Fighting Obesity & Eating Disorders: Fat Shaming’s Not the Answer

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the way our society traditionally approaches the issues of obesity prevention and eating disorders is counterproductive. We often treat those issues as if they are unrelated, and as if the root of so much of the problem isn’t the same: feeling terrible about our bodies because of the constant pressure we all feel, all the time, to fit a very narrow & artificial category of beauty.

Society tells us that so much of our self-worth should be dependent on how we look, and that “how we look” must equal “thin.” Girls as young as six report thinking they are too fat, going on diets, and hating their bodies for not looking like the ones in magazines and movies. Disordered eating and eating disorders increasingly afflict not just young women, but young girls, women over 50, and men. No group is free from the scourge of hating their bodies.

And yet, at the same time, the rate of obesity is growing, in both children (1 in 6 children are obese, and 1 in 3 is overweight) and adults. It’s a complicated problem being fueled by a lack of healthy foods and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, but also by other intertwined factors. Lack of access to healthy foods, lack of sleep, urban pollution and poverty also impact obesity rates. Obesity is associated with a number of medical ailments, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.

However, the health effects of weight are not as black and white they are sometimes presented. Being overweight does not necessarily mean you are less healthy than your thinner peer. It all has to do with how you treat your body. For instance, one study of 12,000 people found that the people who are most at risk of dying young are those who are obese but do not engage in any “healthy activities” like exercising or eating vegetables. Obese people with healthy habits had roughly the same risks as thinner people of dying young. And, as we learned from Olympic athletes this week, fit & fat are not mutually exclusive.

Olympic athlete Holley Mangold:          

 The reality is that everyone, regardless of weight, should be eating nutritious food and getting plenty of physical activity. Physical activity reminds us of what is really important about our bodies- the things it allows us to do. But how do we do that while focusing on the right goal- health, not body-hate? How do we make sure we’re treating ourselves kindly, both physically & mentally, so we’re not making the problem worse? Wanting everyone to eat well & exercise is a worthy goal, but the problem comes in when these efforts migrate into the realm of fat-shaming. This ad, for instance, is emblematic of an approach which does nothing but add to the embarrassment so many children and adults already feel about their bodies.

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We’re stuck in a double bind: as the American population gets heavier; representations of beauty just get thinner. The images we see every day are more and more removed from the bodies we see when we look in the mirror, and that makes everyone feel worse about themselves- and people who feel bad about themselves, especially children, may feel too self-conscious to exercise, exacerbating the problem. Studies show kids who are overweight are more likely to treated negatively by their peers– an trend that has increased over the years- and this treatment leads to a range of negative psychological consequences, including “higher depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and a lot of times kids who are getting teased about their weight turn to unhealthy eating behaviors and avoid physical activity.”

It’s not just other people’s treatment that harms how we feel- the way we treat ourselves has consequences, too. A study of fat talk found that over time, engaging in fat talk (negative self-talk) led to greater body dissatisfaction and more depression. It is not only that people who are dissatisfied with their bodies are more likely to engage in fat talk- the fat talk itself also over time increases the speaker’s unhappiness with themselves.

The first step to health, for everyone, is to treat their bodies & the bodies of others with more understanding and kindness. Seventeen Magazine recently released this Body Peace Treaty, a pledge containing items like “Notice all the amazing things my body is doing for me every moment I walk, talk, think, breathe…” & “Remember that even the girl who I’d swap bodies with in a minute has something about her looks that she hates.” Changing our society’s impossible standard of beauty starts with accepting ourselves.

The good news is that although so often the way our culture approaches body issues is either by exclusively fighting against obesity OR self-esteem/eating disorder issues, there are approaches which suggest that working to achieve overall health is not an either-or proposition. Planet Health, a school curriculum promoting nutrition and physical activity, has been shown not just to lower obesity rates in adolescent girls but also, surprisingly, to cut the risk of disordered eating behaviors in half. Turns out, when we give girls the tools to respect their bodies through nutrition and physical activity, they’re more likely to be engage in healthy behaviors that both prevent obesity & keep them from harmful activities like purging or using diet pills.

That’s why GENaustin makes sure the girls in our programs learn about healthy nutrition and the importance of physical activity. Last month, for instance, clubGEN girls had fun making their own hoola hoops!

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All parents want their daughters to grow up healthy, strong, and confident. Here are some steps parents can take to ensure they remain on that path:

Clearly, dealing effectively with the many intertwined issues around weight and physical appearance starts with no longer viewing obesity & eating disorder prevention as two unrelated goals. Instead, we must begin to focus on overall emotional and physical health (regardless of a number on a scale) as the ultimate goal for our daughters, and ourselves.

Vanessa Wright