We’re all aware that when it comes to physical appearance, our society is a fucking bully. But I always wanted to know why. Why is our structure this way? Why are fat people bullied, often to the point of suicide? And why are women singled out for body shame? Why have we all learned to hate ourselves? How THE FUCK did we get here?
I’m here to propose something that I believe too few of us realize: “health” is our new “beauty myth.”
Today, everyone seems to say: “Being fat is horrifying, but so is the extreme opposite. It’s important for EVERYONE TO BE HEALTHY!” This, my friends, is a perfect example of how health has become one of our main obsessions.
Preoccupation with exercise and healthy living isn’t anything new. Not even remotely. Remember the ’80s with aerobics, toned supermodel arms, and the wearing of sneakers with a dress suit?
So, then, what’s the difference today? The difference between then and now is that our obsession with worth in relation to health is at an all-time high. Never before have we judged people’s value, morality, and meaningfulness by their medical charts and their ability to run marathons.
This can be starkly highlighted by an Instagram account with over sixty thousand followers whose name and message is literally, “Healthy is the new skinny.” This is EXACTLY the issue.
We have replaced Fen-Phen, Slimfast, and melba toast with the Paleo diet, CrossFit, and juicing. Now, don’t misunderstand. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with “clean eating,” strengthening exercises, or juicing. No way. It is our worshipping and utilization of them in order to become the ideal and “worthy” body type (and the guilt that comes if we don’t) that is the issue.
It’s fascinating how we’ve been fooled into feeling like we’re reclaiming power by saying DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR SIZE, ONLY YOUR HEALTH! But really, what we’re doing is taking the exact same process of body oppression and giving it a new name.
Our “diet industry” has become a “lifestyle-change industry.” Same concept. Same strategy. Same outcome. Different mask.
It’s rather effective. Think about how easily and automatically this excludes various groups of people. Who is instantly exiled the second health becomes the top measurement of worth? People with physical disabilities. People with chronic or incurable ailments. People who live in poverty and can’t afford balanced meals. People who don’t have the resources or education required to learn about how to take care of their bodies. People who live with a mental illness that doesn’t allow them to take care of themselves at all. People so focused on just surviving that there isn’t any energy left to focus on physical maintenance.
Lots and lots of people who are unable to fully participate in our “wellness culture” because of the body and life they were born into. Defining worthiness by health and fitness level is not just about size discrimination. It’s also about classism. Racism. Ableism. And much more.
Overcoming and understanding this health/beauty myth was the last gigantic barrier in my path toward truly feeling good about my body. I learned to love my shape. My cellulite. My arms. My adult acne–ridden face. But I still found an unbearable amount of shame in all things health and fitness related. I was terrified to go to the doctor because they might tell me my cholesterol was too high and that I was now unhealthy. I had extreme shame about eating anything that wasn’t “health food,” especially in public. I would feel unsurmountable guilt if I missed a dance class (or four) and would internally berate myself for days. The worst part was that I felt like there was no way out.
I used to watch other fat activists post pictures of delicious s’mores and coffee that they found in a Bay Area café. Or mention how awesome pizza was in general. I was floored by their openness about their enjoyment of “unhealthy food." I thought they were so brave.
The reality? Those activists weren’t just brave. They were smart. Smart and onto the scam of obsessive health presented as a way to keep us all in line. I’ve got some serious RESPECT for those rad bitches.
It’s really important to acknowledge that the beauty ideal will continue to evolve, change, and keep individuals imprisoned within their bodies. Say that we fight hard enough and normalize fat bodies. When/if we do, there will be another “you must become” that will sweep in and take its place. We must come to appreciate our bodies for what they are and do, come to peace with them as a whole, and love them so we can love others.
Adapted from Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living by Jes Baker, published with permission by Seal Press, members of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.