The discussion at the weekly weight-loss support group turned to weight-abuse stories. I haven’t been to the doctor in six years because of the comments the nurse made at the scale, said one long-term dieter.
A teen-age boy on the bus loudly asked me if I was pregnant or just fat, said another woman. Barbara, who hates her job, will not go on any job interviews to advance her career until she loses 50 pounds because she is convinced that weight prejudice limits her chances. I can see it in their eyes when I walk in. I dress in a sharp professional outfit, I am well qualified for the job, and weight is not a factor in performing the job. Still, the thinner person gets the job — I’ve seen it with promotions and raises.
The message to overweight people is clear: You aren’t acceptable if you don’t fit the societal expectations and medical guidelines for normal weight. Mistreatment by employers, co-workers, family members and even strangers just adds to the negativity an overweight person endures in our culture. Madison Avenue‘s definition of beauty has been blamed for everything from anorexia to obesity. Even Miss America has become thinner over the past eight decades. The title winner in 1921 had a body mass index, or BMI, of 20.4; Miss America 1984, Vanessa Williams, had a BMI of 17.8, which is 110 pounds on a 5-foot 6-inch body. A BMI that’s less than 18 is considered cause for medical concern.
While role models are getting thinner and thinner, the general public is getting more and more overweight. In her book, Life is Too Short for Celery Sticks and Self-Hatred, registered nurse Pat Lyons highlights healthcare professionals weight prejudice. Obesity is a medical problem that deserves care and treatment, not admonishments and threats. Health insurance companies send out weight-loss tip pamphlets as their attempt to solve the obesity problem. If 55 percent of the population is overweight, the pamphlets, diet pills and aerobic-class rebates aren’t hitting their mark.
The more overweight an individual is, the less likely it is that they will seek help. A study of 7,000 respondents published in the Archives of Family Medicine (1998) concluded that with increasing BMI, women received fewer gynecological and breast exams. Whatever their reasons, Lyons challenges healthcare professionals to become aware of their own prejudice and treat overweight individuals with dignity and respect.
With all these negative messages, how can an overweight person muster enough self-respect and confidence to jump around in an exercise class or look forward to cottage cheese and fruit for lunch every day? The overweight person with a poor body image submits to harsh diets that take superhuman self-discipline to follow. But when their will power falters and the 10 pounds lost are hardly noticeable, the very thing the dieter uses for comfort is restricted — food. Without another support to lean on, dieters slip and reconfirm to themselves and the world that they have failed.
Many overweight people only know how to relate to themselves in a negative way, and thus create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and self-doubt are soothed with food. Then the dieter can blame the extra weight as the source of unhappiness.
Is lack of information really the problem here? Do overweight people really not know that french fries are high calorie? Excessive food, immobility and extra weight may only be signs that there are other problems at work here. Obesity needs a new approach — a treatment plan that enlightens, not depraves, the sufferer.
Perhaps the first place to overcome negative attitudes toward weight is within the overweight person. In her book, “The Solution,” registered nurse Laurel Mellin suggests that the body and self are intertwined. When people dislike their bodies they reject themselves. Their internal emotional distress increases, and since comfort from within is absent, they seek external gratifiers, such as food.
For those who insist on rejecting their bodies until they are thin, Mellin’s solution is body pride. She suggests that instead of hating your weight, see it as a blessing, allowing you to learn more about what you really need and provide yourself with it. Food is not the real need.
Mellin’s solution has three parts:
- Avoiding weightism thoughts is the first step you can take to stop beating yourself up about your weight. Use pride statements instead — My body doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful, and bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The overweight person is encouraged to reject the weightism of others. Keep your weightism to yourself.
- The second step explores what messages one’s weight sends to others. There are hidden benefits to a large body size: I don’t want you to know me, stay away, I need space, and I feel powerful!? Dieters are taught to use words, not weight, to express themselves and get their needs met.
- In the third step, Mellin suggests that in order to change what we don’t like about ourselves, we first must accept our imperfections and inadequacies rather than ignore them and continue to cover them with food and fat.
Honoring our whole selves and caring enough to change what we can change is also one of the themes Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter offer in their book “When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies.” The tyranny of body image is why women get stuck in the diet-binge cycle. When women empower themselves by loving and honoring themselves and their bodies, they can improve their self-esteem and develop the strength and courage to take care of their bodies, rather than punishing them.
There are also people of weight who are happy and comfortable with their size, and have formed support groups to champion their views. “Big is beautiful” is the message, and magazines and clothing stores now offer larger people the opportunity to look and feel good at whatever their sizes.
The medical community blames excess body weight for hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Others say the evidence is not so clear cut, and that physically fit overweight people can be in better health than normal-weight unfit people. Do the risks of being overweight justify any method of weight loss — diet pills that damage the heart, unbalanced diets that harm nutritional status, or surgeries that damage the body? Are the obesity cures currently offered worse than the condition itself, or should people be thin at any cost?
What do you think to yourself when you see an overweight person? Are you a weightist? Can you keep your weightism to yourself, or do you feel compelled to tell your overweight friend about the new diet book you heard about that she should buy? Obesity is a complex condition in the American society, and a one-solution-fits-all approach will not work. Increase your sensitivity to weight prejudice, and you will begin to be part of the solution.