By Christy Avery
A couple of years ago, yours truly sat on the crinkly paper atop her ex-doctor’s table, going through what she thought was a routine checkup until he took a detour… to my weight.
Ever been told to “lay off the Twinkies” by your doctor and went home crying? I did. But I shouldn’t have.
Almost every moment of that appointment from a year or so ago is ingrained in my mind. Stepping on the scale and feeling the sting of the self-imposed and societal shame I had grown up with led to developing a complicated and often unhealthy relationship with my body that is still a part of me today.
These struggles I and so many others share do not come from within— they are branded upon us over time. The stigma and stereotypes surrounding health, weight, and body image is one of the most harmful matters that society increasingly gives a voice to.
Two particularly threatening demons right now: concern trolling and unconscious bias.
Concern trolling is the circuitous judging of one’s life, choices, or body. This most often manifests as rude, unnecessary comments or “tips,” sugarcoated with a smile and an “I’m just worried.” It is like a family member asking if you really need that second plate at Thanksgiving with that unsettling glint in the eye. Unconscious bias is essentially the same thing, only without the realization or intent of judging.
Growing up, I experienced both so many times without realizing it. That is one of the worst parts— body-shaming is such a common part of our culture that it is almost abnormal to not be affected by it. These issues may seem prevalent right now in today’s social climate, but the damage begins and spreads with people of all ages and genders.
We were born in a body that was ours, a body that should not be scrutinized or discussed as we grow, but so often are until we feel as if our body isn’t ours anymore. We spend most of our lives desperate to reclaim ourselves, but why do we have to?
That is a question I have been asking myself for nearly ten years and have just recently come to terms with. Elementary school was the first time I experienced body-shaming, when the kid ahead of me in line turned around and asked, “are you pregnant?” Although probably a case of unconscious bias, that was when the seeds of self-hatred were planted, and it still pops into my mind every time I hear unfiltered comments about looks, said just because they can be.
People are led to this point of insecurity because of what others want. Shame is not intrinsic; no one feels they are wrong until others tell them they are. Concern trolling and other biased behaviors, needless to say, fix nothing. If you are so concerned about someone’s body that you shame them in order to “help,” you are doing the exact opposite. No one needs to be fixed, and weight discrimination is an attempt that only makes eating disorders and mental health problems worse.
Unfortunately, many people do not seek help because they are afraid or have had past unpleasant experiences with doctors. Although the typical suggestions by doctors such as healthy eating, exercise, and sleep may help, the way these are delivered by healthcare professionals is a problem. Trying to get help with a serious disorder is hard enough— no one needs to hear that every problem in the world can be magically fixed by losing weight. That is utterly false; anyone can have problems at any size. Dismissing one problem with another is detrimental to the bigger patients that doctors claim to care so much about. A mental health problem cannot be fixed by weight loss if the problem goes beyond skin-deep— as it usually does. Our brain spends enough time criticizing ourselves; do not tell those of us who struggle with mental illness and body issues that we are less worthy of treatment or that it is our fault. Respect should be given to everyone, regardless of size.
Within weight discrimination, the underlying issue is usually something called thin privilege. This is exactly what it sounds like: having the ability to be seen as typically “thin” and/or not fat, and receiving less hate and discrimination because of it. Besides the obvious larger chance of social acceptance, are things in life that people with thin privilege get to have or have easier than those without, such as being able to try on anything in most stores, or even having lower health insurance rates. Marilyn Wann, author and activist in the “fat acceptance” movement, was once denied insurance due to her size. She also made a point that should be, but unfortunately is not, axiomatic: “The only thing anyone can accurately diagnose when looking at a fat person is their own level of weight prejudice.”
In today’s world, people have a tendency to surmise other’s level of health without stopping to think about the fact that, newsflash, no one is perfect, and thin people can be just as unhealthy as bigger people. I’m not here to shame anyone for what they do because we’re all human, but those bags of chips and candy sitting in the cabinet? Bad for everyone. Having a smaller frame does not make one immune to consequences or health concerns. That’s one privilege no one has. So before opening your mouth to judge, think about the fact that you can’t tell what other people put into theirs based off their appearance. I eat pretty healthy most of the time. I exercise a few days a week. I make a conscious effort to take care of myself, yet I’m still not tiny (which is fine.) And I’m not the only one. Weight and size are complex, and there are factors that play into it other than diet and exercise, such as genetics and body composition.
The math is simple, guys: Physical appearance does not equal health, health does not equal superiority, and neither correlate with the worth someone holds.
Looking back, there was a lot more wrong with what that doctor and boy said than my younger mind was educated on or could process. Although a doctor being concerned about a patient’s health is perfectly normal, what is not normal is stating it in an scathing, unprofessional way. Not to mention the scare he gave me about diseases I probably had that later looked to be false– when we called back, there were no signs of any complications. Uncalled-for “warnings” and comments are extremely effective, right?
So if physical appearance must be talked about… I am fat. I know. Whatever way you want to twist it, I get that my body in not the conventionally attractive one. I’m not a size 0 and I don’t have Victoria’s-Secret-Model legs. But you know what? The very fact that there are standards for what a conventionally attractive body looks like is dehumanizing and ridiculous.
And I know, you might be objecting: “No one is fat, everyone is beautiful.”
But why can’t we be both? Humans are multidimensional; we are a kaleidoscope of things, most of which we should not deny. So I feel like I’m doing myself and all the other fat people out there a disservice by following the myth that there is only one type of beautiful body. To me, the word “fat” is just a word, one I want to reclaim. It is not a synonym with “ugly,” “worthless,” or “wrong.” It is an adjective that holds no meaning about who I really am, which spans far beyond what I look like.
Although I wrestle with my demons every day and they sometimes get the best of me, it is incredibly freeing to take a shot at self-love. Because struggle doesn’t mean failure, and we should shut down the doctors, kids, or voices inside us that say anything different. No one should apologize for simply taking up space in the world.