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No-body needs the body police

By Ameerah Mattar - posted Wednesday, 3 April 2013


Here we go again. Hollywood star Kim Kardashian, once lauded for her physique, has become the latest celebrity in the firing line. Although she is no stranger to living in a fishbowl, the scrutiny over her body has reached a new level of absurdity since news about her pregnancy broke. Seemingly more interested in her bum and tum than her baby bump, the media has taken potshots at almost everything from her pregnancy weight gain  and eating habits  to her increased bust size.  Not only is there close-to-no truth in these stories, such comments seem to imply that she has somehow ‘failed’ to live up to people’s expectations around maintaining the public image she is so famous for. And that the normal physiological changes she is experiencing during pregnancy are bad or wrong. Hey Kim, let’s all revel in the joy of your pregnancy but no, you can’t stop looking hot. No wonder the poor woman has gone off her rocker trying to keep her weight down!  

But this isn’t just about how a bunch of reporters have been snarky towards Kim. It’s about our society’s morbid fascination with physical appearances and bodies as fodder for public gossip. Articles that dissect celebrities’ weight gain/loss or who has a ‘good’/’bad’ body are the usual fare in entertainment magazines. Worse, body parts that have been deemed ‘wrong’ (too fat/too thin/too muscular/too dimply/too pimply) are often magnified and/or circled in close-up photographs, as if to highlight how they have apparently transgressed the rules of what a body should look like. However, we aren’t completely immune to the act of body policing either. How many of us have ever remarked on someone’s body, regardless of our intentions? But just because such behaviours are commonplace in our culture doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Firstly, our bodies should not be regarded as fair game for the public to survey, analyse and then pick apart. The last I checked, our bodies belong to us – they are not public entities that are free to be scrutinised, evaluated and rated. However, when we subject people to our opinions on how they look or should/should not look, we are assuming that we have the right to police their bodies and that we somehow know what is best for them. Moreover, no matter how seemingly innocuous our comments are, they are usually reflective of the kind of judgments we have passed on the other person’s body – have they ticked the boxes in our mind of what we perceive a body should look like? But what gives us the right to judge people’s bodies and what are we basing our verdicts on? Society’s narrow and fickle – not to mention unattainable – standard of beauty?

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Which brings me to the next point: Honing in on the perceived flaws in other people’s bodies emphasises the societal notion that our bodies are never quite good enough the way they are and therefore need to be fixed. Perhaps a good example of how body censuring has been turned into a public spectacle of socially-sanctioned shaming can be seen in reality shows that focus on weight loss. The Biggest Loser, which claims to be health-oriented (and is anything but) , is probably also the biggest bully. The show essentially capitalises on the public’s immense fascination with body shape and size – and particularly, with vilifying bodies that are considered to have deviated away from the ‘norm’ and are thus deemed to be in dire need of fixing. However, shaming people into believing that their bodies need to be changed just so they fit into society’s mold is not only incredibly detrimental to their physical and psychological health, but it ignores the diversity of shapes and sizes that bodies come in. Contrary to what some seem to believe,  shaming is not a motivator  – it incites fear, self-criticism and self-hatred (in addition to body dissatisfaction, and food and weight preoccupation). If it worked so well, there would be no fat people.

“But I’m just concerned about their health!” we may protest. Therein lies the problem – we have confused health and weight. Contrary to the information we have been fed by health ‘experts’ who operate from the conventional weight-centred paradigm, emerging research  has demonstrated that fat is not necessarily synonymous with unhealthy and/or bad;  in the same way that thin is not equivalent to healthy and/or good.  Yes, the probability of a person’s health being adversely impacted is greater if they sit at the statistical extremes ends of thinness and fatness. And yes, there is undeniably a correlation between increased body fat and a heightened risk for physical diseases. However, this does not necessarily suggest a causal relationship. In fact, this risk disappears or is significantly reduced  once other factors such as fitness and activity levels, dietary intake, socioeconomic status and weight cycling are taken into consideration. Also, the adoption of healthy lifestyle habits has been related to decreased mortality risk levels regardless of Body Mass Index (BMI).  In addition, it is grossly over-simplistic (not to mention that it smacks of discrimination) to conclude that all fat people are lazy, gluttonous, abject individuals whose only pastime is eating, or that they are any less capable at their jobs.  Unfortunately, society’s conventional wisdom appears to dictate otherwise, and this has resulted in a culture that generally puts thinness on a pedestal while stigmatising fatness.  

In saying that, while the existence of the thin privilege is acknowledged, this is not to say that thin people escape unscathed from body policing. Labelling them with size-related names, or telling them to “eat a cheeseburger” or that they would look so much better if they “put more meat on their bones” is no less hurtful or more acceptable than telling fat people the opposite of these remarks. It still sends the message that they are not good enough the way they are and need to be changed – again, to obtain society’s stamp of approval.

Finally, before we decide to make that comment about someone’s body shape or size, we should ask ourselves how much we really know about his/her weight loss/gain journey. In complimenting or encouraging someone for losing weight, we may believe that we are being supportive by recognising his/her ‘efforts’. But how do we know if weight loss was actually their goal? We do not know if that person is thin or has lost weight because they are ill (as is the case with some cancers), stressed, or struggling emotionally. What if in applauding their newfound appearance, we inadvertently reinforce any disordered weight loss behaviours or beliefs they may have? Patting them on the back for their weight loss essentially translates to “you look awesome now, keep up whatever you’ve been doing!” Does it mean they did not look awesome prior to this? Or that they will be banished to the land of the un-awesome if they regain the weight? Moreover, being a cheerleader for weight loss simply reinforces its glorification in our culture. Correspondingly, the cause of weight gain is not a straightforward equation of calories in versus calories out, given other possible factors (see this  and this). Furthermore, what if someone had gained weight as part of his/her recovery process, such as from an eating disorder or illness? Criticising their weight gain just disrespects the struggle they probably faced to regain their health and their achievement in doing so.

Not everyone welcomes attention being drawn to themselves, particularly over their body. Judging someone on their appearance often says more about us than the person being judged. If someone is open to talking about their weight, it is up to them to initiate the conversation – not us. If we are concerned about their health, it might be more helpful to centre the discussion on their behaviours, rather than their weight. We are so much more than a number on the scale, and we need to shift our thinking away from anything that convinces us otherwise. 

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About the Author

Dr Ameerah Mattar is a registered Clinical Psychologist specialising in the treatment and prevention of eating/dieting disorders and body image disturbances at BodyMatters Australasia in Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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