Our Obsessive Scrutiny over Body Size and Misconceptions about Obesity

By Selina Yeung
Published on May 8th, 2021

When we think of discrimination and oppression, our minds tend to jump to the boldest headlines. Overt attacks, hate speech, explicitly hostile behavior on the basis of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation. Though these blatant acts of discrimination must not go unaddressed, there is one form of discrimination so pervasive it has essentially been normalized.

About 40 years ago, people started getting fatter.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 80% of American adults and one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. Global obesity rates seem to tick up every year. And as the developed world becomes increasingly obsessed with body fat percentage and caloric intake, the overwhelming response to the so-called “obesity epidemic” has been to blame fat people for being fat.

Obesity is seen as a personal failing – one that strains our healthcare system, damages economic productivity, erodes our military strength. It’s also an excuse to bully fat people under the guise of being “concerned for their health”. This familiar rhetoric can always be found plaguing the internet, in patronizing comment sections and impassioned online rants, particularly with the rise of the body positivity movement.

Discrimination against fat people is so normalized that we don’t even notice it. Aside from the typical microaggressions like snide remarks and side glances from relatives at family gatherings, there is also deeply rooted institutional discrimination. Fat people often report negative experiences with doctors, many of whom attribute most of their symptoms to being overweight regardless of what the illness is.

Our hyperfocus on body size has also led to growth in eating disorders, mental health disorders and heavy emotional costs. The fear of becoming or remaining fat strikes young; half of 3-6 year old girls say they worry about being fat. The same fear has led Americans to spend more, annually, on dieting than on video games or movies. Exorbitant amounts of money are spent on popular fad diets, pills, detoxes – all of which don’t work in the long term.

Additionally, weight and health are often incorrectly perceived as perfect synonyms. Though fat people have worse cardiovascular health than thin people on average, individuals should not be defined by these averages. Body size alone isn’t a good indicator of health. Studies have found that one-third to three-quarters of people classified as overweight are metabolically healthy and show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, there are lean yet unhealthy people who are much more susceptible to diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease. The health of a stranger cannot be determined by looking at them across the street or through a screen.

In any case, weight shouldn’t be used as an excuse to disparage anyone. Being healthy shouldn’t be a prerequisite for being treated respectfully. What we should not be aiming for is to weigh as little as possible. We should not be aiming to become the low-carb, thigh-gap, hourglass ideal. We need a paradigm shift from weight to health, from shame to support.

This is the primary message of the body positivity movement, a movement that faces ceaseless backlash for “promoting obesity”. But teaching people self-love and acceptance has little to do with physical health. Conversely, the movement strives to promote positive body image regardless of societal norm, to reverse the damage of impossible beauty standards that are perpetuated time and time again. To celebrate bodies that are fat, disabled or of different ethnicities. Bodies that have stretch marks and stomas and scars. To give people freedom to not feel ashamed of their bodies, regardless of whether they want it to change or not.

Normalizing bigger bodies will not make us unhealthy. Seeing Lizzo around won’t make you gain weight just as watching a Victoria’s Secret show won’t make you lose weight. We should come to understand that people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and that that is perfectly okay.

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