“Wow, you look huge!” is probably not something you would ever say to someone. While there is an obesity epidemic—according to the World Health Organisation, it’s a problem not only in high-income countries, but low- and middle-income ones as well—it is still considered highly rude to even remotely hint to someone they may be putting on a few (or a lot) centimetres around the waist.
I’m certainly not saying we should start hurting people’s feelings by telling them they’re fat, but I find it ironic most people think it’s fine to instead exclaim to someone, “Go eat a hamburger!”
As a society, we’ve made tremendous progress in holding the media, corporations and individuals accountable in understanding realistic body sizes. While it isn’t perfect—airbrushing is still a magazine industry standard and catwalk models are still expected to be skinnier than a clothes hanger (except Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dior, who have banned size-zero models)—there is a growing groundswell advocating we start recognising and embracing the fact that being slim is not the only beautiful body shape.
Most recently, the French government passed a law that requires models to obtain a doctor’s certificate to prove they are a healthy weight before they walk the runway. And thanks to an angry backlash, Google was forced to rethink its new test feature for its iOS Maps app, which let people know how many calories they would burn if they walked from Point A to Point B instead of driving. The icing on the cake was the app translated calories metabolised into the number of mini-cupcakes burned, which people asserted was tantamount to fat shaming.
Fat shaming, as Nicole Heath puts it in an article on the website for Australia’s public broadcaster, SBS, is “abuse and discrimination directed towards people who are overweight or obese”. Making someone feel unworthy simply because of their body shape should never be acceptable, but ironically, much of the energy spent on preventing such anti-bullying behaviour seems focused only on one particular size.
Being thin may—and should—not be the only beautiful body shape, but it would seem in our bid to make people understand that, we have forgotten that those who fall under the “skinny” category have feelings too.
The thing is, comments about people being skinny can be just as hurtful. In fact, it can often be more so because it’s accepted behaviour: Failure to receive related comments gracefully is taken as an inability to accept compliments.
But are they really flattering remarks when “You are so thin” is coupled with, “You make me sick” and “You need fattening up”?
I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes partway through my pregnancy last year. It meant I was on a diet that limited my daily carbohydrate and sugar intake to prevent the need to be on insulin. The regular walks and exercise routine I embarked on to improve my blood glucose levels also increased my naturally high metabolism.
By the time I was 30 weeks pregnant, I weighed less than before I was pregnant. I have always been on the slim side—the fact I feel extremely uncomfortable admitting this goes some way to illustrating just how bad we have made those who are slim feel—and not putting on any weight was doubly dangerous for my pregnancy. It was also during this period that our obsession with body shapes, and how society deems it acceptable to tell someone to eat more, but not to eat less, came to the fore for me.
Needless to say, I had an extremely concerned obstetrician, as a lack of maternal weight gain can lead to developmental issues for the baby. At the same time, the obstetrician also told me the baby weighed heavier than average due to my gestational diabetes, and that a Caesarean section delivery could be likely as he would be too large to be born naturally.
So I had to eat more and exercise less in order to gain weight and ensure my baby developed normally. But I also had to eat less and exercise more to keep my blood sugar levels low, or I would end up with Goliath for a baby, with no certainty his organs had matured proportionately. It’s impossible to even describe the turmoil I was in. If I ate more, I would endanger my unborn child. If I didn’t, I would harm my baby.
Gestational diabetes had a disastrous impact on my mental state as I stressed over every meal: How much can I eat in order to gain weight but not blow out my blood sugar levels? My heart ached knowing I was potentially harming my baby because of the failure of my body.
At the same time, my lack of weight gain but increasingly protruding belly was getting all sorts of unwanted attention: “You’re doing really well keeping the baby weight gain at bay!”, “You still look really skinny, it’s just your stomach that’s poking out!” and other similar comments. Instead of making me feel fabulous, any remarks about my size (or lack thereof) reminded me of the no-win situation I was in, causing me greater despair.
In the end, Elliott was born weighing a very average 3.36 kilograms and my gestational diabetes went away. What didn’t go away, however, were comments on my size, which I was now told, was the reason why I could not produce enough breast milk to feed him: “You need to actually eat and stop trying to lose weight. Your baby is more important.” Never mind that I wasn’t attempting to lose weight and that I was eating—and then some—every breastfeeding mother knows how ravenous the act makes you. And I was binging on dessert because I could finally have some! And still, engorgement was an unknown experience for me and I had to move on to formula feeding.
Once again, judgements passed based on my body shape broke my heart because it highlighted my inability to provide for my baby.
Maybe it’s time we stopped focusing on our (pregnant or not) dress sizes, remembered “those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23), and concerned ourselves more with Who we are reflecting than how we all look.
Making someone feel unworthy simply because of their body shape should never be acceptable, whether they are fat, thin or somewhere in between.
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