This video and accompanying article drive me more than a little bit crazy.
I’d like to start out by saying Marianne Kirby and Gabrielle Gregg, the women interviewed in this clip, are awesome. I’ve been reading Gabrielle’s Blog, Young Fat and Fabulous, for awhile now (I even linked to it in a January post on body-positive sites), its actually how I found the clip in the first place. As for Marianne’s blog, The Rotund, my first visit occurred as a result of this article – but I’ll definitely be going back!
My complaint here is not with these two fabulous women in the least, no, my issue is with ABC’s handling of this story… can someone please explain to me how, in a story on body acceptance, the anchors and producers found it acceptable to engage in fat shaming?
Most offensive to me were the stock-footage “headless fatty” clips. The Headless Fatty Phenomena is a term coined by Charlotte Cooper on her blog over two years ago to describe instances where articles or news stories on obesity are disrespectfully accompanied by footage or images of obese individuals shot from the neck down – indviduals who often have not given permission for their image to be used. In her own words Charlotte explains the awful effect of these images:
As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.
These images, taken from the clip on the Good Morning America website, are just two examples of the many headless fatty shots included in the segment.
These clips are, naturally, accompanied by a discussion of the health risks of being overweight – interrupted by a much briefer discussion of the risks that come with the yo-yo dieting necessary for many to be thin. GMA anchors are quick to point out that, “there are a number of common health concerns associated with obesity, including high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes and some cancers.*” Even worse, after stating that “both women say their recent physicals have shown that they are in fine health, and that their cholesterol and blood pressure levels are normal” Diane Sawyer couldn’t help but question if those would go up over time – as if their fat just hadn’t caught up to these ladies yet health wise.
Now, I can’t really blame them for this – these facts seem to come up in every conversation about weight acceptance and understandably so considering our culture has brainwashed us all into thinking that overweight always equals unhealthy.
However, that may not be the case.
As a budding psychologist I know that correlational studies (like the ones cited to link obesity to a myriad of health issues and diseases) cannot be used to derive causation. Since these studies simply observe patterns without isolating variables they cannot be used to determine cause and effect since we don’t know what other variables are at play here (for instance, what if a third variable – like stress from low self esteem – caused the health issues, or what if the health issues caused stress, which caused weight gain?) Unfortunatley media personalities often draw unreliable conclusions from studies, not realizing their limitations -which leads us to a vastly misconstrued perception of weight and health in this country.
If you’re interested in reading something a zillion times better than I could ever write about obesity and health check out Junkfood Science’s “Obesity Paradox” Series. Here’s a little taste to get you hooked:
While many may be incredulous, the largest body of evidence has found that fatness is not a risk factor for heart disease or premature death, even controlling for the effects of smoking. Ancel Keys and colleagues confirmed this nearly half a century ago upon examining 16 prospective studies in seven countries, as well as actual angiographic and autopsy examinations of 23,000 sets of coronary arteries which found no relationship between body fatness and the degree or progression of atherosclerotic build-up. And the most careful studies ever since have continued to support these findings.
Dr. Paul Ernsberger, of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, led a review of nearly 400 studies that was published in the Journal of Obesity and Weight Regulation in 1987 which corroborated these results. “The idea that fat strains the heart has no scientific basis,” he said. “As far as I can tell, the idea comes from diet books, not scientific books. Unfortunately, some doctors read diet books.”
At the end of the day its the constant up and down dieting that causes health problems, not being “overweight.” You’ll never hear this on the mainstream media, however. Why? It call comes down to the common sense of dollars and cents – telling people they need to lose weight sells diet books and diet pills; it gets people to tune into your “news” program to hear tips and tricks for losing weight; it entices them to buy magazines with workout plans and diet”secrets”; it sells gym memberships; it sells clothing as people being to shrink out of what they already own – basically, dieting is a goldmine and body acceptance… well, not so much.
This information is discouraging, but not a call to give in. Although the media may never fully back the quest of the Fat/Body Acceptance Movement, because it is not a movement that attracts advertisers, that does not mean the movement cannot make an impact on the social climate – that’s the beauty of this movement, we all have the power to change social perceptions of fat and health, simply by loving our bodies, taking care of them, and not forcing ourselves to meet cultural thinness ideals.
So, with that said, here a few messages that I wish Good Morning America would have included/focused on more in their segment:
- Weight is determined by a myriad of factors including diet, exercise, metabolism, and genetics; while overall physical fitness is determined primarily by diet and exercise. Fitness can come at many sizes, because it is something that we have large amounts of control over, whereas weight is not something that is always in our control. Thus, a thin person is not necessarily any healthier than a fat one – in fact, for many people being thin is an unhealthy choice because of the stress their body must go through to reach and maintain that weight.
- You can be confident, beautiful, sexy, and happy at any weight – even if you’re not at your physical peak. While fitness is important, honestly, happiness with yourself is just as important, if not more important. If you love yourself – no matter what your weight and health status is, you’re bound to have a better life than you would have as someone who hates their body… that’s just common sense! So remember – you can be awesome at any weight!
- Every body is different – every body is supposed to be different. However, a lot of people end up feeling awful about themselves, and engaging in risky behavior to lose weight, all because the media and out culture pushes one – very thin – idea of beauty upon women, an ideal that is unattainable for most. This ideal exists because it makes money for many companies, not because it is good for us.
In the end, Marianne Kirby puts it best: “We’re fat. And there’s nothing wrong with that word. Being fat doesn’t mean we’re lazy or smelly. We’re fat.”
Remember my sporadic challenges? Here’s a fun one: I resolve from this day forward to maintain a positive attitude about my body, every last pound of it. While I will always be making an effort to be active and healthy, I will not engage in any actions with the sole motivation of losing weight or looking a certain way – I will trust my healthy body to weight and appear the way it should regardless of what outside influences may tell me about my appearance.
Side Note: The NY Times also put out an article recently about plus-sized fashion that engaged in this weird fat-shaming-while-defending practice. Although the article as a whole was fairly positive they used bizarre phrases to describe fat women (round-figured women?) that gave the whole piece an uncomfortable feeling and, although the models in the photographs WERE allowed heads they were barely plus sized and photographed in some very stereotype confirming poses that all had to do with food… I mean, really, a fashion shoot in the frozen food aisle of a grocery store; WTF NY Times? BITCH Online has an awesome analysis of this one. I also like the analysis here!
* Interestingly enough Junkfood Science manages to refute all of these claims with real scientific data in their Obesity Paradox series. See high blood pressure here, heart disease here, diabetes here, and cancer here.