Body Diversity & Fat Assumptions

Earlier today, one of my friends posted this photo to his Facebook page:

[This image no longer available, however, here is a description of what it was: a woman wearing yoga pants and a top typically associated with exercise clothing. The woman appears objectively larger bodied than the women we typically see in advertisements, particularly those regarding exercise equipment or clothing]

His caption was as follows: “This ad makes me so … HAPPY. Health at every size. Skinny doesn’t mean healthy and overweight doesn’t mean unhealthy. Way to go TARGET!”

As I have come to expect, a post like this stirred up a bit of a debate.  Many people were caught off-guard by his statement that being overweight does not necessarily mean one is unhealthy.  I want to summarize my thoughts, some of which I commented on the post, as I cannot seem to stop them from racing through my mind.

♦ First of all, just the same as skinny does not equal healthy and fat does not equal unhealthy, skinny does not equal unhealthy and fat does not equal healthy.  Everyone’s individual health is influenced by a number of factors, one of which may or may not be weight, and many of which may be simple genetics.  Some people do improve their physical health through changes that coincide with a decrease in weight, while others improve their physical health through changes that lead to an increase in weight (we just tend to hear about them less).  

This can also be connected to happiness.  If someone finds that food is controlling them – perhaps they are engaging in binge behavior on a regular basis – seeking help around this may lead to weight reduction due to behavior change, and regaining control over this aspect of their life may lead to increased happiness.  Similarly, breaking free of the prison that is anorexia nervosa, or restrictive eating in other forms (“disordered eating”) aka dieting, may lead to a newfound sense of happiness stemming from the freedom one finds in normalized and intuitive eating.  We focus so much on health – of course, physical health is important, however, mental health and happiness are as well, and none of these things can be deduced by looking at someone.

There is an article outlining multiple studies which found the following:

In study after study, overweight and moderately obese patients with certain chronic diseases often live longer and fare better than normal-weight patients with the same ailments. The accumulation of evidence is inspiring some experts to re-examine long-held assumptions about the association between body fat and disease.”

So much of our tendency to see a larger-bodied person and assume they are unhealthy comes from these aforementioned “long-held assumptions.” (Let’s not forget that the diet industry was formed as a way to make money – which it certainly has, not necessarily to improve health – which it often does not.)

♦ This morning before my friend’s post inspired this storm of thoughts, I had seen an ad featuring several women of various body sizes posing in their bathing suits. The ad read, “Chic styles and incredible fits for every body.”  Most of me loves this. I think it’s great. This is a great step toward incorporating body diversity into ads and helping more women (and men) see models who reflect their own natural body size.  There is, however, a piece of me that feels frustrated that ads need to point out that they are including various body sizes.  The ad my friend posted is perfect.  It does not feel the need to state that it features a larger-bodied person.  That is, afterall, what the woman in the ad is – a person!  The ad does not need to acknowledge “Hey look, we included a more diverse body!” By the lack of acknowledgment, it helps to normalize the body type.  The ad just … is.

(Side note, I realize that by writing a blog about this ad, I am acknowledging that this is not a typical body we see in media; I struggled with whether to even write about this, but until things become more normalized, I will likely continue to discuss it.)

♦ Finally, let’s take the health piece out of the discussion.  I can understand that for many people, it is very hard to read an article about how being overweight may actually be a protective factor and suddenly buy into the health at every size approach.  Let’s set that aside, and take a moment to just celebrate a larger woman being in an ad. Isn’t she as deserving of wearing these clothes as anyone else?  (Not to mention, so often fat-shamers assume larger men and women are “lazy.”  “Just exercise!,” they say.  Well here ya go – a larger-bodied woman exercising!  Yet many fat-shames will still be angry about this ad. You just can’t win.)

One final thought: even if this woman is unhealthy – whether it be weight-related or simply that she happened to have a nasty case of pneumonia on the day of the photoshoot … unhealthy people wear clothes too!  They need to go shopping, and they deserve to see people who look like them in the media.  

This is not an “either/or” issue, it is a “both/and.”  This is not a debate of fat versus skinny; it is about including all body types and sizes in media to create body diversity, which can in turn improve the self-esteem of consumers, and reduce poor body image and disordered eating behaviors.  (Fun fact if you are still of the mindset that fatness is bad and that fat people deserve the shame they so often receive: one study found that overweight teenage girls with negative body image were more likely to gain weight. Some people believe that shaming overweight people will help motivate them to lose weight, when this study found just the opposite. {Also, why are we still shaming people for existing?})

If you find yourself seeing an advertisement, or any other form of media, including a larger-bodied individual, and your reaction is “but health!,” I would encourage you to take a moment to check what’s really coming up for you.  Are you possibly making an assumption?  Are you genuinely concerned about that person’s health? Does your reaction, perhaps, stem from the fat-phobia our society has developed over many years? Remember: both/and, not either/or.  For all things.

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