On the body and shame

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. I was transitioning from childhood to adolescence. I started growing hair on my armpits. I was probably in fifth grade because I remember a friend showing me her two new hairs on her armpits the summer before at summer camp for fourth graders (and I didn’t have any hairs then). Somehow I knew that growing hairs on my armpits is not good. That it was embarrassing and that these hairs should be removed. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. I think that I said something to my mother and she dismissed it, saying that I was only a child.

Then I went to the swimming pool. A group of two or three boys around my age or a bit older noticed my new grown hairs. They started to mock me and make fun of me because I had these new hairs. I was frozen with humiliation and didn’t know what to do. I dived deep into the water so as not to hear them laughing at me.

Somehow this early experience of body shame was made into a part of my body. I carry it with me ever since. If I had to physically locate this experience, I would locate it near my armpits. Like invisible irremovable hairs, which cause shame and embarrassment. I guess that over the years new “organs” like this joined my physical body –  I will always be that kid that was laughed at because she was fat, or deemed ugly and unattractive.        

Stop oppression in the name of health

Fat studies researchers and activists aim to understand the dominant reference to fatness as pathological and as a health problem in its broader social, cultural, political and economic context. They argue that the medical terminology and logic both conceal and reinforce social power relations that underlie any definitions of ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ body sizes, as well as the corresponding  social stereotypes and prejudices surrounding fat bodies (See, Wann, 2009). Researchers argue, for instance, that different factors, such as economic status, mediate the alleged correlation between fatness and ill health; that health should be viewed as a holistic concept that includes more elements than a person’s weight, such as general life style; and that the pressure to lose weight, and the measures that reinforce this pressure, are more damaging to health then fatness itself (Burgard  2009; Ernsberger 2009; Lyons 2009).

One study, for instance,  compared two groups of fat women: one group was encouraged to diet and exercise, while the other was encouraged to eat a healthy diet, to listen to one’s bodily cues, to engage in fun activities and to participate in a fat acceptance group. After one year, the health of the second group improved significantly, e.g. their blood pressure and cholesterol levels decreased (although they did not lose any weight).  The participants of the first group lost weight but did not improve their health to a significant extent.  Most of them eventually regained the weight they initially lost (Farrell, 2011).

Historians and cultural critics, such as Amy Farrell (2011), Hillel Schwartz (1990) and Peter Sterns (1997), argue that the social rejection of fatness and the pressure to lose weight were connected to underlying social trends that characterized late modernity in the West. They also argue that the social rejection of fatness preceded and then became intertwined with explicit medicalization of fatness.

Fat people’s health is none of your business. You should not publicly dissect and analyze the risk factors presumably associated with fat, just as we (as a society) don’t target other social groups. If you really care about fat people’s health, you won’t take part in media humiliation and vilification of fat people, see, for instance, “Headless Fatties“.

If you are interested to learn more about the social stigma of fat and its’ implication, you should read UCLA Professor Abigail Saguy’s new book “What’s Wrong with Fat”. To see some of my published works on the subject, visit my page on Academia Edu or Google me on ScholarGoogle.

Bibliography:

Burgard, D. (2009). “What Is “Health at Every Size?””. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 41-53). New York & London: New York University Press.

Ernsberger, P. (2009). Does social class explain the connection between weight and
health? In E. Rothblum and  S. Solovay  (Eds.),  The  fat studies reader (pp.  25–36).  New York,  NY & London, England:  New York University Press.

Ferrall,  Amy E. (2011). Fat shame:  Stigma and the fat body in American culture. New  York: New York University Press.

Lyons, P. (2009). Prescription for harm. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 75-88). New York & London: New York University Press.

Schwartz, Hillel. Never satisfied: A cultural history of diets, fantasies, and fat. Free Press, 1986.

Stearns, P. (2002). Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. NYU Press: NY.

Wann, M .(2009). Fat Studies- an Invitation for a Revolution. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. xi-xxvi). New York & London: New York University Press.