As a society we have a lot of trouble accepting the fact that bodies come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and that every body is amazing. Instead we have a tendency to glorify one body size, demonize other body sizes, and pathologize body sizes. Each comes with their own issues.
Glorifying a specific body size creates a stereotype of beauty. That creates an automatic stigma against those outside the stereotype. It also creates an environment where people determine their value based on their proximity to the stereotype. Those who happen to fit the stereotype can develop a fear of losing that approval that can cause them to engage in unhealthy behaviors – especially if they’ve based all of their self-esteem on getting approval for being part of the glorified group. Stereotypes of beauty can become confused with health so that even healthcare professionals become confused and think that body size and health are the same thing. It can also lead to a situation where people are chosen based on their ability to conform to a stereotype rather than for their ability to do a job (imagine how different our world would be if we chose actors and singers based on their ability to act and sing rather than their ability to meet a stereotype of beauty!)
The opposite of this is demonizing a particular type of body – as ugly, wrong, unhealthy etc. – and it causes another set of problem. First of all, shame and stigma are not great for our health. Peter Muennig did research at Columbia University that found that being under the stress of constant shame and stigma over a long period of time was correlated with the same diseases with which obesity has been correlated. He also found that women who were concerned about their weight had more mental and physical illnesses that those who were ok with their size, regardless of their size. People don’t tend to take good care of things that they hate, so creating a situation where people are encouraged to hate their bodies creates also creates a situation where people start to view their bodies of unworthy of care. Shaming people’s bodies “for their own good” in the hopes that they will hate themselves healthy is a questionable practice at best. It also creates an environment where people who aren’t part of the demonized group can become terrified of becoming part of the demonized group and/or start to derive their self-esteem from stigmatizing and shaming those who are part of the demonized group. Like glorifying, it can lead to people mistaking a body that society arbitrarily finds “unattractive” with a body that is unhealthy.
That brings us to the pathologization of body sizes. When we start to make guesses about health based on what people look like we create an avalanche of issues. It can lead to healthcare providers giving body size interventions for health problems. So where a person considered a “healthy size” will be given evidence-based interventions proven to help their health issue, those who are considered an “unhealthy size” will be told to change their size – even when there is no evidence that it will change their body size or affect their health issue. It does a disservice to people of all sizes since those who are considered an “unhealthy” body size are given the message that the only path to health is to change their body size, and people who are considered a “healthy” size are told that they are healthy by virtue of their size and regardless of their habits.
I believe the truth is that stereotypes of beauty are arbitrary and unhelpful. Bodies come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and every body is absolutely amazing. Neither evidence-based health interventions, nor healthy habits, are size-dependent. Health is multidimensional, not entirely within our control, not a barometer of worthiness, and not an obligation – each person’s decision about how highly to prioritize their health and the path that they want to take to reach their goals is intensely personal and nobody else’s business. There are healthy and unhealthy people of all sizes for lots of reasons and there is no magical “healthy weight” that makes people immune to health issues because weight and health are two different things, neither of which is entirely within our control. If I were the underpants overlord we would stop our current habits of glorifying, demonizing and pathologizing certain body sizes and start celebrating all bodies.
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