Weightism lives, even on the campaign trail! Advice for a happier, healthier (but not necessarily thinner) societyMonday, December 10th, 2007
Many of us have a hard time maintaining a healthy diet in a culture overflowing with sugary, processed and junk food on the one hand, and pathological fear of oveweight on the other.
The New York Times ran a front-page story (”Where the Votes Are, So Are All Those Calories”) on Nov. 23 about how presidential candidates are faced with an extreme form of this dilemma. Constant travel, brutal schedules and lack of control over what they eat add up to an unhealthy diet and, often, weight gain. As former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was obese until he shed 110 pounds several years ago, told the Times, “If you’re really overweight, some people just look at you and immediately sort of write you off. They just assume you’re undisciplined.”
Weightism lives, even on the campaign trail, where, the article goes on to explain, heavier sizes and large shapes are not acceptable among political leaders the way they once were. But really, isn’t the political candidate’s dilemma the same one most of the developed world is faced with, the pressure to conform to an unrealistic cultural ideal?
At the recent Renfrew Foundation conference I attended, social worker and author Kathy Kater had a lot to say about how our culture views weight, shape and size as well as dieting and fitness. She pointed out how hard it is to define what healthy body image, eating and weight look like when we live in a society where body dissatisfaction and dieting for weight loss are the norm. In America, two-thirds to three-fourths of all women wake up each morning feeling “some version of fat,” Kater told us, adding that trying to recover from an eating disorder in the United States today is like “trying to recover from alcoholism in a bar.”
Because our culture is so warped when it comes to body image and body size, it’s harder and harder for people, even eating disorder professionals, to agree on what “healthy body image” or “healthy weight” look like. Meanwhile, body dissatisfaction is spreading to men, too, as advertising and the media increasingly objectify men as well as women. Kater told the audience at the Renfrew conference that 35 to 55 percent of men don’t feel good about their bodies today. Amid all this self-loathing and body hatred, we are being inundated by warnings about the increase in obesity in American society, a message that tells us we should worry even more than we already are about our weight. This begs the question: Is it possible to raise anxiety about fatness without provoking even more body dissatisfaction?
We’ve all been told Americans are too fat, and the prescription is usually weight loss. But Kater says that this approach has backfired: insisting on dieting has made us even fatter than before. Paradoxically, the thinner we try to be, the fatter we have become. She proposes a new approach that would fight negative body image and the drive for thinness at the same time that it fights the rising tide of fatness.
Kater’s advice, in a nutshell, is:
· Don’t equate looking good with looking thin
· Don’t push the message that “anyone can be thin if he or she works at it”
· Encourage healthy living and eating, not weight loss
· Encourage fitness to maintain health, not to lose weight
· Accept diversity of size and shape; fit people come in all size and shapes
· At certain points in life, such as puberty and menopause, it’s perfectly normal to put on fat
Kater believes that if we all followed these guidelines, we’d see a decrease in obesity because there would be far fewer frustrated, yo-yo dieters chasing after unrealistic goals. The truth is that if everyone ate a healthy, balanced diet and exercised for fitness and health, people would be all different sizes. Kind of like they are now, but without the feelings of guilt, shame, or self-hatred. That’s if everyone took the above advice seriously. A big if, but we can work on changing our consciousnesses, one person at a time.