Changing the Conversation

A little over two years ago, I entered the ACUTE Center in Denver, Colorado, weighing around 55, to receive treatment for anorexia.

I say this not out of pride, nor do I say it to receive pity or praise. Simply, at that time in my life, I was not healthy physically or mentally. I was terrified and angry as I went into recovery, and I am thankful for the support I had to help me return to a more “normal” life.

I don’t wish to tell my story of recovery here- though I do wish to share it in full at another time. What I do wish to discuss is body positivity as it relates to body image and self acceptance.  

During recovery, I had to come to terms with my own understanding of what a healthy body looks like. I had an intense fear, as many anorexic individuals do, of becoming grossly overweight if I did not restrict calories, eat “healthy”, and exercise obsessively. I believed I could maintain a “perfect” body, and was determined to not be just another lazy, overweight American.

Obviously, my notions of thin and healthy were distorted and I had put my body at risk through a lack of proper nutrition, but my motives were not purely related to the idea of beauty in and of itself. I had accepted that I would never be “beautiful” according to the movies and pop culture, but I did still want to have a trim body. I associated fat with laziness and unrestrained eating of the worst possible foods. I wanted to only eat things that were “good” for my body, and I wanted to prove I was the exact opposite of the stereotypical American “couch potato”.

One can easily argue that my beliefs and obsession was the result of the influence of the media, constantly pushing diets and weight loss, different philosophies for “healthy” eating, and constantly showing women of below average weight as models of the ideal, regardless of how realistic it might be for the average woman. Certainly, culture and media  have a tremendous impact on personal values and psyches. Though it was not the only factor in my eating disorder, the presentation of women in media and culture did have an impact on my own beliefs that I had to fight against to see myself in a different perspective and come to better conceptions of what is healthy.

Over the past decades, there has been many initiatives to support “body positivity” and to embrace all body types for woman, and to better represent these. Changing the standard for what can be considered beautiful is long overdue; all skin types and body types are equally beautiful and valuable, and I am always encouraged to see these movements make it into the spotlight to challenge the dominant message so frequently put out. Women do not need to be constantly told that they are imperfect, and that they need to drastically change their appearance through clothes, diet, make up, or even surgery in order to truly be beautiful. They need to be shown that beauty is hardy a fixed concept, that instead there exists beauty in each and every individual. (I  realize this is an idealistic notion, but it is one I do firmly believe in.) It will take time and great effort, but it is something that is possible.

As I was perusing the news recently, I saw an article that highlighted conflicting viewpoints and the primary points on campaigns (from both sides) for body positivity or acceptance. 

While we must be careful to not mislabel individuals as being over or under what is a healthy weight, it is also irresponsible to present an extremely overweight image as one that is ideal. (To be clear, I do mean extremely overweight, according to BMI standards.) We have to remember that the dominant images presented in the media become acceptable. Obesity IS a concern in our country, and is increasingly a problem for children. Long term health risks from obesity are well known, including risks of diabetes and of  heart diseases. There of course is no single cause of obesity, but what is most important is to recognize that it is an issue that should not be ignored, just  as eating disorders should not be ignored in any way. If we accept obesity as something that is an acceptable part of our culture, more and more individuals will struggle with poor health, as well as overall poor quality of life.

As someone who has grappled with their own body image and feelings of inadequacy, I believe having a conversation about body image is of great importance. Body shaming is not something that can ever be condoned or tolerated. That does not mean, however,  that we should promote a blind acceptable of obesity or being greatly overweight to a point where it begins to affect individual health. Is there a clear line? Certainly not. And there is a great difference between demeaning someone because of their weight and recognizing that their weight is a concern because of more than appearance. Promoting body positivity must also be done in a way that does not the need for correct nutrition and exercise. Life is all about balance; there is no need to be below a healthy BMI for the sake of looking attractive, but there is also no reason to not say that obesity is an inescapable fate that should be presented as a positive model. Individuals of all ages and genders must see that what matters most is their well- being. Ultimately the conversation isn’t about what is and isn’t attractive- it’s about caring for oneself and your body. Emphasizing either extreme- either dangerous thinness or dangerous obesity- is problematic if they are presented as acceptable and “normal”.

I don’t believe it is fair to say that body positive campaigns necessarily promote obesity or overweight body types in an irresponsible way; they are simply showing real woman, with bodies that many more women can identify with over the “traditional” model types. Will showing some women who are overweight having a long lasting impact on our society? It seems unlikely. The women in body positive campaigns are not overweight, according to the medical definition, in many cases. It is important to present alternatives to the unhealthy, unrealistic images that have dominated for so long. But what is more important, I believe, is bringing about greater changes to what we place value on in terms of attractiveness in general, and placing greater value on overall well-being.

One saying I have always found to be ironic is “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We hear it from a young age, but it not something generally seen and promoted throughout our culture. Especially in today’s world where we are bombarded with images and videos, we are constantly being told what is and isn’t beautiful. I am not so naive that I believe this can be changed anytime soon. But I think it is important that we begin to acknowledge more and more that there is more that one single type of beauty that exists. The pressure for woman, and certainly increasingly on men as well, to fit the ideal image is something that must be addressed, through certainly more diversity in the ways we present beauty in art and advertisement. I don’t want the students I teach daily to feel inferior because they do not look like the famous individuals the see on TV and the internet; instead, I want them to feel that their value comes from their actions and the relationships they have with their friends and families. I want them to have healthy lives, where they can get the exercise they need to truly enjoy each and every day rather than lives imprisoned by feeling that they will never be good enough or by illness from obesity. I want them to be judged by their spirit and quality of life, and to be able to feel proud of the way their uniqueness adds to their own beauty. Why continue to waste time obsession over unrealistic ideas and appearances rather than our own joy and personal successes and growth? 

Here one body positive model’s journey. 

Instead of focusing on whether the woman in ads and in shows are “beautiful”, let’s focus on whether or not they are healthy.

“Acceptance is different than apathy. It is important to strive to be your best self, your healthiest, most productive, joyful self. But that is going to be a different answer to everyone.”  -Teri Hatcher