[This post discusses dieting, exercise, and fat-shaming.]
A friend sent me these infographics about cultural paradigms. The two featured are shame/honor which is described as a central paradigm in some Eastern cultures and guilt/righteousness which is attributed to Western cultures, with fear/power getting a passing mention but no spotlight. Big ideas associated with broad generalizations, and I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that “most peoples of the world” ascribe to one of these models.
However, all three can be applied to how we discuss weight, weight loss, and fitness in American culture.
Movie stars, models, and singers who conform to pervasive body shape and size ideals are revered. Fitness gurus like Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper are idolized and seen as doing the honorable and important work of making fat people thinner. On the flip side, both famous and non-famous people are shamed by the press, the medical community, and sometimes their own families for failing to force their bodies into the single shape and size we’ve deemed culturally desirable.
The diet industry thrives on couching things in terms of righteousness. Talking about “good” and “bad” foods is a common practice and leads to people explaining that they’re “trying to be good” when offered foods they’ve been told or decided they can’t have. And I know many people swear by it, but the existence of the term “clean eating” implies some pretty heavy-duty righteousness along with the underlying message that all other ways of eating are dirty. Guilt is what many people feel when they treat themselves with food, overeat, skip the gym, or do anything that doesn’t actively move them toward achieving smaller bodies.
Even fear and power play into our perceptions of fitness and fatness. Language describing workouts or meant to motivate people to exercise is often couched in terms of conquering, winning, beating, and destroying. Thin women often earn higher salaries than non-thin women, and money is most definitely a form of power. And we are taught to fear weight gain, not just for health-related reasons but because we know we’ll be subject to shame, guilt, judgment, and more if we dare allow our bodies to get larger instead of smaller.
I believe that every individual person has a right to decide for herself if she’s going to take steps to change her body. But I also believe that some of the worst and most harmful motivators for change are shame, guilt, and fear. When you’re excited about making a change, the steps you take feel positive and affirming. When change is driven by negativity and anxiety, the steps you take feel fraught and desperate. Paradigms are deep-seated and tough to alter, but we can fight them on an individual level. When you hear rhetoric about weight, weight loss, and fitness that tries to make you feel shameful, guilty or afraid, try to push back. Eating is not shameful, it is necessary for survival. No food on earth is fundamentally good or bad.* People of all shapes, sizes, and weights can be brilliant, beautiful, accomplished, and worthy of honor. And anyone or anything that tries to make you fear your body should be censured and banished. Your body is your home, and you deserve to feel as safe and secure as possible in your home.
*Except licorice. Licorice is just plain evil.
Image courtesy Beauty Redefined