For years now, the observation that media representations of body sizes andshapes do not represent the range of bodies actually present in society, has been a regular part of everyday discourse. The media and the fashion industry’s culpability in building false body-norms no longer passes without comment, and the advent of Size Zero in particular afforded us an opportunity to question and criticise the standards set for us by glossy magazines and celebrity culture. Now when we read these glossies we know that many of the photos in them have been airbrushed to such an extent that the representation we’re looking at bears very little resemblance to the celebrity, and we also know that in any case the celebrity has probably been on some absurd diet, coupled with a rigorous training regime, most of their adult life. We are no longer automatically fooled into believing that these people set the standards for healthy lifestyles and ideal bodies.
If it was up to the fashion industry, we'd think this was normal.
Over the last few decades models have been getting skinnier and skinnier, whilst the population of the UK has been getting fatter and fatter. The reasons for this are innumerable. The price of healthy food is consistently higher than the price of high-calorie and ‘convenience’ foods. More often than not, school meals consist of chips alongside something else that’s fried and high in fat. Despite the advise of experts, the government refuses to make it compulsory for the amount of ‘trans fat’ – the most dangerous type of fat – present in food to be declared on packaging (once again showing that the interests of business outweigh the interests of the consumer in the eyes of a capitalist government). Despite the fact that there is a burgeoning weight-loss industry incorporating various drugs, diet-plans, self-help programmes and exercise facilities, these things are most accessible to people with the money to buy them and the leisure-time in which to utilise them – i.e. not the working classes.
And the way this burgeoning group of fatties are treated in society is hardly motivational. Despite being one of the largest groups in our society, the overweight take their place amongst the marginalised. Firstly, it is assumed that they want to change their situation: when it comes to weight, there is only one ‘right’ answer, and that is not to be overweight. But although the established false norms of a healthy body are being continuously questioned, these norms have not changed in any real sense. Pop-culture still bombards us with unachievable, unrealistic ideas of body-norms. This is made worse by the rags that point with glee whenever celebs start developing love-handles and expanding their waistlines beyond 20 inches: although these celebs are far from obese and almost definitely fall within the ‘healthy weight’ category, they are victimised and bullied by the media. How much more so then, for normal people! Reading these glossies we know we are faced with an impending sense of hopelessness – if Kerry Katona can’t keep her figure, what hope do the rest of us have?
Kerry Katona: from size 8 to size 14! SHOCK! HORROR! How does she get out of bed in the morning?!?!!!
So rather than attempting to achieve these body-norms which we have identified as false and impossible, we think ‘fuck it’, and phone the takeaway. Whilst we are eating our takeaway, we will perhaps involve in some light prole entertainment such as watching the TV or reading a magazine or newspaper. These things will often show us images of people with bodies that look very different from our own. They will advertise products which will help us to achieve bodies more like the ones shown in these mediums. The fact that we want to have these bodies instead of our own is assumed. All this is carefully calculated to make us feel like we are doing something wrong. And with all this stuff available to ‘help’ – Weightwatchers meetings, Adios tablets, gyms, handy scales such as the BMI to help us calculate just how inadequate we are – we feel like we have no excuse for being overweight. It’s hardly surprising if we start to feel depressed and worthless. These feelings of depression and worthlessness are the last things that will motivate us to go for an after-dinner walk; in fact they’re far more likely to make us reach for some comfort-food or alcohol.
Of course, there is an extent to which we can resist the media, and the fact that we have identified the norms which the media peddles as false testifies to this. But when other discourses which we see as more authoritative are deeply complicit with media ideas, the overweight individual (and also the individual who views his/her body as less-than-perfect – i.e. most of us) might start to feel victimised. Government health adverts tell us that our waistlines should be under thirty four inches, andthat we must eat so many portions of fruit and veg, if we want to avoid dying an early death from one of the Big Three (Cancer, Heart Disease and Strokes). Debates about whether obese people are entitled to the same NHS treatment as others are rife in the serious press as well as the tabloids. Everywhere the idea of ‘punishment’ is implied: if you don’t eat the right things, if you don’t do something about your weight, you will contract a horrible illness, be denied medical treatment, and die horribly. And it will all be your own fault, because nobody made you fat except yourself. Your self-esteem drops still further. You start to feel like a terrible person. By not striving towards having a celebrity body you are letting yourself down and you are letting your family and friends down. You start to develop mental problems – especially depression – which effect your self-motivation. You start to believe that you are prioritising greed and gluttony above your health and the people who care about you. Rather than feeling victimised you actually feel guilty – you are taught that there is something wrong with you, and that it’s entirely your own fault.
This isn’t encouragement. This is bullying. And that’s precisely what these things are orchestrated to do – to play on your self-esteem in order to pressure you into getting off your arse and doing something about it.
Ironically, the end result of this bullying is that you feel less motivated and less able to do something about your weight than ever.
Maybe this twat has a point afterall.
Is bullying really the best strategy we can use when it comes to solving one of the greatest problems facing our society? Surely there must be an alternative? A possible alternative might lie with the government, who could opt to provide healthy, free school meals for our children, to subsidise fruit and vegetables, and to publish more information on food-packaging so that people are better enabled to make healthy choices. Magazines could stop point and laughing at celebrities of average weight and build. Your average model size could be increased from a size 6 to a size14 – a size which is much more representative of your average woman in the UK but is still well within the parameters of healthy (despite what the Katona-haters would have us believe!).
But this doesn’t exactly solve the problem. The problem is that authoritarian discourses such as advertising, government advice, medical advice and the mainstream media are able to make us feel dreadful about ourselves when we digress from the false norms and the priorities they sets for us. The problem is that dominant discourses tell us what the ‘right’ choices are; they proscribe our priorities for us. Making changes to these discourses – although a good idea that would almost definitely have a positive effect – would be simply perpetuating the trend that empowers them to steer us towards making what they have decided is the ‘right’ choice for us.
Anyone who has read my previous article, ‘Muslim Women Must Write Themselves’, will have realised that I have some faith in a process of “self-determination”, whereby marginalised groups can escape from the mercy of dominant voices, discourses and representations. I was therefore intrigued by this blog entry. Despite having a naively utopian interpretation of Big Society, the author seems pretty clued up on the part that bullying and vilification plays in perpetuating the obesity problem, and creating further problems. Her suggestion is “What if we were to support obese people to take the lead in combating obesity? This means to respectfully include them in being a real part of the solution and not just the problem.” She’s noticed something important here – that currently society treats obese people as a mere “problem”, and not as people at all. She notes that we treat fat people differently, pointing to “prevailing attitudes: fat people deserve to be ‘told’ don’t they? Their weight is their own fault! School peers do not want to be friends with them. Companies do not want to employ them. The fashion industry does not know what to do with them. Airlines do not want to transport them and some health workers do not want to treat them.” This is all part of the process of marginalisation and authoritarian bullying. The message is clear: until you lose weight, we as a society have every right not to afford you the same treatment as we do everyone else.
The process by which marginalised groups stop allowing themselves to be dictated to and represented by voices more dominant than their own, and determine their own strategies for empowerment, autonomy and change, is slow and painstaking. It takes a lot of self-esteem to be able to say to the media and to popular beliefs regarding weight-issues: I know what’s best for me, and it is precisely this self-esteem which these discourses deny to overweight people.
At the moment, people who want to lose weight generally want to do it to avoid the social stigma and marginalisation that comes with being fat – stigma and marginalisation which is both created and perpetuated by the media. They want to lose weight so that they can get themselves out of a position where they are no longer a “victim” of these discourses. And who can blame them if this isn’t a good enough reason, especially when these very same discourses conspire to make them feel like they’ll never be “good enough”, that they’ll always deserve to be a victim because they can never achieve the impossible ideals that lurk behind the ‘celebrity body’ image. The overweight people in our society need a more attractive option, something more positive and tangible to strive towards. Rather than losing weight in order to avoid being the victims of bullying and stigma, they should be afforded opportunities by which they can determine their own reasons to lose weight. And if it turns out in some cases – as well it might – that they don’t want to lose weight at all, then why should they be punished for this?
Other groups in society make what are perceived to be the ‘wrong’ choices all the time – i.e. the choices that are not in their best interests. The student who goes out with mates instead of getting a headstart on that essay, the busy worker who skips breakfast in the morning despite it being ‘the most important meal of the day’, the woman who goes out and has four drinks on a Friday night instead of her recommended two – the possibilities are endless. We do things that aren’t in our best interests constantly, and we don’t expect to be punished and marginalised as a result. So why should fat people be punished and marginalised simply for not acting in their best interests when it comes to health?
Let me make it clear what I am not saying here. I am not saying that people shouldn’t be advised to prioritise their health, that they shouldn’t be made aware that obesity is related to health issues that can become very serious. Education and the availability of facts, statistics and likelihoods is of crucial importance when it comes to every choice: be this regarding alcohol, smoking, sex, drugs, eating habits, and in fact every lifestyle choice. But the crucial word here is ‘choice’ – when we indulge in media bullying, rather than advice, the spectrum of choice is narrowed and distorted. According to the media, ‘choosing’ to be fat is not a viable choice: it’s perverse and wrong.
I am also not saying that people who want to lose weight shouldn’t seek outside help. Self-determination doesn’t mean that you can’t look for help and advice. I am also not saying that people who want to lose weight should be denied help or encouragement on the grounds that being fat isn’t as bad as the media would have us believe.
The SSY and friends have a noble history of challenging corrupt media.
What I am saying, however, is that we have to stop treating fat people as sub-humans. We have to stop perpetuating the discourses which result in lack of motivation, low-self esteem and mental illness. We have to continue to challenge these dominant discourses that prescribe body-images to us, continuing the outrage and the sense of mistrust in the media that was started in the reaction to size zero and airbrushing. We must challenge these portrayals and continue to seek to remove them, because these things create the factors which prevent overweight people from motivating themselves, by constantly telling them how to feel about themselves and what to do about it.
Only once these things have been dethroned – and hopefully even removed – will a space be created in which the marginalised overweight can emerge and start determining their own goals and strategies for achieving a better life. If they decide that they want to lose weight, let us encourage them to do so rather than bullying them for their perceived failures. And if they decide that actually, being fat isn’t so terrible, then let us respect that decision. As a society, we have to stop treating fat people as if they are of a somehow inferior caste, and to challenge the discourses that perpetuate this treatment of them. Putting a stop to the bullying is the only way we can make positive steps towards a healthier, happier society.