This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 2/5/2011.
In a shop window on Swanston Street, a number of advertisements are prominently displayed. On the far left, a Sunsense poster depicts an overweight man in speedos. “Why are budgie smugglers only worn by people who shouldn’t wear them?” queries the accompanying text. On the right, a diet-drug flyer presents a woman’s belly, a small quantity of excess ‘flab’ gripped in one hand. “Do something” the slogan implores.
The appearance of these two ads in close proximity is neither coincidental nor remarkable. Their existence is indicative of the extent to which weight prejudice has become accepted and ingrained in our society. ‘Why don’t fat people cover up on the beach?’ implies the former, inviting us to laugh at the concept of the overweight dressing without shame. The latter ad has a more insidious goal: to arouse insecurity within the viewer as a means of selling the product. ‘You look unattractive,’ the subtext reads, ‘take these and become desirable again’. It’s probably worth noting that most people would be able to isolate a comparable amount of tissue from their stomachs if they tried. Fat is a natural, necessary part of the human body; advertisements like these, however, seem to suggest that there is something inherently disgusting about it.
It may seem ironic, perhaps, that the shop displaying these posters is a pharmacy. In reality, it is entirely fitting. The perception among many now seems to be that being overweight is, by definition, unhealthy. This is, in fact, completely incorrect. The term ‘overweight’, as it is clinically defined, refers to the highly arbitrary ‘body mass index’ – a simple height/weight ratio measurement that fails to take into account individual body shapes and metabolisms, among other factors. More remarkably, one has to gain considerably more weight than the index’s arbitrarily-defined cut-off allows before major health risks become apparent. This is where seemingly alarming statistics cited to demonstrate the existence of an ‘obesity epidemic’ originate from, and this is why such claims should be treated with scepticism. Nevertheless, the ‘epidemic’ assertion has developed sufficient clout to ensure that issues regarding weight are now considered the primary domain of the health sector.
This is not entirely inappropriate. Obesity is, generally, an unhealthy state, and it is important that Government departments and health professionals provide information and assistance to those with serious weight issues. Nevertheless, there are other dimensions to the weight problem that need to be recognised. The heavily publicised physical health concerns – whatever pertinence they might have – pale in comparison to the damage being wrought on the collective psyche by a more troubling matter; that is, the generally unacknowledged yet widespread phenomenon that might be labelled ‘weightism’.
Ours is a society, in many ways, terrified of being fat. Even in an age of at least official tolerance – in which cruelty and discrimination directed towards those of different ethnicities, religious beliefs or sexualities are prohibited by vilification laws – overweight people are, when not invisible, objects of derision in the majority of popular media representations. This is a trend that runs through film, television, magazines and advertising. Even a rare television program that ostensibly shows overweight people in a sympathetic light instead degrades and humiliates its subjects for the purpose of entertainment, whilst selling the moral that self-respect is dependent on weight loss.
Messages carried through the media in this way are bound to have a significant impact, and the results are evident. Body image insecurity is rife in today’s society, particularly amongst adolescents already self-conscious about their development. Eating disorders such as anorexia are well-publicised, but they only constitute the extreme end of a wide spectrum of depression and physical insecurities. In high school environments, weight is the subject of anxieties as well as a means of social stratification, and these vulnerabilities and prejudices persist through adult life in many settings.
Weight is often discussed in terms of health, but this is merely a smokescreen. The real issue here is superficiality. There is, to say the least, something seriously wrong with the way the human body is perceived and portrayed in contemporary Western society. It is a situation founded in basic prejudices, exploited by the free market and perpetuated by advertising and entertainment media, to the extent where it has become near-ubiquitous.
These depictions are not, as some claim, merely a reflection of natural biological preferences. Standards of beauty have varied significantly over history and different cultures. Even within such contexts, natural physical attraction remains highly subjective; although, it might be hypothesised that cultural norms and popular media can exert a significant influence on what we allow ourselves to find attractive. Today’s near-homogenisation is at least partially the result of the rigorous conditioning that occurs through exposure to film, music video and advertising media; platforms that consistently associate sexiness and beauty with a certain kind of body image. The extent to which weight is stigmatised is bound to have a similar effect.
It is one thing for a body type or appearance to be generally preferred; it is another for the alternative to be reviled. Human society is made up of many different body types and metabolisms. Some are naturally big; some are bigger than they should be. Some of us, for that matter, are outside our recommended daily intakes of cholesterol or vitamin A. These are personal health issues that ought to be seen as nothing more.
The development of ‘fat pride’ movements is encouraging, but they are a long way from receiving mainstream acceptance. Scare campaigns about rampant obesity form a significant barrier, whilst fostering a perception of the cause as irresponsible and a promotion of an unhealthy lifestyle. This is a particularly counterproductive view. The fight against weight insecurity and shame is crucial, and there is no reason why health advocacy cannot one day be pursued in conjunction with anti-weight-discrimination movements.
In the meantime, our society’s malignant superficiality will continue to ensure that many live in a state of permanent anxiety and unhappiness over their appearance. Simultaneously, those of us who do possess socially acceptable bodies will face a constant struggle against absurd fears and insecurities. “Just accept yourself the way you are” the women’s magazines insist. Until there is a radical shift in the way body image is dealt with in this society, that will remain an impossible feat.