Normalizing Obesity

Actual SizeDepartment store Debenhams decided to use size 16 mannequins to both reflect the average size woman and give her a shot at seeing what clothes might actually look like on her.  Queue hand-wringing and wailing.

Britain’s chief medical director, Dame Sally Davies, is concerned that the use of mannequins in a wide variety of sizes that reflect the sizes of women may normalize obesity. First of all let’s remember that obesity is a made up thing whose definition has been changed in the past by clever lobbying by the weight loss industry. Then let’s remember that, while there are no guarantees or obligations, behaviors are a much better determinant of future health than is body size. Finally, let’s remember that Dame Davies has not a single evidence-based way to make fat women smaller,whether there are fat mannequins or not . (see the bottom of this post for evidence about this.)

The hypothesis that Dame Davies seems to be working under, of course without a shred of evidence, is that fat people will all get thin if we never see anyone (including a mannequin)  who looks like us shown in a positive light.  I hate to have a Dr. Phil moment here, but we’ve been doing that for quite a while now – how’s that workin for ya? Junot Diaz said:  “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” That is exactly what Dame Davies is engaged in doing.

It turns out that most people aren’t motivated to take care of themselves by seeing only negative portrayals of people who look like them.  The message that fat people should hate our bodies and ourselves is phenomenally effective at convincing fat people to hate our bodies and ourselves.  The problem is that, in what I would call a stunning flash of the obvious, neither health nor thinness (two different things let’s remember) follow.  But heavens forfend we have a fat person shown in a positive (or even neutral) light – we’ll soon find ourselves accused of that most heinous (and completely ridiculous) of crimes:  “promoting obesity  a gateway crime to  “normalizing obesity”.

Again, the idea being that we must keep fat people in constant misery by only showing fat people in constant misery – or not showing them at all…and why?

Maybe it’s because people are actually so misguided as to believe that all fat people will become thin if the world simply refuses to allow us to see ourselves in it as anything but “abnormal” (of course being normal is the most important thing.) Or maybe it’s because if we stop shaming fat people then they might stop pouring money into the diet industry for a solution that almost never works, and they really like getting our sixty billion dollars a year.

I don’t buy the idea that showing fat people in a positive light will make other people want to be fat (because I don’t think this is a V8 commercial where people see a happy fatty, slap their forehead and say “I coulda been fat”), and I don’t think that a ceaseless stream of shame is doing anything good for fat people.  So let’s try a new experiment. Let’s normalize bodies of all sizes – let’s acknowledge that bodies come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and move on to focus on other things based on people’s own prioritization and goals.  Can you imagine if size was not an issue?  Movies with fat leading men and  ladies, magazines filled with people of all sizes, billboards with fat people selling dishsoap, a world without fat jokes, a world without articles about how Santa Claus promotes an unhealthy body image.

Take a minute to realize that everything fat people accomplish today is done in spite of the fact that we live under the under the crushing weight of constant social stigma. Imagine what fat people could do if we didn’t have to live with a ceaseless stream of societal oppression.

Peter Muennig’s research from Columbia found that most of the health problems that are correlated with obesity are also correlated with being under a high degree of stress for a long period of time (for example, the stress of constant shaming and stigma). Therefore, public health messages that add to the shame and stigma that fat people face may actually decrease health in fat people.

Muennig also found that women who were concerned about their size experienced more physical and mental illness than those who were ok with their size, regardless of their size. So public health messages that make fat people concerned about their body size may also have the opposite of the intended effect.

Imagine a world where there was no body shame and stigma.  Hey wait, we don’t have to imagine… we could  just stop shaming and stigmatizing bodies right frickin’ now!

Of course society isn’t coming along with my plan at the moment, but we can do something about it right now. I think that the best thing that I ever did for loving my body was looking daily at bodies that were outside the beauty stereotype  -I found that I had no problem with their bodies and I was eventually able to transfer those feelings to my own body.  I think you will do yourself a world of good if you seek out images of happy people who are outside the beauty norm every single day.

Here are a couple of places to start:

Fit Fatties Forum Phot and Video Galleries

The Adipositivity Project (NSFW unless your W is super cool)

(If you know of other places feel free to put them in the comments!)

You can also take pictures of yourself and get them out there for other fatties to see- post them on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram your blog,  post them in the comments of this blog – whatever.  Remember that bodies aren’t better or worse- just different.  The constant stream of thin bodies that we see can subconsciously condition us to believe that our bodies are wrong, but that’s just cultural conditioning, and that can be changed, and we can change it. Let’s be our own heroes and our own role models.

Activism Opportunity:  E-mail Debenhams to thank them (scroll to the bottom and click on “e-mail”)

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31 thoughts on “Normalizing Obesity

  1. Didn’t Debenham’s also put out a catalogue featuring women of widely varying sizes and shapes, including women who were fat, women who were short, women who had artificial limbs, etc.? I recently saw some photos from that and it made me smile all day long. Whether it was Debenham’s or another company, it was a great thing. I want to see more of that.

  2. I don’t know if this statistic is still correct, but if the average American woman is a size 14 than this is already “normal”, as normal just means the norm. In any case, whenever I hear this, it sounds like people think that if thin people see a size 16 manequin, they will just decide to be fat, which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. There are many reasons this is ridiculous, but one is that most people can’t “decide” their body size, just like nobody can “decide” their height or shoe size. It’s similar to the idea that if we legalize marijuana, or any drugs, for that matter, that everyone will become drug addicts. Face. Palm.

    1. As I have said before, by this logic, the media needs to put a stop to all those cartoons starring anthropomorphic animals, or The Children (TM) will all grow up to be ducks and bunnies.

      And they aren’t fooling me. They aren’t even a little bit afraid that fat mannequins will make thin people want to gain weight to look like them. They’re afraid that if a variety of fat people are widely visible to the mainstream public, said mainstream public will see with their own eyes that they’ve been lying about us. The diet industry and its beneficiaries can only maintain their stranglehold on the flow of information, and thus public perception, if their target audience isn’t saying, “Wait, I saw a fat woman on TV doing the thing you’re telling me fat people can’t do. Does that mean you lied? What else are you lying about?”

      1. You have no idea how close you hit to my childhood. I heard the song “I want a Hippopotamus for Chirstmas” and I decided that year at the tender age of 3 years old I wanted to be a hippo when I grew up that way someone may want me for Christmas. Children’s logic is so funny.

          1. Sadly I am still human but! My boyfriend did get me as a present for Christmas given he was away for work during the holidays.

  3. Right on, sister! This post was especially amazing and good for me today. I am with you 100%. I’m not fat, but I’m a large woman, and shopping for clothes is one of the most frustrating experiences…I honestly go into despair after not finding anything that fits, not seeing anything that represents my body size, in clothes or mannequins. So thanks for speaking so confidently, and advocating for self love and self acceptance. Thank you so much!

    Lydia Jane

    479-684-6655 Therapeutic Yoga, Holistic Fitness

  4. For my daily intake of positive images of people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities, I always visit Fatima Parker’s Facebook Group called: Beauty Diversity and Healthy Body Image. I find it very helpful as part of my morning internet rituals.

  5. We have Mennonite women shop in our store and they are always beautifully dressed, and I envy their sewing skills, to tailor their dresses perfectly to their bodies, and the same can be said of the ladies who come in dressed in traditional Sari/Indian dress wear that is obviously custom made… Why the off the rack clothing designers cannot seem to accept that bodies come in a wide range of sizes and that we all need to purchase clothing and work uniforms (seriously, how many retailers requirer black or tan docker style pants? And solid color polo shirts? Why are they near impossible to find? And in quality fabric?)

  6. Hurrah! Fantastic article. You sent me some photos of glamorous fat women the other day and it really boosted me. I have health problems (nothing to do with my weight) but so much negativity starts me thinking that “If only…” I were skinny, even if I were still ill, somehow I’d be better. it’s nonsense. Dame Sally Davies should be ashamed to call herself a scientist. And Debenhams should be proud to show women as they are

  7. And yet Davies is not concerned that thin mannequins might normalize eating disorders… Interesting.
    God forbid we acknowledge that people come in a variety of sizes. And God forbid we don’t diagnose people with health issues just by looking at their bodies.

  8. Great article! Here’s a recommendation: The magazine Vol-Up-2 has amazing beautiful high-fashion pictures of all sorts of people you don’t normally see in those sorts of photos. Different sizes, colors, ages, gender representations, disabilities, and all beautiful. I am not affiliated with them, I just love them!

  9. I wonder which Government agency briefed the Chief Medical Officer to make this statement, and why, because it would be a very strange observation for a prominent doctor to make of her own accord. No matter what, I’m disappointed.

    The mannequins in Debenhams aren’t even what could reasonably be described as “fat”. They’re shaped like classically proportioned, taller than average, slightly sturdy women.

    Alongside this statement, it’s reported that 52% of overweight men and 30% of overweight women think they’re “about the right weight”. The implicit message is, “There’s not enough fat-shaming going on. All those poor fat deluded people don’t realise that they’re not OK. More needs to be done to hammer the message home because, like, it’s for their own good and all that.”

    Nope. That doesn’t even pass through the common sense filter, never mind stand up to scientific scrutiny.

    How about, THAT many people CAN’T BE WRONG? And I suspect the percentage would be greater if it included people who ticked a box for, “I know I’m overweight because that’s what the numbers tell me, and I’ve done everything I can to try not to be overweight, but this is the weight that I always come back to.”

    The CMO’s statement is an uncomfortable one for grassroots health care workers. I certainly don’t want to be under MORE pressure to nag people about their weight irrespective of their reason for seeking medical advice. I don’t want people to hesitate to consult about joint problems, skin infections or whatever because they’re afraid they’ll just get sent away with a lecture about their weight ringing in their ears. I don’t want people demanding that I “do something” about their weight because they’ve picked up the message that doctors aren’t doing enough to defuse the obesity timebomb. I don’t want to be writing a stream of stroppy letters to surgeons who have told my patients that they need to lose weight before they can have a knee replacement or whatever.

    The sooner this pendulum swings towards accepting that people are the size they are and that’s OK, the better,

    1. Thank you.
      And a thought I had – I really wonder where they got those percentages from, because so many people struggle with body image issues these days. It makes me wonder if on closer inspection those responses have been taken out of context somehow.

  10. That’s a shame…I loved Debenham’s when I lived in the UK. They always had something stylish in my odd size (I’m plus on the bottom, but ‘standard’ on the top), and their jewelry/accessories were amazing. I really hope they don’t cave.

    I have a had time taking advice from anyone with “Dame” in the front of their name. It’s a relic of a time when the Monarchy actually meant something…or thought it did. It’s strictly a societal moniker, and it has no bearing on my life, nor do people who live and move and have their being on that level of existence have any impact on my self-worth.

  11. Ugh, I took my son for his WIC appointment last week and when I mentioned that he can now get himself food out of the fridge the WIC worker instantly leaned forward and told me that I “needed” to “get control” of what he eats. I can’t just let him get food for himself when he’s hungry, because faaaaaaaaaaaat.

    Funny, I thought being able to tell the difference between the plate of hard-cooked eggs and the carton of raw ones, get out just one hard-cooked egg without breaking the others, grab a paper plate, and peel the egg over the plate was a good thing. But no, I’m supposed to be hovering over him, monitoring and approving every bite he eats, because faaaaaaaaaat.

  12. an experience that really helped me was at a camping festival I went to a year ago – a way-out-of-my-depth kind of thing for me at first – and it just happened to be clothing-optional. There were over 2000 people there in the middle of nowhere, hours from anywhere civilised, and at least 80% of them were naked at any one time. At first I got a crick in my neck from looking at the sky all the time, but as I relaxed, I realised something so helpful for someone who has lived with an ED most of their lifetime – I saw how diverse the range of body sizes and shapes were, with no two the same, and I saw that they were all FINE. Every single person looked just as they were meant to be. More than fine actually. I have had a similar experience at beaches and pools, but on a far smaller scale. It exposes whole notion of some bodies being ‘wrong’ for the LIE that it is.
    I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a perve! I am very shy, and there wasn’t really anywhere I could go or look without being confronted by large numbers of naked people. Maybe next time I will have the courage to ditch the clothes too. Well, maybe just some of them.
    I thought of this as you suggested looking at bodies portrayed in positive lights – and this was a very body-positive experience for me.
    I didn’t realise the power the fashion industry actually has until then, either, the way they try and dictate what shape and size and appearance is acceptable and what is not. It really should be the clothes being fitted and designed to adapt to the body of the wearer, not the body having to change to fit/suit the clothes – insane and impossible anyway. I grew up believing I was wrong or deformed because things just didn’t look right on me compared to on mannequins/models and (i thought) everyone else. The reality was my body was fine, I was just taught that it wasn’t.
    I wish there was some way to completely put those who dominate the fashion industry out of business in favour of those who design for real people. It’s only one small element of the whole body size issue, but I think the fashion industry does have a lot of power over society’s definition of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ now. They have power to reinforce these messages through excluding people who ‘don’t fit’ or ‘fit wrong’
    I wish there was a way to scrap the whole world’s views of bodies and start from scratch, actually… and scrap the negative people along with the views. It might be a much kinder world. *dreaming*
    Thankyou, for your posts, and what you do, which helps probably thousands, more than thousands of people who read here and/or are indirectly affected by what someone’s read here. I have learnt a LOT in the past 2 years.

  13. If seeing size 16 mannequins (in what world is size 16 obese anyway? it’s never been in mine, how does one go from average being size 14 to 16 being obese?) was going to encourage people to become obese (because ohgoshtheworldmightend!), then why isn’t the whole world stick skinny after a lifetime of stick skinny mannequins and models? Their argument is invalid.

    1. Spot on. I almost can’t believe the complete dumbness of the suggestion that size 16 mannequins, which are not fat but are just a realistic representation of a size that’s in the same ball park as a much bigger sector of the population than the traditional thin mannequins are, will make people think it’s OK to be fat, and that thinking it’s OK to be fat is a problem instead of a potential solution to a whole lot of problems.

      And from the Chief Medical Officer too. Someone whose roots are in MY profession, and who MUST, at some stage in her career, have learned about evaluating medical evidence properly and not being suckered into believing all the claims made by those who have something to sell.

      Sometimes, clever people say stupid things.

  14. Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    All the pearl clutching and concern trolling in the world is not going to make fat people cease to exist. I’ve been fat for most of my life, and no amount of bulimia, starvation, over-exercising, or yo-yo dieting has made me thinner (but never thin enough) in the long term. I’d venture to say that doing these things was far less healthy than letting my body be what it seems to want to be.
    I would love a world in which the diversity of people was actually acknowledged instead of this attitude of hoping to make certain “undesirables” go away with disdain or pretending that we don’t exist.

  15. Just wanted to say that I’m in the UK for a few weeks and needed a nice black skirt to wear to a formal dinner. I went to Debenham’s and asked a helpful, large saleslady to help me find a skirt — she was extremely polite and efficient, showed me some lovely options, helped me figure out what my UK size was (I’m a UK 22, apparently), and I found a skirt I’m very happy with. As of today, I am a great fan of Debenham’s. I dont’ know what their largest size is but for someone of my size, I found the experience of shopping there much less harrowing than it usually is for me in the US. The saleslady never made me feel awkward or ugly (as they so often do) and she showed me reallly pretty clothes.

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