Bodies: Glorifying, Demonizing, Pathologizing

Ragen Chastain - superfat - picture by Substantia Jones for Adipositivity.com

Ragen Chastain – 5’4 284lbs  Picture by Substantia Jones for Adipositivity.com

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!)

žThe 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.
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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.
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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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Published in: on February 14, 2013 at 11:12 am  Comments (32)  

32 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. WOW! I’m so overwhelmed by a rush of emotions over this post that I’m struggling to find words. Ragen, thank you so much for this.

  2. And we get it pounded into our heads every day from a million commercials, Tv and radio programs, celebrity doctors, etc. that there’s a ‘healthy weight’ we should all strive to fit into.

    Funnily enough, I do believe I have a healthy weight. I just don’t think there’s one magic number that fits all bodies, or even all women of a certain height. I think there’s a weight where my body functions as it ought to do, and I think most of us have such a weight… and I believe each individual body naturally tends to that weight. So if I eat reasonably (as in sating my hunger regularly, not stuffing myself to the point of illness more than a few times a year [ because we all need a little bit of excess now and then], and eating from a variety of food groups every day), exercise in an appropriate way for my body and fitness level, and then let the chips fall where they will in terms of weight, chances are I will find myself in the healthiest body I am capable of having.

    And you know what? It’s okay that that body happens to be very, very fat.

  3. Wow. This is the best summary I’ve ever seen of exactly what’s wrong with fetishization/pathologization of bodies.

    Thank you for what you do. You are an incredible force in the world.

  4. I’m so tired of the term “healthy weight” or that weight is brought up at all when talking about health. I recently read a blog about how major US food companies put chemicals in the US food supply that they don’t put into the same foods they sell overseas, because those chemical additives have been banned in those countries. The point was to show that many companies are contaminating the food supply with dangerous ingredients and it isn’t something the HAVE to do.

    I appreciated the general premise of the article but was annoyed when the author started talking about weight and fighting obesity. When all of America is eating the SAME foods from the SAME major food companies, how can you even bring obesity into the equation? If Sally over there is eating Food X with all its additives and is a size 4 then how can you say Food X is causing obesity just because Susan eats Food X and happens to be obese?? If all these junky foods were really causing obesity, wouldn’t EVERYONE be fat?

    Let’s just stick to the real issue, those additives are just simply unhealthy and have been linked to a myriad of health problems and if those companies can produce the same foods overseas without those additives, then why are they doing it here?

    • “If Sally over there is eating Food X with all its additives and is a size 4 then how can you say Food X is causing obesity just because Susan eats Food X and happens to be obese?? If all these junky foods were really causing obesity, wouldn’t EVERYONE be fat?”

      ….Because obesity is caused by both genes and environment (and obesity researchers favor genes as the main cause). That means that Susan could have genes that predispose her to becoming obese when she is exposed to Food X, which Sally does not. I’m not agreeing with the idea that chemicals cause obesity (I don’t know anything about that); I’m just explaining why they might not affect everyone.

  5. I am doing the diversity calendar for the month of May at my work and would like to include an event about size acceptance. I there any upcoming events you could suggest.

    Thanks for your help, Jennifer

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Hi Jennifer,

      How about International No Diet Day? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_No_Diet_Day

      ~Ragen

      • I think this is a good suggestion, but I’m also partial to that day. How awesome is it that I get to celebrate my birthday on the same day as INDD?🙂

        • More reasons to eat cake! It’s a win-win!
          🙂

          I love cake.

          • I love cake, too.🙂 Anyone want my icing?

            • I would totally bake cakes for all of you. They’d be good, too. And Helena, I bet I could even come up with a frosting you’d enjoy… but if you didn’t like it, I would happily scrape the rest off and eat that, too. Homemade buttercream is my idea of delicious, but my cakes are tasty on their own. I’m just sayin’.

              • @Twistie, you are officially invited to bake cakes (with and without that delicious buttercream frosting) for my birthday.🙂

              • It totally depends on the icing, but I’m not a fan of too much sugaryness like the bakery uses. It starts to taste sickly sweet to me. For the record, I don’t like the centers of Oreos either, but bring on the cookie!!😀

          • A few years ago, a co-worker with a killer secret family recipe for carrot cake made that for me. My favorite flavor of cake is carrot cake, so she won me over heart and soul with that. But the frosting she made was AMAZING, and I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed a birthday cake more than that one.😀

  6. Of course I have no proof, but I’ve always felt that part of the general increase in size of children and youth in America has been due to the chemicals in our processed foods, hormones that travel from farm raised animals and make it into our food supply. Of course, with the argument above that Amelia so eloquently shared regarding food X and the differences in people, maybe I”m way off base.

    I just can’t help but feel there is some contributing factor to the general rise in the size of Americans over the last 40 years that we haven’t considered… and that isn’t school food, parenting skills or even fast food and media.

    Bottom line, I’m all for people being treated with respect, regardless of size. I really appreciate having the impact of glorification and demonization discussed so well.

    Thanks again Ragen

    • I’ve wondered too but then recently saw an old film from 1929 in which nearly all the dancers on stage were what we’d consider plus size. I thought to myself, “See, we’ve always been fat.” lol

      My experience with junk food hits close to home. I’m short, fat but very active and eat healthy. I can’t have gluten, limit processed sugars, and eat mostly a paleo or whole foods type diet. We don’t eat much that comes in a package and the things we do are void of additives. We are extremely conscious of what we eat. In fact, because of my thyroid disease, my guilty pleasures are things like strawberries and green tea (both things I shouldn’t have).

      Now compare me to my own mother. She is a few inches taller and stick thin; like bony thin. The woman is a sugar junkie to the extreme. When she visits she brings her own Little Debbie products because she HAS to have them at breakfast and we don’t buy things like that. I keep a sugar jar next to the coffee pot for her and she’ll go through the entire jar in a week. Recently she got a large bag of peanut butter cups for a movie and ate more than half the bag. She LOVES junk food and does not exercise. It is really hard for me to believe those foods actually cause obesity when she basically lives off those foods and is itty bitty. Meanwhile, I don’t touch those foods and I’m fat.

      I think it is all just too complex to be as simple as what we’re eating. Not that food doesn’t contribute in some way. But you get those people that insist it is calories in vs. calories out and that the KIND of calories matter. Obviously, I can attest that those things are not true.

      • I hope all of that made sense. I’m supposed to be on my way out the door. lol

    • Honestly I always felt it was the ramping up of shame and outright hate speech about weight and people’s size that is doing it. The tone has become increasingly more strident every time the “average” weight goes up to the point where outright hate speech and aggressive actions are considered acceptable in the name of some “good”. Basically any child in the last 20 years has been growing up facing extreme stress and hate the moment their body deviates from some media derived image and I doubt that helps anyone be healthy in any size or form.

    • I watched a lecture by some obesity researchers, and they explained that the increase in BMI over the past few decades averages out to about 12 lbs per person, which is not insignificant, but is much less than what most people think it is. The reason so many more people fall into the obese category is that you have a whole bell curve that has shifted to the right, and also the BMI where a person is considered obese was lowered in the 90s.

      I wonder if the 12 lb increase could be explained by improved access to food by poor people. In other words, people with low incomes aren’t as hungry as they were 40 years ago.

      • …And also, I think that dieting from a young age might contribute. I would guess that compared to 40 years ago, more teens and young women go on diets. But that’s speculation–if anyone knows more about this, please correct me!

        • I’ve often wondered if I hadn’t gotten stuck in the diet trap at a young age, if I’d have remained thin like my mom’s side of the family? Then again, I’m shaped very similarly to my paternal grandmother. So, it could be I was going to end up rounder no matter what.

      • Not to mention that the population is aging more. We have more old people now than the 19th century or even the early 20th century had. All that hooplaw on the news about the baby boomers retiring now and the economy in dire straits? Older people weigh more on average than younger people (60s compared to 20s).

  7. The “hate themselves thin” never works, it just makes us suicidal. I use the substitution rule here and try those phrases that doctors love with other things, see if it makes sense. Can a Jew hate themselves Christian? Can a black person hate themselves white? Can a woman hate themselves man? Can a Korean hate themselves Tajikistani? Can a gay hate themselves strait? Can a brown-eyed hate themselves blue-eyed?

    Obviously none of these things have happened! I’ve been Jewish in my heart of hearts (but not by birth) and nothing has ever changed that. Not even all the Jew-bashing I’m exposed to on a daily basis by family and society. If it doesn’t work on religion, it doesn’t work on body size.

  8. I always have this fear in the back of my mind that the demonizing of certain body types is going to lead to me being penalized for being fat although I am in the save general state of health as most people my age. (48) They already penalize smokers at the place where I work. Smokers have to pay $20 more a month on their health care premium. I quit smoking 6 years ago, but I don’t agree with the way my company treats smokers. They got rid of the smoking area by the dock, and now those who smoke have to go out to the curb and smoke, pushed away from their “saintly” non-smoking co-workers like a proverbial leper colony. I think it’s damned uncivilized.
    Of course we know that smoking and having a heavy body type are not the same thing, no matter how often people try to equate the two. Smokers come in all sizes, as do non smokers. Fat people can have very healthy habits or very unhealthy habits, just like thin people. If being thin were as simple as only eating certain types of food, most people would be thin. But it just doesn’t work that way.

    • That should be “same general state of health.” I am really tired lately and my proofreading skills have gone to shite.

  9. God, or good, morning far away but always near friend – getting ready for a Gig morning and thinking of you! I trust you had a fun Valentines day. Stan

    • Hi Stan! I hope that you are doing well🙂 I’ll be in Austin April 16-23rd with my girlfriend. I would definitely love to hang out – I plan to be at NBX on the 18th if you’ll be there?

      Big Fat Hugs around your neck!

      ~Ragen

  10. I’ve always hated the glorification of the hourglass figure since I hit puberty and figured out I had narrow hips and a thick waist and no way to get the hourglass shape without surgery, or at the very least wearing strategic padding.

    • I have a relatively small waist but I also have relatively small breasts and am bottom heavy. I’m the stereotype pear shape. I started hating my hips and thighs when I hit puberty. I’m 48 now. I’m still not thrilled with my hips and thighs, but I at least try to be neutral towards them. I spent a lot of years filled with self loathing for my body. Still working on it, I’m by no means perfect.

      • I also trying to be neutral towards my waist and hips. I’m top heavy, and now that my stomach is tending to hold onto weight, I am more apple-shaped than anything else. I am starting to think I am going to have to cut way down on watching movies or tv since few people on the screen look very much like me.

  11. I know this is just a small aside in this post, but:

    (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!)

    THIS. I think about this all the time. There are so many mediocre (or downright awful) “actors” out there, who are in the business merely because they won the genetic lottery. And how many other Susan Boyles are out there with amazing pipes that don’t need Autotune? Sigh.


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