A stranger on Facebook thoroughly bitched me out for not being “supportive” of an extremely overweight woman who had written a post expressing her positive body image and her assertions that she “eats healthy” and gets exercise. She regularly posts photos and elaborate descriptions of her meals with all the delight of an enthralled foodie. As I write this, my Facebook news feed contains photos of her Sunday brunch.
The woman is a gaming friend and I can see from her posted photos that her weight is probably well into the mid-300s. I estimate she may be in her early forties. As the body image thread began to flame up with most of the wrath directed at me, a relative of hers messaged me. She told me that extreme obesity has plagued their family and they have relatives who have reached 500lbs, even 700lbs. Some have died from complications of obesity. She worries about her cousin and deals with guilt that despite their family medical history, she doesn’t feel she can talk about it.
I got myself into similar trouble when a friend posted a video of a teenager on one of those “got talent” shows. The teen was over 400lbs and performed an exuberant dance for the judges. While everyone else gushed that the girl was so great, so comfortable with herself with obviously such a positive self-image, I found the video to be profoundly upsetting.
In our culture, discussions of weight and health are one conversation and discussions of body image are something separate. If a person is large and professes to be happy and comfortable with themselves, it is usually considered to be politically incorrect or even rude to express concern for the potential consequences of their weight, now or in the future.
When I read politically-oriented fat acceptance blogs, health is rarely discussed. By the precepts of the Health at Every Size movement, there are presumptions that literally any size body can be a healthy body and that size is not an indicator of health, therefore health is dismissed as a non-issue. People of any size are implored to unconditionally love themselves—and their fat bodies. This is where so-called “fat acceptance” and other politically-focused body image viewpoints actually establish and reinforce exactly what they purport to decry. By requiring that self-acceptance necessitates acceptance of the body’s temporal state, “fat acceptance” inexorably links self-worth with the transitory status of our physical presence. This is taken to the extreme when a person is accused of self-hatred if they express a desire to lose weight.
We must literally reverse the current paradigm by integrating issues of weight, health, and body image while we de-couple the concepts of self-perception and self-worth from body image.
Our sense of ourselves and the value of our humanity deserve to be independent of our physical presence. We’ll give lip service to “beauty on the inside” but then fail to live it. I couldn’t count how many times I was told I was fat because of self-loathing, that I ate as an act of self-torment and self-destruction. I’ve never hated myself, ever. In fact, I’ve always had one hell of an ego! I did, however, deeply hate being fat. In part because I thought it got in the way of being seen for who I really am instead of just “the fat girl.” But that’s a very difficult place for many people to go. Hating yourself for being fat makes as much sense as hating yourself for needing glasses. Your intelligence, your personality, and your abilities are all still yours no matter what size you might be. It is not necessary to accept being fat as a condition of accepting all the things you are. You do not diminish your self-worth if you’re not comfortable with traits of your body that are mutable.
Overweight presents health threats and physical limitations. Marilyn Wann has been reported to weigh 270lbs at 5’4″. At 47 years old, she’s closer to the time when her body may begin to rebel against the excess weight she’s been carrying than the legions of women who took up the HAES philosophy in the past two decades. If she’s able to advance into her fifties free of health issues, we can acknowledge that she possesses great genes indeed. She’ll be very fortunate. Wann is the heroine to the “fat-o-sphere,” a broad community of bloggers who began to write about issues of fat acceptance in the early 2000s. A significant percentage of them will be entering their thirties and forties by now. I continue to wait and wonder what will happen when metabolic syndrome and obesity-related conditions begin to descend upon a percentage of them and they have difficulty being so positive and accepting of their bodies anymore.
So what do we think of a 40-something, 300lb-plus woman with a family history of obesity-related health issues who posts pictures of food like a grandmother doting on her babies? What are we to think of a teenager whose young body has had to manage puberty and grow and develop under the burden of hundreds of pounds of excess weight? We’re not supportive if we don’t gush that they’re beautiful just the way they are? I can’t do it. I can’t ignore what I know is more than likely in their futures. I can’t ignore it because I know the wave of fear that comes over you when a nurse checks your blood pressure and both numbers are three digits. Yes, there’s always the rebuttal that health concerns are just an excuse but I do not believe that in their heart of hearts that very fat people are honestly, truly, utterly happy with a very fat body.
Body image becomes less problematic if we are willing to address weight and health while releasing the tangled-up judgmental talk of beauty, self-perception, and self-worth. We have to be willing to talk about it and we can if we embrace the greatest acceptance—that the value of our humanity is a singular, independent constant.