Normalizing Obesity


Actual SizeDepartment store Debenhams decided to use size 16 mannequins to both reflect the average size woman and give her a shot at seeing what clothes might actually look like on her.  Queue hand-wringing and wailing.

Britain’s chief medical director, Dame Sally Davies, is concerned that the use of mannequins in a wide variety of sizes that reflect the sizes of women may normalize obesity. First of all let’s remember that obesity is a made up thing whose definition has been changed in the past by clever lobbying by the weight loss industry. Then let’s remember that, while there are no guarantees or obligations, behaviors are a much better determinant of future health than is body size. Finally, let’s remember that Dame Davies has not a single evidence-based way to make fat women smaller,whether there are fat mannequins or not . (see the bottom of this post for evidence about this.)

The hypothesis that Dame Davies seems to be working under, of course without a shred of evidence, is that fat people will all get thin if we never see anyone (including a mannequin)  who looks like us shown in a positive light.  I hate to have a Dr. Phil moment here, but we’ve been doing that for quite a while now – how’s that workin for ya? Junot Diaz said:  “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” That is exactly what Dame Davies is engaged in doing.

It turns out that most people aren’t motivated to take care of themselves by seeing only negative portrayals of people who look like them.  The message that fat people should hate our bodies and ourselves is phenomenally effective at convincing fat people to hate our bodies and ourselves.  The problem is that, in what I would call a stunning flash of the obvious, neither health nor thinness (two different things let’s remember) follow.  But heavens forfend we have a fat person shown in a positive (or even neutral) light – we’ll soon find ourselves accused of that most heinous (and completely ridiculous) of crimes:  “promoting obesity  a gateway crime to  “normalizing obesity”.

Again, the idea being that we must keep fat people in constant misery by only showing fat people in constant misery – or not showing them at all…and why?

Maybe it’s because people are actually so misguided as to believe that all fat people will become thin if the world simply refuses to allow us to see ourselves in it as anything but “abnormal” (of course being normal is the most important thing.) Or maybe it’s because if we stop shaming fat people then they might stop pouring money into the diet industry for a solution that almost never works, and they really like getting our sixty billion dollars a year.

I don’t buy the idea that showing fat people in a positive light will make other people want to be fat (because I don’t think this is a V8 commercial where people see a happy fatty, slap their forehead and say “I coulda been fat”), and I don’t think that a ceaseless stream of shame is doing anything good for fat people.  So let’s try a new experiment. Let’s normalize bodies of all sizes – let’s acknowledge that bodies come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and move on to focus on other things based on people’s own prioritization and goals.  Can you imagine if size was not an issue?  Movies with fat leading men and  ladies, magazines filled with people of all sizes, billboards with fat people selling dishsoap, a world without fat jokes, a world without articles about how Santa Claus promotes an unhealthy body image.

Take a minute to realize that everything fat people accomplish today is done in spite of the fact that we live under the under the crushing weight of constant social stigma. Imagine what fat people could do if we didn’t have to live with a ceaseless stream of societal oppression.

Peter Muennig’s research from Columbia found that most of the health problems that are correlated with obesity are also correlated with being under a high degree of stress for a long period of time (for example, the stress of constant shaming and stigma). Therefore, public health messages that add to the shame and stigma that fat people face may actually decrease health in fat people.

Muennig also found that women who were concerned about their size experienced more physical and mental illness than those who were ok with their size, regardless of their size. So public health messages that make fat people concerned about their body size may also have the opposite of the intended effect.

Imagine a world where there was no body shame and stigma.  Hey wait, we don’t have to imagine… we could  just stop shaming and stigmatizing bodies right frickin’ now!

Of course society isn’t coming along with my plan at the moment, but we can do something about it right now. I think that the best thing that I ever did for loving my body was looking daily at bodies that were outside the beauty stereotype  -I found that I had no problem with their bodies and I was eventually able to transfer those feelings to my own body.  I think you will do yourself a world of good if you seek out images of happy people who are outside the beauty norm every single day.

Here are a couple of places to start:

Fit Fatties Forum Phot and Video Galleries

The Adipositivity Project (NSFW unless your W is super cool)

(If you know of other places feel free to put them in the comments!)

You can also take pictures of yourself and get them out there for other fatties to see- post them on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram your blog,  post them in the comments of this blog – whatever.  Remember that bodies aren’t better or worse- just different.  The constant stream of thin bodies that we see can subconsciously condition us to believe that our bodies are wrong, but that’s just cultural conditioning, and that can be changed, and we can change it. Let’s be our own heroes and our own role models.


While Loving Lupita, Don’t Forget Gabourey


12919511684_468d93bc53_oLike most people who have souls, I teared up listening to Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress during Sunday night’s Oscar telecast. I admire Lupita not only for her obvious talent, but for her honesty and willingness to defend black beauty. Her inspirational speech on the intersection of race and beauty at Essence‘s Black Women in Hollywood luncheon reminded me of a time when schoolyard taunts made me insecure about my own complexion, and I had to smile at the thought of Nyong’o emboldening young girls just as dark-skinned supermodel Alek Wek had emboldened her.

As elated as I was for Nyong’o’s Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave and her democratization of beauty, I was unable to ignore the stark contrast between her and another actor who, despite her talent, receives only a fraction of Nyong’o’s fanfare.

When Gabourey Sibide first gained acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for her role in Precious, she generated buzz in Hollywood for her acting chops, but never became the woman that paparazzi were angling for on the red carpet. Nyong’o, on the other hand, instantly became a media darling. It seemed like I couldn’t go a day without seeing her, draped in designer gowns, and it wasn’t long before Vogue—which never invited Sidibe to grace its pages—named Nyong’o to its 10 Rising Style Stars of 2014. The media was quick to bestow on Nyong’o the story of the underdog, the dreamer who made it despite all the odds, and though these compliments ring true, they were also true for Sidibe.


4102704009_ddfd07804dBut obviously there’s a marked difference between who is allowed to represent “black beauty” and who isn’t. It’s apparently become okay to have black features like Nyong’o, but you still have to come in the right shape. You still have to be able to squeeze into sample sizes and look at home in a magazine photo shoot. You need to be dainty and petite, soft and feminine. Though Nyong’o’s ubiquity will do much for elevating the acceptance of black women, it’s difficult to imagine Sidibe would ever have been put in the same position.

A vicious undertone of fat phobia shadows pop culture conversations about Sidibe. Whenever she appears at an awards ceremony, the emphasis seems to be on her weight and rarely on the acting accomplishments that got her there. While she looked radiant in a magenta gown at the Oscars Sunday, the vast majority of tweets and comments were jokes about her size, and the same thing happened after her Golden Globes appearance a few weeks ago. Not that any of that seems to slow down Sidibe, though. She constantly brims with self-confidence and should have been given a Golden Globe for her Twitter retort alone:

It’s also possible that the disparity in Sidibe’s and Nyong’o’s reception was partially due to the roles they played. Nyong’o was essentially rewarded by the Academy for playing a long-ago slave, which Hollywood always recognizes. America seems to be galvanized by slave narratives, since they portray racism as something unfortunate that happened centuries ago, while narratives of present-day oppression, like the one in Precious, are deemed too unsettling to watch. I can’t count how many friends balked at seeing Precious a few years ago, but then practically sprinted to the theater to see 12 Years a Slave.

Celebrating black women who are only a certain size and only portray a certain narrative is problematic. Though I’m glad that there are black women and girls who now will walk a little bit taller because of what Nyong’o’s talent has done for them, Sidibe has been doing the same thing and is still deserving of her own pedestal.