by Dr. Jenny Copeland, PsyD
We are faced with a series of hard truths in our society, and they have staggering and deadly implications. They often feel inescapable, as if you have no other choice but to accept them. The fact is that this is a society in which young girls would rather be hit by a truck than be fat. Body hatred surfaces in girls even at age 6; by age 10 over 80 percent are afraid of being fat. In the end, the experience of weight discrimination increases one’s chance of dying by 60 percent. This is the reality of our society. But it is not our truth.
Our society is established upon a specific foundation, one which prioritizes groups of people over others. Weight stigma does not exist in isolation: the layers of privilege are intricately woven together. There is no identifiable thought, belief, or action, held by a single person which began the domino effect into our current climate. All that is power and oppression is a complex labyrinth whose origin has long since disappeared. The sheer vastness of it all can easily be overwhelming. If it was not created by one person, how can one person make a difference? It can often feel hopeless, pointless to even try.
And yet, it can be better because we are here. This is not only a question of teaching young people how to love their bodies, it is teaching young people about the war on bodies and building resiliency against it. In fact, body image and eating disorders are not about the body. Often times our body becomes a scapegoat for our deepest fears and vulnerabilities. We were raised to believe our bodies are problems to be solved. Over time our bodies have been made commodities and hatred of them a selling point. In The Beauty Myth, author Naomi Wolf tells us this serves the purpose of keeping women silent, obedient, distracted, and powerless.
These are insidious beliefs, trapping you inside yourself and keeping you from achieving your true purpose in this world. As women, we were taught that our value as individuals is equivalent to our jean size and our ability to attract a partner. Men learn to value their physical strength and are shamed if they do not meet certain standards of physical prowess. Did we even have a chance at a positive body image? Does the next generation? The solution is found in a shift away from the assignment of greater worth to a narrow definition of humanity. We all hurt as long as oppression exists. We must stop this process now. This is the society in which young people are learning and growing, and we must offer a different way of being.
Truth cannot be taught, it can only be discovered. Truth is unique to the individual and cannot be dictated to them by another. As adults our charge is not to tell young people how to live, but rather to help them learn how. Young people are infinitely more capable than they are often given credit for: they have the power to enact great change for themselves and others. They can and they will alter the landscape of our culture with strong support and the proper tools. This is our role. It begins with us, as it must. Although we did not single handedly create the burden of stigma and oppression for any group, we can teach young people to explore and challenge it.
There was a popular saying in my house growing up: do as I say, not as I do. What we say and what we do matters. Young people are far more perceptive than we realize. They are able to recognize a discrepancy between our words and our actions and will inevitably follow our actions. If you tell a young person they ought to love and appreciate their body, all the while treating yours with disdain, they will follow suit. If you instruct a young person to treat all people as if they have value, yet balk at the implication that society does not, so will they. Try as we might, young people do as we do, rather than as we say.
It begins, then, with honor – the integrity of your words. Become aware of, question, and challenge each belief you hold, and in this way you will enact change in your actions. What are the reasons you treat your body as you do? Is it out of habit? Do you believe that you hold value? How often have you held back in your life because you felt not good enough or that your worth was less than those around you? Imagine for a moment the amount of time and energy that is consumed by every negative thing you think, say, or feel about your body and yourself each day. Now imagine what you could do with each of those moments. What could happen if you let go of those self-limiting beliefs? Is this the legacy you wish to pass on?
The body is not a problem to be solved but something to be cherished and nourished, and young people desperately need to understand this. More importantly, they need help discovering what it means to cherish their unique bodies, how they may hold them in gratitude, and why it is important. It is not so simple as to say “love your body.” There is no instruction manual to follow. Guide them in this discovery by teaching about media literacy and the commoditization of bodies. Help them understand that body image is about much more than our appearance or our bodies. It is the embodiment of the messages we receive from the world around us, whether from society in general or our families. It can also be the embodiment of our hope, grace, and purpose.
Each of us has an important, unique path for our lives. Focusing on a young person’s body and teaching them to do this (even if it’s to love their bodies), limits them. Help them learn to treat their bodies with compassion, yes. And also teach them why it is important they are in integrity, because the compassion they hold for themselves will naturally extend into everyone around them. Teach them about the injustices in the world, about racism, child hunger, mistreatment of animals, and the school to prison pipeline. Encourage inquisitiveness and debate, providing the opportunity to determine what their principles may be. Show them what happens when you live according to yours.
Empower young people to discover their true selves. Do not teach them the truth but help them learn what it means for them and how to apply it in their lives. You cannot tell them who they are. If you did, you would be no better than the magazines and the industries which fund them. Provide them instead with the tools to realize and pursue their true purpose – and trust them to carry the rest. In their hands lies the hope for dismantling the foundation of oppression upon which our culture is built, and it is our job to help them discover how. Are you ready?
Jenny Copeland, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist at Ozark Center in Southwest Missouri, where she specializes in eating, weight, and health-related issues, including individuals who are pursuing or who have received weight loss surgery. She earned her doctorate and master’s degrees in Clinical Psychology from The School of Professional Psychology at Forest Institute.
Dr. Copeland has conducted studies on weight stigma, perceptions of size among health care providers, and the effectiveness of Health At Every Size programs for positive lifestyle improvements, and has presented this research at national and international conferences. She is the co-creator of the Model of Appearance Perceptions and Stereotypes, an innovative research-based theory of individual weight and size perceptions.
Dr. Copeland has been recognized for her work with the Research and Evaluation Fellowship from Forest Institute and the inaugural Health At Every Size Scholar Award from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Dr. Copeland continues to be active in the size acceptance community, where she previously served on the Leadership Team of the Association for Size Diversity and Health and is a community partner for the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.