I came across an excellent post today by blogger Tony “The Anti-Jared” Posnanski, entitled “Everyone Has A Bikini Body”. Tony wrote about Amini Terrell, a 260-lb. woman who dared to defy social prejudices against the overweight by strutting up and down Hollywood Boulevard wearing a bikini. Tony published a quote of hers that was particularly poignant. She said,

Because if people say you are too fat to wear one, then you will lose weight. Once you lose weight they will say you are too flat-chested for one and then get surgery. Once you have Double D’s they will say you do not have a butt for one so you will have more surgery. Then you will not be tan enough or tall enough or shapely enough.

I found this quite astute. Just about any woman will admit that there are parts of herself that she hates. That’s not “dislikes”, that’s HATES. The sad reality is that no matter how hard women try to look “good”, they are never good enough according to the unattainable expectations of our society. And those expectations are not driven by those who have our best interests in mind. They’re driven by those who have a financial interest in keeping us unhappy with ourselves.

But a reader’s response in the comment section was what really struck me. One particular woman wrote,

Well, I admire her for having the guts to do this. I wouldn’t if I was 135. That’s being said, I find it totally disgusting! That is what I would look like and fat women disgust me and I am one. I’m 56 years old and have given up ever being “hot”.

I read this through several times: “That is what I would look like and fat women disgust me and I am one.” That’s not just hating one part of your body, which is sad enough. That is hating all of yourself.

So, I wonder, what motivation would that woman have for choosing health-preserving foods or engaging in a life-improving exercise program? Forget looking “hot”. Hotness is a manufactured concept, superficial and inconsistent. I’m talking about respecting yourself enough to take good care of your body. It shouldn’t be all about losing weight so that you can fit into a certain size or style of clothing. It should be about keeping your body in a healthy state so that you can move freely and live a long productive life.

Would you do that for someone that you found disgusting?

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My kids have an extensive anti-bullying campaign at their elementary school. They’re taught to treat others with kindness. Ironically, sometimes the cruelest instances of bullying appear in how people treat themselves.

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Obesity: You'll know it when you see it...or will you?

We need to be careful with how we throw labels around — psychologists are particularly prone to this, and sometimes we don’t consider the repercussions from careless diagnoses, official or not. Some of these terms are derived in ways other than how you’d expect. A perfect example of this is the term “obese”. Interestingly enough, while we imagine an obese individual to be someone who is very fat, it’s possible for an individual with low body fat and a LOT of muscle (think Mr. Olympia) to end up in the same category. That’s because the official designation of “obese” is based not on fat, but on height and weight, using the Body Mass Index. But once you label someone as “obese”, our imaginations run off with what else that means…

In health terms, an individual is described as obese when he/she has a BodyMass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. BMI is calculated as:

weight (kg)/[height (m)]2.

That’s all. It simply means that the person has attained a certain, greater degree of overweight that has knocked them into a certain category. Note that there is no direct measurement of fat involved, and in fact, the correlation of BMI with body fat is rough and imperfect, but “kinda, sorta good enough”. However, in the realm of public health, collecting reliable data is critical to making accurate assessments about populations, and it’s easier to measure height and weight (which are fairly straightforward measurements) than to try to gather body fat data (generally more time consuming and fraught with user-errors). And because of that “kinda, sorta good enough” correlation, the BMI is used to determine whether a person gets knocked into the “obese” category. The BMI was never designed to diagnose individuals, as has begun happening. If you’ve ever played “Wii Fit” and wanted to throw the balance board at your TV screen, you probably know what I mean — BMI is all over the place and being misused regularly. Wikipedia does an unusually good job of describing the problems with overinterpreting BMI here.

So the BMI, the measure by which we determine whether someone is, or isn’t, overweight/obese, is simply a number that doesn’t have anything to do with body fat, really. HOWEVER, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “obese” as “having excessive body fat”. Doesn’t that seem wrong? “Fat percentage” is not a variable in the BMI formula (have I stated that enough times in one post?), but the word “obese” by definition is based on body fat. And the designation of “obese” as it’s used in our daily lives becomes painfully emotional to many people.

I came across an interesting article (via Twitter, thanks to @AliciaMarieBODY) about an obese woman who managed to avoid looking at herself as she gradually put on fat, thereby ignoring the changes to her body, only to be confronted by her physician with the reality of her physical state. She knew she was heavy, but grossly underestimated her actual weight. When her doctor told her she was obese, her response was,

“It may sound unlikely, but I was genuinely shocked. In my mind I was far from obese. To me, obese was beyond fat  –  with connotations of someone who was greedy, lazy and uneducated and that wasn’t me.”

Wow! To her, it wasn’t simply excess weight or even fat, it was something much worse than that. It was a character judgment. How frightening that a simple measurement (BMI), calculated from two very objective measurements (height and weight), would be interpreted so subjectively.

Even the word itself — “OH-BEEEESE” — sounds unpleasant and bears a resemblance to ‘obscene’, so it’s not surprising that there are several levels of negative connotations wrapped around it. Obese suggests extremely fat to the point of being a circus sideshow. It sounds hideous and evil.

So, we’ve transitioned from simple body measurements to their interpretation as body fat to something that’s nasty. The issue is no longer a number, but rather a reflection of who the person is as a human being. That’s a heavy emotional hit for someone who sees themselves as merely “carrying extra pounds”…and then is confronted with the loaded label of “obese”.

Taking all these things into consideration, it’s not surprising that the woman’s quote above reveals something more insidious that merits consideration: even the obese are prejudiced against the obese.

While I’m not recommending that we take “obese” out of the English language, I hope that people understand how that designation arose. And even more importantly, that it’s not an immutable life sentence. It doesn’t mean you’re bad, lazy, gluttonous, stupid or anything else negative that some people ascribe to that label. It does mean that you should take stock of your habits and see if you’re one of those who needs to reduce their body fat levels to get themselves out of a high-risk category for a number of diseases.

Oct 2009 Elle magazine - Now where did I put my toothpicks?

Our perceptions regarding body image are influenced by many external factors, not the least of which is popular media. So I practically flipped out of my chair when I read the October 2009 Elle coverlines featuring Victoria Beckham, promising an article that revealed her secrets to maintaining her “hard body”. I personally have nothing against Victoria, but the only thing hard about her body are her clearly visible bones. Forget about bringing her a cheeseburger, somebody get her a set of weights!

I know that fashion magazines are notorious for peddling the heroin-addict look  — the main reason why, in addition to their insistence on featuring fur, I refused to renew my Elle subscription after eighteen years as a loyal reader (are you listening, Elle?). But when they suggest that scrawniness is a “hard body”…oh COME ON! I’m not a fan of telling people to layer on fat, God knows enough Americans are doing that without needing encouragement. But honey, if you wanna play with the big girls, pick up a copy of Oxygen or M&F Hers on your way to the gym. And stay off the treadmill!

"HARD BODY"????