The unhealthy discourse around weight

Social Double-take

“Have you seen how much weight she’s gained?”

“He definitely gained the freshman 15.”

“She must be starving herself.”

Unfortunately, after coming to college, these are some of the most common conversation starters I’ve encountered while talking to high school friends back home. It doesn’t matter if we were talking about something totally unrelated — the shaming of other people’s bodies will always sneak itself into our chats. It’s as if the first, most important test of your new college independence is whether or not you’ve maintained your body weight. You’re too fat now? Too frail? Sorry, you’ve failed the test, and your body is now subject to discussion by anyone who ever knew you.

Yep, that’s the quintessential cultural fixation with ideal body image, in which neither thick nor thin is truly acceptable — you have to be in the optimal medium. But it’s also not socially acceptable to judge those who lie outside of this narrow range of the medium — the “extremes” of the spectrum, although often not extreme at all — so this judgment often appears under the guise of concern for their health. This was evident in the last season of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” a reality TV show that centers on overweight contestants attempting to lose the most weight for a cash prize. In the finale, the reveal of Rachel Frederickson, who claimed the win for going from 260 pounds to 105 pounds, stirred outrage and uproar, with people claiming that she appeared too thin, despite her healthy weight-loss methods. Frederickson has since confronted rumors that she has an eating disorder, but her new physique continues to be everyone else’s business.

Where does this cultural fixation come from? The overall consensus is that it’s the media — TV shows, films, music videos, advertisements, magazines — that consistently reinforce the conception of what men and women must look like. And I wholeheartedly agree. Images of chiseled men and ideally skinny women uphold unrealistic standards that everyone must adhere to in order to be considered good-looking.

What I don’t agree with is that we should rely solely on the media changing for us. For the time being, we realistically can’t expect that. It’s naive to think we can easily replace all of its unhealthy messages or just avoid them. The media’s campaign for the ideal body image is so successful because the consumers keep buying into it and coming back for more. So instead of sitting idly by and blaming the media, let’s be proactive about this. What we need is to change our attitudes — how we accept all bodies as simply bodies and not any indication of our self-worth or beauty. What the media portrays about body image does not have to be the rule.

Making peace with your own body is essential. Why is it so common for people to reject compliments about their bodies? If someone tells you something flattering about your body, instead of saying “No, I’m not, but thanks,” or “What? You’re so much more ____ than me,” be confident in your body, be proud, and graciously accept that compliment. If you’re ever feeling like you’re too small, too big, not curvy enough, not muscular enough, ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way? Who is telling me that how I look is not okay?” If external pressures are causing you to want to alter your appearance, you haven’t yet made peace with your body. Wanting to improve your physical health and appearance should be rooted in your own intrinsic motivations — diet and exercise to improve the quality of your life, not solely to achieve an outward appearance or because others are saying you should. Once you create your own ideal body image with your own motivations, you will be able to recognize that everyone deserves to personally decide what is right for his or her body, regardless of how that body compares to what is sold by the media.

Many people justify body-shaming with the fact that being overweight or underweight is a genuine threat to one’s health. It’s true that being obese increases your chances for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, and that being underweight increases your chances for osteoporosis, anemia and a weak immune system. So yes, being obese or underweight can undoubtedly be unhealthy. But when it comes to health, appearances can be misleading. And body-shaming can also harm one’s emotional health. Criticizing someone’s body can cause that person to feel inadequate and unattractive, unfairly erode their confidence and self-esteem, and lead them to employ dangerous techniques to change their weight. We must accept that people’s bodies look different for different reasons, and body shape doesn’t necessarily correlate with health.

So, if you’re guilty of scrolling through Facebook and judging old friends, think twice before criticizing their appearance, and don’t merely blame the media for unattainable standards of beauty that make you anxious about your own body. Because you know what? If we renew our attitudes toward our bodies, the media might follow suit.

Hailey Yook writes the Monday column on contemporary social issues. Contact her at [email protected].