Amazing poster by Haley of Redefining Body Image.
Two weeks ago, 18-year-old NYU student Stella Boonshoft posted a picture of her underwear-clad size 12 body on Tumblr, along with a brief manifesto of sorts.
This picture is for the strange man at my nanny’s church who told me my belly was too big when I was five.
This picture is for my horseback riding trainer telling me I was too fat when I was nine.
This picture is for the girl from summer camp who told me I’d be really pretty if I just lost a few pounds
This picture is for all the fucking stupid advertising agents who are selling us cream to get rid of our stretch marks, a perfectly normal thing most people have (I got mine during puberty).
This picture is for the boy at the party who told me I looked like a beached whale.
The image has since “gone viral,” as the kids say, with Boonshoft even taking a turn on The Today Show to discuss the reaction, which has been overwhelmingly positive.
This follows on the heels of a Wisconsin news anchor’s rebuttal earlier this month to the man who wrote to her explaining that her non-thin body simply being visible on television was sending a dangerous message to the nation’s youth. People rallied behind Jennifer Livingston, too, in a rare show of support for awesome public fattery.
Around these parts, we’re familiar with this happy reaction inspired by a diversity of allegedly imperfect bodies -- check out our reader-submitted gallery of real people’s bellies from last year -- and even by specifically fat ones, as in Gabi of Gabifresh’s amazing “fatkini” gallery of this summer.
Seeing bodies that look like our own showcased in media like this gives us all a charge of recognition, but it’s also oddly validating -- or maybe it’s not odd in the least, considering we derive so many of our values from the media we consume, and seeing ourselves deemed worthy of attention by the same media is a pretty awesome ego boost.
The positive response to these examples definitely bodes well for a culture that may be changing to accommodate and appreciate that bodies come in all varieties, and I’d like to just herald it as a triumph and call it done. But the fact is this praise is also happening in context with opinions like this one, published in an op-ed earlier this month, in which the author advocates for MORE shaming of fat people, not less:
We have coddled ourselves so much that we have shamed using shame. As a result, people have become clueless to their appearance. Sure, what’s under the skin matters, and no one should feel that obese people are bad, but what’s on the outside counts, too. Or at least it should. But go to any beach, and count how many linebacker-sized women are showcasing themselves in bikinis. Ditto for men whose guts reach the next block. Since they all have mirrors, one can only assume that shame is simply not a part of their lives.
Sure, what’s under the skin matters, but not as much as having the self-consciousness to not gross out the other people on the beach with you.
And although the positive support of both Stella Boonshoft and Jennifer Livingston has been vocal, there has also been criticism. Sure, some of it is the standard schoolyard, “EW GROSS!” taunts, if that can rightly be considered “criticism” -- but much of it foregoes the obvious put-some-clothes-on approach in favor of claiming a certain level of intellectual merit and care for these poor fat people.
You know, the concern trolls.
The concern trolls are the people who pop in to these conversations to assert that they have no problem with how a fat person LOOKS, but that they are just worried about their health (none of your business) or their mental state (also none of your business) or the effects of their heaving out-of-control bulk on the cost of health insurance or gas prices or a gallon of milk or the price of beans. They are CONSUMED with worry. It's all they seem to think about.
Sorry, best I could do on short notice with a webcam. GLORIOUS!
The concern trolls are the individuals who say it might be fine to have a tiny bit of self-esteem there, fatty, but in so doing you might be GLORIFYING OBESITY -- a charge I’ve personally been hearing for years upon years upon years. And since, culturally speaking, obese bodies are not simply occupied by their owners but are occupied by everyone who can see them, the concern trolls feel entitled to have a say in directing how those fat people think about their bodies, and how they choose to present their bodies in public.
This is not an effect exclusive to fat bodies -- women, for example, are subject to the same occupation, in which even strangers can feel entitled to offer commentary or advice on their state of their body, fat or thin or whatever -- but it is one that is particularly applied to fat folks because current trends dictate that fat people are a Problem. A Problem that needs to Solved.
Thus, glorifying obesity is depicted as a dangerous virus, implying that if fatness is allowed to spread unchecked, our culture and civilization are at risk of cataclysmic destruction. Possibly in a hail of donuts.
The thing is, this is actually kind of true.
If obesity continues to be “glorified” in the manner described -- by allowing fat people to be on television, to share pictures of themselves feeling good about their bodies, to wear bikinis, to enjoy food, and so forth -- the social fabric of our current body culture in the United States would be severely threatened.
Some of the dangers of glorifying obesity may include:
- Young girls might not fear getting fat more than they fear nuclear war, losing their parents, or cancer.
- Fat people might no longer be at an increased risk of having their illnesses (including cancers) misdiagnosed or diagnosed late, by doctors working in a medical community in which disdain for fat bodies is rampant, or given the wrong dosages of medicine -- both of which can cost millions in unnecessary tests and prolonged treatment.
- Eating disorders -- which admittedly are not exclusively about weight but which are cultivated by a culture that identifies fatness as a failure of control -- might no longer be a central feature in the lives of 10 million Americans.
- We might not have a weight loss industry that generated $60 billion in revenue in the United States last year, mostly by making women feel like crap about themselves.
- Fat people might not have to worry about whether seats on airplanes or in restaurants or basically anywhere they go can physically accommodate them.
- Dudes might not yell at me in parking lots.
- Fat people everywhere might develop a powerful self-respect, and demand respect from others, and might be less likely to suffer bullying and shaming in silence.
- Fat people might not be so handy for scapegoating, schadenfreude and cheap laughs, or as a means by which others can feel superior.
- People of all sizes might feel better about themselves, because no one would be wasting energy and focus worrying about what would happen to them, how their life would be ruined, if they became fat.
Many of us are willing to back up Stella Boonshoft and Jennifer Livingston because we recognize them as individuals -- they’re not an epidemic, they’re not a threat to our national security, they’re not selfish gluttons using up all the healthcare: they’re PEOPLE.
What shame-centered obesity epidemic rhetoric accomplishes better than anything else, better even than its purported intention to improve public health, is to erase the humanity of fat people. Because all those obese folks clogging the overstated statistics are, in fact, still people. They’re friends and coworkers, moms and dads, children and grandparents. You know some of them. You probably like them. You probably don’t think of them as an epidemic, or as posing a clear and present danger to the future of humanity.
If reminding folks that fat people are people first -- that they are individuals and not some monolithic amoeba of disease rolling itself over the planet, and that their bodies are not shameful, not ugly, not embarrassing, not immoral, but as worthy of acceptance as every other body is -- if THIS is the same as glorifying obesity, then bring on the glory. I will carry the banner. I won’t be sorry, not for my part in changing our culture around bodies in general and not for my own body that I live in, right now -- I won’t be sorry, and I won't apologize. Neither should you.