“Every woman wants to be thinner!” So stated the opening sentence of an article (supposedly) about body positivity in a woman’s magazine in my dentist’s office. The next sentence was “But that doesn’t mean you can’t love the body you have.” Except for many of us, and especially for people dealing with eating disorders, that’s exactly what it means.
We live in a culture that undeniably values thin bodies over fat bodies. The message that thin=pretty/healthy/morally good etc. is ubiquitous on magazines, billboards, television, and radio, in school hallways and corporate wellness programs. It can be seen in the way that we choose our actors, dancers, and singers based on their looks first and their talent second – so much so that we are shocked when someone who isn’t young, thin, and stereo-typically beautiful is talented.
Fat people who are happy with their lives, and achieving their goals, are often purposefully kept out of the limelight under the ridiculous claim that happy, successful fat people “promote obesity” (in much the same way, I suppose, that Mary Lou Retton “promotes shortness.”) This, in turn, creates a society with very little representation of fat people as anything other than miserable, unsuccessful, lonely, and self-loathing.
All of this adds up to a crushing pressure to be thin, and a normalization of fat hate. We all know that these social issues can contribute to the development of eating disorders. What we don’t always realize is that they can make it impossible to fully recover.
First, because it forces those in recovery to try to overcome body dysmorphia and a fear of being fat in a world where their belief that fat is a bad thing is reinforced almost everywhere they look, including healthcare professionals. At the same time that I was receiving treatment for an eating disorder, I was told by other doctors that I needed to lose weight. One said “I mean, don’t go crazy like before, but you have a tendency to be bigger so watching your weight is something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life.” Yikes.
It’s difficult to believe that your recovery is the most important thing when the world is telling you that the most important thing, by far, is being thin by any means necessary. It’s difficult to let go of your fear of being fat if you can plainly see that you live in a culture where your fear is justified. It’s difficult to focus on your health and let your weight settle where it will, when billion dollar industries use every marketing trick in the book to convince you that manipulating your body size is an obligation. It’s difficult to build self-esteem when so many facets of society are trying to steal it, cheapen it, and sell it back to us at a profit. When hating your body and being terrified of becoming fat is considered normal (“Every woman wants to be thinner!”) full eating disorder recovery can be impossible.
One stop-gap solution to this is to show people, including and especially those in eating disorder recovery, the errors and dangers of this way of thinking. When we can help people opt-out of a culture of body hate and fat phobia, and appreciate the diversity of body sizes that exist, we can give them a chance at a complete recovery. I often give a talk called “The World is Messed Up, You Are Fine” and it’s amazing to watch people’s faces show discovery and then anger as they realize that body hate is manufactured and sold aggressively to them for enormous profit, and then relief and hope as they begin to realize that they have other options besides hating their bodies.
The long-term solution to this is to create a world that celebrates body diversity and abhors body shaming of any kind. We have to create a world where people are given the support and access they need to choose how to prioritize their health, and the path they choose to get there – where people focus on actual health goals instead of on trying to make themselves smaller, hoping that health will come along for the ride. We must create a world where attempting to manipulate our body size for “beauty,” health, or any other reason is recognized as the complete folly that it is.
If we truly want to help those affected by eating disorders, if we really want to offer people the chance of a full recovery, if we really want to eradicate eating disorders in the future, we must do more than work with eating disorders – we must become body positive activists. We must learn to identify and reject messages that contain weight-based stigma and fat shaming, we must stop confusing body size with health and beauty, and we must educate others to do the same. We live in a body negative world, a world that pulls people into eating disorders and traps them there for life. If we want better we must do better – we must not just be against eating disorders, but for a body positive world for people of all sizes.