Fat and Happy
Restructuring Claremont’s body image
The collective Claremont political correctness radar is a volatile creature, going off at the slightest mention of a word, phrase, idea, or event that could offend anyone in a 100-mile radius. While this environment has been critiqued for restricting honest communication, political correctness helps to make Claremont a safer space for a diverse group of students with a variety of backgrounds. But it is time for Claremont to expand their conception of the politically correct to include size, weight, and the body image issues that affect everyone in our college community.
5C students who stick to politically conscious rhetoric often forget to check their opinions when discussing the “obesity epidemic” occurring around the United States. Fat shaming is a socially acceptable form of discrimination. Many people feel comfortable publicly making jokes at the expense of fat bodies or consider fatness universally wrong.
“If you want to hurt someone these days, the worst thing you can do is call them fat,” says Julia Pashall PZ ‘12, a self-proclaimed fat activist. The main organizer of Queer Burlesque in 2010 and 2011, Pashall first considered fat activism after attending burlesque shows in Amsterdam when she studied abroad. “It was my first time seeing fat bodies sexualized,” she remembers. Pashall adds that it was one of the first times in her life where she realized that her own body could be portrayed as desirable.
America’s hatred of fat people is systemic and deadly. Fat has become more than a body type; it has become an often false indication of lifestyle choices and character traits. In 2001, Alexandra Brewis, Arizona State University’s Director for Global Health, told Science Daily, “Fat is understood culturally to represent profound personal failing and the attendant moral messages attached to it include laziness, lack of self-control, and being undesirable or even repulsive.”
In November 2011, CMC’s online student paper The Forum published an article called “All The Girls Get Fat in South America.” The controversial piece was divisive, with those who thought the overall message about savoring your food when abroad was reasonable, and those who noticed its strong fat-phobic messages. While the author’s ultimate conclusion – “If you put on some weight, it’s not the end of the world” – was heartening, the article is riddled with qualifiers like “There’s always Jessica Mao’s killer kick boxing class in the spring to get you back into shape,” and a reassurance that weight can always be lost. The article garnered upwards of forty comments, including many fat-phobic comments such as, “um. everyone should be worried about getting fat, fat girls suck. stay conscious, and stay hot.”
The obvious problem with this rhetoric, beyond the blatant body shaming, is the implication that once weight is gained, the person should plan on losing it at the first possible opportunity. Message: gaining weight is okay, as long as it is only temporary.
Predictably, many Americans react to consistent messages that their body is repulsive and immoral by trying to change it. In pursuit of the health and beauty that American culture dictates is so important to attain, many Americans of all sizes resort to unhealthy diets or develop eating disorders that leave them miserable, sick, and too often dead. An estimated eight million Americans have some sort of eating disorder, and out of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. One of five people suffering from anorexia dies prematurely from complications related to their eating disorder. But, as Pashall notes, “There’s not a skinny person hiding inside every fat person just waiting to come out. Most fat people can’t get skinny.”
A damaging aspect of fat-phobia is that a majority of the sensitive discussions about obesity and weight focus on the idea that more weight equals less health. However, body mass index is not the best way to determine how healthy a body is, and many college students engage in behaviors much more destructive than eating a cheeseburger – binge drinking, anyone? – without the hatred and shaming that comes as part of the heavier package. Heavy people can absolutely be healthy people, just as thin people can be unhealthy.
Our culture needs a serious change, not only to stop the spread of life-threatening eating disorders from dominating millions of American lives, but also to promote the belief that happy bodies are the best bodies. Pashall reminds us, “People are people and everyone deserves to be treated like a human being, regardless of their size. Whatever is right or healthy according to the science is just irrelevant.”