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The Morality of Body Fat

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I’m truly excited to bring you this thought-provoking guest post from my very good friend, Juliet.  Juliet and I have had numerous talks about the state of the fitness industry, “thin/fitspiration”, food and body shaming and how harmful of an effect these things can have on our mindsets, well-being and how we view ourselves and others.  Below, Juliet tackles weight bias and self-worth.  Expect more from her on the blog in the future! -Erika

 

PART 1 – What is it and where does it come from?

How old were you when you started dieting? Now, as an adult, has your opinion of your body changed? Is it positive or negative? Women are taught that their physical bodies dictate their levels of beauty, work ethic, and moral fortitude. The internet is flooded with photos of waif-like women flaunting perfect hair (thinspo/thinspiration) or of headless, muscular bodies with inspirational quotes akin to “sweat is fat crying” (fitspo/fitspiration). This is how we are supposed to look; this is “good”. Right? Alas, we are globally growing progressively overweight & obese, which has become synonymous with “bad”. Weight bias, defined as:

 “the inclination to form unreasonable judgments based on a person’s weight”1

 is a result of this paradox and it has become commonplace, even acceptable, in many instances.  In essence, we have turned body fat into an ethical issue: fat means you are a bad person, thin/fit means you are a good person. Where does it all stem from?

The infamous fitspo/thinspo, which are much the same in my opinion, is the most obvious source pushing us to triumph in the battle over evil. It regularly plagues social media formats such as Pinterest and Instagram. A quick search for “fitspiration” on Pinterest yielded this result:

Some of the women in these images are fortunate enough to have faces. Perhaps the reason those without heads are so fit is because they can’t eat, see, smell, or hear without a face?

Some of the women in these images are fortunate enough to have faces. Perhaps the reason those without heads are so fit is because they can’t eat, see, smell, or hear without a face?

Regardless of one’s sensory status (access to a head), no one feels warm and fuzzy inside whilst reading “WORKING OUT SUCKS but having a muffin top SUCKS MORE”.  This sentiment reinforces the notion that physical activity is done to as a punishment; punishment for not being “good” by looking a certain way. These inspirational graphics have caused such uproar that many social media sites have recently begun featuring a warning as to the explicit nature of such images2. Fortunately, this dark hole of the internet is an extreme and many are beginning to recognize it for what it is. Unfortunately, there remain far more subtle media cues that instill similar moral lessons.

Take, for example, the popular new film Despicable Me 2, a far cry from the disordered fitspo. While it was an overall cute movie, I found myself leaving the theater rather disgusted by the unquestioned, “acceptable” level of weight bias packed into two hours. In the movie, we are introduced to the head of a secret villain-fighting agency by the name of Silas Ramsbottom.

 

Mr. Ramsbottom, who is immediately found disagreeable to the protagonist, is featured as grossly obese with numerous jiggling chins. At one point, he struggles to get through a small gate as his entire body squishes, bounces, and makes flubbery noises in an attempt to generate laughter from the audience – which of course it does. It was a blatant mockery of this character, as everybody knows that excessive body fat in an unpopular character is hilarious (please note the sarcasm). It didn’t stop there, either. The antagonist, El Macho, is featured as even more obese than Mr. Ramsbottom.

The implications are there. Villains are bad. This villain is fat. Fat is bad. Even if the message is not outright recognized, you can bet it is subliminally absorbed.

While we can all agree that the media spreads messages we may or may not appreciate, the morality of body fat isn’t singularly limited to that outlet. We learn it at a very young age, at home. Take my parents, for example (I’m sure they will appreciate this). Whenever my parents consume foods they perceive to be healthy, they describe it as “being good”. When they consume foods they perceive to be unhealthy, they describe it as “being bad”. Never in a million years would they dream of telling me or my sisters that we are good or bad based on our food choices, but it is nonetheless inherent in their choice of diction.

Why would their food choices determine their worth, but ours do not? This way of describing food selection is regularly used and oft not acknowledged. Additionally, wild diets are running rampant, and self-esteem is lower than ever. What our children see from us, they learn. It is how they learn. To complain about your physical body in the presence of a child is teaching him or her that our bodies should be chastised.  What kind of success does that set them up for later in life?

None of this is to say that those with obesity related comorbidities should not try to achieve health. In fact, that is exactly what I am trying to say. We are readily internalizing and identifying with the weight bias we are surrounded by and, as a result, overcome by a lack of self worth. My goal is to contribute to the conversation, already happening, that morality and body composition are not synonymous.  I am heartened to see this discussion beginning to happen on Facebook pages and blogs such as Fit & Feminist, Fit Mama Training, Weighty Matters, Stumptuous.com, Precision Nutrition, and here at Hurst Strength. We only get one body to live our lives in. Let’s start talking about how to be healthy so we can do more and be more – not because we think we deserve to be martyrs. In Part 2, I cover learning to recognize and dissociate from weight bias by managing our internal dialogues.

 

Juliet is a Nutritional Sciences PhD student at Rutgers University. She has recreationally lifted heavy things for 3.5 years and has dabbled in the arts of power lifting. For more information, she can be contacted at Juliet.Gotthardt@gmail.com.

 

1. Washington RL. Childhood obesity: issues of weight bias. Prev Chronic Dis 2011;8(5):A94.http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2011/sep/10_0281.htm. Accessed Aug 2013

2. Dahl, Melissa. “New Pinterest Fad May Fuel Unhealthy Fitness Obsession.” TODAY. Today.com, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. Aug. 2013.

 

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