Smarmy Alligator

Politics, pop culture, and self-deprecation

Weight, Health, and Womanhood

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A few weeks ago, I found myself watching Kirstie Alley on Oprah, talking about her new organic food delivery venture and her continued struggle with weight loss. At one point, Oprah asked her what she eats in the course of a normal day, and Alley began to enumerate her menu, starting with an egg for breakfast. And she justified her eating of the egg by saying that she’s actually very healthy and has low cholesterol and low blood pressure, and I suddenly found myself feeling very, very sad for Kirstie Alley, and for women struggling to be healthy and eat normally everywhere. We are so ignorant and delusional about weight and health that women like Kirstie Alley have to continually enact a public self-flagellation over their bodies and their weight, despite the fact that they might actually be perfectly healthy people who happen to weigh more than 110 pounds.

I’m certainly not the first person to point out that fat is one of the few remaining things that we are openly allowed to be prejudiced about, and we sure do take advantage of that. Fat phobia is rampant, and many people think nothing of publicly shaming people who are overweight, often while claiming that it’s really said overweight person’s health that they are concerned with. The most recent and egregious example of this came from a frequent culprit of many things terrible, Howard Stern, who tore actress Gabourey Sidibe to shreds on his radio show, and then had the gall to say that, really, he just wants her to be healthy. Many people called bullshit on that one, but less atrocious examples of fat phobia and fat shaming surround us every single day. And it is almost always directed at women.

The belief that weight and health are synonymous has become a given in modern America. If you try to argue that overweight itself isn’t a health issue, people will almost invariably look at you like you’re either ignorant, a lunatic, or both. To be honest, I don’t argue that overweight is healthy, but I do think we’ve lost touch completely with what healthy weight really is, and that our insistence on thinness has far more drastic health consequences than being a few pounds overweight ever would. This really hit home for me recently, when I was at the doctor’s office getting my annual physical. After I finished graduate school, I was able to get back into a regular exercise routine, and I decided it was really time to start eating more healthily, as well. I would be lying my face off if I said that weight loss wasn’t a goal, and so I was starting to feel really disappointed that the numbers on the scale weren’t coming down. But when I went in for my annual exam, my doctor told me that my blood pressure was very low (after two years of increases, when I wasn’t working out and wasn’t always eating that well) and that my heart rate and oxygen levels were terrific. And suddenly I got it. I got what I’d been unsuccessfully trying to convince myself of for years: The numbers on the scale and the size of my booty have very little to do with how healthy I am.

The range of shapes considered acceptable for women’s bodies has become so narrow that, these days, I think there’s pretty much one acceptable shape: almost non-existent. Sure, every now and then you have your Christina Hendricks or…well, um, I can’t even think of another famous woman who doesn’t resemble a toothpick. But the fact that women like Christina Hendricks receive so much attention (and are actually called fat!!) proves how distorted our sense of women’s bodies has become. I could get into my theories about why we are forcing women into smaller and smaller shapes (I think it has to do with fear of women’s power), but that’s really a rant for a different day. Because today I’m talking about health, and wow, we have become so delusional about what healthy bodies look like. Recently there were a few fashion spreads in very fancy women’s magazines like Elle and V that featured plus-size models, and it was a very big deal on the Lady Blogs and even in some mainstream newspapers and whatnot. Because Wow! Aspirational fashion magazines showing women bigger than a size 0! It’s just crazy! And the thing was, these women are all absolutely stunning. I mean, of course they are, they are models. But they are really beautiful, and they all looked so incredibly healthy, with their clear, clear skin and shiny, shiny hair and strong-looking bodies. And for me, it was a moment of really recognizing that health can come in all kinds of shapes and all kinds of sizes, and that health is really what is beautiful, not skinny legs. And yet, these women are relegated to the Fat Lady Issue, and we are all talking heatedly about how big someone should be to be considered plus size, and what fat really is, and whether these beautiful models are fat or not, and no one (at least not that I read) raised the point that these women are healthy, and that they are bigger than what we are normally told is healthy, and that therefore the correlation between weight and health is probably not as clear cut and drastic as we have all been thinking it is.

Our insistence that thin is healthy doesn’t just make it difficult to recognize that bigger women can be healthy, it makes it difficult to recognize that thin women can be unhealthy. And it makes it hard for us all to learn how to be truly healthy. We are a culture that thinks 100 calorie Special K bars and meal-replacements shakes are good for us, because they might help us lose weight. We are a culture that equates working out with punishment that must be endured so we can enjoy chocolate later on. And we are a culture that makes women who take care of themselves, but might still have bellies and hips, feel like failures. These attitudes are not healthy, although they might make us skinny (although honestly, probably not). And these attitudes allow us to claim we know something about someone’s health based on their size, and allow us to pass judgment publicly on people we don’t even know.

A lot of well-intentioned people push the opposite stance, that thin is unhealthy. Or they attempt to make the claim that obesity is perfectly fine. And I’m not trying to make either of those claims. The fact is that severe overweight can be an indicator of health problems, and being healthy requires eating better food and getting regular exercise. People who don’t do these things are not likely to be very healthy. But if you do eat well and move your body frequently, you will be more healthy no matter what size pants you wear. And it would really behoove us all to allow more healthy women in bigger pants to be in our magazines and our movies and our tv shows, without making them talk about their constant diets, without making them justify why they are allowed to eat eggs or hamburgers, and without making assumptions about their longevity and what their doctors tell them.

And yeah, I specifically say that we should probably show a wider diversity of women’s bodies because we already show a wider diversity of men’s bodies without a whole lot of commentary. Before you menfolk jump down my throat about how being an overweight man is just as difficult, let me say that I do recognize that we are beginning to be pretty darn judgmental of men’s bodies, too, and that we aren’t always kind to overweight men, and that, yes, most of the men on television are conventionally hot and physically fit. However, men’s bodies simply are not policed to the same extent that women’s are in popular culture, period. That point was made very clearly to me during the aforementioned Gabourey Sidibe-Howard Stern debacle when someone said that actors like Chris Farley and John Belushi were never singled out for the same kind of vitriol and judgment as Sidibe, and Kirstie Alley, and Oprah herself, have received. Sure, overweight men deal with prejudice, too, but not nearly to the same cruel and ruthless extent as women. As I said earlier, though, I have my theories on why that is, and that is a topic for another day.


Written by laura k

April 4, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Posted in health, Lady Issues

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