General Medical

‘Dietland’: A Call to Arms Against Body Shaming

Women today are realizing they need to fight back against . . . this idea that only one type of body is acceptable and worse, only an ideal decided on by someone else’s standards can be attractive.

Not every reader will find it as persuasive as I did, and the terrorist plot strains credibility, but then, the entire story is meant to be taken as a satire. Yet there is nothing ironic about obesity, nor the author’s attitude about it. Just this week, The New York Times reported on a study that said that being “fat” was the leading cause of bullying worldwide. And it’s not just a problem confined to children. Not only is it legal to discriminate on the basis of weight, but many people hold the view that since weight is something individuals can control, hectoring them about it is “good for them.” The view that it is “voluntary,” that weight control is a simple matter of self-restraint and discipline, lead many to believe that fat people lack strength of character or at least have no self-control.

Increasing evidence points to the contrary. Researchers are finding that weight is a complex matter of heredity, hormones, and metabolism, and that “calories in vs. calories out” is not a simple formula that applies equally to everyone. Recently, the Times reported on a study that found people don’t respond equally to exercise, with  some getting much more benefit out of it than others. Studies like these are more powerful than the judgmental attitudes that so many hold about overweight people. It doesn’t really make sense that the millions of people who suffer from obesity don’t have enough “will power” to resist food. Considering the amount of suffering they endure from society alone (let alone the health considerations), overweight people are highly motivated to lose weight and most, like Plum, have spent their whole lives trying to solve their problem. If it were easy, they would have done it. Even if it were hard, many would have done it.

Of course, women don’t have to be obese to struggle with the perfectionistic standards that dominate our culture. Last week’s article by Ben Rothenberg in The New York Times, which drew attention, once again, to Serena Williams’s muscular body and arms and her struggle for “acceptance” is a case in point. While the author pointed out that Serena (now) feels proud of her body, he quoted Maria Sharapova, the player who probably conforms best to the Hollywood ideal of beauty, laughing as she said, “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish.” Rothenberg went on to report this about another player on the tour: “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

There is room for hope, however. The Times article ignited a great deal of backlash. Author J.K. Rowling unleashed a furious tweet and articles appeared in Salon and even Seventeen online criticizing the paper for focusing on Williams’ body just when she was poised to win another major tournament. There has been increasing awareness that looksism and body shaming are destructive to girls and women, and that we women have capitulated and participated in it. For those of us of a certain age, these attitudes were never questioned—they weren’t even seen as attitudes, but facts of life. Women today are realizing they need to fight back against the media, but more important, against deeply ingrained prejudices, if we are going to fight this idea that only one type of body is acceptable and worse, only an ideal decided on by someone else’s standards can be attractive.

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