Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Why these women say it's time to embrace fat bodies

Fat acceptance is the idea that bodies come in all sizes and all bodies have equal value and deserve equal treatment. But socially, we remain deeply invested in diet and weight loss culture. Is it possible to get to a place where body size no longer matters?

'Body positivity … it's a radical sort of acceptance,' says Via Reyes of accepting her size

How do we learn to have a positive relationship with our bodies and get to a point of fat acceptance? It's a lesson many have already figured out, like Via Reyes. She says keeping up with trying to be thin was too hard on her mental health. (Submitted by Via Reyes)

*Originally published on September 22, 2021.

Back in March 2020, as the pandemic took hold, thousands of people said goodbye to their offices and classrooms, heading into a new reality of at-home isolation that many thought might last a few weeks, a month tops.

A year-and-a-half later, social distancing is now firmly part of our lexicon and while life is opening up a bit, there's acceptance that a "return to normal" may take some time. 

It also means anxiety about in-person life is on the rise. One key area of concern? Weight gain.

For many Canadians, working from home has meant they're less active. A report from Dalhousie University released in April found that 74 per cent of Canadians reported their eating habits had been affected by the pandemic, with just over 40 per cent saying they'd gained weight. 

But whether those Canadians are accepting of their new weight or decide they want to shed any added pounds, the conversation about weight itself is seeing a resurgence, as many people decide their bodies are fine just as they are. 

Fat as a cultural issue

Via Reyes lives on Prince Edward Island, where she works as a part-time photographer and creates social media campaigns for local tourism. 

Her relationship with her body hasn't been an easy one, she says, and while she still has to work at it, she's in a much better place than even a couple of years ago.

Reyes grew up in the Philippines, where ads for skin-whitening and hair-straightening products were common. Her higher weight put her body on display, she said, with both family and strangers feeling free to comment on her looks. 

She remembers feeling desperate to lose weight. "I was 11 years old, on the internet, looking up 'How to be anorexic,'" she said. 

Those childhood experiences marked the beginning of years of struggle, which were only amplified during the pandemic's lockdowns. 

Endless scrolling on social media, seeing "perfect" bodies enjoying life, and being stuck indoors with nowhere to go took her down a dark road and left her feeling that her mental health was in jeopardy.  

Early messages about body size and acceptance have a way of creating connections that can last a lifetime, according to Sarah Nutter, a professor of counselling psychology at the University of Victoria whose research focuses on weight stigma and eating disorders. 

Dr. Sarah Nutter's work focuses on weight stigma in order to better understand how it affects health care. (Submitted by Sarah Nutter)

People internalize cultural messages and cues that link weight and health with personal and moral responsibility, Nutter said. 

"They'll struggle with that their entire life, whether it is expressed in an eating disorder, in feeling as though they have poor self-esteem or lower self-worth, [or] struggles with body image and body dissatisfaction," she said. 

While for many, those connections and their impact can last a lifetime, Nutter said others have an "epiphany moment" where they realize, maybe after years of losing and gaining weight, that their weight isn't going anywhere. 

"As a weight stigma researcher and somebody who had a moment like that in my life, I feel lucky to be able to be critical of the culture we live in and to feel as though I am more free compared to a lot of people in my thinking about health and weight and in my relationship to my body."

That critical thinking has allowed Nutter to study the ways in which weight stigma — the negative attitudes, beliefs and potentially behaviours toward individuals with higher body weight — negatively affects the quality of life of larger-sized people. 

She said she sees this stigma in how the medical system treats fat people, the way larger people face discrimination in the work place, and even in how parents feed their heavier children differently from their thinner ones.

Seeing weight as a moral problem leads to all kinds of assumptions about the motivations of higher-weight people and associates size with negative characteristics, like greed and laziness. 

If you add the perceived connection of weight to health, then stigmatizing those with a higher weight becomes a form of concern — one that Nutter said is often misplaced. 

American singer Lizzo has advocated for 'body positivity' throughout her career. But in a 2020 Vogue interview, she argued using the term felt lazy. Instead, she says she prefers the term body normative. 'I want to normalize my body.' (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV)

The nuanced relationship between weight and health is often glossed over and turned into a simplistic conversation, she said, where higher weight equals bad and lower weight equals good. 

"I think it's an important conversation to have ... to be able to separate health and weight. Weight is not an indicator of health — but that's something that is contrary to the messages we receive in our society," she said. 

While we're taught to think we can tell how healthy someone is by how big or small they are, weight is far more complex and the risk factors associated with size are not straightforward, said Nutter. 

"Researchers that have looked at sedentary behaviour have found that regardless of weight, people who are more sedentary tend to have increased risk for mortality or dying. And people who are more active have reduced risk across the spectrum."

Using health as a way to stigmatize higher-weight individuals isn't helpful and can lead to even more harm, she said.

"I think that we can focus on healthy behaviours and engaging in a healthy lifestyle. And as long as we're doing those things, we can live in a healthy body and live a healthy life — regardless of the size of our body and what weight we're sitting at." 

Fat as a feminist issue

Erika Thorkelson, a Vancouver-based writer and teacher of non-fiction at the University of British Columbia, says she's had a "lifetime relationship" with diet culture, weight loss and body shame. 

Despite having spent years working on this relationship and eventually coming to understand it as a feminist issue, Thorkelson found some of her old anxieties around weight began to percolate once again during lockdown, as she saw those around her struggle to keep their weight down and their fitness levels up.

For Thorkelson, her early connection to weight was grounded in class. She grew up in government housing in Winnipeg and Edmonton. 

As she puts it, she comes from "a fat family." 

Erika Thorkelson argues medical fatphobia can be dangerous. Doctors shaming patients to lose weight when they are sick creates a situation where people stop seeking medical treatment. (Erin Flegg )
 

Growing up, she was keenly aware that she shouldn't be ashamed of her body but watching her mom struggle with endless fad diets and seeing how her mother's weight created social and economic barriers, Thorkelson internalized the message that larger bodies were a problem. 

"Rather than seeing that as a form of oppression, I just internalized it. I internalized that if I was going to be successful, if I was going to be a good woman, that I, too, would have to constantly do this battle with my own weight."

Thorkelson spent much of her youth strictly monitoring her eating habits and going to Weight Watchers weigh-ins. She's also lost a lot of weight and kept it off for long stretches of time. But ultimately, she said, the toll of constantly fighting her weight was too great. She eventually decided it was better for her to make peace with her body than to see it as something to be conquered.

"There's an implicit judgment in the question of 'Why are you fat?' We wouldn't feel comfortable articulating that 'why' question to people who have any other kind of difference. People don't come up to me and say, 'Why are you still 5'4? Did you drink coffee when you were 12?'" 

Thorkelson sees people's questioning and concern over body size as a form of control: a way to determine whose body is deemed a problem and whose is not. 

A person wearing a T-shirt that reads 'Fat People are More Fun' attends a rally of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in New York City. NAAFA describes itself as a 'fat-rights organization dedicated to protecting the rights and improving the quality of life for fat people.' (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Valuing particular kinds of bodies is rooted not only in fatphobia, she says, but in ableism as well. 

"What I want for fat people is to not measure their inherent worth by what they do, what we're capable of — because the idea that in order to be a worthy fat person, you also have to be fit is profoundly ableist." 

Fitness generally assumes a certain level of ability, Thorkelson says, but also that people have the kind of leisure time that comes with a traditional middle-class life. 

"It assumes that you have access to nutritional food sources, that you don't live in a food desert, that you have access to things like gyms. But even leaving all that behind, it just creates that connection between fitness and worth that I think is a false connection." 

She calls it a "moral judgment" that is rooted in fatphobia. 

A new normal

Despite the constant challenge in detangling weight from health, Nutter says she's seen a shift in recent years in language and attitudes around size — and how often we're having those conversations. 

"I've seen a lot more opportunities to talk about weight in a more nuanced way come up in popular media. That's been really exciting to me, seeing the frequency of these kinds of conversations." 

Organizations researching and creating policy around obesity have also started to put conversations about weight stigma at the forefront of their internal discussions, she said, noting that wasn't something that happened 10 or 20 years ago.

"And so I think there's been lots of positive change — and there is also a long way to go." 

On a visit to a beach, Via Reyes says she got her husband to take photos. She was happy, silly and dancing, and recalls the defining moment as one of genuine joy to feel great in her body. (Submitted by Via Reyes)

Back on P.E.I., the pandemic offered an "epiphany moment" to Via Reyes. 

Her mental health was deteriorating and she was struggling to find a way out of the hole of social media. So she decided to unfollow accounts that only offered images of a specific ideal of beauty: thin, cisgender and white. 

She made an effort to open up her feed to different body types and ended up following a variety of people, including activists who were doing positive things with their lives.

A glimmer of hope soon followed.

Body positivity, to me, means believing that our bodies, no matter how they look, are all deserving of the same respect.- Via Reyes

After a partial lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, Reyes and her husband drove down to the beach. It was still cold, she remembers, and she was wearing jeans and a sweater. But she was thrilled to be out of the house and asked her husband to take pictures of her being silly and dancing on the beach. Looking at the pictures felt transformative.

"Seeing the joy that was on my face and not even thinking anything negative about my body for the first time in a long time was just such a cool moment," she said. 

"It was just genuine: Genuinely me and genuine joy. And allowing myself to feel that was a defining moment for me." 

That joy has stayed with her, she said, and her own Instagram account has transformed from landscapes to images of herself enjoying life. 

"Body positivity, to me, means believing that our bodies, no matter how they look, are all deserving of the same respect. I would say it's a radical sort of acceptance." 

Despite the fact that she's been plagued with body issues from childhood, Reyes said she's making strides toward healing her relationship with herself. 

"Now there are moments where I can actually love my body, embrace it and feel good in the body that I have. But then there are also times where I feel grief; it's not always love and acceptance. But I remind myself that I am worthy, no matter what I look like."


Guests in this episode:

Via Reyes is a social media content creator living on Prince Edward Island.

Erika Thorkelson is a freelance writer and an instructor of humanities and creative writing at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia in creative nonfiction.

Sarah Nutter is an assistant professor of counselling psychology at the University of Victoria.

*This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

This episode is part of our series called Body Language — exploring what our bodies express and repress, both literally and symbolically. Find more Body Language episodes here.

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