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.
Marci Warhaft-Nadler is a body image advocate, founder of the Fit vs Fiction workshops for parents and teachers and author of “The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive”. After overcoming her own severe body image and eating disorder issues, Marci created her Fit vs Fiction workshops to tear down the dangerous myths related to beauty and fitness and empower kids with the self-esteem they need to tune out negative messages and be proud of who they are instead of judging themselves for who they think they’re not. Marci believes that we need to spend less time telling kids how to be skinny and more time teaching them how to be healthy.
Self-Worth shouldn’t be measured in pounds!
Weight Stigma and the Next Generation
Eating disorders are on the rise. We know this. We also know that our society is obsessed with beauty; a very limited interpretation of beauty and beyond that, our culture is imbued with stigmatizing messages regarding weight. Everywhere we look, we’re bombarded with images that glorify thinness and youth which have resulted in an epidemic of internalized stigma and self-hatred. Kids want to look like adults, adults want to look like kids and both are willing to go to extreme lengths to attain these unrealistic expectations of beauty and point out when others have “fallen short” of meeting these culturally established goals.
It seems like women, regardless of whatever levels of success they may achieve in their personal and professional lives, are expected to make their physical appearance their top priority. While this type of superficiality is expected in industries like entertainment or modelling, it’s become more and more of an issue in other fields as well. Female politicians have their looks scrutinized in a way that male politicians never would and female athletes have become more and more sexualized over the last few years as well. At the 2012 London Olympics, for example, female volleyball players were given an enormous amount of positive attention for their tiny outfits and lean physiques, while athletes likes swimmer Leisl Jones and weightlifter Zoe Smith were consistently ridiculed for being “fat” or unattractive. Their accomplishments were in some ways diminished due to this external supposition that their bodies should be shaped a certain way; a way that is wholly inconsistent with the way their bodies needed to be shaped in order to work properly and achieve their Olympian status.
When did we become so shallow? When did how our bodies look become more important than how they work? And when did we decide that it was right for anyone to make this judgment over another person?
Everywhere we look, we’re inundated with images of people that have been photoshopped and airbrushed to “perfection” and as a result we’ve completely forgotten what real people look like! There are so many of us trying to live up to a level of beauty that just doesn’t exist, partly because we are ridiculed if we don’t. What is it about softer, rounder bodies that offend people so much?
Additionally, what would happen if we listened to what our bodies needed instead of what our magazines or our invasive peer groups said? Do healthy bodies only come in one size? Are the happiest people always the skinniest? Does it matter what “they” think you should look like if your body is a place you are happy in?
For so many years I thought the answer was Yes, and that belief nearly killed me.
I battled severe body image and eating disorder issues through part of my teens, all of my 20s and most of my 30s. I starved myself skinny and then binged myself sick and felt guilt and shame through all of it. Instead of appreciating who I was, I spent most of my life hating myself for everything I thought I wasn’t. I was internalizing the weight stigma I felt around me and that is how I coped. Being healthy became much less important to me than being skinny and I put my life at risk several times by engaging in dangerous behaviour to lose weight. After years of starvation and obsessive exercise, my disorder took a different turn towards compulsive binge eating. My quest for the perfect body was destroying my life because the stigma of being anything other than what others expected was too much.
When I finally decided to stop seeking validation from other people and became determined to reclaim my body and my life, I found it difficult to get the support I needed. It is incredibly hard to redefine “beauty” to include the form of “healthy” when you’re used to taking cues from a society that idolizes beauty the way ours does. While I can’t say that the media or society were responsible for my eating disorder, I truly believe that they did make it incredibly difficult to recover from it.
While my family was telling me that I was too thin, magazines were telling me I wasn’t thin enough. While my doctors were telling me I needed to eat to be healthy, diet ads were telling me I needed to stop eating to be beautiful. As desperate as I was to be free of the control my negative body image had over me, I also felt myself being pulled back into society’s demands and this made it very hard to get well.
It took me a very long time and a lot of hard work to get to the point where I could tune out the stigmatizing messages telling me that I’d never be good enough at a healthy existence and to tune into the positive ones telling me that I already was good enough.
Those were my young adult struggles but what motivates me now is the idea that weight stigma is affecting a new and much younger generation and we must do something to correct the misinformation, the social tolerance and the enormous amount of damage NOW. We have so much work to do as kids younger and younger are already hating their bodies and themselves as proved by the fact that children age of 5 are the fastest growing demographic in eating disorder therapy according to studies in Canada, America and England. What we are seeing is our children succumbing to both internal and external weight stigma and we must do something about it before those messages become permanent.
What can we do to combat weight stigma both internally and externally?
Stand up and speak out:
If you see something that screams of fat shaming, whether it be on TV, in magazines or on the radio, speak out about it, write a letter to the company about it, blog about it, do whatever it takes to let people know that it’s just not okay.
Swap fat talk for friendly talk:
It’s somehow become completely acceptable to put ourselves down for every flaw and imperfection we see in ourselves and that has to stop. Instead of focusing on why your arms aren’t thin enough or your legs aren’t toned enough, try complimenting yourself instead: I appreciate my arms because I use them to hug my family and roll cookies or throw a ball. I love my legs because they help me run after my kids or chase my dogs. Also take time to appreciate all the amazing features that you may not have taken the time to recognize, like your eyes, skin and hair. We need to appreciate more and judge ourselves less.
Do something you love:
Find something that you enjoy doing. It can be anything from sports, to art to music, to anything in between. By doing something that we love, we get in touch with WHO we are and what we can DO and spend less time worrying about how we look. We are capable of so much more than just fitting into a pair of skinny jeans or string bikini.
Get IN the game:
Research shows that more and more young women are dropping out of sports because they feel that they don’t look good enough to play and that has to stop. If you want to play, but don’t think you look fit enough, play anyway! If you’re worried you won’t be good enough, play anyway! We need to remind ourselves of what healthy bodies feel like, so play more and stress less!
Time to clean out the negativity:
When we surround ourselves with negative energy, we start drowning in it. Make a conscious effort to spend time with people who live in acceptance instead of judgment and who want to participate in life instead of staying on the sidelines as a spectator. It’s okay to take a break from friends who live in a world controlled by diet and exercise talk. It’s not rude to make it clear that you want to focus on your overall well-being and are therefore jumping off the thin is in, skinny at all costs crazy train that is doing so much damage to so many of us. You may just inspire others to do the same.
Self-worth shouldn’t be measured in pounds and we shouldn’t allow others to mislead that it is – or that acting as though it is — is acceptable behaviour.