One of my friends—let’s call her Ruth—has been a bit overweight for most of her life. She’s the same dress size that half of women in the country are at or above, but with her short height and small frame, it has drawn “concern” from doctors and criticism from people around her.
I—and you know my name—have spent the majority of my adult life underweight, often severely, due to anorexia. Both Ruth and I struggle with food and exercise, and we both fully acknowledge this, even if one of us is diagnosed and the other is not. And when Ruth and I talk about body image, weight, food, and the emotions surrounding it all, we have so much in common that it often surprises me.
Whether you’re thin, fat, or somewhere in between, the culture of body shaming, struggles with image, and self-criticism is prevalent and has a powerful impact on self-esteem, identity and daily living. The details may be different, but the underlying issue is the same: Despite the fact that our size has nothing to do with our health or our value as people, we live in a world that tells us otherwise. These are just five ways that shows up in day-to-day life.
1. We both know that our bodies act as a barrier
It’s not conscious, of course; no one makes an active plan to damage their body in order to save their feelings. But Ruth has used her body, and I’ve used the space around mine, as a way to push people away. If a guy doesn’t like us, it’s because of our bodies. If someone from work doesn’t ask us to join their group at lunch, it’s because they’ve made assumptions about what we’ll eat. If we don’t get a job, it’s because of sizeist employers, not that we are not qualified.
It might be nice to believe these “excuses” are always all in our heads. But much of the time, these excuses are very real. The world limits our access to opportunities and relationships because of our size. I know. I’ve experienced it.
2. We both get shamed on the street
“Look at the f***ing state of that.”
Ruth and I turn to each other.
“Are they talking to you or me?”
For some reason, people think it’s perfectly OK not only to comment on other people’s bodies, but to hurl abuse at them in public places, too. Whether you’re “fat” or “skinny” or anything in between, being treated like this is just not OK. What do people think it will achieve? Do they imagine I’ll suddenly think, “Oh really? I hadn’t noticed that I’m rather slim and it looks pretty unattractive. I know, I’ll go home and eat deep-fried doughnuts until I get my curves back.”
If that’s what they’re hoping to accomplish, it isn’t happening. What is happening is shame, self-loathing, and continued self-disgust. Which, in turn, leads to the food-related coping mechanisms we first used to deal with these feelings.
3. We might use food, but it’s about feelings
Whatever the ultimate physical manifestation, or whether it is classified as disordered eating or a DSM-V eating disorder, the strategies people use to attempt to harm or heal themselves through their bodies are usually about more than the body. It’s rarely really about the exercise, binge eating, alcohol, self-harm, or any other activity, but the uncomfortable feelings people are trying to escape from. Starvation can numb emotions, binge eating might help briefly take away a feeling of emptiness, exercise can kick-start endorphins and hormones that lift someone out of depression and become addictive.
4. Our weight doesn’t determine our health—whatever the world says
What we eat, our size, and our health are not the same things. On average, Ruth and I eat similar amounts. Her diet is based around a desire to lose weight, while my meal plan is part of my recovery.
Here’s the important thing: Not all thin people only eat celery, and not all overweight people consume only fast food. Our bodies and diets are far more complex than that. The list of reasons why someone is a certain size is long and varied.
Being “healthy” is a complex question, too, and isn’t determined by your size. Saying that it is can be hugely damaging to both physical and mental health. Ruth is strong. She works out nearly every day and can pummel a punching bag to hell. Ask her to lift some weights, no problem. She runs and can outpace her boyfriend. Fat doesn’t mean unfit, whatever the weight-loss industry might tell us.
5. We let shame limit our lives
Ruth and I sat in the park one hot August day a couple of years ago. At a certain point, we both began to get uncomfortably warm. I refused to take my cardigan off—self-conscious about my bony arms, I was afraid of embarrassing both myself and Ruth. Ruth wouldn’t take hers off either, worried that people would comment on her arms’ lack of tone, and that I’d be ashamed of her. So we both sat there, sweat patches building, rather than commit that shameful act of removing a garment of clothing on beautiful summer’s afternoon.
We both turn down eating meals out, for fear of being judged for what we do or don’t eat. We feel we have to justify what we consume. We explain our menu choices to the waitress. We both live by numbers, constantly adding up our intake and deducting our expenditure.
It’s exhausting. And when all this is going on, it’s hard to be the brilliant people with potential and opportunity that we both truly are. Our society and our culture are so obsessed with the visuals, focusing only on what we see, that it’s hard to move past the body. Sizeism and healthism both have their roots in what someone looks like, not who they are or the lifestyles they lead. Judgement and criticism for what we look like or what we eat is damaging. We do it to ourselves, and other people do it to us.
Fat or thin, my body does not define my worth. When will we all start believing that?