudes are as ignorant as they are self-defeating. Yes, we have an obesity epidemic, yes, most of us, fat and thin, need to improve our diets and move more. We need to improve our health (which, would you believe, includes our mental and social wellbeing) as a collective, not just say that fat people don’t deserve air time or acceptance or happiness because they are, in our holier-than-thou gaze, unhealthy. If we cannot manage to see that, we may need to turn the gaze back on ourselves instead.
“It’s not even conscious prejudice, we’re hiding it behind health concern,” Adams says. “This is hatred, this is not about health.”
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