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The Problem of Body Hatred — Issues of Unavoidable Power and Privilege

by Dr. Jenny Copeland

Note from your blog committee: The following op-ed by Dr. Copeland was originally published in The European magazine. While many regular readers of this blog already understand much of what she discusses, we thought it would be of interest to see how our members and  leaders present these issues to the world at large.

In modern society it has become the norm for bodies to be judged. The rates of weight stigma have increased such that it is now one of the most prevalent forms of bias in the United States. Internationally, weight takes center stage in popular and academic media where the ‘obese’ are berated for contributing to economic woes and the ‘skinny’ are criticized for representing unrealistic beauty standards.

The existence of body hatred is irrefutable. This bias is pervasive and ever present. The language we use often implies certain weights are, by definition, problematic or pathological: the labels ‘underweight’ or ‘overweight’ assume a universal healthy weight which is not being met. In other contexts one is assumed to be a compliant patient, worthy or capable parent, a poor candidate for jobs or political office, or a compatible romantic partner based solely on their body.

Larger bodies are oppressed, this much is true. As is the fact that thin bodies are granted unearned privileges. Body hatred exists across the weight spectrum; individuals of every size are impacted in overt and covert manners. To entertain the idea of body hatred while neglecting this fact ignores a critical fact: we, in spite of our intentions, have had privileges granted or confiscated based on our body size or shape. Yet the line between privilege and oppression is not so precise. To limit the debate in this way is an oversimplification of the human experience – of which hatred against body sizes, shapes, and weights is just one piece. Our understanding of the war on bodies has evolved to include the impact of intersecting cultural identities on one’s experience. Body hatred occurs across race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Intersecting identities, with simultaneous layers of privilege and oppression, alter the manifestation of body hatred by unveiling the complexity of human nature.

Our bodies are complex, and the systems which oppress them are many. It occurs on institutional and individual levels including healthcare, education, employment, and politics. There are no safe spaces, not even in the offices of physicians and those who are sworn “first do no harm.” Even attempts to make others feel better about their bodies may unwittingly increase their torment. For example, attempts to alter society’s perceptions of fat bodies via the popular internet meme “real women have curves” may have been created with the intention to disrupt the dominant paradigm. In reality the meme only perpetuates societal body hatred by assigning specific value or worth to one body over another. Lobbying for the recognition of ‘skinny shaming’ may diminish the stigmatized experiences of those in larger bodies, but this simply shifts the focus of hatred. The war on bodies is so pervasive, it may be impossible at times to differentiate the oppressor from the oppressed.

Marginalization due to body size must be of increasing concern to society. It has repercussions within many systems and is associated with harm to physical and emotional health. “Fat” people are not often allowed a voice in these issues. The voices of “thin” people may be silenced before they speak due to the subversive nature of hatred enacted against them. There is nothing more dangerous in this battle than refusing to acknowledge its existence. To remain ignorant only serves to perpetuate these systems of oppression and the manner in which each of us participate in them. They cannot be wholly escaped, regardless of your membership in privileged or oppressed groups. To watch television, read the news, visit social media, purchase a beauty product, or listen to lectures on the perils of ‘obesity’ without voicing disapproval, among many other actions or inactions, passes power from you to an offending institution. This is not to say such choices are poor; some of them are necessary to fight another day.

Movements for size acceptance and the creation of the Health At Every Size® principles were formed in reaction to the forces of body hatred. These movements provide the opportunity to choose how you perceive bodies. Within these communities is the opportunity to alter our perceptions and attitudes, rather than industry or those who benefit from body shaming dictate them. The principles of body positivity, inclusive and respectful care, and radical self-love cultivate the freedom to embody ourselves and live in this world in a genuine and authentic fashion. Change demands each individual examine and acknowledge elements of oppression and privilege present in their identity, and use this awareness. This is a very difficult, personal, and necessary process to diminish body hatred. It is also a journey which must be taken to change personal and societal dialogue about bodies from one of war to one of peace.

The unfortunate truth is we may never know a time when bodies no longer define personal worth, when body size and shape no longer dictate one’s potential, or when bodies are no longer perceived as objects to take advantage of. By letting any number or combination of internal or external factors dictate how you feel about yourself, your body, or others’ bodies, you surrender your individual power to those forces. Everybody – every BODY – has a story. Who are you allowing to write yours?

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