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Building a Body-Positive Consciousness in the United States

“Food is the primal source of social worth. Whom a society values, it feeds well. The piled plate, the choicest cut, say: we think you’re worth this much of the tribe’s resources”.

-Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

The fight against sexism has come a long way in the past century. The notion that women can and should have equal rights within society, including the right to vote and the right to work, are almost universally accepted. While sexism is far from being eradicated, at least it is now being recognized as an issue in the progressive community and most work to address issues of male chauvinism both internally and externally. But one component of sexism – weight prejudice – is still virtually invisible from the progressive movement. Instead of praising women who want to break from the paradigm of diets and weight obsession, progressives brand those who are “fat” as being lazy and unhealthy.

Weight prejudice is inherently sexist in nature. The ‘penalties’ for being fat are far greater for women than they are for men. While fat men can sometimes be the object of ridicule, they are just as often seen as being the ‘typical male’ that likes to watch football and drink beer. Men can openly joke about being fat, often while eating junk food, and will not be judged for doing so. For women, being fat is going against the very grain of what society expects out of you. For a woman to openly acknowledge being fat – not even to speak about being proud of it – is a social faux-pas that will be met by silence and uncomfortable glances away.

In truth, weight prejudice is simply misogyny covered up. What was once acceptable to say about all women – that they are lazy, only good for child-rearing, likely to give in to their cravings and desires for lack of control – is now wholly acceptable to say about fat women. The “sexy” or idealized version of what a woman should look like shows a lot about the unconscious collective male attitude towards femininity. An otherwise boyish, slim figure with large breasts is a woman that can be easily dominated and is not very feminine, but can still satiate a man’s sexual appetite. W. Charisse Goodman said in her book ‘The Invisible Woman’ that “male control of feminine imagery makes women malleable and docile by convincing them that they are never good enough as is, that they must always adhere to what they are taught is every man’s desire, i.e. a slender body with large breasts, if they want sexual acknowledgment, approval, and fulfillment”. The unspoken social law in the United States and other countries dictates that a woman must look according to these standards in order to fulfill their role in society. Oftentimes you will hear husbands griping that their wives are “letting herself go” – breaking the unspoken contract that a woman is there to fulfill the man’s sexual desires and needs.

This kind of prejudice has its consequences. Most obviously, anorexia and bulimia in women have both grown exponentially over the last few years. But other lesser-acknowledged forms of self-mutilation such as stomach stapling, gastro-bands, and liposuction are not only ignored, but actively promoted by some health-care professionals to “control the disease of obesity”. The ads for these procedures target women’s insecurities by showing bikini-clad women and asking the viewer “don’t you want to look like her?”. On the Lap-Band system site, they show women with the words “If I lost weight, I would feel more comfortable shopping for clothes”. Women constantly harm themselves by trying diet pills with ridiculous side effects or opting for risky surgery, just to make themselves look more like what society thinks they should be.

If women are a sex symbol in our society, then fat women would be the ‘anti-sex symbol’. Cartoons and sitcoms depict fat women as undesirables, often the butt of a joke against a man who mistakenly thought the woman was “beautiful”. This ideology in and of itself is harmful to women’s self-esteem and in building healthy relationships, but it goes farther than that. Many people still think that rape is related to sex (instead of being an act of violence and domination – which is another topic to be written about later). As a result, fat women are considered “safe” from sexual harassment or sexual assault. In the magazine “Big Beautiful Woman”, a woman writing in recounted her personal story of the aftermath of her rape. When she called the police, they came over and blatantly told her that they did not believe her story because of ‘factual inaccuracies’. Later, she overheard one officer as the other in amazement “Who would want to rape her?”.

The progressive community also gives a pass to this brand of misogynistic behavior, branding it as a “health” problem and masking their prejudices by saying it is because of contempt for the fast food industry and lack of local foods. It is common to hear Lefists complain about “fat, lazy, and ignorant” Americans. Mocking fat people, especially fat women, is an acceptable practice because it is supposedly symptomatic of what is wrong with the country. In reality, even progressives have internalized the image of what a woman “should” be in society and are using that against women who do not fit into that model. We know that male chauvinism still exists among progressive groups and movements in the U.S., and this is one aspect of that.

The reality about the health excuse is that the meter for which to measure a “healthy” weight has dramatically shifted over the past 20 years. The BMI, which was invented over 100 years ago by a social physicist, is a grossly inaccurate measurement for what a “healthy” weight should be. Recent studies have shown that as much as 80% of your figure is genetic, or passed down from relatives. In other words, if your mom, your aunts and uncles, and your grandparents were all fat – guess what? you probably will be too! Nowadays, doctors are asking patients what their ‘healthy weight’ is, or what weight they feel the most comfortable at. The BMI has told women as skinny as 130 pounds that they are “overweight” because of their height. A woman who is 5’2” and weights over 135 pounds is considered “overweight”. George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt are also all overweight according to BMI.

Commercial sanctions against fat women and men are not confined to bogus pharmaceutical companies and diet firms. Any clothing for “plus-sized” women (I am only commenting on women’s clothing as that is my experience) is ill-fitting and overpriced. Many styles that you would find in the “regular” sized department are not copied in the “plus-sized”; rather, plus-sized women apparently like to wear clothes that mask all their curves and often have Disney cartoons or flower-patterns printed on them. If you are a “plus-sized” woman and want clothes that are flattering to your figure and professional-looking, you have to go to specialty stores such as Lane Bryant or Avenue, where the prices skyrocket compared to regular department stores. Airplanes are also cashing in on fat-phobia. There is a significant size difference in airplane seats if you compare newer-built planes to older ones. Newer airplanes have much smaller seats, yet are blaming their customers for being “too fat” and charging them for things like seatbelt extenders or in some cases second airplane seats altogether.
Until the progressive community steps up and addresses fat bias, both internally and externally, the poor self-esteem that inflicts women of all ages will continue to multiply and affect women of all shapes and ages. The jokes need to stop, the pointed references need to stop, and the equating of “fatness” to “health” needs to end. We need to embrace all women, of all sizes. Until we do, no women will truly be made to feel comfortable in their own body by the community that they belong to.

One Response

  1. Thanks for writing this!

    This article has really helped me to understand this important question much better.

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