We see it all the time.
Someone (usually a “health professional”) enraged at the idea of body positivity, posts a ‘comparison’ photo showing a very thin woman next to a very fat woman. They rant about how although neither of them are bad people, they are both dangerously unhealthy and shouldn’t be revered or given any praise whatsoever; that body positivity is useless if all it does is provide a justification for women to eat themselves to the grave or starve themselves to the grave.
Posts like this one:
They consider their posts as somewhat of an ‘inspiration’ and that they’re being groundbreaking by reinforcing the same thin-privilege & fatphobia that’s been around for eons. And from out of the woodwork, people praise them for ‘telling it like it is’.
Here’s the thing though – that entire argument is based on false assumptions that:
- Body positivity is about justifying poor lifestyle choices;
- Health can be determined with certainty by looking at someone;
- All thin people must starve themselves and all fat people must eat junk food all day and not exercise;
- Everyone who admires someone who isn’t of an ‘ideal’ weight is looking to emulate their body; and
- People should not feel content in loving themselves until they reach a picture of health.
Let’s break this down.
Whilst I agree that health is a focus and that we should all be striving to be the healthiest versions of ourselves (whether for us that means being an elite athlete or simply being about to run around with our kids in the yard), I entirely disagree with the ‘targeting’ method of attempting to use shame, guilt and fear as weapons.
It’s not ethical to steal the images of two women whom you know relatively little about, apart from making assumptions based on their health. Visually, yes the girl on the left is thin and yes the woman on the right is fat — but, if we want to look at health from a holistic aspect (beyond just what we can see) then it becomes apparent that we don’t actually know with concrete certainty how healthy/unhealthy these two individuals are beyond what we can see. Cholesterol, bloodwork, stool samples, mental/emotional health, bone density, metabolism — these are just a few examples of what we can’t see in these pictures.
And yes, we can make assumptions about what those metrics might include based on what we might have seen/read/heard about in others…. but we’re still assuming.
We don’t know what they eat in an average day. We don’t know how often they move their bodies. We don’t know how much progress they’ve already made, their goals for the future or the steps that they’re taking to get there.
Ultimately, it’s dangerous to use two people to prove a point based on assumptions.
There’s also a huge difference between being a role model and simply being in the public eye. The woman on the left is doing a job – and although her weight very well may be problematic, there is also a greater culture of weight issues in the fashion world that needs to be addressed.
The woman on the right, Tess Holliday, is an advocate of self-love. There have been some questionable ethics around her Eff Your Beauty Standards brand, but that aside – simply by advocating for loving your body does not equate to her positioning herself as the beacon of health.
Neither of these women suggest that they are what others should aspire to look like.
Both of them simply exist — in bodies that we can make assumptions about, but don’t truly know what it’s like to own because we are not them.
It’s also possible to admire someone’s confidence without necessarily wanting to be exactly like them, which I think is how a lot of people view the situation. It’s possible to view Tess and admire her badass attitude and admire her confidence without wanting to emulate her body. It’s also possible to view the woman on the left and admire the strength it must take to work in an industry so entrenched in diet culture and body shaming without wanting to emulate her body.
Speaking as a woman who’s been both ‘medically obese’ and deathly thin with Anorexia Nervosa, body positivity needs to include EVERYONE.
- Those who are at the peak of health;
- Those who aren’t yet there, but are almost there;
- Those afflicted with chronic disease;
- Those who were at the peak of health but now for some reason aren’t;
- Even those who aren’t yet anywhere close to healthy by any standard; and
- Even those who can be judged as ‘unhealthy’ based on visuals alone.
Because body positivity isn’t an excuse for poor lifestyle choices or justifying illnesses — it’s a catalyst for wanting to make positive, healthy choices for ourselves. Holistically healthy choices that encompass our overall wellbeing, not just the trendiest way to measure it as deemed by gossip mags.
Furthermore, unfortunately all too often posts like the above only include the image of the very thin woman for ‘balance’ whilst focusing the whole discussion around the dangers of obesity.
Yes, obesity can be dangerous to an individual’s health.
But, since a very thin woman has also been included, why not discuss the dangers of restriction, too?
Why not share that Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness?
Why not share that only 46% of Anorexia sufferers will ever “fully” recover?
Why? I’ll tell you why it’s not included — because to do so would be to acknowledge that this post makes assumptions.
We’re careful not to ‘diagnose’ the health of very thin individuals lest we falsely accuse them of having an eating disorder when they might just struggle with hyperthyroidism… but we’re quick to diagnose the health of a fat person.
Just as we can’t assume that all thin people have eating disorders, we can’t assume that all fat people have diabetes.
Just as we can’t assume that all thin people starve themselves, we can’t assume that all fat people never exercise.
Because truthfully, we don’t know what’s going on with each individual.
And by focusing these discussions solely around how a person looks, we’re reinforcing an already thriving culture that tells us as long as we fit the image, then that’s the most important part of health.
This, in turn, creates a nasty undercurrent of shame and stigma — both of which contribute heavily to eating disorders and keeping individuals who are stuck in negative behavioural patterns not wanting to change.
So ultimately, posts like the above can actually do more harm than good.
All they seem to achieve is a reinforcement of the person’s celebrity status; making their fans clap a little harder.
That’s not achieving societal change. That’s not commitment to helping all people find health. That’s not understanding, compassionate or sustainable.
And at the end of the day, if we’re talking about health being a holistic effort (which it is) then we need to look at it from beyond a surface level. If it’s about FEELING better, then we need to stop coming at it from a perspective of purely how we LOOK.
For those who currently resonate with either the woman on the left or the woman on the right at the moment in terms of appearance, unfortunately posts like this that cast judgements based on appearance aren’t encouraging for them to want to feel better.
Shame is a powerful motivator but it’s unsustainable — what really motivates positive change is positive motivation.
Feeling our best and striving to be healthy is of supreme importance — I entirely agree. But spearheading two women to prove a point isn’t the way to encourage that.
Instead of this image, messages like this can be so much more encouraging and powerful showing a range of women — all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities — getting out there, loving life, eating well and moving their bodies in ways that make them feel awesome.
Showing women how great it FEELS to be healthy – and allowing them to define what their best, most achievable version of healthy is.
Key takeaway points:
- If someone claims to be all about holistic health and improving your quality of life — but peppers their text with links to buy a ‘Bikini Body Guide’ so that you can get a hot butt… maybe they’re focusing a little more on the aesthetics than they admit to themselves.
- If someone claims to be about motivating EVERYONE to live their best life and reach their health goals, shaming and alienating folks based on assumptions and generalisations isn’t the way to do that.
- It’s entirely possible to make a case for moderation, strength and finding health without using controversial clickbait to make a point.
As the old saying goes…
“When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.”