politics: size discrimination

5 Feb

Since many women–perhaps even most women–with PCOS struggle with their weight, I thought this might be a good forum to talk about a kind of discrimination that is getting worse over time, not better: the judgment of “fat” people.

Despite the “fat acceptance” movement and the increasing awareness that many people who are considered overweight can still be healthy, I don’t think our culture has gotten very far in this particular arena. (See the Health at Every Size page for more information about the movement–I’m not involved in it, so I won’t presume to summarize the tenets here. It is an intriguing project, though, because it accepts and celebrates the pursuit of health–not the pursuit of a particular body shape.)

It’s a complicated thing. Yes, I think most people who are extremely heavy would be healthier if they lost some weight. And yes, I group myself in that category! However, it is neither reasonable nor fair to assume that you know anything about a person’s health, lifestyle, or personality from his or her size. A thin person may be sedentary and eat poorly; a fat person may eat fairly well and get more exercise.

Here is my list of destructive beliefs about fat people–ideas that are floating around in American society (and in many other parts of the world!):

1. Fat people are lazy.

2. Fat people are sloppy.

3. Fat people are stupid. (After all, why would you be fat when it’s so clear how to avoid it?)

4. Fat people are ugly/unattractive/not sexy.

Obviously, I do not agree with any of these statements. You might want to think about how you would respond if the “fat people” part of that sentence were replaced with, say, “black people”–part of the reason this is so troubling is that people ARE born with a certain predisposition to be heavy or thin, even if it’s not completely set in stone.

Certainly, you have plenty of control over your health and the state of your body. But you may not reasonably, or healthfully, be able to adhere to a cultural idea that supports a body type that is unhealthy for many women. And the fact is, you don’t have to. No one is even telling you that you have to be healthy, although of course I hope that you are and that you want to be. But these assumptions are not made about thin people who don’t eat their vegetables, or about people who smoke (although smoking has become less socially acceptable over time), or about people who never exercise and sit behind a desk all day long. There is no denying it: this is about the way a person looks.

If you are overweight or obese, you probably recognize these ideas. They’re destructive and hurtful, as well as false. Some of these are more flexible than others (for example, if you are tidy, well-groomed, and well-dressed, you’re less likely to be thought sloppy; however, if two women show up in yoga pants and messy ponytails, it is the overweight woman who will be considered a slob).

It is your job to oppose these beliefs, right now, and forever–in thought, in word, and in deed. If you are working on your health, if you eat well, if you exercise, if you are educating yourself about PCOS and taking control of your genetic and medical inheritance, of course you are not lazy. If you are reading about these issues, integrating what you learn in books, in research, in blogs like this one, of course you are not stupid.

I do not suggest that it doesn’t matter what sort of condition your body is in (although I do think it is an egregious mistake for any of us to judge others based on any visible evidence of that condition). I am suggesting the following things:

1. Your body is yours. You can treat it as well or as poorly as you want. It does not reflect on your moral or intellectual status to eat a cookie.

2. A healthy body can look a lot of different ways. There is plenty of evidence that women can be healthy at many sizes.

3. You (maybe in consultation with a trusted doctor) are the proper judge of what weight is healthiest for you. Screw the weight charts, screw the BMI charts–if you are eating right, you’re fit, and your medical statistics are all in range, you’re healthy. That’s that. It doesn’t matter whether you wear a size 2 or a size 22 or whatever.

4. Dieting is unhealthy. A healthy, sustainable diet–in the sense of “what you eat,” not in the sense of “what will help you lose weight”–is a major step toward a healthy lifestyle, but the array of special diets that many overweight or obese people try are more likely to harm than help. In particular, the yo-yo dieting lifestyle is bad for you–not just physically, but also emotionally.

5. You cannot expect other people to stop judging you for your weight until you stop judging yourself. I know this is hard. I know you have probably heard about weight loss for your entire life. I know that you’re going to keep hearing about it. But until you can accept your body for what it is and decide that you are going to stop being ashamed of it, angry at it, or mean to it, you will suffer. And in my view, the best way to change societal pressures is to be clear about the fact that you like yourself and your body. You can work very hard for increased fitness and health without defining your current body as “wrong” or “bad.”

In conclusion:

Our culture expects women to look a certain way. More accurately, it expects women to WANT to look a certain way; I think most of us are accustomed to seeing women who look–well–average. Normal. But it’s expected that every woman wants to wear a size 4. This is patently absurd. Healthy bodies come in many sizes; sexy or beautiful bodies, too. There are a lot of reasons to stop judging your body based on its size, but one of the most important is this: it’s the body you have, right now. No matter what your goals may be, no matter how you may want it to look and feel, right now, it’s what you have. Do you really want to postpone your happiness until your body meets your standard? Especially if you’re drawing that standard from an unrealistic cultural expectation, that’s a bad deal.

START with the happiness. Start with the knowledge that you are already ahead of the game because you are invested in your own health. Start with the knowledge that the people who love you, love you in your current body. Start with the knowledge that your essential self would not change if you could magically eliminate whatever physical “flaws” you dislike. If you can do those things (and trust me–I know they’re difficult), you might have a shot at enjoying the process of improving your fitness and health.

For me, I think of it this way: if I can live a long, healthy, productive life, does it matter what size my jeans are? If I know that every doctor I visit is shocked to find that my blood pressure and lipid panels are what they expect to see in a visibly fit patient, does it matter that I don’t look like an athlete? No. It doesn’t. And while I wish that everyone I met could accept that truth, just as I accept it, I cannot control what other people think. I can only control what I think.


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