Many, many women in my family struggle with their weight. There have been surgeries. There have been diets. There has been yo-yoing and self-shaming and group-shaming and pain over weight.
From my personal experience with weight, weight loss, and health concerns, I approached an article posted on Shakesville with a particular lens, and as I read that lens got . . . well foggy. [Edit: This was the first time I had visited Shakesville, and it will be the last. People have the right to run their blogs however they want, but this site is a little too totalitarian for my tastes. With that in mind, I removed the link because I'd rather not send traffic there. You can search for it if you'd like to read the article, as I still think that the points raised are interesting and worth discussing.]
The author, Melissa McEwan, takes a well-argued and eloquent stance against a celebrity-backed petition calling for initiatives to fight against obesity. Her issue is primarily with the underlying principle that "OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE," which is key to the petition. To this, she responds:
It's always nice to see wealthy people with access to the best food, comprehensive healthcare, personal trainers, private chefs, and individual nutritional plans put their names to a petition admonishing the fatties that OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE.
She goes on to say that she will always be obese, and that campaigning to eliminate obesity is the same as campaigning to eliminate her. Finally, she says that fat acceptance in the future will make us embarassed by the intolerance we currently display, that "one day, people will look back at this revolting petition and wonder how the fuck such unapologetic hatred was popular enough that celebrities were tripping over each other to sign their names to it."
I think that her points are valid, and I'm especially convinced that there are other -isms tied up in the imagism we use to denigrate overweight and obese people. She mentions that not all people have access to healthy food, and this brings up both classism and racism (and there's an interesting piece about trying to eat healthy on food stamps from Civil Eats here). Weight loss is often hindered by limited mobility, so ableism comes into play. And, of course, women are particularly prone to imagist attacks, so sexism factors in as well.
But I still feel conflicted. While trying to figure out why I felt conflicted, I remembered this article from a recent Glamour magazine. In it, Jess Weiner, an advocate for body acceptance and a plus-sized woman who authored books about the topic, tells her story of being heckled by an audience member at a book reading. The woman asked "How can you honestly tell us that you love your body?” she asked. “You are obese.” While the audience shunned the woman and her rudness, Weiner says it was an eye-opening moment that motivated her to go to a doctor for a check-up. There, she learned that she weighed 250 pounds and nearly every test (from cholesterol to triglycerides) showed up as at-risk health factors. She was categorized as prediabetic and told to lose weight for the sake of her health.
And she did. She lost 25 pounds, an amount she wished was bigger until her doctor pointed out that it had been enough to bring all of her numbers into normal ranges. She ends with this:
I understand why women are so fed up with being told by society (and doctors) that they need to get to some “ideal” size. I get why they’d want to rebel and no longer care about weight—I’ve been there too. But we also can’t pretend illness doesn’t happen to us. Health matters, and paying attention to markers like your cholesterol, blood pressure and, yes, your weight doesn’t mean you’re giving in to some societal ideal. It means that you’re listening to your body on the inside, which is a crucial part of loving yourself completely.I don't want to be dismissive of McEwan's viewpoints, as I see her points, but I also don't want to be dismissive of very real health risks associated with obesity. Being in tune with these risks does not in any way give people the right to shame or hate a person over his/her body. And painting with a broad brush that claims obesity is preventable ignores the diversity that makes us human beings and alienates people for whom it truly is not preventable. At the end of the day, I hope that we can separate out a message that says self-worth is tied to body size from one that says that self-respect is tied to being as healthy as you can be.
Finally, if I take McEwan's viewpoints to heart, does that mean that feeling good about losing weight and getting fit makes me complicit in a system of oppression? It feel paradoxical that taking pride in my own weight loss accomplishments could be tied up in eliminationism for other women.