Body Image and Paradigm Traps

fat shaming

[This post discusses dieting, exercise, and fat-shaming.]

A friend sent me these infographics about cultural paradigms. The two featured are shame/honor which is described as a central paradigm in some Eastern cultures and guilt/righteousness which is attributed to Western cultures, with fear/power getting a passing mention but no spotlight. Big ideas associated with broad generalizations, and I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that “most peoples of the world” ascribe to one of these models.

However, all three can be applied to how we discuss weight, weight loss, and fitness in American culture.

Movie stars, models, and singers who conform to pervasive body shape and size ideals are revered. Fitness gurus like Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper are idolized and seen as doing the honorable and important work of making fat people thinner. On the flip side, both famous and non-famous people are shamed by the press, the medical community, and sometimes their own families for failing to force their bodies into the single shape and size we’ve deemed culturally desirable.

The diet industry thrives on couching things in terms of righteousness. Talking about “good” and “bad” foods is a common practice and leads to people explaining that they’re “trying to be good” when offered foods they’ve been told or decided they can’t have. And I know many people swear by it, but the existence of the term “clean eating” implies some pretty heavy-duty righteousness along with the underlying message that all other ways of eating are dirty. Guilt is what many people feel when they treat themselves with food, overeat, skip the gym, or do anything that doesn’t actively move them toward achieving smaller bodies.

Even fear and power play into our perceptions of fitness and fatness. Language describing workouts or meant to motivate people to exercise is often couched in terms of conquering, winning, beating, and destroying. Thin women often earn higher salaries than non-thin women, and money is most definitely a form of power. And we are taught to fear weight gain, not just for health-related reasons but because we know we’ll be subject to shame, guilt, judgment, and more if we dare allow our bodies to get larger instead of smaller.

I believe that every individual person has a right to decide for herself if she’s going to take steps to change her body. But I also believe that some of the worst and most harmful motivators for change are shame, guilt, and fear. When you’re excited about making a change, the steps you take feel positive and affirming. When change is driven by negativity and anxiety, the steps you take feel fraught and desperate. Paradigms are deep-seated and tough to alter, but we can fight them on an individual level. When you hear rhetoric about weight, weight loss, and fitness that tries to make you feel shameful, guilty or afraid, try to push back. Eating is not shameful, it is necessary for survival. No food on earth is fundamentally good or bad.* People of all shapes, sizes, and weights can be brilliant, beautiful, accomplished, and worthy of honor. And anyone or anything that tries to make you fear your body should be censured and banished. Your body is your home, and you deserve to feel as safe and secure as possible in your home.

*Except licorice. Licorice is just plain evil.

Image courtesy Beauty Redefined

Originally posted 2015-05-19 06:27:25.

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7 Responses to “Body Image and Paradigm Traps”

  1. Jennifer

    As a large plus size woman (around 300 lbs), I’ve been going to the gym regularly since February. A part of my reasons is to lose weight. It’s more for the 25 lbs that I’ve gained over the past year (PCOS and depression and working at home are a bad combo), than for a probably impossible goal of being “thin.” And mostly people have left me alone, which I appreciate. I mean, I’d like to meet people there, but am glad I haven’t gotten body comments . . . until last week. A man I didn’t know was on a treadmill near me. As he was finishing his workout, he walked to the treadmill beside mine, leaned in, squeezing my arm, and said, “Keep going, you can do it, work on your eating and take it one day at a time.” I didn’t know this man at all, except knowing he’s a gym regular, and this made me uncomfortable. I was dumbfounded at his comment and emotional that day, so I teared up a little as he left. Just because I’m a fat woman at the gym, you don’t get to assume I’m trying to lose weight, even if I am. You don’t know the physical and emotional reasons that have caused me to be my size. What should I have said (or say if it happens next time)? Should I say something to this man if I see him again or to gym management? It hasn’t stopped me from going to the gym, but unwelcome body comments, are well, unwelcome.

    • Mary

      I would love to see a gym that reminded its members that it is rude to comment on other people’s fitness activities/bodies. Like, signs to that effect right along with the signs reminding people to wipe off the equipment when they are done. But, given the culture surrounding exercise and weight here, I can’t imagine it ever happening.

    • crtfly

      The ironic thing is that the man who commented probably believed that he did a good thing by encouraging you. I like Mary’s idea of the signs reminding people not to comment others’ bodies/activities.


    • Kelly

      His comment seems terribly intrusive and patronizing to me. If there is a next time, perhaps making eye contact and saying coldly “Excuse me, do I know you?” would let him know that he was out of bounds. (And if he then claims he was only trying to help, say “Please don’t!”)

  2. E.W.

    I just had an experience around this! I’ve been going to barre classes since the winter – it’s an exercise I like, my body likes, and, as they say, “the best exercise is the one you will do!” The only shade to this whole experience has been some of the studio culture – not bad at the first place I tried, but quite…intense at the studio that’s turned out most convenient to my schedule. The other morning as I stretched at a spot near the mirrors, one of my fellow exercises came up to take a spot next to me and remarked something to the effect of, “Oh, how can you stand this corner spot – TWO mirrors and the lights!” She was a nice lady – she was just carrying over the chit-chat I’d heard all morning as folks found their places (“I hate the mirrors I see every little thing!” etc). But after weeks of this (including an instructor who sometimes urges us to think about bikini season), I just …was a little fed up with how ridiculous it was. I said, “I just don’t…have that worry…I guess. It’s my only body. It’s doing alright, and the mirror helps me see if I’m doing it right!” “You look CUTE!” she hurried to say. “Thanks!” I said. “I just can’t feel bad about it. It’s hard enough to get here, you know? If I’m always saying I look too terrible for mirrors I won’t come.” I was really pleased – I was mad at the scene, but this poor lady didn’t need my wrath. I just needed to say launch some different words into that room. (And I think I said what I meant as kindly and clearly as I could have). She was smiling with me for the rest of the class anyway.

    Still and all, this morning’s class was profoundly without-friends feeling. But I’m persisting…sometimes you have to work harder than others to Resist the mighty forces of shame and comparison.