Body Image – Irrelevant or Important in Addressing Weight Stigma?

Amanda Pileski is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Towson, MD. Previously she served as the Eating Disorder Treatment Team leader at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She supports the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach to treatment and advocate for the appreciation of all body types within our society!
BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

Recent feminist blogs have suggested that body image – positive or negative – should be irrelevant…that we should not have to “love our bodies.” First, I wholeheartedly agree with the feminist perspective that weight stigma is a true problem in our society. I also recognize that our advertising industry encourages us to spend too much time and energy focused on our appearance when there are many other worthwhile causes needing support. Additionally, I passionately affirm the argument that we, as women, are so much more than what we look like. In some of the articles, however, there seems to be condescension toward encouraging all women to “love their bodies” – and I do not feel this is a helpful message.

I have a one year old daughter, and I agree that I would rather individuals not comment about her appearance upon meeting her because this teaches young girls that they are valued based primarily on this one dimension. As a body image and eating disorder treatment specialist, however, I want my daughter to view herself as “beautiful,” appreciate her appearance and attributes in addition to all the other amazing parts of herself, and practice positive affirmations on a regular basis. Why? Because the default is to automatically view ourselves negatively when faced with unrealistic images of beauty reinforced by our society.

To illustrate this point, it may be helpful to take a step back from the body image topic and consider how we as humans tend to focus on negative feedback whereas it is much easier to forget about or discount positive feedback. Our brains are biologically wired to focus on the “negative” or ways to correct flaws and this is due to the basics of evolution…how do you think our species has survived? The problem is that we no longer are fighting for our survival and instead waging wars on ourselves psychologically in the absence of the need to focus our efforts on a greater cause.

The reason why I view positive body image as important as opposed to irrelevant is because our society (like it or not) constantly feeds young women messages that their appearance is not good enough. I view this as similar to racial identity development because viewing race as a non-issue is not psychologically productive for individuals of color in a world dominated by white privilege. Similarly, viewing appearance as a non-issue in a world dominated by weight stigma is not psychologically productive for individuals of varying body types.

It seems to me that this is a social justice issue – that we should be fighting for the acceptance and affirmation of diversity in body types. I hear so many young women with eating disorders express that their motivation for recovery comes from a desire to have a positive influence on young girls (daughters, nieces) – but why not care about the young girl within all of us  – our female co-workers, friends, mothers – who all experience feelings of inadequacy when faced with unrealistic standards of beauty, pressure to lose weight, and a message that growing old is undesirable.

I mentioned before that we all need a greater cause in life outside of ourselves on which to focus our energy. Without this, we become self-critical and desperate to find something to make ourselves feel less inadequate. My belief is that we as women have great potential to change this world moving forward. We can choose to do nothing and succumb to a culture where self-hate, disordered eating, and psychological trauma are all common place…where the funds capable of changing this world are instead wasted on weight loss, harmful advertisements, and plastic surgery…or alternatively, we can commit to changing this society through our inner circles with co-workers, friends, and family – where we adamantly speak out against the dieting mentality and negative body talk by others. Additionally, we can choose to do something more productive with our money by funding cancer research, efforts to address inequalities, or whatever else we might feel passionate about…but again this is a choice and by not choosing to change the status quo, we are essentially making the choice of supporting it.