The Healthy Role Model Myth

Bullshit FairyWhen I was doing research for my post about the most recent obsession with Melissa McCarthy’s weight, I broke the cardinal rule of being fat on the internet and read the comments. There I saw something that I see whenever a fat person is shown being successful at something other than weight loss – that people shouldn’t consider her a role model, or appreciate her talent, or find her beautiful, because her size makes her unhealthy.

Today I’m not even going to go into the fact that health and body size are two different things,  because this doesn’t actually have anything to do with that.

Let’s start here – In order to agree with the idea that fat people make poor role models because they are unhealthy you have to believe a couple of things. First, that you can tell someone’s health based on their weight, and second, that people who aren’t healthy shouldn’t be role models. Both of these are totally wrong.

First of all, you cannot tell how healthy someone is based on their size.  There are healthy and unhealthy people of all sizes, for lots of different reasons.  But even if someone is so misguided as to believe that body size is a reliable indicator of health, this “bad role model” idea is still bullshit.

I don’t think that people who suggest that fat people shouldn’t be role models because they think we’re unhealthy actually care about our health, I think that they are trying to use healthism as a cover for their fatphobia.

Health is not an obligation or a barometer of worthiness, it’s not entirely within our control or guaranteed in any circumstance, and “health,” by whatever definition, should not be a prerequisite for being a role model or acknowledged for one’s achievements. The idea that someone, of any size, should have to meet some level of “health” in order to be appreciated for their talent or be a role model is horrifying, and is the definition of healthism.

Even if people believe that fat people are fat because we engage in behaviors that they think are unhealthy, that still doesn’t justify this.  We can look up to people for their achievements, appreciate their talents and their beauty, we can make them our role models based on their accomplishments, even if we don’t agree with every choice they make about their personal health – because those choices are between them and their doctor and whomever they choose to include.

So every time you see someone comment on an article about a fat person being celebrated for their achievements with some crap about their health, you can choose to acknowledge to yourself that this is sizeist, healthist, and total, unadulterated, bullshit.  If you want to go a step further, you can leave a comment saying so.

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41 thoughts on “The Healthy Role Model Myth

  1. I think that the next time someone starts spouting bullshit about someone being too unhealthy to be a role model, because they’re fat, they need to hear two words: Stephen Hawking.

  2. It seems as if when someone is disabled or “unhealthy” in ANY OTHER WAY besides OMGDEATHFAT, they’re considered role model material for succeeding (against the odds) DESPITE their “handicap.”

    1. I know what my friends and family would say. They’d say (or at least, they’d think) “But it’s not Stephen Hawkings’ FAULT that he is disabled. That’s something that is beyond his control, and he has valiantly succeeded in life despite it. But fat people’s size IS their own fault — and proves that they have no self-control, no will power, no determination.” In other words, people will continue to reject the idea of fat role models for exactly as long as they continue to buy into those two completely bullshit beliefs that we all know and loathe: 1) that body size can be altered permanently if one just “tries hard enough” and therefore size is a “choice” and 2) that fat people are fat because they eat huge amounts of “bad” food and have no control over themselves.

      What we need here is a whole paradigm shift.

      1. If one can change one’s body size on a permanent basis, then it stands to reason that one can change eye color or skin color or height or even hair color by means of willpower, self-control and sheer determination alone.

        Anyone care to demonstrate?

        Thought not.

        1. I for one plan to dedicate myself to becoming taller. Studies show that taller people have lower all cause mortality rates and live longer. If I care about myself I owe it to myself to become taller. I’m sure if I put my mind to it I can do it. People who accept being short are just lazy and don’t care about their health.

          1. Yep- that’s my goal too! Thought I might try going blonde too, but a girl’s got only so much willpower and determination to achieve these things!


      2. Then you have Cameron Clapp. He lost both legs and one of his arms at the age of 15, when he got drunk and passed out on a train track. He’s (quite rightly) considered a role model for overcoming his handicap to become an accomplished athlete. It’s funny how people don’t constantly point out how stupid he was to lose his arm and legs, nor does anyone seem scared that children will run out and chop off their legs to be like him. He’s not accused of “promoting amputation” whenever he has a good day, so (socially speaking) this seems to be more a case of bigotry than logic.

      3. Oh, yeah. And if said fat person manages to accomplish something that requires a lot of self-control and will-power, then they’re still WRONG, because they should have been using that self-control and will-power to change their appearance, rather than, I don’t know, land a space probe on an asteroid or something.

        Because our appearance is so much more important than doing really challenging stuff that might actually lead to discoveries that can improve the lives of everyone on Earth. Or anything else, really.

        The only accomplishment fat people are allowed to have is to stop being fat. THEN they can discover the secrets of the universe and/or save the world.

  3. That is some serious bullshit. So if I aspire to be a fantastic singer or mathematician or whatever, I also have to become *physically* like that person? That goes beyond admiring a role model and into something really scary.

  4. There are so many layers of bullshit in the rationale that health (or lack thereof) “should be” an exclusionary factor in determining someone’s eligibility for being considered a role model, and the reality is, people cherry pick who they think “should” be considered a role model based on really dumb variables, like appearance. You’ll see some people be hailed as “heroes” or “role models” because they happened to battle through an illness that other people have died from (like cancer survivors), but that’s not universally granted to cancer sufferers across the board, and people tend to love a good “I overcame X!” story to label their heroes and role models with.

    To me, a role model is anyone who lives their life authentically and fights a good fight for living in the skin they’re in, given all they have to manage in just getting by from day to day. That means I can be considered a role model to some. Basing heroism or applying a role model label to someone simply based on appearance or haphazard luck in the genetic draw is not really something anyone can aspire to, and why should they?

  5. This blog subject is one of the reasons that fat people like me are so afraid to interact in society (well outside of our normal circles anyways…I’m a blast amongst my friends).

    I have a three year old nephew who I’ve only met once because his mom (my sister Kathryn) is afraid that I will have some crazy influence on him. Like I can reach inside him and control his genetics to turn him either gay or fat–uh huh! But she gets together with my brother and parents all the time. No doubt he is being brought up on the same -gung ho Navy-must go to Anapolis-must drive boat-must fly airplanes- bull crap I heard throughout my childhood.

    But what really hurts me is all the things that my little nephew is missing out on that I have to offer, things like resiliency, things like telling a good joke, how to have fun at parties, how to travel, how to speak French, etc… because I’m not seen as a role model for a little nephew.

    He doesn’t have any control over who he sees and I have no control over who his parents allow him to see. And unfortunately I’m not on that short list…so we all miss out.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that your family doesn’t appreciate you, Simon. For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re AWESOME!

    2. I’m so sorry, Simon. For you, and for your nephew. Some day, this is going to come back and bite your sister-in-law.

      I hope that when your nephew is older, you’ll be able to get some time with him, after all, and let him know that you really do love him, and hopefully he’ll believe you, and not just think that you blew him off and never cared.

      That really sucks.

  6. It’s so arbitrary, too. I mean, let’s take Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as examples here. They’re both societally idealized examples of beauty. They’ve done a lot of good with charity work.

    But their relationship started out as an affair when he was married to someone else. And she rubbed salt in those wounds publicly on more than one occasion.

    My world view on cheating is very black and white… he should’ve ended his marriage before starting an affair, and it was shitty of her to tell everyone how she was trying to get pregnant before the divorce was even finalized.

    But no one cares. They’re considered amazing role models.

    They said they wouldn’t get married until everyone had that right, and then they did. And everyone says it’s their business (and I agree, even if I personally think you shouldn’t make big, swooping promises you probably can’t keep).

    But if one of them got FAT? Can you imagine them being looked up to as “role models” anymore? Even all their charity work would take a back burner to the “how could she/he let her/himself go that way?”

    So, you can do things like cheat on your spouse and no one cares. But god freakin’ forbid you should gain weight!

    Now, like with anything, it’s their lives… they get to make the choices. I was disappointed they got married, given the big, sweeping statements they’d made. But they have kids who really wanted it, and I can respect them doing this for their children (though I certainly hope it wasn’t JUST for the kids, too).

    I disagree with a lot of what they do… but it doesn’t mean I don’t also see what they’ve done that’s good.

    Melissa McCarthy is beautiful, funny, talented… it’s hardly surprising she’s attacked by so many fatphobes because she’s all of those things and, by all accounts, happily married. She’s doing everything they want fat people to believe they can’t do until they get thin.

    1. “She’s doing everything they want fat people to believe they can’t do until they get thin.”

      I think that really hit the nail on the head for many of the “but she’s a bad role model” jerks. They want everyone to believe that you can’t achieve your dreams unless your thin, when they see that fat people are doing what they themselves wish they could do, or seeing fat people be successful, it scares them and makes them have to reexamine their own beliefs about fat people or what being fat really means. It just doesn’t add up in their warped little bigoted brains, and makes them reevaluate how much importance and value they’ve put on being thin.

  7. I think Melissa McCarthy is a FINE role model, not just for being talented and successful, but for succeeding despite the bigotry and bias of our society. That takes so much confidence and determination – I hope my daughters grow up to have such noble qualities.

  8. It seems bizarre to me, the criteria they use. In our society we have role models who had a dog fighting ring, who have raped and sexually assaulted others with arrests and convictions, adulterers, convicted criminals, obstructors of justice in a homicide investigation, physically abused a child of theirs, unsafe alcohol and drug use and convictions, lying under oath to congress, and the list goes on and on. But someone the judge to be fat is not worthy of being a role model. Outrageous.


  9. Unhealthey role models: Every professional football player *ever*. Even the semi-pros seem to be spending most of their time injured.

    1. And yet, if a fat person does go out and exercise (walk the block, go to a gym and the like), they get shamed as well. Can’t win!

    2. In my more tinfoil-moments, I believe this is what the “you’re not a good role model!” and “I don’t want to glorify obesity!” excuses are REALLY about. Let’s face it; the whole bullshit fat = unhealthy/overindulgence/laziness masquerade would fall apart if thin-to-average people had regular exposure to healthy fat people eating right, exercising, and being fat anyway. Those who profit from diet culture have to keep real fat people out of sight to keep their narrative about fat alive.

      1. Don’t forget about *fear*, lovely lady! Fear is a POWERFUL motivator, and lots of diet companies use fear to sell their products. If the world can see fat women being beautiful and talented and celebrated, then how on earth are we going to keep our young girls terrified of getting fat? They need us to believe that getting/staying fat will lead to NOTHING but failure, depression, and loneliness.

        1. “They need us to believe that getting/staying fat will lead to NOTHING but failure, depression, and loneliness.”

          THIS so much! We can’t let people know that they can be great in non-thin bodies, our entire fat-phobic, looks-are-everything-if-you’re-a-woman, fear driven society would just up and collapse if we let people know the truth. lol …Oh, wait, no – the only thing that would collapse would be formerly fat wallets of the weight loss industry’s big wigs and all the other industries that feed off of keeping people insecure and feeling bad about themselves and their bodies. I would be so happy to dance around the wreckage of that nasty mess – viva la revolucion.

  10. Sooo, I guess Steven Hawking (sp?) is a BAD ROLE MODEL!!!!!!eleventyone!! because he’s in a wheelchair, right? Because anyone who isn’t the perfect picture of health and happiness may never be celebrated or admired for what they have accomplished.

    I suppose we are only allowed to admire able-bodied, thin, straight, white, rich, cis-men (add any other privileges you care to), because anyone who doesn’t fit that privileged stereotype is “glorifying” whatever obstacles they have that make them not fit the “approved” role model mold.

    So, what these people are really saying, is that only perfect people may be admired, and that no matter what or how much you do, if you are not perfect, you are not allowed to be lauded for your accomplishments. That would be glorifying imperfection.

    No way THAT attitude is going to give young, impressionable children a complex. Nope.

  11. Fat leaders of the free world in the 20th century: Churchill, FDR, Queen Victoria, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Diefenbaker, Paul Martin, King Edward, Howard Taft. Would these be excluded from being “role models” by “modern” society?

  12. Having posted an earlier comment about GP’s (our general practitioner Doctors here in UK) and what awful attitudes it had towards all the supposed overweight patients and of course the ongoing “obesity epidemic” we keep hearing about on TV/in the media, I have now read another piece in this medical newsletter, entitled, “GP’s struggling to tackle weight loss issues with patients” and found this great response to that, a female Doctor :

    “I’m more than happy to discuss diet, weight management, body composition and exercise with any patient who initiates such discussion. However, given the dismal statistical likelihood of any individual maintaining weight loss, and the lack of evidence that exercise on prescription improves health outcomes, I’m not prepared to nag my patients to eat nasty food they don’t like, shell out for slimming classes, and spend hours of their lives that they’ll never get back in the gym.

    It’s important that people should feel able to trust their doctors to manage their health issues in a compassionate and non-judgmental way irrespective of their body size. There are lots of reasons why people become very overweight (often it’s a response to health problems) or don’t engage in health-improving behaviours. It shouldn’t make them fair game for institutional bullying within the NHS.

    And doctors and nurses are just human beings like everyone else. We come in different shapes and sizes, we get illnesses just like our patient do, and we have different interests and inclinations which don’t stay constant throughout our lives. Having a BMI within the “healthy” range doesn’t make someone a “better” doctor or nurse than one who has a BMI of 40. They’re just a different size, that’s all.”

    Marion, UK

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