The recent push toward body acceptance is a move in the right direction, says Laurel Hermanson, but demanding that she love her body does nothing but make her feel guilty that she doesn’t love her body.
“Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you could use a little improvement.” — Shunryu Suzuki, Sōtō Zen monk and teacher
Fat shaming. Fat acceptance. Get a bikini body. Love your curves. Obesity is a lifestyle choice. Obesity is a disease.
Confused? I am. If you spend any time on the Internet, you’ve likely seen or participated in the conversation about weight and body image. To read most blogs posts, opinion pieces, or news articles is to be bombarded with contradictory messages. Lose weight and look great! Love your body just the way it is!
I find both messages tiresome. First, I don’t like being told how to think or feel about anything. More important, the polarity is patronizing and divisive. Where in this “conversation” is there room for individuals to have their own feelings, independent of what other women (and men) insist is the “correct” way to think about one’s body?
Judging other people based on their weight—or any physical trait—is senseless and inexcusable. If you disagree with that, you might as well stop reading. Otherwise, bear with me.
Let’s say I complain to a friend that I’ve gained weight. She says, “Stop it. You’re beautiful.” While those words are well-intentioned, they are also dismissive. They will not convince me that I am fit or beautiful. They can’t change the fact that I feel uncomfortable in my body. Likewise, demanding that I love my body does nothing but make me feel guilty that I don’t love my body.
I believe an ideal scenario is one in which friends could openly and empathetically discuss weight, rather than sidestepping the topic with, “You’re beautiful.” We do this out of discomfort, which would be fine if it didn’t stop the conversation. When we refuse to talk about fat, we let it control us. And in that moment there is judgment disguised as support. Eliminate the judgment, and talking about weight becomes easier and healthier.
We need to talk about weight. Roughly two out of three U.S. adults are overweight, with one out of three considered obese. American obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980, and remain the highest among all of the high-income countries in the world.
The U.S. weight loss industry has always been big business, playing on consumer susceptibility to fad diets and get-fit-quick schemes. Marketdata Enterprises predicts the market will grow to $66.5 billion this year.
That’s a lot of people who not only don’t love their bodies, but feel compelled, coerced, even desperate to part with a great deal of money along with unwanted fat.
The American Medical Association recently voted to define obesity as a disease, a controversial move. Proponents claim the decision will encourage physicians to take obesity more seriously and provide patients with medical treatments including counseling, drugs, and surgery. The costs of these treatments may or may not be reimbursed by health insurers.
The AMA’s own Council on Science and Public Health disagrees. They say the definition could push overweight people toward costly drugs and surgery rather than lifestyle changes. They also say the measure used to define obesity, the body mass index, is simplistic and flawed, and that otherwise healthy people might be over-treated because their BMI indicates they have a disease.
It appears there is no more consensus in the medical community about how to treat overweight bodies than there is in the larger community about how to feel and talk about our bodies.
The medical arguments are noteworthy, but I’m more interested in the ongoing public dialogue about body image.
Initially, I shared photos on social media that contrasted the curvy and voluptuous celebrities of yesteryear with the gaunt and emaciated stars of today. That a single image could show how our society’s version of the “ideal” female body has shifted over the years was shocking. Granted, some of those comparisons were offensive to naturally thin women, but that seemed like collateral damage in a push for much needed change.
What followed was a campaign—on the Internet, in print advertising—celebrating women who refused to be defined by their body size. Again, progress! I wanted to virtually high five all my sisters demanding to be recognized as whole, beautiful, proud women who didn’t give a shit about what society expected them to look like. Because hell yeah, we are so much more than our stomachs and thighs and butts, our skin and hair and teeth.
More recently, the loudest voices insist that we all love our bodies regardless of size or shape. We shouldn’t call ourselves fat or believe that we are anything less than perfect. What began as a backlash against a society that made women feel unattractive if they didn’t look like models or celebrities has morphed into what sounds like a rallying cry for mandatory self-love.
I think that’s fantastic for people who are ready to love their bodies. But body image is personal and complicated and everyone should be allowed to feel love or hate or indifference about their bodies without pressure to conform to the latest cultural shift. Otherwise, how have we really progressed from hating our bodies because they weren’t thin enough?
Some people have struggled their entire lives with being overweight. Teased as kids and publicly scrutinized as adults, they are tired of being judged. They deserve to be accepted by everyone, including themselves. As a friend said, “I think most of the time, I could be fine with my body just the way it is if the rest of the world was OK with it. But it’s the constant reminders in the media, in life, in clothing sizes and comments and looks when I decide I’m going to enjoy an ice cream cone with my family. People go out of their way to let you know you’re fat.”
I have had body image issues since I realized bodies were different and there were issues to be had, but I have rarely been overweight. Mostly I’ve been slim, something I compulsively tell people I’ve met in the last two years. Some ask, “But were you healthy?” And I was. I ate well, exercised, and felt great. But thanks to a newly sedentary lifestyle and a penchant for burritos, I’ve gained enough weight in the last couple years that I am no longer just uncomfortable, but unhealthy as well. I’m not ready to accept this new me.
It’s not easy to navigate the in-between place of feeling bad about my body and not knowing what to do with those feelings. I try to think in terms of choices. I can 1) continue to hate my body, 2) decide to love my body the way it is, 3) accept that I am unhappy with my body right now, which would ideally lead me to 4) make some changes, not just to look better, but to feel better, and to feel better about myself.
My self. I am more than my body, yet my body carries me through life in many roles. As a mother, I want more from my body. I want to feel strong and energetic instead of limp and sluggish. I want to be active and fun and outdoorsy. Above all else, I want to be a good role model so that my daughter will keep looking in the mirror and saying, “I look good!”
I’m trying to find my place, a halfway point that will allow me to accept my discomfort while working toward health, and genuine love for my body. Because there is more than one way to love your body. You can love how it looks, and you can love it by taking care of it.
Health Coach Meg Worden works with clients from all over the world, people with diverse cultural perspectives of health and beauty. Her holistic approach focuses on small actions that will start increasing comfort and acceptance.
“The answer is not just acceptance without action, or white-knuckled, shame-based actions, but a fluid marriage of acceptance and actions that are deeply tied to your core values,” Worden says. “Consistent practice creates an intrinsic reward system so you want to feel the way you feel when you feed your body well, and move it around. You are, inevitably, more comfortable. You get back up faster, and keep going with intentions that supersede the ‘lose weight so I’ll be lovable’ story. Acceptance isn’t just accepting your size, it is also accepting your humanity.”
Most important, Worden believes that being healthy isn’t the end result, but a vehicle to get what you want out of life.
I ask myself what I want out of life. I want to swim with my daughter without getting winded in five minutes and being sore for two days. I want to take her hiking and kayaking and camping. I want to teach her to love preparing and eating healthy meals. I want to live long enough to see her grow into a world where she will not be judged by her appearance.
I want to love my body. Eventually, I will—on my terms. My body, my choice. I won’t love it because someone told me I should. I will love it by taking care of it and then appreciating how it helps me get what I want out of life.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.