Fat Phobia: Why do we care more about weight than our actual health?

In Western culture, being fat (or anything other than model-skinny or athlete-fit) carries a lot of baggage with it. Overweight people are often stereotyped as lazy slobs who have no control over their eating habits. Everyone loves to hate the fat person, and it’s easy to critique their figure and habits under the guise of being concerned about their health. But are any of these stereotypes actually justified?

It’s undeniably true that there is a correlation between eating well and working out and living longer and with fewer health problems. There is also a correlation between obesity and health problems like type 2 diabetes. But correlation is not causation, and living longer and weighing less are both results of the same healthy habits. Fat in and of itself is not what determines whether or not someone is healthy. It can be used as a marker, but it should not be the only one.

While it’s true that getting regular exercise and eating well can have tremendous benefits for your physical health, these benefits can be seen at any weight and may occur with or without weight loss. In many cases, an obese person who does yoga, goes for walks, and eats well most of the time, will be in a far better position than someone who is naturally thin but lives off of junk food and never exercises. This is still true even if the obese person maintains their weight while taking on those healthy habits. Yes, someone with a lot of extra fat will naturally often shrink down as a result of these lifestyle changes, but there’s no reason they have to in order to start seeing health benefits like increased strength, stamina, and energy.

For some reason, we think that only thin people can be healthy. Even if your weight is a result of unhealthy habits, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are seeing any negative health consequences, nor does being fat mean that you are still succumbing to those habits. So many people start exercise and diet plans with the sole intention of weight loss, and if they don’t see those results they give up, completely ignoring that maybe now they’re getting better sleep or they feel happier or they have less chronic pain, not to mention the benefits they can’t see or feel, like lowering their risk of heart disease.

Society has us believing that the only reason to work out is to reach or maintain a body type that is deemed attractive. If we can’t fit a certain dress size, then what’s the point? Lately, body-positive activists have started to pop-up and teach us that attractiveness comes at any size, and more importantly, your self-worth and moral value should not be wrapped up in your weight. Being overweight does not make you a failure, and you should not feel guilty for being a certain weight. The body-positive movement is incredibly helpful and revolutionary in so many ways, but unfortunately, since the concepts of exercise, weight loss, and attractiveness are so inextricably linked in our culture, many people misunderstand the movement. On one side, body-positive influencers are critiqued for “ignoring their health” or “promoting unhealthy lifestyles” since they aren’t actively trying to lose weight, and, shockingly, stand up for themselves and find beauty in their bodies just as they are. On the other hand, some people get so into the movement that they berate those same influencers for choosing to push themselves with a new exercise routine, because obviously, they couldn’t be doing these things for any other reason than to lose weight, and if they do want to lose weight then all their talk about self-acceptance must have been a lie, right? For some reason, it is so hard for our society to grasp that someone can love themselves no matter what they weigh, and still want to make changes to their lifestyle that make them feel good.

For most of human history, the athlete has been idolized. We love to see what the human body is capable of — what is the fastest or strongest we can be when pushed to the absolute limit? But we seem to have forgotten the reason athletes are so impressive in the first place: they’re exceptional. They’re not the norm. We idolize bodies that are the result of constant work and attention. Nobody is born with a six-pack. Why do we idolize a body type that, in a sense, isn’t natural? It requires constant focus to maintain. Men and women who are completely healthy still feel pressure to look like a small percentage of professional athletes, models, bodybuilders, and fitness influencers who devote their entire lives to developing their physique. Men in particular feel a lot of pressure to look ripped or be able to bench a certain amount, even if they are already quite healthy.

Most of us don’t have the time or resources to reach that level of physical fitness, much less maintain it for an extended period of time. It’s important to note that most of the supremely fit have their careers wrapped up in their physiques. Not only do they have a monetary incentive for maintaining their bodies, but they also do not have the distraction and time constraints of other jobs that do not contribute to their health goals in some way. Yet the mother or father who works 40 hours a week and comes home exhausted to help their kids with their homework and take them to their various extracurricular activities is still expected to be just as physically fit as the man being paid millions of dollars to work out in professional facilities all day long.

This brings me to the most frustrating stereotype of fat people: that they’re “lazy.” Not only is this stereotype harmful, it’s simply not true. When I think of all the people I know and love in my life who are overweight, “lazy” is rarely the first word that comes to mind. One person works an incredibly demanding and high-stress job and has very little time for anything else. One person has eight hobbies and is unbelievably creative and accomplished. One person spends all their time caring for other people and rarely has time to focus on themselves. Just because working out isn’t where your focus is at the moment, it doesn’t mean you’re lazy. Just because you have more pressing priorities that health and fitness ends up taking a backseat, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed in some way. And let’s not forget the large percentage of people who gain weight due to health conditions not under their control. People who gained weight from being on birth control or other medications. People who gained weight due to hypothyroidism. People who gained weight due to an injury that prevented them from exercising. People who gained weight due to a pregnancy. People who gained weight due to being bedridden because of some terrible illness. People who gained weight due to chronic stress or depression, or other mental health issues. Rape victims, who gain weight as a form of self-protection. People who are larger simply because of their genetics. None of you deserve to be called lazy for what you’ve been through. Never assume you know why someone else’s body is the way it is. You have not lived in that body, you don’t know what it’s been through — what it’s survived.

There is a reason why obesity is considered an epidemic in America. So many of us living here are overweight just because we have to fight to be otherwise. We live in a society where going to the gym costs on average $65 a month, and healthy produce is more expensive and less accessible than the nearest fast-food chain. Not to mention the lack of free accessible healthcare. In many ways, being healthy in the U.S. is a privilege that few of us can afford. There is a multi-billion dollar industry set up around making people feel bad about themselves, and then selling them the latest diet pill or at-home workout equipment. Sugar, under all its various pseudonyms, is omnipresent in the food we’re sold, and misinformation about what is and isn’t good for us overflows from shelves at the bookstore and page after page of Google searches. It’s impossible to know where to start. Yet, for some reason, individuals are blamed for the failures of our society. Taking care of our health should not be this hard.

It’s no surprise then that when you combine a culture that prizes thin, toned bodies and a society that makes it inordinately hard to achieve those goals, with an industry that profits off of that discrepancy, the result is an epidemic of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. According to one statistic in the book Body Respect by Linda Bacon, Ph.D., and Lucy Aphramor, Ph.D., R.D., children are 242 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than they are type 2 diabetes. Does that stat shock you? Clearly, our priorities are backward.

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It’s time we take a critical look at the way we talk about food, health, and body image and change the dialogue.

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