Sizeist Microaggressions You Shouldn’t Have to Put Up With

“Microaggression,” according to Wikipedia, is a term was coined by Chester M. Pierce in 1970. Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue, who literally wrote the book on them, defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Some examples of racial microaggressions include statements like “But you don’t act like a black person,” or any of these others mentioned in this Buzzfeed list, or this list from American Psychologist, and this Tumblr.

Microaggressions are definitely real things that impact the lives of marginalized people of all categories. Most discussion of microaggressions focus on race, but they play a big role in size politics too. But because size is a dynamic element for most people (i.e. it might change), sizeist microaggressions tend to impact people of all sizes – those who are fat, and those who are afraid that they are fat or afraid of becoming fat. I’m personally getting really damned sick of them.

“You look great! Have you lost weight?” 

“You look so skinny in that picture!”

“God, I am a disgusting pig at this weight.”  “…You weigh less than me….”   “I mean, just because I’m not usually this weight. It’s different.” 

“But you eat healthy. I’m talking about the fat people who eat McDonalds.”

“Wow, you look great! You lost like a million pounds!”

“Just so you know, I used real butter in that recipe.”

“I used to be overweight, but I’m happy with my body now. If I was ever a size 10 again, I’d shoot myself.”

“But I don’t think of you as a fat.”

The important thing to remember is that  these micgroaggressions are committed unintentionally. For many people, these microaggressions come from the practice of fat talk – a self-deprecating way of communicating that people use to try to assuage their guilt over their eating/exercise habits, or demonstrate their social humility. It’s really unfortunate because people who fat talk think they’re only talking about themselves, and therefore only affecting themselves with their statements. They fail to realize that every time they criticize their own body or eating/exercise habits in front of other people, their words have the same impact of a microaggression.

It’s also possible that the person doing it just really has no idea because they just don’t think about weight stuff that often. For example, laughing at a fat joke on a TV show. While sitting right next to a fat person, totally oblivious to the impact of their complicit laughter on their friend next to them.

Microaggressions can result from the environment we live in too, like when clothing brands only carry up to a size 12. They can be actions rather than words, like when someone gives out free t-shirts as prizes, but only in sizes XS-L. They can happen in academia/research, like when you’re reading a book on organizational change theory and all of the examples are compared to weight loss maxims (“Just tell your team to put down the cookie, or better yet, remove all the cookies from the office!” – the cookie here being a metaphor for whatever “bad behavior” you’re trying to change).

Do you have more examples of sizeist microagressions? Have you been committing them unintentionally? And if so, are you willing to make an effort to stop?

How to promote health without being healthist

Have you ever felt suffocated by the pressure to be healthy? To eat “clean food,” run 5ks, go vegan, lose weight, tone up, eat paleo, buy agave nectar, do Crossfit, meditate, track your steps, count calories, eat organic, go paraben-free, switch to coconut oil, try acupuncture, use a Himalayan Salt Lamp, or quit sugar?

Do you ever feel like a bad person for failing to meet this standard of health so clearly articulated on sites like Pinterest?

health on pinterestWhen it’s your job to promote health, it’s also your responsibility to be aware of the barrage of health messaging out there and of the way it can make people feel: confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, insufficient, lazy, incapable, flawed, ugly, less-than, defeated, worthless, or even hopeless.

I’m going to throw out a radical thought experiment. What if I chose to be unhealthy? What if I simply opted out our contemporary culture of wellness? What if I decided that I didn’t care about longevity or preventing disease? What if I wasn’t interested in athletic pursuits? What if I was happy with my life without any of that stuff?

Would that make me a “bad” person? Would that make me less deserving of civil rights and legal protections? Healthcare? Federal or state assistance? Education? Would it make me less deserving of respect? Kindness? Compassion?

What if rejecting the active pursuit of health and wellness was a valid choice? 

Believe it or not, I do think it’s a valid choice. This may be surprising coming from a public health professional. But I think it is especially an important perspective for health professionals to have. My job is to promote health and wellness as well as to prevent and alleviate illness, violence, and suffering in the community I serve. Convincing people to care about their health and wellness is part of my job, but it’s something that has to be done carefully and thoughtfully so that I do not fall into the trap of perpetuating an oppressive culture of “healthism.”

What is Healthism?

The term “healthism” can be traced back to a 1980 article by political economist Robert Crawford, “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life”:

Healthism represents a particular way of viewing the health problem, and is characteristic of the new health consciousness and movements. It can best be understood as a form of medicalization, meaning that it still retains key medical notions. Like medicine, healthism situates the problem of health and disease at the level of the individual. Solutions are formulated at that level as well. To the extent that healthism shapes popular beliefs, we will continue to have a non-political, and therefore, ultimately ineffective conception and strategy of health promotion. Further, by elevating health to a super value, a metaphor for all that is good in life, healthism reinforces the privatization of the struggle for generalized well-being. –  Inlt J Health Serv

Implicit in healthism is morality, a driving force behind public health since the Civil War. The sanitation movement of the 1860s and 70s was largely led by the social (and moral) reformers of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who fought unsanitary living conditions and prostitution in the same breath.

Sylvester Graham (of Graham Crackers) and later Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of Kellogg’s Cornflakes) were practicing healthists in the 1880s. They believed in a connection between immorality and disease, and prescribed bland foods and abstinence (from masturbation especially) as part of a healthy lifestyle that would produce a “higher. purer, and nobler type.”

Petr Skrabanek, whose 1994 book The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism explored this issue, wrote that healthism begins when all human activities are judged according to their health impact, and deemed either “healthy” or “unhealthy”, “responsible” or “irresponsible”, “acceptable” and “not acceptable” based on this measure. Skrabanek goes further to claim that “healthism either leads to, or is a symptom of, incipient totalitarianism … Healthism justifies racism, segregation, and eugenic control; for the healthist, what is ‘healthy’ is moral, patriotic, and pure; while what is ‘unhealthy’ is foreign, polluted, and impure.”

In his review of Skrabanek’s book, Bryan Appleyard wrote:

Skrabanek has two arguments against healthism. First he insists that this kind of pressure and coercion amounts to a fascistic imposition on the lives and freedom of individuals.

And, secondly, he points out that most of the healthist assumptions are either not proven, wrong or highly biased. For example, he says that screening – a central doctrine of healthism – has been found to have no health benefits, but that this finding has been suppressed. And he regards the caring of the healthists as a hypocritical cover for crude authoritarianism.

‘As healthism is driven by power,’ he writes, ‘rather than by concern for the welfare of fellow men, it is devoid of any moral principles.’

, calls healthism “the new Puritanism“:

Healthism is an avenue for subliminal narcissism. There is something seductively deterministic and morally appealing about eating like a cheese-fearing vegan rabbit and looking better, living longer and getting 50 % of the insurance premium back thanks to Affordable Care Act’s Zen-sounding Wellness provisions.

In short, healthism is the new puritanism. The old puritans worked for God’s glory with a famed work ethic which, according to Max Weber, might have been the chiefly responsible for the success of capitalism.

The righteous, mirthless, po-faced, lycra-clad new puritans are forever punching numbers in to risk calculators and obsessing over arbitrary thresholds of LDL-cholesterol whilst watching the Dr. Oz show with the fastidiousness with which the old puritans internalized Leviticus, lest they miss another opportunity for a miniscule relative risk reduction.

Fall Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Health Education at John F. Kennedy University and current President of the Association for Size Diversity in Health says:

Healthism includes the idea that anyone who isn’t healthy just isn’t trying hard enough or has some moral failing or sin to account for … More subtly, healthism represents the widespread ethic of individual responsibility for health in our culture. In the debate over U.S. health care reform, we obsess over the health of individuals, whether it’s reshaping individual behavior to our liking or finding ways to pay for the expensive treatment protocols that we see as being needed because of people’s personal “failure” to care for their own health.

At best, “healthism” refers to a cultural preoccupation with health. At worst, it describes an ethical paradigm in which certain health behaviors are considered moral imperatives and a person’s value and character is judged based on their adherence to those behaviors. A person might also be denied services, benefits, and rights based on their adherence to those behaviors. This is highly problematic.

People engaged in the work of health education/promotion, public health, medicine, nutrition and fitness, etc., must be aware of the pitfalls of healthism, and try to avoid them whenever possible.

Why is healthism bad for INDIVIDUAL HEALTH?

Obsession is not healthy, even if it’s an obsession with health. Encouraging or condoning this kind of preoccupation or obsession in others can be seriously detrimental to their mental, emotional, and physical health. It’s what leads to disordered eating and exercise behaviors, as well as what some are calling “orthorexia nervosa” – a rigid fixation on food quality and purity. It teaches people to ignore their body’s signals – to “push through the pain” – resulting in injury. It robs people of time and resources that they otherwise could put towards fostering social connections, creative hobbies, community service, and other worthwhile pursuits that foster well-being and happiness.

Healthism also creates and encourages stigma, particularly fat stigma. By promoting this idea that “fat = always unhealthy” (which is just not true), fat people are singled out as failing to uphold their “personal responsibility” to maintain their health. As a result, they are labeled as “lazy,” “ignorant,” “lacking willpower,” “gluttonous,” “greedy,” etc.

Whoever came up with the idea of making dieting about health is simply brilliant. Now, society can be prejudiced, but it is ok because it’s about health. Now, you are not shallow if you focus all your attention on dieting, you are righteous. And, whoa be to you who do not diet – for thou art sinning! – Lonie McMichael in Talking Fat

If fat people are automatically “sinners” by virtue of being fat, then it becomes socially acceptable to insult them or shame them. In some cases it can even be seen as a moral imperative to insult and shame them, especially if one believes that will cause them to lose weight. But being fat does not necessarily mean someone is unhealthy. And not only is insulting and shaming people a generally shitty thing to do, it DOES. NOT. HELP. PROMOTE. WEIGHT. LOSS. In fact, it can result in weight gain. So, not only is it cruel, it’s detrimental.

laci green quoteWhy is healthism bad for PUBLIC HEALTH?

Another major problem with healthism is that it tends to focus the attention and resources of public health work on fostering individual behavior change, when we know that social determinants of health influence our health more than individual behaviors do. Public health professionals and health educators pay a lot of lip service to the socio-ecological model intended to address these social determinants.

S-E-ModelYet, due to the influence of healthism, health professionals tend to concentrate most of their efforts at the individual level. Fall Ferguson writes:

In my own field of health education/health promotion, there is a disturbing disconnect between the evidence about the social determinants of health and the profession’s focus on changing individual health behaviors. Even “ecological” approaches to health education, which are inspired by systems perspectives that highlight the interconnected web of health causes, tend to focus on the end result of changing individual behavior rather than collective solutions to health issues. A 2012 article in Health Education and Behavior reviewed 20 years of reported ecological health education interventions; the article acknowledged the field’s shortcomings in this arena, and noted that in addition to certain structural barriers, we may need to move past our own training: “health educators may not have the training or resources to successfully plan and implement institutional-, community-, or policy-level programs.”

Maybe it’s more than just our training that holds us back. Maybe we need to acknowledge our basic healthism instilled by our cultural milieu as well as our professional training. And maybe we need to unpack the privilege that has allowed us to focus so much attention on the role of individual behavior in health.

Why is healthism bad for SOCIETY?

Today we often speak about eating and exercise in terms of morality, often to the point of absurdity. Amy Schumer did a great job of calling out the way we self-flagellate for eating dessert in her sketch, “I’m so bad!”

But this is one symptom of a much bigger problem. Healthism is a social justice issue. To focus on wellness requires resources, namely money, access, and time. This is a matter of privilege. Who has access to organic foods in their neighborhood and who does not? Who can afford childcare in order to exercise and who cannot? Who has healthcare benefits and who does not? Who can devote time to their meditation practice and who cannot? Fall Ferguson writes:

It seems to me that healthism is reflective of deep privilege; it is (in my opinion) a classic “first-world” problem. Healthism can only thrive in a culture where the dominant groups do not have to worry about such things as famine, infectious disease, war, poverty, and hatred as factors that affect their health. It’s privilege that allows us to make health a “project” that we can judge others for not taking up.

Those with lower socioeconomic status do not always have the luxury to focus on their wellness, especially if they are struggling with the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, like safety, housing, and hunger. We cannot talk health behaviors as “necessary” or “essential” or “mandatory,” (as in, “eating GMO-free is basically mandatory”) when they are often beyond the reach of lots of people. We must not judge people for failing to prioritize wellness based on our assumptions about their lives and our paternalistic ideas about what is best for them.

We also must remain vigilant and push back against legislation and policies that discriminate against people based on their health. As Ragen Chastain, educator, activist, and fitness enthusiast, frequently reminds us: “the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable and not size, health, or healthy habit dependent.

The good news? There are things we can do to help avoid the pitfalls of healthism.

Here are some tips for health professionals:

  • Do not focus your work solely on individual behavior change. Make sure that you’re spending equal, if not more, time and resources on addressing social determinants through policy and environmental approaches. If your wellness program is focused solely on individual behavior change and there is no additional support for addressing social determinants in place, you need to rethink your program.
  • When sharing health promotion knowledge/tips/techniques/advice, always start with a disclaimer. For example, “Nobody has any obligation to participate in exercise, however for those who would like to participate – or just learn about the benefits of physical activity- I’m going to share the following info and tips.” Remind people that their heath habits have no bearing on their worth, their moral “goodness,” or their human and civil rights.
  • Be reasonable with your goals and expectations. Not everyone has to have the body of an athlete. Not everyone has to eat like a “health nut.” When you share guidelines, make them reasonable for the average person. Remember that for some people, the absence of illness and suffering is healthy enough, and that’s their choice and it’s valid.
  • Do not impose your beliefs about health and morality on your patient/client/student by automatically assuming they want to lose weight or devote time and other resources to fitness, nutrition, wellness, or weight loss. Use motivational interviewing techniques to find out what their motivations are for seeking help and work from there. Find out what they believe and respect their goals and value system.
  • Understand that shame and guilt are NEVER good motivators. Under any circumstance. Not only do they NOT WORK, they have a negative impact on a person’s mental and emotional well-being and can actually discourage them from participating in healthy behaviors.
  • Help every person cultivate a positive body image. It will not “promote obesity,” I promise.

Have you encountered healthism in your life or work? Have any other tips for how to avoid these pitfalls? Please share your thought and experiences in the comments!

Your Fat is Not Your Fault 2: Blocking Out the Noise

Sunday night I returned from a long camping weekend off the grid to find a whole slew of angry comments on my most recent post, Your Fat is Not Your Fault. Apparently people get really mad when you deign to suggest that it’s okay to be fat on the internet.

Most of the comments were mean and/or stupid in that predictable way people like to be mean to fat people. Those were, and will continue to be, deleted. There were also some typical interweb lols like “I lost 100 lbs eating Paleo. Have you considered that everyone should just eat Paleo?”

There were, however, some comments written by actual thinking, feeling, people critical of  my assertion that dieting almost always fails, and that obesity as a social problem that must first and foremost be addressed on a systematic, societal level. While I won’t address all of those arguments right now, I feel that they are secondary to (and distracting from) my overall point. My point–that it’s okay and important to forgive yourself for being fat–unfortunately got lost in the politics of fatness.

I’m not here to debate whether or not obesity is unhealthy (at least not today). I am here to argue that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are unhealthy. If it makes me a  radical to suggest that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are significant problems then so be it. Body image disturbance (the term for all types of body image issues including dissatisfaction and distortion) is associated with eating disorders and low self-esteem. Self-hatred and low self-esteem keep people from reaching their full potential; they keep people from participating fully in their own lives and becoming productive, contributing members of society.

Think obesity is a drain on the healthcare system? Well, body image disturbance is a drain on every system.

Last year I wrote a post called Positive Body Image Won’t Make You Fat: The Case for Body Positive Health Promotion. Read it.

Having a positive body image won’t make you fat. Letting go of the guilt and blame will not keep you fat. In fact, it will help you begin to heal and one day embrace self-compassion and fun as motivators for healthy eating and fulfilling physical activity.  And once you’ve embraced self-compassion and let yourself have fun-while-fat,  you can start to make those positive lifestyle changes that will allow you live your life to the fullest, whether or not it results in weight loss. If you’re looking for help with this, there are some amazing books on the subject like Kate Harding’s Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere and Linda  Bacon’s Health At Every Size, as well as coaches like Isabel Foxen Duke and Sarah Jenks.

But forgiving yourself for your fat is especially hard when everyone wants you to fix it, apologize for it, or suffer for it. It’s especially hard when when everyone acts as if it’s as easy as “putting down the cheeseburger,” when in reality it’s a gargantuan, exhausting, and wholly demoralizing task that requires strict self-regulation of every thing you eat or do for the rest of your entire life. It’s not helpful to listen to the noise, ever, even if you do want to lose weight.

Unfortunately, fat shaming trolls can be found just about everywhere, including the medical and public health establishment. I’ve recently learned that they are especially virulent among the uber-libertarians (“fat people are destroying our economy because they’re lazy and looking for handouts just like homeless people are lazy and looking for handouts”)  and men’s rights communities (“feminists are destroying my game by telling fatties it’s okay to stay fat”). Add ’em to the bingo card, boys.

In order to “become healthy” — whether that means getting fit, raising your self-esteem, having more fun in your life, etc. — you need to practice self-compassion. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love. That means looking backwards and thinking about when you “became fat.”

  • Were you a child? Not your fault.
  • Were you a teenager? The teenage world is one of desperate insecurity; you coped the best you could.
  • Were you in college? You were stressed and not sleeping and maybe partying a lot and still feeling invincible – it’s okay. As my fellow college health professionals often say, it’s “developmentally appropriate” behavior.
  • Were you pregnant or did you just have a baby? Were you coping with depression or another mental illness or maybe a disability? Were you working long hours with no time for yourself? Were you dealing with an eating disorder?

You are not to blame for all the circumstances of your life. Give yourself the compassion and respect you deserve. You would not blame your best friend. Don’t blame yourself.

If anyone out there wants to make you feel bad about your body or feel bad about yourself because of your body correctly identify them for what they are: a troll. If they act concerned for your health, they are a concern troll.

Only you know what’s best for you. Only you can determine what it means for you to live a healthy, happy lifestyle.

Block out the noise. Delete the comments. Do you.

And if anyone has any questions about my comment policy, this is basically sums it up:

Healthy Choice™ and healthy changes

I’ve recently taken note of a new ad campaign by Healthy Choice stating, “Don’t diet. Live healthy.” Turns out the campaign isn’t actually that new since the New York Times covered it in September, 2012, but since I didn’t have television until recently, it’s new for me.

I liked this ad as a wellness educator and body image researcher, and as a former dieter and purchaser of SmartOnes Weight-Watchers-friendly frozen dinners, it made me laugh.

Yes, you heard right. I am a former dieter. At the end of 2012, after yet another frustrating year of failed attempts at dieting and weight loss, I made a serious decision. I decided to stop dieting, forever. I cancelled my Weight Watchers Online subscription for what will be the last and final time. It all started last year when I started researching body image and “fat talk” for my dissertation-equivalent Health Communication project. Conducting that research often and unintentionally became “mesearch,” forcing me to examine my own feelings and behaviors with the intensity of a laser beam. It was painful and I did not like what I found.

I learned that I was one of the 90% of students with body image concerns. I learned that body image disturbance, an umbrella term for body image dissatisfaction and distortion (believing you are bigger than you really are), is associated with depression and low self-esteem. I learned that I was one of the majority of women who engaged in “fat talk” — a term coined in 1994 to describe the specific way girls and women talk to each other about the size and shape of their bodies or diet and exercise regimens, typically in a negative or self-disparaging manner. “I’m so fat.” “You’re not fat! If you’re fat, what does that make me?”

After leaning that fat talk is associated with greater body image disturbance and thin-ideal internalization (the idea that skinny=pretty) and coming to understand the way it normalizes and reinforces body image concerns at the societal level, I started paying attention. It was staggering to realize how many of my conversations with other women were about dieting, exercise routines, the clothes we “could” or “couldn’t” wear, how much weight we wanted to lose, the reasons why we hadn’t been able to “commit” to our weight loss plans. I never realized how often I apologized for eating (“I’m sorry but I’m getting a big burrito tonight”) or made excuses for eating (“I ate like nothing all day today so I’m going to get fries”).

I started to learn more about dieting. I began to realize that all dieting is bad. Yes, ALL dieting is bad. Even if you really need to lose weight for medical reasons like heart disease or diabetes, dieting only helps in the short term. Dieting offers nothing that might help you stick to your diet. Dieting doesn’t help once you’ve reached your goal weight. Cleanses and fasts are even more stupid than diets. They’re like douching–completely unnecessary when you’re healthy, and potentially harmful when you’re not.

I have come to believe that dieting is unhealthy. Slowly but surely, I came round to the philosophy behind Health At Every Size. Believe me, it took a while.

I am overweight but not horribly so. I have been this way for most of my life. I have wanted to lose weight ever since I was 10 years old. That’s a long time to want something. So, making the decision to stop dieting and pursue health rather than weight loss is nothing short of worldview-shattering. A complete about face. A completely new paradigm positioned 180 degrees from my former belief system.

This kind of conversion doesn’t happen easily or quickly. I’ve sat and mulled and struggled with these feelings and developing beliefs for a year or two now. Even today I’m still often shocked by how radical they sound to my own ears. Deciding to stop dieting has been one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, and I’ve just barely gotten started.

I created a plan for myself. Instead of dieting, I would:

  1. Get active for the right reasons. Find and embrace the pleasure in physical activity. Exercise because it feels good or to meet goals other than weight loss (do 30 push ups, hike that mountain, etc.).
  2. Learn to cook and eat take-out and prepared food less often
  3. Practice mindful eating, listen to my hunger signals, etc
  4. Practice good sleep hygiene (lack of sleep affects the hormones that regulate your appetite and feelings of satisfaction after eating, not to mention the myriad other physical and mental effects)
  5. Cut out “fat talk” entirely; if others around me are doing it I will not participate or change the subject

Truthfully, I started on number five about a year before I made the rest of my plan to stop dieting. Cutting out fat talk turned out be easier than I thought. At first it felt awkward and I didn’t know how how to act or react when friends and coworkers launched into the usual self-put downs and mutual reassurance tango. It turns out that simply not participating or changing the subject works pretty darn well. In a couple of instances, I talked with some close friends about it and my decision to stop. They were receptive and overtime less and less fat talk creeped into our conversations. Overall, I think I am happier for it. Now when I hear fat talk I’m struck by how annoying and insipid it is, and grateful that it’s no longer a part of my social repertoire  It’s been harder, of course, to silence the fat talk that goes on inside my own head, but hey. One step at a time.

This January, I  started the rest of the plan. The first week of diet-free living felt amazing. It was FREEDOM. I felt great to eat something “normal” (non-diet food) and even better to allow myself to NOT feel guilty afterwards. The elation didn’t last long, though, as my insecurities and doubts bounced back with a vengeance. They’re still with me today, louder than ever:

I doubt that I will be able to make any real measurable changes in my weight or my health without dieting. I doubt I will be able to stick to my 5 point plan. I doubt I will be able to be happy if I stay at my current weight, even if I’m super healthy and fit.

I doubt everything regularly, but I’m so committed to building sustainable, healthy habits that will last for the rest of my life that I can’t give up.

It turns out that quitting dieting is the easiest part of making this lifestyle change. A harder part is actually developing and maintaining my new, healthier, lifestyle and the hardest part of all is silencing the doubts and insecurities that make me want to give up or give in to the seeming futility of it all.

I appreciate the message behind Healthy Choice’s latest ad campaign: “Don’t diet. Live Healthy.” I believe it to be a healing message for both individuals and our sick culture. Of course, if it were easy to “live healthy” in America today we wouldn’t have turned to dieting in the first place. And as great as Healthy Choice products are (that is, marginally better than SmartOnes and other diet food), frozen dinners are not the answer.

One big reason I don’t miss the DELi*As catalog

Today I spotted a Buzzfeed article called 19 Reasons Why You Miss Getting the DELiA*s Catalog, and was instantly reminded of the one BIG reason I definitely DO NOT miss the DELiA*s catalog. The DELiA*s catalog was how I learned to hate my body.

Sure, DELiA*S wasn’t the only publication out there with images of thin teenage girl models. But I never had Seventeen or Cosmo magazines, so largely and for the most part, the DELiA*s catalog was the only collection of images of skinny girls I could take up to my room and stare at for hours, alone, wishing I was thin. That was my DELiA*s ritual — a deep, dark secret known only to me, my teenage self, and I. Until now, anyway.

Once a month or so, I’d spot the DELiA*s catalog in the pile of mail on the counter, grab it, and go up to my bedroom. I’d pour over each page, looking not at the clothes but the girls. I took in every detail, every airbrushed line. (Of course, at the time I didn’t realize they were airbrushed.) I even cut out a few of my favorites — girls with hair, outfits, and bodies I wanted — and pasted them into my journal.

I would strip to my underwear and look at myself in a full length mirror, strategically covering the parts of my body that weren’t “right” — the love handles, the belly, etc., and imagine myself without them. I used to fantasize about a magic knife that could simply slice off the extra that didn’t belong. I would visualize slicing, slicing, slicing, in long, fluid motions — literally carving my body into the shape I thought it should have been — the shape of the girls in the DELiA*s catalog.

Sick, right? Describing this behavior is weird and when I write it down, it sounds completely pathological. It’s horrifying to remember this part of my past. But if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that a lot of my peers were doing similar things.

I’ve come a long way since then, of course. Despite my perpetual and (unfortunately) NORMAL struggle with body image, I managed to develop a healthy self-confidence about the way I look. There are a lot of things I’ve always loved, and some that I’ve learned to love, about my body. And my feminist awakening, graduate research on body image, and introduction to Health At Every Size certainly made a huge difference in how I feel about my own body image journey.

So yes. I didn’t share this embarrassing secret so that people would pity me, nor did I share it to brag about how far I’ve come since then. I share this embarrassing secret because the Buzzfeed article about the DELiA*s catalog made me realize how glaringly absent my experience was from this ever-so-nostalgic account of what the DELiA*s catalog meant to girls who came of age in the 90s.

I can’t help but imagine how different my experience would have been if DELiA*s models exhibited the varied and beautiful range of body diversity in our world. What if some of those teen models looked like me? (What if the clothes they were selling actually fit me?)

I just read an amazing piece on XOJane about Lena Dunham’s audacity in showing her own, “imperfect,” body on screen — and how much people seem to really hate the fact that she’s doing it. It says:

For all our talk about wanting to see more so-called “real women” in the media we consume — a problematic category itself, as all women are “real,” no matter how near or far they might be to the female beauty ideal — we are awfully quick to condemn a woman who is showing us reality in a very plainspoken, unvarnished way.

The aghast controversy evoked by Dunham’s nudity shows us just how much of this “real women” talk is lip service, and how very far we have to go before we can socially deal with the fact that different bodies exist. Truth is, we’d all probably be a lot less neurotic about our own bodies if we could get used to seeing and accepting the natural variety in other people’s — without shame, and giving no fucks.

So maybe I, too, would look back with loving nostalgia on the DELiA*s catalog if it showcased a cohort of teen models who reflected the wide and diverse reality of what girls look like, and if those girls modeled not only quirky 90s fashion, but also how to not give any fucks about what other people think about their bodies.

Now, that would be a catalog to reminisce about.

Positive body image won’t make you fat: The case for body positive health promotion

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.

4chan “Would Not Bang” meme is a body-snarking satire fail

We all have things about our bodies we don’t like. They’re just little things like non-symetrical eyebrows, a tiny gap in our teeth, a slightly-too-wide nose, etc. On our better days, we can remember that these little quirks are what make us special and unique and beautiful. And besides, we tell ourselves, no one else is paying enough attention to notice them anyway. Right? Wrong, according to an unfortunate new 4chan meme that confirms all your worst suspicions about just how harshly people are judging your appearance.

From Slacktory:

There’s this running joke on the internet about an acne-scarred C.H.U.D. (or Butthurt Dweller) finding fault with any and all images of women in order to alleviate the self-hatred and loneliness that goes along with being a neckbearded netizen — “I can’t find a decent woman, not because I’m just awful in every way, but because all the women in my town have such big foreheads and stubby toes. Disgusting!”

This mindset has borne a new meme, “2/10 Would Not Bang,” in which 4chan users post images of flawless women and compete against each other to find fault in increasingly creative ways, and then dismiss them with the Comic Book Guy-channeling verdict: 2/10, Would Not Bang.

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According to Slacktory and the 4chan-ers themselves, this is not men judging women harshly — it’s satire of men judging women harshly. GET IT? Good.

I can see hints of that satire in some of these images. For example, criticism’s like “half of face too bright,” “forehead cut off,” and “being outside on a cloudy day,” are kindof funny because they mock  the judging by judging things that are actually more about the photo composition or staging of the image than the woman herself. Unfortunately, the majority of the criticisms miss the satire mark by a longshot.

“big Jew nose”***
“man shoulders”
“lips too large”
“tan lines”
“too thin”
“big ears”
“jaw too angular”

These are all real things that women (and others) actually fret about. These are things that women are judged by in the harshest and most misogynistic of circles. “Would Not Bang” is the meme version of real-life sorority hazing where female pledges strip to their underwear and let frat boys highlight their flaws in red Sharpie.

I just don’t see any humor in that at all.

***Oh, and did I mention this meme is an excuse for racial bigotry?

(h/t to Tali for the link)

Well intentioned Facebook meme misses the point

A ‎15 year old girl holds hands with her 1 year old son. People call her a slut. No-one knows she was raped at 13. People call a girl fat. No-one knows she has a serious disease which causes her to be over weight. People call an old man ugly. No-one knows he had a serious injury to his face while fighting for our country in the war. Re post this if you are against bullying and stereotyping. 95% of you won’t

I keep seeing this Facebook status meme pop up from time to time, and every time, it makes me angry. Sure, I’m against bullying and stereotyping (is anyone really pro bullying and stereotyping?) but I don’t at all agree with the message here.

Sure, it’s important not to assume that all teen mothers became mothers by choice. It’s important not to assume that every teen mother became pregnant through consensual sex or irresponsible behavior. Yes, it’s important to understand and recognize that some pregnancies are the result of rapes, and that some young women are forced to carry their babies to term because of shitty barriers to contraception, Plan B, and abortion access. Maybe she was forced to carry the baby to term because of parental notification laws, or the crowds of anti-Choice protesters outside her local Planned Parenthood, or even simply because abortion is too stigmatizing or incompatible with her family’s beliefs or culture to consider.

But even if a teenage girl did become pregnant through consensual sex – even if she was irresponsible – even if she had consensual, unprotected sex with multiple partners – she still doesn’t deserve to be called a slut. Nobody deserves to be called a slut, ever, for any reason. Because there’s nothing wrong with having sex. Even when you’re young. Even when you’re not married. Even if it’s with multiple partners.

Sure, it’s important to realize that there are a myriad of different reasons why a person might become overweight. It could be the result of an illness, or a medication, or a genetic condition and no fault of her own. But it could also be a result of an eating disorder, or stress eating, or poverty, or a lack of education about nutrition. It could be because she’s too busy working 14 hours a day to shop at a grocery store and prepare healthy meals. It could also be because she loves food and doesn’t really care if she conforms to the unrealistic American beauty ideal of the size 2 supermodel. She might be happy with her body exactly how it is.

But no one deserves to be discriminated against or bullied for being fat, ever, for any reason. Even if their weight appears unhealthy, even if they just fucking love to eat hamburgers. Because fat people deserve respect, even if they’re fat because they’re lazy, even if they’re unhealthy. Because people come in all different shapes and sizes, for all sorts of reasons. Because there’s no wrong way to have a body. And because someone else’s weight is really none of your business.

Yes, it’s important to realize that sometimes people look different and sometimes they were injured while serving our country. But sometimes people look different because they were injured for some other reason. Maybe it was a car accident. Maybe it was a drunken hang-gliding accident. Maybe there was an accident at work because of lax safety standards. Maybe it wasn’t an injury, but an illness, or a condition that developed over time, or maybe they were just born that way. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a person’s face other than the fact that it doesn’t look like the faces we see in magazines. Maybe it’s not a person’s face, but their body. Maybe they use a wheelchair or a cane. Maybe they sound different when they speak. Maybe they cannot speak, or cannot hear, or cannot see. No one deserves to be called ugly, no matter what they look like or sound like or how they came to be that way.

Though I can recognize that the meme is well-intentioned, it suggests that while some people don’t deserve to be bullied or stereotyped, other people do. Because they “brought it on themselves” by acting irresponsibly or just because they don’t have a “good excuse” for being the way they are. But nobody deserves to be stereotyped or bullied, for any reason.

When someone falls outside the norm, they become a target for bullying and stereotyping just because they’re different. And everyone is different at least some of the time. There’s no point to trying to determine who “deserves it” and who doesn’t. Because bullying and stereotyping is cruelty, and no one ever deserves that.

So if 95% of people aren’t reposting this status meme, let’s hope it’s because they agree that EVERY 15 year old mother, EVERY overweight person, and EVERY person who’s body is in some way “different,” deserves our respect and compassion.