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 health by decreasing weight, while others improve their health by increasing 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 overeating and binge behavior, or emotional eating, 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.

Scale It Back

If you are someone who “watches your weight,” you may find that you put more value in your scale than in many other things.  

Think about it.  You may wake up one day feeling great; you got a good night’s sleep, are in a great mood, and the first thing you do is step on the scale.

It’s higher than yesterday. Instantly you feel like crap.

It’s the same as yesterday. What am I doing wrong? you may think. Like many people, perhaps you have been conditioned to believe that weight loss is the only way to feel good about yourself.

The only difference between the moment before you stepped on the scale and the moment you saw the number the scale produced is that now you have new information.  Nothing has changed. Your body is the same. Yet suddenly, you see it from the perspective of the scale, rather than from the perspective of your mind.

Again, the only difference is that you have new information.  You were feeling like a rockstar, and suddenly, because of seeing a number, you feel like a failure.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen this happen, particularly when I was working at an eating disorder clinic.  One of the protocols in the program in which I worked involved showing the adolescent clients their weight twice weekly.  I fully supported this, as many of these kids needed to weight-restore as part of their recovery, and viewing their weight was a form of exposure therapy.  I saw kids bounce into program, smiling, chatting with their peers in the group … but once they saw their weight increase (or stay the same), their mood did a complete 180. 

Let’s take a second to define body image.  Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, I talk about my corgi … a lot.  This is a story I often share with my clients.  After I’d had him for one year, I took him to the vet for a check-up.  When I’d first adopted him, he was in rough shape, as he’d been living on the streets for a while.  After a year of rehabilitation, he was doing great!  When the vet saw him, she smiled and exclaimed, “He’s got great body image!”

I started laughing, as I talk about body image pretty much all day every day, and instantly thought, “How does she know how my corgi feels about his appearance?!”  

What my vet meant was he was growing appropriately given his age and history.  However, that is not actually what body image is.  Body image is how we see ourselves.  You cannot actually tell anyone’s body image from looking at them.  Body image is an interpretation, a form of self-evaluation.  You may see someone completely different from how they see themselves.

With the summer approaching, weight loss ad are everywhere – arguably moreso than they are the rest of the year.  Everyone is advocating for a new you!, sharing tips to get a smaller body, promising ways to lose those stubborn 10 lbs!  What if instead of listening to a scale, we listened to ourselves?

Are you having a great body image day? That’s all the info you need.

Are you having a not-so-great body image day?  Off days are normal. Take some time to think about what’s going on. Have you spent a lot of time on social media comparing yourself to others?  Have you not been exercising when you’re used to doing so?  Maybe some endorphins could do you good.  (Note: Just because you have not exercised does not mean your body looks different – I am not talking about how you look, I am talking about how you feel, as defined above.)

It’s also possible that something else is going on, completely unrelated to your body image, yet because we’ve been conditioned to connect our self-worth to our appearance, we accidentally morph one problem into another.  For example, maybe you’re in finals.  You’re really stressed, and instead of understanding the thought as, “I’m really worried I’m not going to do well on my exams,” you think, “I suck, I’m unattractive, nothing is going well.  If only my body were smaller/more toned/thinner, I wouldn’t feel so bad right now.”  

Perhaps you have gained weight. And perhaps that can be okay.  Contrary to what (almost) every magazine tells us, weight gain does not have to make us miserable.  Maybe you’ve finally relaxed your expectations around eating and have become more flexible, allowing yourself dessert when you used to be stuck in the prison of restrictive eating. Consider that this can make you mentally healthier and happier, and yes, it is possible your weight may shift a bit in the process.

There are so many other ways to evaluate how you are feeling without using a scale.  Weighing yourself and focusing on the number enables you to avoid your intuition and feelings, and instead tells you that you should feel a certain way based on what a $30 battery-operated machine tells you.  

Also, scales can be so different – I have a scale at my office for the kids who, as I mentioned above, are weight-restoring and using this as a form of exposure therapy.  Often, they come to my office immediately following appointments with their doctors, and their weight is about 3-6 lbs. different on my scale.  Does that mean they gained 6 lbs in the 15 minute car ride? No.  It means scales aren’t perfect, so we need to stop treating them as the be-all and end-all.

If you can’t kick the habit, try this: Before you weigh yourself, ask yourself some questions: How are you feeling about your body? What factors contribute to that feeling (e.g. are you more stressed than usual, have you been sick, are you out of your element or routine, etc.)?  After you get off the scale, ask yourself how you’re feeling now. Did anything actually change? Does it make sense that your mood may have drastically changed even though the only thing that changed is that you got new information?  What factors are contributing to this mood change (hint: numbers numbers numbers)?

And if you’d like a daily reminder about why dieting and the scale generally make you feel worse, check out Jenna Free of You Ain’t Your Weight (@youaintyourweight on Instagram) who is amazing at helping with intuitive eating, moving away from the diet mentality, and moving toward positive body image.

 

Rapid-Fire Gratitude

Last week, my yoga teacher ended class in a way I had not experienced before. Right before we ended with a synchronized “Om,” she asked us to participate in a round of “Rapid-Fire Gratitude.”

I loved it.

Essentially, this was an approximately one minute period in which we were to think of as many things as possible for which we are grateful. I think the fact that she specifically stated that we were to do it “rapid-fire” style triggered my brain to run through as many things as possible in that time period. It’s amazing what comes to your brain when you’re challenged to thinkfast.

Gratitude doesn’t have to be about big things. Gratitude can be for anything. Life. Recovery. And if you’re not there, for having a strong team to help you on your hard days. For the unrelenting love you receive from your dog. For the 10, or 16, or 3 years you had with your dog who recently passed. For the ability to afford delicious food, something too many people in the world cannot do. For yoga. For your limbs and moving your body. For living somewhere with access to hospitals when your body is struggling. For your friends. For friends who are comfortable enough with your relationship to tell you how they feel, even when that leads to arguments. For music. For coffee. For decaf when your body cannot handle caffeine. For a beautiful day. For a rainy day that makes you want to lay around and watch a movie. For your first grade teacher for believing in you.

The list can include anything you want – past or present. Maybe even future.

In class, we practiced this individually and silently, however, I think it could also be great to practice out loud and with others – around the dinner table, in a therapy group, on a long drive with friends, anywhere.

Rapid-Fire Gratitude can be practiced when you’re happy, sad, or anywhere in between. In DBT, the IMPROVE skill includes “Prayer,” and for many people, their head jumps to religious prayer when this skill is taught. That helps many, however, some people do not identify with a particular religion and seek other kinds of spiritual involvement. Rapid-Fire Gratitude is a great example of how to open yourself to something powerful as a way to get through a challenging moment, to deal with life’s inevitable struggles, or to celebrate and reflect on the present.

While, currently, we tend to designate Thanksgiving as the day to give thanks and reflect on our blessings, imagine the mind- and mood-shift that could happen if we practiced Rapid-Fire Gratitude on a more regular basis. It could be a calming way to end your day, an energizing way to start it, a pick-me-up when you’re in a rut, a way to pass the time in moment of distress, anything. Let’s make it a habit and see what happens.

(Note: If you are struggling with depression, this may be challenging, especially at first. Start small, be patient with yourself, and ask for help when you need it.)

Normalizing Differences

“That lady has a baby in her belly!” Max exclaims, pointing at the building employee walking by.

I’m 14-years-old, volunteering at a camp with my best friend. We are sitting with 4-year-old Max, whose mom is late to pick him up. My friend and I meet eyes and swallow our uncomfortable grins in response to how awkward the situation is. The lady isn’t pregnant, she’s in a larger body.

Shhh, no she doesn’t, Max,” the camp director says. She laughs out of her own discomfort and everyone moves on.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this with regard to many differences we recognize in people. One of my graduate school professors told this story that, to this day, has never left my mind. He was teaching Multicultural Issues, a core class for my degree. He explained how so often, at the grocery store, mall, or other public place, a child will make an observation, and, as many children do, he or she will announce it as loudly as possible: “Mommy, that man is BLACK!!”

And what does the parent usually say in response?

Shhh, don’t say that!” … and then pushes the shopping cart away as quickly as possible to escape the now uncomfortable situation.

“Why do we shush them?” my professor asked us. “What do we teach them by shushing them in response to them noticing a difference?”

I think a light bulb may have literally appeared above my head.

I hadn’t realized how – unfortunately – normal it is to respond in that way to that situation. I hate to admit it, but, prior to this professor’s lecture, I may not have thought twice if I saw someone shushing their child for announcing that someone was black. Or a minority in any other way. Or maybe-pregnant. We as a society struggle to accept differences. I think we have somehow been trained to combat racism by being colorblind AKA not acknowledging differences, when in reality, that is not effective at all.

Shushing a child – or anyone – in a situation like this teaches them that what they observed (because truly, that’s all they did: observe) is shameful. Shhh, skin color is private, so don’t announce it! Shhh, it’s bad to be in a larger body, keep that to yourself! And in addition to that – imagine how it makes the observed person feel! Should they feel bad for the way they look?

Imagine what it would be like to normalize – or celebrate – these difference.

“You’re right, honey, that man is black. People have all kinds of different skin colors!”

“Actually, Max, that woman is not pregnant. People come in all shapes and sizes.”

These responses acknowledge differences in a non-shaming way (especially because shame is not warranted in this situation).

I’ve done a mindfulness activity with some of the kids I see in which I ask them to describe different celebrities using only facts (e.g. his shirt is blue, she has glasses), rather than judgments (e.g. she is pretty, he has a good singing voice). More than once, when describing President Obama, someone has said, “Not to be racist, but he is black.”

But that isn’t racist! It is true! I wish there were more clarity in our society around when something is racist versus when it is a simple observation, an adjective. (This, of course, is not the fault of the kid I am working with. It is a product of this lack of clarity.)

The same summer that I took that Multicultural Issues class, I remember reading to a group of 3 & 4-year-old children at another camp where I worked. The book featured children of different ethnicities. One of the black children in the group sat up really tall, smiled the widest grin I’d ever seen, pointed to the book, and said “Hey! He has black skin and so do I!!”

Some of the other counselors instantly appeared very uncomfortable, unsure of how to manage the situation.

… But nothing needed to be managed! It was the coolest, most progressive thing I have seen among preschoolers. All of the kids got involved. One girl looked at him and pointed to her arm, “I have white skin!” Another: “And mine is brown!” Suddenly the discomfort faded from my co-counselors’ faces. These children were so much more comfortable with differences than many adults!

This can be applied to so many other things – race, physical ability, sexual orientation, the list goes on. At some point in history, people of color have been (and sadly, far too often still are) marginalized and oppressed. The same is true for those with disabilities. And for people of different body sizes.

While going up to someone and calling them ‘fat’ is not necessarily the nicest thing given the way our society views issues of weight, when a child makes a comment about body size, they likely are not saying it with the same judgment that we as adults have developed over time.

I realize that with body image, we as a society are not there yet. Unfortunately, if someone were to say, “That lady is fat!” – even a child – the person they were describing would likely be offended. ‘Fat’ is still a word we use as an insult, in some ways similarly to when we used to use other words that I will not dignify here by listing them (however if you’re reading this and still using those words, please remember that there are so many other words that you can use to express yourself and your feelings). Perhaps someday, as I have written in a previous blog, we will be able to accept that ‘fat’ is just an adjective just like skinny, black, white, tall. It is an adjective that does describe some people, and does not have to be a negative thing.  Truly, the only negative thing about it is the other adjectives (lazy, bad, less than) with which we, unfortunately, have come to associate it. (I could write an entire separate post about this.)

Differences are normal. They make us who we are, and they make us unique. Sometimes, they tell a story. We have the ability to make sure every new generation knows and appreciates that. Let’s embrace differences with the excitement of a child, and not make differences taboo.

Body-Shaming, Age 8+

 

Age 8: “Your mom is fat,” the boys in my second grade class announce to me, giggling to each other in the corner of the playground at recess.

Their laughter haunts me.

I ask my mom not to come to Visitation Day that year. I won’t tell her my reasoning behind that request until I’m 29 years old.

Age 9:  We are climbing the rope in gym class.  My classmates get to the top easily.  I struggle.  My arms can’t hold me up.  I make it halfway and have to come back down. All of my classmates are watching.

My friend Catherine has the same experience.  We decide we must be too fat.  We talk about weight loss and I sneak my mom’s dieting book into school the next day.  Catherine comes over that weekend and we eat oranges for lunch.  “Dieting is silly,” we say after a few hours following our new “plan.”  We start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chips and a carton of milk again.

At no point did we consider that as non-athletic third graders, we didn’t have the muscles that activity requires. Less food seemed like the only answer.

Age 10: I am at the movie theater with a friend and her mom, who is fat.  She gets up to use the restroom before the film starts.  When she gets up, her butt grazes the back of the heads of the boys in front of us.  They all point and giggle.  She doesn’t see them, but I do.  I don’t tell my friend; I don’t want her to feel embarrassed.  But I hold back hot tears, angry at the boys for getting a rise out of mocking someone else.

Age 13: I’m at camp, waiting with the other pre-CITs to go swimming.  My friend leans over to me and says, “Look at the girl next to you!”

The girl next to me is a fat 10-year-old girl in her swimsuit.

My friend had headphones on and spoke louder than she meant to.  The little girl hears, and tightly curls her towel around her body.

Age 21: I visit friends who are studying abroad in Spain.  One night, we get street food while waiting for the train.

“You’re a vegetarian?” a friend of a friend asks me.

“Yes! Well, I eat fish. But no other meat.”

“Hm, I wouldn’t have guessed that … I mean, you don’t have the body of a vegetarian .… ”

I am distracted by something else, so I don’t hear what comes next.  My friend gives him a talking to, to which he responds, “I mean, she’s not that fat .… ”


I don’t have any distinct body-shaming memories from ages 14 to 20.  The only way I can make sense of this is by assuming that body-shaming was so rampant in my teenage years that I stopped remembering each exact instance.


Age 24: I start working as a therapist at an eating disorder treatment center.  Body-shaming is everywhere.

The teenagers I work with body-shame themselves constantly.  This is what inspires me to start writing about it.

Sometimes, they body-shame other teenagers.

Often, parents do it too … they say, “I had an eating disorder when I was younger but clearly I’m recovered,” and laugh as they motion toward their round stomach and plump legs.

“Actually, you can’t tell if someone is sick or recovered by looking at them,” I respond, stone-faced serious.

I’m not upset with the kids and their families.  Parents do not create eating disorders.  Body-shaming is simply a product of the culture we live in.  I am no angel; I have put myself down countless times, admired someone’s weight loss, and noticed another’s weight gain. I have also worked on this tremendously once I began to witness, first-hand in my work, the impact it has on mental and physical health.

I realize that my experience is not unique in any way.  I have always been slender, a bit curvy, and in no way can I claim to have been the victim of body-shaming to the same degree that too many others have.  If I’ve experienced body-shaming, I cannot imagine what it is like for those in larger bodies.  It’s as though being thin (or even “not fat”) in a skinny-focused, fat-shaming world has become a new sense of Privilege that we have to keep in check.

I’ve learned a lot working as an eating disorder therapist.  When a kid tells you, “I think I’m fat,” and you respond with “You are not fat,” you are perpetuating the idea that being fat would be the worst thing that could happen.

I learned this best from one of my 16-year-old clients in my first year working in the field.  Like many young people struggling with anorexia, this client was preoccupied with the idea that she was fat, and the fact that part of her treatment plan required steady weight gain as part of recovery did not exactly make her distortions go away.

During a check-in, she told me that her dad, one of her biggest supports, made a comment that she needed to address with him.  They were driving home after a particularly challenging night of treatment, and a fat woman was walking down the street.

“See, it’s not like you look like that!” her dad said.

He was trying to help. He was, as a father, doing his absolute best to help his child see herself based on reality, not based on her distorted thinking. I think any parent in a similar situation would do the same.

She explained to me that all that did was show her that if she were walking down the street, people would be judging her based on her body.  It told her that our society judges fat people and maintains the idea that we “shouldn’t” look a certain way.  And she did a beautiful job explaining this to her father so he could best support her recovery.

Here’s the bottom line: Most 10-year-olds are more afraid of getting fat than getting cancer, the idea of war, or losing both of their parents.  What does that say about the messages we are perpetuating?  You have the power to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  Body-shaming doesn’t end overnight.  Habits take time to make and to break, and even longer to see an impact.  The next time you have a shaming thought, notice it, let yourself think it – you aren’t a bad person for having a thought you’ve been raised to believe is true.  Just be mindful of what you do with it.  Is it necessary to say it out loud?  This is true not only when the shaming thought is about another person, but when it is about yourself.  After a few weeks of simply noticing the thought without 1) announcing it or 2) changing your behavior in response to it, you might start to feel better.  And you just might cause a ripple effect on the people around you.


Note: I used the word “fat” a few times in this post – chances are, you’ve internalized this as a word with a negative connotation – almost a swear word.  I definitely have fallen into that trap, especially as a kid … and adolescent … and 20-something.  Let’s remember that “fat” is just an adjective.  Some people are fat.  Some people have brown hair.  Some people have freckles.  And all of those things are okay.  Check out Jes Baker’s book “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls,” regardless of what your body looks like, for some of the most empowering reading on body love and acceptance you may ever come across.