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Body-Shaming: What Is It & Why Do We Do It?

Treating someone differently because of their body-style is the same and no more acceptable than treating them differently because of their race, skin-tone or nationality or cultural heritage but it has become common in some social circles because people presume that a person’s body style, such as weight, is completely under their control. It is the same as calling someone lazy because they are shorter than average or slow-witted because they are taller than what is considered normal by that group. When it comes to simply carrying a few extra pounds there have been times in the past when that was considered a sign of intelligence, wealth and success because poor people had to work hard physically and often did not have access to an abundance of food as such that they would ever have weight problems. This was true to such an extent that a famous painter named Rubens painted portraits (likely on commission) of wealthy women who would all be considered carrying a few extra pounds by today’s standards and his work was so popular and lasting that the term Rubenesque is still in use today among educated and cultured people. African American women, it seems, have bucked the societal stereotype that thin is in stout is out but it is rare for any social sub-group to take control of a cultural narrative and trained stereotype and prejudice this way.

Fat-shaming is Taught and Learned

Likewise, in those times and even in the plantation aristocracy in the United States, pale white skin so pale that it would be considered severe by today’s standards was considered to be a sign of intelligence, wealth and success as well because it signaled that unlike poor people who had to work hard physically in the beating sun, that this woman was of a cultured and refined class. This is all to say that our ideas about and conceptions of body image are learned from others and a product of cultural relativity and may or may not have any basis in fact or valid meaning. In other words, fat shaming is a product of a culture that seems to want us to discount and disparage anyone who is different than us while at the same time encourages us to be unique and individual. This is not to say that there are not many people who are overweight because they do not exercise enough and make bad dietary choices, but that it is not something that one can tell for sure just by looking at them. There are many reasons that someone might be carrying a few extra pounds or even obese, that may be beyond their control (Chrisler, 2017). We are shown pictures over and over of celebrity moms who have bikini-ready bodies soon after giving birth and are taught, if not conditioned, to believe that they are the norm and what should be expected, not the exception to the rule when it comes to body style.

Causes of Obesity and Weight-Gain

There are many reasons and causes for weight-gain and some are within a person’s control and others are not and some are border-line where a great amount of discipline and self-control are needed to overcome adding extra pounds and taking them off once they are gained. Our society, the same one that seems to encourage that we treat those who are overweight as outcasts, encourages unhealthy living and food addiction. The corn syrup that is added to modern food in America is highly addictive because it is known to raise the dopamine levels in our brain and when those levels recede we are compelled to seek-out more food with corn syrup in it. In this way diet soda though it might be lower in calories, actually increased odds of food addiction with the corn syrup that is in it. Most advertising in American culture leads us towards unhealthy living and weight gain simply because unhealthy food is easier and cheaper to manufacture and so provides the corporations that make it higher profits and the investors who own stock greater dividends. This is why it is confusing to many as to why many people who are poor and on government assistance are overweight; it might not be as much because they are lazy and do not exercise enough as it is the fact that unhealthy fatty foods loaded with starch and carbs and corn syrup are cheaper by the pound than healthy choices.

Comfort Foods

And so for all these years people have talked about comfort foods that remind one of growing up and their mother’s or grandmother’s cooking, there is actual science now that tells us why those foods make us feel good. They comfort us because they create those spurts of dopamine in our brains that other things that stimulate us and give us joy do like working-out or like sex or like cocaine, and dopamine is just as addictive. So when someone is under a lot of stress or lonely or depressed or quitting smoking or going through any number of things they are more likely to turn to food and depending on many other factors including their genes might put on a few extra pounds or more. One example is the freshmen fifteen that says, true or not, that many students put on ten or fifteen pounds their first year away at college and this could be from the stress of being away from home for the first time or could be because for the first time in their lives they are without supervision and can eat whatever they want as often as they want and as much as they want. We are all just human and we all have our faults and weaknesses but it just so happens for those of us who have a certain metabolism and gain or are consistently overweight that is not a weakness or problem we can hide from others like most problems and so we are more likely to be picked-on because of it. Scientists have identified more than 100 differences in DNA that appear to be linked to obesity and so no one can say if a person’s weight is their fault or just a fact of their genetic make-up (Haspel, 2018). This may be there the apology or polite reference that someone is big boned may come from but that quaint saying does not really cover and explain the science adequately.

Fat Shaming is Bullying

So not only do our corporations and food producers encourage fatty and unhealthy foods, at the same time our society and advertisers of product set an ideal body style and BMI (Body Mass Index or ratio of height-to-weight) that if difficult to attain. Corporate advertisers market almost all products using models with body styles that are often unreasonable and even impossible for some of us. Bullying is most often a sign that the bully has their own issues that they are compensating for and trying to hide and so fat-shaming is an activity that anyone who weighs less than the victim can join-in on. In a January 10, 2018 article for The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics entitled Everyday Indignities: Using the Microaggressions Framework to Understand Weight Stigma’ author Lauren Munro, a doctoral candidate who is a fat activist, artist, and writer who strongly believes in the importance of integrating academia and grassroots activism to create projects that push boundaries and challenge the status quo it is explained that while those who offend with remarks about might feel that these kinds of micro-aggressions are not damaging, their repeated occurrence constitutes a level of cumulative stress for those on the receiving end (503). Munro explains, citing D.W. Sue, editor of the book Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact that environmental micro-aggressions refer to the numerous demeaning and threatening social, educational, political and economic cues that are communicated individually, institutionally, or societally to marginalized groups. Sue describes the damage that can be cause as being part of four distinct pathways that microaggressive stress that it caused can be manifested through:

  1. biological and physical effects,
  2. emotional effects,
  3. cognitive effects,
  4. behavior effects.

There is much more to fat shaming and bullying than simply hurting someone’s feelings for a short time and expecting them to get over it and move on.

Motherhood puts you in an Out Group

Despite a united and widespread pushback effort created by big girls who one can assume are mostly young women of color, the stigma and the targeting by bullies continues. BBW big beautiful woman has become a badge of honor and these women have successfully changed the white standard of beauty forced on young black women by getting men to admit that they like and enjoy women with ample posteriors and this is a rare thing for an unorganized group to actually overcome and change a stereotype imposed by corporations and the larger society (Black & Peacock, 2011). Evolution, including things like median-age of first menstruation, is speeding-up (perhaps partly because of large amounts of estrogen found in our drinking supply) and so it might not be a stretch to say that more plus-sized women are having babies at younger ages and this is changing the shape of things to come (pun intended). It is difficult for most women to lose those extra pounds gained during pregnancy when they are literally eating for two and hard to cut-back on caloric intake after baby is born.

Palmer-Mehta and Shuler (2017) examined a FaceBook page by Jade Beall Photography started as a photo album titled, A Beautiful Body Project featured two children happily hugging the sagging, stretch-marked belly of their mother and noted that by October 2016 that single post with just that one picture and invitation to join the group gotten 497 comments, 4,836 shares, and 8,300 likes and more than sixty other pictures featuring a diverse images postpartum bodies including stretch marks, cellulite, sagging breasts, and cesarean section scars (360). This project illustrated again that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that body image prejudice is taught and learned like any other stereotype.

Universities Exhibit Body Prejudice

The misinterpretation and misapplication of messages about the importance of promoting health and healthy lifestyles is giving critical scholars cause for concern. This growing problem might be compared to complaints voiced when former First Lady Nancy Reagan introduced her simplistic Just say NO to Drugs Campaign which critics said caused undue suffering in millions as it discouraged doctors from prescribing pain medications as much as they should have. In this case calling attention to how contemporary postsecondary institutions are increasingly calling attention to healthy paradigms is reinforcing a size matters message and fueling harmful attitudes and judgments about body-style rather than focusing on increasing and promoting good health. This is likely true about all secondary education systems where and is causing discrimination against those with high BMI rather than focusing on promoting healthy lifestyle choices. In other words, it is easy just to not hire fat employees and faculty in order to portray the idea that your institution is health-conscious. In research reported on by Cameron (2016) entitles Challenging Size Matters Messages: An Exploration of the Experiences of Critical Obesity Scholars in Higher Education published in Canadian Journal of Higher Education it was found that existing literature (supports) that weight-based oppression in higher education is a significant current social justice issue.

In surveys, approximately 80% of participants reported they faced significant resistance because of their weight that they felt had altered their career paths (120). The problem described here of institutions and businesses facing problems by altering the perception rather than honestly dealing with it are likely found across of range of organizations and industries and not just when it comes to dealing with prejudice based on body-style but with all forms of institutional discrimination and injustice.

Even Doctors get Sucked-in

In an article published by the American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C. entitled, Fat Shaming in the Doctor’s Office Can Be Mentally and Physically Harmful it was reported that even doctors are guilty of, Disrespectful treatment and medical fat shaming, in an attempt to motivate people to change their behavior, is stressful and can cause patients to delay health care seeking or avoid interacting with providers and to make matters even worse (if that is at all possible, research found that doctors are less likely to take an obese person’s complaints and descriptions of their symptoms seriously and too often prescribe or do not prescribe tests and treatments much different than what they would a person who they feel is more height to weight proportionate (Chrisler, 2017). This means that they might fail to recommend appropriate tests and medications that they should based solely in BMI. And this is not just an imagined problem: In a study of over 300 autopsies, obese patients were 1.65 times more likely to have undiagnosed medical conditions like endocarditis, ischemic bowel disease, lung carcinomas and other diseases and condition that indicate misdiagnosis or inadequate care by their physicians (Chrisler, 2017). This means that sizeism as the they study of discrimination based-on body style has been come to be called is not just a matter of hurting people’s feelings but can be a matter of life and death and needs to be addressed and stopped.

Conclusion: One size does NOT fit all!

Dealing with extra pounds, whether many or few and whether because of the 100 or more known hereditary factors or medical conditions or because of environmental factors, long-term or short, is difficult enough without having to endure judgmental remarks and bullying. Everyone wants a long and happy life and no one wants to have to deal constantly with weight gain and loss and trying to become healthier as to be there for not just their children but their children’s children as well. That body-shaming is a thing in our society and a huge problem as illustrated by this research just shows how primitive (un-civilized) a culture we actually live in. Fortunately those with all kinds of weight battles whether it be postpartum eight gain or food addition or hereditarily being big boned are stepping-up and speaking-out to defend those who are unfairly targeted and to educate those who are ignorant of the facts of the matter. When it comes to understanding extra-weight and the problems that tend to go along with it there is no one size fits all explanation but when it comes to educating the insensitive and uninformed there is.

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