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Body-Positivity and Other Misnomers

Although society has begun to embrace bodies of all shapes and sizes, weight stigma remains a prevalent and pressing issue.

We live in an age where weight loss is the norm and thinness the ideal; where pathologizing body types is acceptable. “Weight stigma is real,” says Debora Burgard, an eating disorders specialist and activist, and founder of the Health at Every Size® movement and BodyPositive.com. “We now prescribe for fat people what we diagnose as disordered in thin people,” as Burgard puts it.

The body positivity movement has certainly made headway since its outset in the 1960s. The last decade alone has witnessed the production and marketing of voluptuous Barbie® dolls, the rise-to-stardom of plus-sized celebrities including Lizzo, Ashley Graham, and Rebel Wilson, as well as the fashion industry’s growing demand for curvier models. Yet, these changes are more “corporate marketing tactics” than symbolic of a larger campaign to end weight bias, as Amanda Mull asserts in her feature, “Body Positivity is a Scam.” We hack away at the metaphorical branches of weight stigma but steer clear of its roots. Even Late Late Show host, James Corden, who publicly and passionately renounced Bill Maher for his televised tirade against fat people, partnered with Weight Watchers in January 2021. In a promotional clip for the new WW campaign, Corden said, “‘This is it. This is the year I’m going on a diet. I’m going to lose a load of weight. I’m fed up with the way I look, I’m fed up with being unhealthy.’” We even continue to sell the idea of thinness under the pretense of health.

In the last century, the fitness industry has morphed into a somewhat lucrative business. The U.S. weight-loss market is now worth over $72 billion annually. “People can sell the idea of weight loss quite well,” says KayLoni Olson, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, in Rhode Island. “When something’s that profitable, it’s self-perpetuating in some ways,” she adds. The global weight-loss market constantly morphs to keep itself alive, even when the public wises up and tries to divest.

The adverse psychosocial implications of impelling people toward losing weight far outweigh the potential success that some ascribe to this approach. “Critiquing someone for their body fat percentage may just open the door to a world of hurt,” says Nadia Al-Shafei, a Brooklyn-based dietary consultant and weight-loss specialist. “I see these young girls come in, wringing their hands and asking what they should do to get rid of ‘it’—not even ‘weight’—it’s like they’re afraid of even the word.” Subjection to weight bias, especially during adolescence, paves the way for a lifelong pattern of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, studies show.

Stigmatizing people not only fails to produce better health outcomes but is often counterproductive, explains Rebecca Pearl, director of research at the Penn Center for Weight and Eating Disorders. Once self-esteem flies out the window, physical activity and the drive to maintain a balanced diet are sure to follow suit. People who feel self-conscious about their weight may also avoid exercising in public for fear of being judged or even verbally criticized by others while working out. Being weight-shamed is also stressful from a physiological standpoint. “As soon as this happens, cortisol levels are on the rise and stress-eating becomes a frequent indulgence. Just like that, they’re back to square one,” says Pearl. In other words, it just doesn’t work.

That body-shaming cannot put an end to America’s obesity epidemic is a given, but what are some alternative solutions? “For starters, we can educate ourselves about the complex and multifactorial causes of obesity,” says Charlotte Markey, professor of clinical psychology at Rutgers University and author of The Body Image Book for Girls. More often than not, ignorance—as opposed to genuine concern—is the root cause of stigmatizing others for their weight. Recognition of the socioeconomic, environmental, and genetic causes of obesity brings with it an awareness that body weight is not necessarily all that regulable, Markey explains. “With understanding, comes acceptance and sensitivity,” she adds. Social media, too, immortalizes this noxious cycle that is fat-shaming, says Leslie Pristas, Director of the Center for Bariatric Surgery. The creation of virtual and in-person ‘safe spaces’ will not only enable victims of weight stigma to seek the support they need but is fundamental to our efforts at kicking fat-shaming to the curb.

Going forward, federally implemented population-based solutions may also serve as alternative solutions. Subsidizing the development of nature trails and bike paths in communities, requiring fast-food restaurant chains to provide nutrition information, and banning the marketing of junk food to children are some public policies and regulations which may prove helpful in the battle against unhealthy eating. Higher soda taxes, for example, have proven effective in curbing consumption, Al-Shafei explains. These subtle measures can help nudge people toward selecting the healthier option, without generating the psychological stigma we associate with weight bias. Regardless of the path we take to promote the importance of adopting a balanced lifestyle, weight-shaming is certainly not the answer, experts maintain.



(Edited by Whitney Edna Ibe)

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