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Columns

The Cost of Fat-Shaming

By Rebecca E.J. Cadenhead, Contributing Opinion Writer
Rebecca E.J. Cadenhead ‘23 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

There was a moment last year when pop artist Lizzo was getting wall-to-wall favorable coverage. On top of the success of her newest album, she was applauded for proudly displaying her body — something that a few years earlier, might have been unthinkable. In her 2019 Time Entertainer of the Year profile, she credited her fame to a “culture change.”

“There were a lot of things that weren’t popular but existed,” she said, “like body positivity, which at first was a form of protest for fat bodies and black women and has now become a trendy, commercialized thing … Suddenly, I’m mainstream.”

Traditionally, fat women have been scorned in American pop culture. Maybe the embrace of her appearance would signify a new era of body positivity.

It didn’t last for very long. Though she was able to stave them off for a little bit, Lizzo’s detractors soon went beyond critiquing her music to dissecting her physical appearance, often in ways that were demeaning and cruel. Posting a picture of herself in a bikini sparked accusations of being a public health hazard — apparently, having the audacity to go to the pool means that you’re encouraging people to eat themselves into prediabetes.

Fat-shaming is clearly detrimental: It seriously impacts the mental health of those who are overweight. A lot of fat-shamers claim that they’re actually being helpful; by humiliating people — in their telling — they’re encouraging them to lead healthier lives. Predictably, none of them seem to be actual nutritionists.

A fixation on other people’s weight isn’t just damaging to fat people; it's bad for all of us. An obsession with the aesthetics of “health”, rather than habits that actually support a healthy lifestyle, encourages harmful behaviors to mold our bodies into socially acceptable forms. Eating disorders, unhealthy diets, and overexercising are all ignored, as long as you’re slim enough. The priority is appearance, not health.

In previous columns, I’ve written about my own body image issues. Apparently, my self-hatred was surprising to a lot of my friends and family; this is probably because I’m not overweight and never have been. For me, a dislike of my body wasn’t triggered by off-hand comments by people I knew; it was primarily driven by a fear that if I were fat, it would mean that I was worthless.

I don’t know exactly where this fear came from, but I suspect that it was instilled in me by the culture at large through some toxic osmotic process. At some point, it's hard to ignore the bombardment of messages, both subtle and overt, about what our bodies should look like. The upshot of fat-shaming is paranoia, even in those who aren’t overweight. It feeds anxiety that one will become fat — and therefore deemed less-than.

Through conversations with older people, I’ve come to realize that this toxic sentiment might be a relatively new phenomenon, at least in how widespread it is. While I don’t know a single girl in my high school who didn’t have at least some insecurities about her body, my parents had an entirely different experience: Eating disorders, at least in their perception, were rare and infrequently discussed.

However, there is a long history of disordered eating among the wealthy and famous. I wonder, given the influence of social media, if such pressure to make one’s body ready for public consumption has now been pressed onto all of us. Social media accounts are meant to be looked at, which is why people often feel pressured to present the best version of themselves. Unfortunately, they are constantly told that that “best version” is skinny.

For reasons that are perhaps obvious, I recently deleted my Instagram account. When I was in middle school, I’d spend hours scrolling through my feed, comparing my completely normal 13-year-old body to 20-year-old models or girls in my school who were skinnier than me. I’d often see posts from “body-positive” influencers, who were inevitably pilloried by faceless accounts with negative comments about their bodies, their diets, and their life choices. Today, when I see how women with similar body types, like Lizzo, are ridiculed across the internet, I think about my younger self, and girls who are that age right now — are they learning the same things that I did?

The need for kindness to ourselves and others is ever more pressing. We should focus, more than anything else, on how we can care for each other. Disparaging comments, whether verbal or virtual, about other people’s bodies can only hurt us.

Rebecca E.J. Cadenhead ‘23 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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