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Column: Blame for ‘fat shaming’ lies partly with mass media

America struggles both with weight issues and with healthy self-image.

Megan Pearl

April 23, 2013

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Food: you eat it, and it keeps you alive. It should be a simple thing, but we know it’s not.

Americans have a problem with overconsumption. Mass media, such as magazines, books, talk shows, infomercials, weird Internet ads, and so on, are always encouraging their audience to “Lose belly fat!” or telling them, “This mom lost 50 pounds by doing this one thing! Click to find out!”

Furthermore, media consumers are constantly reminded of how unhealthy or dangerous being overweight can be. Overweight people face stigma and discrimination, as others may blame them, thinking ridicule is going to lead to healthier choices (it doesn’t).

Weight loss is a $60 billion industry, but people don’t seem to be losing the weight. More than a third of adults are considered obese, and another third are considered overweight. That’s more than half of the population with weight problems that seem to be pursuing weight loss. What’s going on here?

There isn’t one cause or solution. Weight gain could be a biological discrepancy with the mass-produced or refined grains we eat as staples to our diet. It could be our sedentary lifestyle or stress from working too many hours. However, the mass media dialogue about weight is overwhelmingly negative and perpetuates a confusing culture of shame.

Have you ever been on a diet? I have. I’ve been interested in diets since I was 10. And I’m not alone. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “46 percent of 9 to 11-year-olds are 'sometimes' or 'very often' on diets.” I’ve experimented with the traditional calorie restriction diet; I followed a vegetarian diet for years and will basically try anything once such as gluten-free, dairy-free, “paleo,” low-carb, “clean eating,” raw foods, etc.

I read about diets mostly through magazines and the Internet, which always have a picture of some smiling, beautiful model in a spread of how you should try to lose weight. The message they’re sending? Happiness equals thinness.

A 2007 article published by NBC News suggests that women “fat talk” in social situations with other women to appear modest because our society shuns egotism. According to the article, thinness is also a signifier of social class marked by willpower. From my experience, fat talk is only part of this exchange. It’s also symbolic of financial means to participate in juice cleanses, spinning class or Pilates and the presentation of being productive. And if you shun egotism enough, I think you progress into true self-loathing and discontent.

Being thin in America implies that you have restraint and a work ethic — a sort of pious virtue in a land of temptation. It would seem our Puritanical past still haunts our culture and is inherent in our standards of beauty. Of course, obsessing over food and actively denying yourself has consequences. NEDA reports “girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet.” It’s a lose-lose cycle that will likely end in a trap of self-loathing and obsession: either you failed your desire to eat, or you failed your desire to follow through on a weight-loss plan.

I wrote this piece for The Riveter about this year’s TIME 100 list, of which only one of the five categories was dominated by women: the Icons category. It would seem we value a woman’s devout or symbolic representation of femininity and beauty overall first and her actions second.

Similar to the way Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg tells women to “lean in,” Appalachian State University psychologist Denise Martz told NBC News, “I wish women would worry less about their bodies — while still taking good care of their health through behaviors like stress management, regular exercise and healthful eating — and spend more time learning, helping, educating, leading, solving problems, rising to positions of influence and contributing to society in general.”

But not caring about your body is easier said than done when society measures value in weight and proportion. This is perhaps especially true for women who, even in positions of power, have emphasis placed on the way they dress and do their hair and on their weight.

Media, for the most part, perpetuate the fat-shaming, weight-loss fanaticism. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe magazines could stop posting photos of celebrities’ weight gain, weight loss, eating habits or cellulite. Instead of weight-loss tips, they could write about nutrition, or maybe the steps it takes to research and write legal policy or how to do something other than obsess about body shape.

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