I’m currently designing a social marketing campaign to improve body image among undergraduate women at a major university. On three different occasions, my classmates—a cohort of public health, nutrition, and health communication students in leading graduate programs—expressed concerns about my project, asking “Aren’t you worried that you’re promoting obesity?”
There seems to be a dangerous misconception in the public health community that the goals of positive body image promotion and obesity prevention are at odds. That somehow, by helping people feel better about their bodies, we will inadvertently “encourage” obesity.
But body image promotion isn’t about glorifying fatness, just like obesity prevention isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about the glorification of thinness. More accurately, body image and weight management are interconnected elements of holistic mind-body approach to health and ultimately, the public health community has more to gain by thinking of them as complementary rather than competing interests.
Obesity prevention efforts may appear to benefit from a status quo that stigmatizes fatness and worships thinness, but the evidence just doesn’t support it. We live in a culture that idolizes underweight supermodels and relegates fat actors to fart and food jokes, and yet none of it has done anything to make people healthier.
A lot of people worry—myself included—that without body dissatisfaction, we would lose our motivation to slim down. It’s an easy trap to fall into because, for many of us, negative thoughts are the only motivation to lose weight we’ve ever known. It’s scary to imagine life without our internal “fat talk”; it takes work to imagine using positive feelings as a source of motivation.
But contrary to popular belief, shame is not a good motivator. In addition to reinforcing an impossible, demoralizing standard of beauty, using fat shame as motivation will always backfire. Fear, shame, and self-disgust may prompt people to change their habits temporarily, but once they start to feel better and the bad feelings dissipate, they are bound return to old habits. Motivation-by-fat-shame doesn’t create a culture of health; it creates a culture of yo-yo dieting and January gym memberships abandoned by March.
Not only does fat shaming fail to help people get healthy, it actively hurts people, leaving maelstrom of negative body image, low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, and other pathological eating and exercise behaviors in its wake. This is no small matter, as these conditions cause pain and suffering for millions of men and women, of all ages, all over the country and the world.
Obesity prevention efforts that reinforce the thin-ideal status quo are doomed to perpetuate a broken system where body image dissatisfaction is normative, obesity rates keep rising, and the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry capitalizes on both. But obesity prevention efforts that embrace positive body image promotion, on the other hand, have a chance to break the cycle.
Meaningful body image promotion encourages women to reject the tyrannical and reductive thin-ideal portrayed in the media, and to understand that pursuing a healthy lifestyle for its own sake is much more rewarding than obsessing about dieting and weight loss. After all, “thin” doesn’t translate to “healthy.”
For example, the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement is based on the understanding that weight does not determine health, and that exercise and good nutrition are beneficial, whether or not they result in weight loss. Instead of using BMI, HAES advocates using more specific measures, like blood pressure and cholesterol, to determine one’s health status.
Instead of relying on body dissatisfaction, HAES teaches us to draw motivation from positive sources, like the desire to explore new hobbies (yoga, archery, kickball), to achieve new goals (run a 5k, learn to surf), or to enjoy the flavor and feeling you get from nourishing your body with healthy foods. This is the kind of lifestyle change that keeps people engaged and motivated for the long haul, and it will keep us healthier, whether or not we’re overweight. Also, it’s fair to say that by letting go of the “impossible dream” of one day looking like the (photoshopped) people on the cover of magazines and by learning to accept and love our bodies as they are, we’ll be happier too.
This type of holistic approach—incorporating positive body image, mental health, physical activity, and good nutrition—is actually sustainable because it promotes an understanding of “health” as a lifelong process rather than a set of restrictions or punishments to be lifted once you reach that magic number on the scale.
We know that there are no health benefits to negative body image. So why would we limit the scope of obesity prevention to exclude the potential benefits of positive body image?
Encouraging positive body image does not “promote” obesity. Rather, it helps people let go of the shame, fear, and unsustainable weight loss behaviors that are keeping them trapped in a state of bad health.