Obesity

Embracing Difference

There’s a website I’d like to share today called Positive Exposure. The goal of the website is to show the unique beauty of people with various genetic conditions (albinism etc.) that are often portrayed in dehumanizing ways. It’s an amazing project, and it happened to come to my attention at the same time as I was reading two unsettling articles. The first was a report on CNN about the actress Mellissa McCarthy (of Bridesmaids among other films). Mellissa is a highly entertaining and talented actress who also happens to be plus-sized. Promotional material for her latest movie included a photograph of her that had been digitally altered to make her slimmer. While this practice is nothing new, it once again illustrates how hyper-focused our society has become on the thin ideal. While lifestyle choices are a contributing factor for obesity, there is also fact that weight and body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph) are genetically determined. What I found especially disturbing in the article was a quote from Ms. McCarthy where she stated that sometimes she wishes she would wake up and get people’s attention because she is emaciated. While disturbing, the comment does not shock or surprise me. Anyone who has worked with individuals who are obese or have an eating disorder other than anorexia has heard people refer to themselves as “failed anorexics.” Then you have Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing company that goes out of it’s way to promote an ultra-slim body style by not making clothes in sizes that fit the average woman. Not only do their clothing sizes exclude most women, the CEO Michael Jeffries actually stated that their clothes are for “cool” kids (i.e. unnaturally thin women) and not overweight women. The venom against obese individuals even extends to college professors and Disney. I understand that the rising obesity rate in the US is concerning, and certainly a lot of it is due to lifestyle choices. But our current approach to tackling the problem is misguided. Shaming and ostracizing people because of the weight is not going to help them make lifestyle changes. Fad diets, diet pills and cosmetic surgery do not encourage people to make healthy choices. Ever-growing food portions at restaurants and the abundance of processed foods do not promote intuitive eating. Even the way exercise has become something you have to plan into your day, instead of being a natural part of one’s lifestyle (e.g. walking, hiking), is problematic. What we need is to do is rethink what it means to be healthy. The truth is that you can be healthy even if you are obese (the absurdity of the BMI is a whole subject itself). There are many people who eat healthy, exercise, and still are technically obese. Yet they are in good health. Instead of shaming them, we should be celebrating their accomplishments. Beauty is not determined by weight, and the promotion of the thin ideal in our society is backfiring. We not only have rising obesity rates, but rising rates of eating disorders, and they are occurring at younger and younger ages. Obese girls are often the subject of bullying, placing them risk for suicide and mental health problems such as depression. Being the victim of bullying and dieting are two known risk factors for developing an eating disorder. Disordered eating and body dissatisfaction are more and more common among women even if they do not have an eating disorder. It is not just women who are at risk. Males are also showing increasing rates of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. The use of steroids, HGH and other methods of altering one’s body is becoming more common among young men in high school. When you consider all this, the reality is that we don’t have an obesity epidemic, we have a body dissatisfaction epidemic. It’s so engrained in our culture, we may not even realize we have an implicit bias against obese individuals (take the Project Implicit test for weight to see what I mean). Which brings me back to the website Positive Exposure. As a society, we like to talk about “diversity” and “acceptance”, yet often in our every-day lives we don’t live up to these aspirations. Take a moment and think about what it means to truly see beauty in every individual; to celebrate their uniqueness. Everyone is different; this is a good thing. The variety and diversity of life is what makes it so special. I challenge myself, as well as you, to be ever mindful of this truth and try and exemplify it each day.