“It is Not OK” – Interview on Fat Shaming (Part #1)
As promised on Friday, here is the first half of my interview on fat shaming with Jenna Brady, a PhD candidate and former dietitian. In today’s post, you will learn a little more about Jenna, what fat shaming is, and examples of fat shaming in today’s media and culture.
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Alright, let’s get to the interview!
Live It Active (LIA): Hi Jenna, do you mind sharing your background with me and my readers?
Jenna Brady (JB): Hello! Sure. I started at York University where I graduated with a B.A. in Women’s Studies. After living it up in my 20s I decided to return to school to become a dietitian. I went to Ryerson University in Toronto and graduated with a B.A.Sc. in Nutrition and then I completed an M.H.Sc. in Nutrition Communication. Following my education, I did a one year internship at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and wrote the exam to obtain my dietitian license.
My interest in critical perspectives of fatness and the so-called “obesity epidemic” really came out of my background in critical feminist theory. I brought a critical lens to my studies in nutrition science. I also brought my personal experience. As a teen and into my 20s I, like many young people, dieted (a lot) to try to control my body. I was completely confused about what to eat, how to eat, where to eat, when to eat. I found myself listening to the glut of nutrition messages coming from food and diet product manufacturers, government, health professionals, friends, and family, to the point that I really lost sight of my body cues of hunger and satiety.
My experience with diets told me that they don’t work. Period. I feel healthier and happier when I just give my body permission to eat what I want when I am hungry and to stop when I feel satisfied. I move in ways that I enjoy; this doesn’t always mean sweating it out at the gym, although it used to. Now, moving means walking with my daughter most of the time, since I am pretty busy these days, but what I have realized is important is that movement (a.k.a. exercise) is something to enjoy; it is something I do to take care of my body – to show my body I care about it so to speak. What it is not, is penance or punishment. I don’t walk because I ate too many cookies. My enjoyment of movement is not connected to what I eat in any way, which I can’t say was true of my past relationship with food and movement.
So in short, my interest in critical perspectives of fatness really arose from my personal as well as professional background.
LIA: The definition of fat shaming can vary somewhat, however, there seem to be definite commonalities. Based on your understanding, can you define what fat shaming is?
JB: Like any prejudice, fat shaming manifests in both explicit or very obvious and implicit or more covert ways. Identifying the explicit examples of fat shaming that are all too common in our society is easy. For example, fat people are rarely shown in the media, and when they are it is often in a negative light. Fat characters on TV or in movies often are the jokesters or the bullies. The implicit or more hidden ways that fat shaming manifest are more difficult to identify, but are no less discriminatory. For example, the availability of larger clothing sizes is a real problem that reflects our cultural ideals of body weight and shape rather than the reality of the range of bodies in society.
In many ways fat shaming is one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination. For some reason we generally as a society think it permissible for fat people to be the target of jokes, judgement, and “health” interventions. It is not OK.
LIA: The recent campaign, Strong 4 Life, attracted a fair amount of media attention. The campaign featured images of a number of obese children with slogans such as “Big bones didn’t make me this way, big meals did” at the bottom of the image.
I would assume this campaign, like most others, would have run a series of focus groups with the hope of gaining honest and beneficial feedback in regards to the campaign. If you had been a part of the focus group what would have you said to the campaign creators?
JB: This is a big question. I have a very strong emotional reaction when I see and read things like this. Campaigns like this are just wrong. They are ineffective, completely, and are so laden with stereotypes, hidden messages, and misinformation. Campaigns such as this are unethical.
First, I would state that there is not one thing that affects someone’s body weight, so the text of this slogan and other like it is just plain untrue.
Second, this campaign is rooted in the belief that health and weight are synonymous. This is also wrong. Body weight, most often assessed using body mass index (BMI) is an extremely poor indicator of health. In fact, studies have typically shown that those who are overweight according to the BMI nomogram (BMI=25 kg/m2 – 30 kg/m2), actually fare better than those of the “normal” weight category which is held up as the desirable weight range for height. Moreover, the science on which the association between health and body weight is based have been shown to be of poor quality, or in cases where the study was of higher quality, the results have been misreported and/or misinterpreted. Lucy Aphramor has done a lot of work in this area.
Third, campaigns such as this have serious consequences on the mental health of young people. I strongly believe that the fall out of campaigns that have targeted children will become very apparent as the current generation of children grows to have a serious disconnection with their bodies’ hunger and satiety cues and suffer from poor self and social esteem as well as poor body image. Fourth, campaigns such as this make food and eating all about body weight and controlling your body. These campaigns ignore the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of food and eating.
I can’t stress enough how unethical these types of campaigns are. It really makes me sad to imagine the effects that these campaigns have on the children and families who are subject to them.
LIA: You’ve mentioned that body weight is not a good health status indicator. Can you elaborate on this?
JB: What this means is that health does not hinge on your weight. You can be healthy and fat. Likewise, you can be thin and unhealthy. We cannot tell who is health or unhealthy simply by looking at someone’s weight. Health is a culmination of mental, physical, emotional, relational, and social factors. Health promoting behaviours like eating well, nourishing your body, listening to your body cues for hunger, satiety, and movement contribute to health no matter what your weight is.
My hope is that in reading this interview all your preconceived notions of fat people have been turned upside down. Yes, there are a growing number of fat people in our society, but there are many etiologies of fatness. Yes, a large proportion of fat people are unhealthy, but so are a large proportion of “normal” weight individuals. We cannot determine the health status of an individual merely by looking at them, nor do we have the right to. Furthermore, how do we know that this particular individual hasn’t chosen to be fat – that they like and are proud of their body just as it is? In a society completely obsessed by thinness, it seems almost impossible for us to accept such a notion.
Tune in this Friday for the second half of my interview with Jenna. We’ll talk about why fat shaming still exists, government initiatives targeted at the “obesity epidemic”, and how we (yes, you and I) can help to reduce and hopefully one day eliminate fat shaming from our culture and media.