Emily Heist Moss discusses why we must acknowledge both the epidemic of obesity and the toll body shaming takes on our souls.
Maria Kang continues to ride the wave of the dubious Internet fame she achieved with her “What’s Your Excuse?” photo shoot. A month ago, Kang posed with her three young children in minimal spandex and issued what was perceived as a rather insulting challenge to other moms and excuse-givers to up their fitness game.
This week, CNN lent Kang a platform to discuss her opposition to a recent photo project by Curvy Girl, a lingerie company for sizes 12 and up. Curvy Girl encouraged their customers to send in photos of themselves wearing the products to celebrate feeling sexy and confident. In response to the gallery of photos, Kang said, “When I saw the article online, and that these are women who are really overweight or almost obese, or are obese, and they’re saying this is how real beauty and real women look like…I was little bit peeved because I felt like no, that’s not how real women look like or should look like.”
Oh goody, the double-whammy of bad body talk, “real women,” and “what women should look like.” Kang is so concerned with the obesity epidemic—and it is very concerning indeed—that she fails to see how her attitude toward real women (not “real” women, but actual, living and breathing real women) is its own form of unhealthy.
We don’t live in a culture that encourages nuance, that celebrates complexity, that rewards a complicated response when a simple, if incomplete, response will tide us over. We are single-issue voters, single publication readers, single perspective acknowledgers. But most things—most things worth talking about—require more than one angle to be seen clearly. For example:
- Obesity is a problem. Obesity rates are on the rise. Obesity shortens lives. It is financially crushing on both the individual and community level. It is the physical incarnation of our country’s ills, from the appalling crap we call “lunch” in elementary schools, to unsafe parks and public spaces, to polluted air, to poor preventive healthcare, to our addiction to flashing screens and handheld devices, to the conflation of the purchasing of stuff with caring for ourselves and our families.
- Body shame is a problem. Most women (and a growing number of men) live in a chronic state of despair over how “imperfect” our normal, reasonably well-functioning bodies are. Most of us are not obese, but we have been fed a mountain of glossy garbage, arrows pointing out cellulite, “bodies after baby,” fake boobs, waxed chests. We are confronted daily by muscles and curves that have been carved by professional trainers, fed by personal chefs, and adjusted by skilled Photoshop editors. In comparison, we always come up short. Or fat. Or ugly. We think that there is only one way to be beautiful and if we achieve this arbitrary ideal, no matter the cost, we will find success and happiness on the other side. If we don’t, we beat ourselves and each other up for failing to mold ourselves into the “perfect” shape.
Finding space in our heads for both of these concepts is hard, but both are true, both are tragic, and both need big, radical, many-pronged solutions.
If we are really serious about combating the obesity crisis (and I don’t dispute that it’s a crisis), it is not enough to tell people to eat less. If we are serious, we need to talk about school lunches that count ketchup as a vegetable. We need to talk about fast food advertising that targets children and trades french fries for toys. We need to talk about making public parks safer and cleaner in neighborhoods that aren’t already saturated by yoga studios. We need to talk about raising the minimum wage so a 40-hour workweek pays the bills and there are hours left in the day to take a walk or ride a bike. We need to talk about grocery stores instead of convenience stores and the cost of real food not made of trans fat and fake sugar. We need to talk about mental healthcare to better address anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
But those conversations are not enough. Even if we lived in a perfect world, and everyone had the time and resources to make healthier decisions, we would not all look like Maria Kang. Yes, obesity is a public health epidemic, but chronic dissatisfaction and body shame can weigh as heavily as the extra pounds.
It is not OK that 5-year-olds want to diet. It is not OK that teenaged girls starve themselves to mimic the figures of the hipbone-jutting celebrity of the hour. It is not OK that 22-year-olds skip meals to save calories for drinking. It is not OK that women are expected to lose pregnancy weight six weeks after giving birth. It is not OK that we pump ourselves full of collagen and silicone and suck out what we don’t like to try to stuff ourselves into the only cookie-cutter shape we think is acceptable. It is not OK that so many mothers are looking back and crossing their fingers that their daughters can lead less obsessed and more joyful lives.
Most days, I am able to limit the time I spend thinking about my body to the logistical challenges of scheduling exercise and the ongoing effort to put reasonably affordable, convenient, nutritious, and delicious food into my body. If I can keep that piece of the mental energy pie chart in the single digits, I feel like I’m winning.
But sometimes, when I’ve been short on exercise or fresh air, haven’t slept enough, ate too much cheese, or survived a rough encounter with a fluorescently lit department store dressing room, I can’t help but feel the pull of self-doubt.
This is not an either/or conversation; we can choose to love the bodies we have and strive to treat them better. We can acknowledge the epidemic of obesity and the toll body shaming takes on our souls. We can try to address obesity with compassionate, holistic solutions and try to help people feel loved and respected in the bodies they already have. We can do both.
We have to do both.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.