Obesity & Body Shaming: There is a Difference

by Melissa on March 13, 2014

Let’s talk about obesity…and while we’re at it, let’s talk about body shaming and body image, too, yes?

Obesity is a very real, very dangerous problem in our country. The statistics surrounding this fatal condition is alarming, and awareness needs to continue to be raised. I could write pages and pages and pages on obesity like I am for grad school, but for the sake of saving time and keeping my readers sane, I’ll give it to you in bullet form.

  • As it currently stands in the United States, 35.7% of adults and 17% of children are obese. That’s roughly 78 million adults and 12 million children ages 2-19. [Resource.]
  • 26-41%  of obese preschool children and 42-63% of obese school-aged children go on to become obese adults. [Resource.]
  • $147 billion was spent on obesity related health care in 2012. [Resource.]
  • A child’s risk of becoming obese is 10% in a household with no obese parents, 40% with one obese parent, and 80% with two obese parents. (Parental dietary choices, habits, and physical activity levels are directly correlated with those of their children!!!) [Resource.]
  • 1/3 of all cancers are preventable as they are directly correlated to obesity. [Resource.]
  • Obesity is directly related to heart disease, stroke, cancer, sleep apnea, joint disorders, muscle disorders, diabetes, asthma, fatty liver disease, and much much more.

For your viewing displeasure…(this is pretty eyeopening). Obesity is currently a very real epidemic.

I will never deny the terrifying epidemic known as obesity.
But I have a massive bone to pick. When in the world did so many people become health professionals?? No…really!? When did people become so knowledgeable that they can tear a woman (or a man) apart and call her obese without a taking a single anthropometric measure or perform a single nutritional, physical, or functional health assessment???

People, listen to me. There is a difference between “society holds a specific body type to the highest standard of beauty” and “obese”. A major difference. This is where the term “body shaming” comes into play. Using the term “obese” for anyone who is outwardly heavier than the standard “ideal” is just ludicrous. Body shaming has become an insanely large problem in this society, and I’m particularly tired of it for two very different reasons.

First, just because you have a right to speak your mind, it doesn’t mean you should open your mouth. Especially if you are voicing an uneducated opinion. Have some compassion and decency for others! Speaking from experience, all those nasty comments people have for those who don’t live up to their aesthetic “standards” are the very things that many of those on the receiving end tend to think themselves. It usually tears them down even more!! Have a filter. Be nice. Be compassionate!!! Be. Decent. Lift someone up once in a while!!! It is possible to lift someone up whilst telling him/her there is a problem. While, yes, sometimes calling someone a belittling name can motivate them to make changes, most times it just tears people down. It feeds the problem. Negative reinforcement does not work for everyone nor does it work every time for someone for whom it does work on occasion. People were not put on this earth for others to feast their eyes upon! Someone else’s health should never ever be about anyone’s viewing pleasure. Yes, there comes a point where obesity is very apparent in someone else’s case. Excessive fatness – the medical definition of obesity – is not, however, always visually apparent. Someone can be thin and over fat – this is called body composition. In terms of health, obesity has nothing to do with the way someone looks. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and someone of thinner stature can absolutely be obese. Being physically fit does not require a chiseled body. People should be unapologetically themselves – obese or not. Shaming someone with hurtful words and degrading opinions is not the way to solve anything.

Second, I believe there needs to be a bit of discussion on body shaming versus truth. I recently read an article regarding an obesity campaign in Georgia that used media ads to portray the childhood obesity problem Georgia currently faces. Here’s the one that really struck me:

It’s heart-wrenching to me to watch this. What I see, as someone with an education in nutrition and exercise science, is very different from what a lot of others see. There was a poll embedded in this article, and what did half of the readers see? Body shaming. What do I see? I see a child genuinely questioning why he’s fat. He is overweight. He is,  yes, probably obese. This is a case where it is visually apparent. Even more so, though? What I see a child faced with future health disparities if the problem isn’t addressed. I see another addition to the statistics above. I see a child looking back at his morbidly obese mother and asking why he is the way he is. Parental influence. There comes a time when personal responsibility needs to be addressed and when body shaming cannot be an excuse anymore. It absolutely, 100% should never be a way to avert a legitimate problem! Denial of a health problem like obesity can be dangerous, and it’s time we start raising awareness of when a situation is body shaming and when it’s legitimate concern over a health problem. Our future and the future of our children do depend on it. By telling someone to “put some clothes on, I just ate” is not the way to do it.

For those of you wondering, yes, this post was sparked by Taryn Brumfitt’s response to Maria Kang’s recent, and very much retouched, image. However, it’s been a topic on my mind for quite some time, as it’s been a topic of conversation in my health promotion and disease prevention course. It has sparked some amazing discussion, and I think that discussion needs to continue to grow.

We health professionals are faced with quite the fight. Not only are we faced with the health disparities themselves, but we’re also faced with the fact that most people are so incredibly misinformed.

QOTD: What are your thoughts on body shaming versus truth and personal responsibility? (Personal responsibility itself is a whole other topic for another day.)

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen March 13, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Great post — thank you for pointing out that it is unfair to make judgements on someone only based on appearance. Body shaming won’t help people lose weight, it just makes the problem worse.
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Lisa @ RunWiki March 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

We need to love ourselves, and others in the body that was given to us. We should care for our bodies, and love it as if it were a child-we wouldn’t abuse a child, so why would abuse our bodies? No one needs judgement, all that does is make someone want to abuse themselves even more. There are and always will be bullies in this world, so sad and unfortunate, but the truth. We need to learn to protect our hearts from these devils and surround ourselves with the people who lift us up.
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lindsay March 14, 2014 at 3:23 pm

yes, you spoke my very thought and words! I agree. Healthy starts from within. And we need to love that first. Healthy minds, hearts, and souls to fuel a body. imperfectly perfect.

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Tamara March 13, 2014 at 5:15 pm

From a psychological perspective, shaming does very little to actually change behaviour. We shouldn’t do it to ourselves, our children or random people on the street.
If we really want to help people make a change, we need to start with empathizing and understanding.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post!
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GiGi Eats March 14, 2014 at 1:25 am

I think people need to embrace what they were given. We have to realize that someone out there has it worse than we do, so we need to appreciate every gift we were given. If we are unhappy with some aspect of our looks, well, there are healthy ways to “fix” these things. Continually bashing yourself is NOT the way to do that. Exercise, eating right, doing things you love, all of these things can help you achieve a healthier body image and will eventually lead you to self love :)
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Angela @ Happy Fit Mama March 14, 2014 at 5:21 am

I think it all boils down to everyone has a story. Don’t assume. And body shaming gets negative results. It doesn’t motivate. I think empathy and education is needed more to help solve the problem.
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Maureen March 14, 2014 at 8:37 am

“just because you have a right to speak your mind, it doesn’t mean you should open your mouth.” YES YES YES I swear our society has changed so much over the past 10-20 years. I feel that with social media booming, people feel they can say whatever they want because they are hiding behind a computer screen.
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kristi@runkwrun.blogspot.com March 18, 2014 at 10:24 am

I was going to respond to the same thing. People out there make horrible comments about everything, because they can. A cyclist was killed and many of the “drivers” said over and over again that the cyclist deserved to be dead because they were a cyclist and then they went on about how they have to wait god forbid five minutes to pass a cyclist. It’s astounding. I also like to add that reporters are now just lazy. They have to get their story out as quick as possible without really A.) Checking the facts and B.) Writing something that doesn’t in fact cause more harm to society or whomever…because they in effect don’t care.

Also, great post. I do believe there is a responsibility for ourselves to get better, but some people (especially children) do not know any better. I was super skinny all throughout grade school, because I played basketball a lot and I had no idea about nutrition. You can say sarcastically woe is me, but I was tired of hearing people comment on how anorexic I looked (which I wasn’t). Fat shaming is not the way to go to educate people, but unfortunately, we live in society where it’s okay to say things.

I’m torn about my feelings on both of the images.

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Lexie Wolf March 14, 2014 at 9:18 am

Our health, and the shape of our bodies, are a mixture of genetics, personal responsibility/motivation and the circumstances and environments that make it easier or harder to make healthy choices: such as where we live and what is available in that environment, and the amount of time, money, and education we have. We can’t change our genetics. I think there is a place and a way to try to educate and motivate people – with tact and skill – that does not seem like fat shaming. But personal responsibility is just that – its personal. I wouldn’t touch it, myself – as Angela said in a previous comment, how can we know what someone’s life is like? I think its more productive for those of us who really care about health to talk about how we can work to make changes in our workplaces, schools, and communities so that healthy choices are easier for everyone.
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Kanoelani March 17, 2014 at 2:43 pm

As someone one a weight loss journey who was over 300 lbs (343 at my highest) I have felt all of this. I have lost over 100 lbs now & still going strong but it is so true. I have had the body shaming & bad comments made to me & ppl say they thought it would help. No negative comments never help. Only positive ones do. And your comment about having something to say but not saying it yeah that’s sooo true. Many times I wish ppl had really shut their mouth bc they don’t know me or my struggle. I’ve been on my journey for the last 2 years & still fighting strong & won’t give up but it’s for ME & my HEALTH!! So important. Just love this post! Thank you!

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Christine @ Love, Life, Surf March 17, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Great post my friend. There’s so much here and absolutely, body shaming needs to stop. The first time I saw that video showing obesity rates spread across the country a few years ago, it was such an incredible visual image. Definitely a shocking one.

I absolutely agree with Lexie’s comment above that genetics and personal responsibility are part of the story but that there are much larger, systemic issues at play within our environments and with our policies and food systems that we have created. I do think that more needs to be done to help create environments that are conducive to healthy choices so that if and when someone takes the responsibility to make those healthy choices for themselves or their families, they are able to carry out those choices in their lives, schools, workplace, community, etc.
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